1. An in vitro brainstem slice preparation of the superior olivary complex has been developed permitting patch recording from a presynaptic terminal (calyx of Held) and from its postsynaptic target--the principal neurone of the medial nucleus of the trapezoid body (MNTB). 2. The fluorescent stain DiI (1,1'-dioctadecyl-3,3,3',3'-tetramethylindocarbocyanine perchlorate) was used in fixed tissue and Lucifer Yellow in living slices, to identify calices enclosing single MNTB neuronal somata. 3. Whole-cell recording from the MNTB neurone shows evoked EPSCs preceded by a prespike, corresponding to the presynaptic action potential (AP). In some cases one patch pipette recorded from both pre- and postsynaptic elements, but confirmation of exclusively presynaptic recording was obtained using pipettes containing Lucifer Yellow in a further eleven cases. 4. Under current clamp, the pre- and postsynaptic sites could be distinguished by their response to step depolarizations; presynaptic terminals generated a train of APs at frequencies up to 200 Hz, while MNTB neurones gave a single AP. Each presynaptic AP had an after-hyperpolarization lasting less than 2 ms. 5. Under voltage clamp, step depolarizations of presynaptic terminals generated a tetrodotoxin-sensitive inward current followed by rapidly activating outward potassium currents at potentials more positive than -60 mV. The outward current exhibited little inactivation over the 150 ms steps and 4-aminopyridine (200 microM) blocked 63.0 +/- 14.5% (mean +/- S.D., n = 3) of the sustained current at 0 mV. Like the squid giant synapse, mammalian terminals express rapidly activating 'delayed rectifier'-type potassium currents.