The calyx of Held is a large glutamatergic synapse in the mammalian auditory brainstem. By using brain slice preparations, direct patch-clamp recordings can be made from the nerve terminal and its postsynaptic target (principal neurons of the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body). Over the last decade, this preparation has been increasingly employed to investigate basic presynaptic mechanisms of transmission in the central nervous system. We review here the background to this preparation and summarise key findings concerning voltage-gated ion channels of the nerve terminal and the ionic mechanisms involved in exocytosis and modulation of transmitter release. The accessibility of this giant terminal has also permitted Ca(2+)-imaging and -uncaging studies combined with electrophysiological recording and capacitance measurements of exocytosis. Together, these studies convey the panopoly of presynaptic regulatory processes underlying the regulation of transmitter release, its modulatory control and short-term plasticity within one identified synaptic terminal.