Updated: Mar 29
The step sequencer has experienced a renaissance in recent years. So much so, that many manufacturers are re-issuing classic models and designing new ones that feature the latest in modern technologies.
Unless you are completely new to the world of electronic music, you have no doubt heard of the step sequencer. It has been included as part of nearly all new synthesizers made in the last few years. In fact, the step sequencer has experienced a renaissance in recent years that has fueled a new generation of musicians to explore the possibilities of these simple, yet powerful, devices.
Musical sequencers have been around for a long time. The player piano, for instance, was developed in 1896 and is an early example of a mechanical music sequencer. Many variations of mechanical and electro-mechanical sequencers were developed throughout the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the late ‘60s that the classic electronic step sequencer was developed.
Although Don Buchla produced the first commercially available step sequencer for the Buchla 100 synthesizer, it was the Moog 960 that paved the way to the iconic music made famous by the pioneers of the Berlin School genre. Chris Franke, Michael Hoenig, and Klaus Schulze are all known for their ground-breaking use of the 960. The soul of the Moog 960 step sequencer lives on in modern-day step sequencers, many of which are virtually identical in functionality and creativity. The beauty of the 960 was how easy it was to modify in real time. Early composers quickly developed techniques to manipulate the playback of their sequences by switching steps on and off or changing loop points to create spontaneous variations to the programmed patterns. In fact, these hands-on techniques are one of the main reasons step sequencers are so popular once again. After decades of working with digital hardware sequencers and computer-based DAWs, music makers are discovering the magic of experimentation and the joy of improvisation. Here we review some stand-alone step sequencers that can easily be added to your current equipment whether they have MIDI, USB, or CV/gate connections.
One of my favorite step sequencers, the Korg SQ-1 is an amazingly useful device. Released in 2015, it features two rows of 8 steps that can be used in a variety of ways. With 8 separate playback modes, you can play rows A and B at the same time for two separate patterns of 8 steps or consecutively for one pattern of 16 steps. You can also randomize the playback of all 16 steps and assign row A to trigger notes while row B triggers a parameter like filter cutoff, etc. Each row has its own CV and gate outputs, as well as settings for CV range and note scale, allowing you to quickly dial in notes based on linear, major, minor, or chromatic scales. You also have real-time controls over which notes playback and how long the sequence is by using the 16 buttons. For instance, you can set the sequence to play all of the notes, mute certain notes, or skip them altogether. The SQ-1 is truly portable with its battery and USB power options, and it can be integrated into your system easily with CV/gate connections, sync in and out jacks, and midi on 5-pin DIN or USB.
The SQ-1’s big brother is the SQ-64. Released in 2021, it features 3 melody tracks each with 16 patterns that can be up to 64 steps long, and a drum track that has 16 sub-tracks with up to 64 steps as well. All tracks can be edited and modified in real-time, giving you the flexibility, you need for a live performance. The SQ-64 also includes a variety of connections, 1 MIDI in and 2 MIDI outs, a micro-USB, sync in and out, pitch, modulation, and gate on the melody tracks, and 8 individual trigger outs on the drum track. Patterns can be looped and chained in real-time to generate creative variations to your sequences and patterns can be recalled instantly at the press of a button, allowing the performer access to a complete palette of ideas at once. The SQ-64 can be powered by USB and at a size of only 13” x 5,” it is quite portable.
The Arturia Beatstep released in 2014, is a step sequencer and a controller in one. In controller mode, you can connect it via USB to your computer or IOS device and use it to trigger loops or play drum sounds. You can configure the 16 knobs to control parameters in your apps, instruments, or DAW. By connecting the MIDI adapter, you can control parameters and trigger samples on your hardware devices as well. In sequencer mode, the Beatstep functions as a 16-step sequencer with various playback options and 16 pattern locations. You can turn steps on and off by tapping the pads, as well as changing the loop point and the note length. It is USB powered and can connect to your gear by either MIDI or CV/gate connections.
Arturia Beatstep Pro
The Arturia Beatstep Pro expands on the original Beatstep. Featuring two melodic tracks with up to 64 steps and a 16-track drum sequencer, it provides many more options than the original. The Beatstep Pro includes pitch, gate, and velocity outputs for the two melodic tracks, 8 drum gate outputs for the drum track, clock in and out jacks, MIDI in and out, and USB. It can function as an analog step sequencer and as a MIDI controller for your hardware synths, IOS devices, and computer. You can save up to 16 projects, so you can recall all of your best sequences at the press of a button. Designed to function as the centerpiece of your studio or performance setup, it provides everything you need to sequence and control everything from one location.
Doepfer Dark Time
The Doepfer Dark Time is a 16-step sequencer originally designed to be added to the Doepfer Dark Energy synthesizer. With its analog style and digital circuitry, the Dark Time is more than meets the eye. It can be configured in a 1x16 sequence, a 2x8 sequence, or a 1x8 combi sequence where the lower row of knobs set the gate length of each note. You can control the running direction from forward, backward, or random. The Dark Time offers two CV/gate in and out connections, clock in and out, reset in and out, sustain in and out, MIDI in and out, and USB port. It is powered by a 12v adapter. Doepfer has included many ways to interact with the sequence in creative ways, like separate octave controls for steps 1-8 and 9-16, as well as individual direction controls. Also, each step has controls for note on, off, stop, continue, and jump, allowing you to quickly control the playback of your sequences in real time. There is also a clock divide control and pulse width control to add even more creativity.
The Mini-midi-step-seq by Audiowerkstatt is a MIDI step sequencer that is based on a classic analog step sequencer. It features two 8-step patterns that can either be played one at a time or chained together to create a 16-step pattern. You have controls over which of the two patterns are playing and you can jump between the two at any time without losing synchronization. You can edit the patterns in real time and adjust gate time and clock divide. There are two-chord memories, which allow you to program up to three-note polyphonic patterns. The sequence can be pushed forward or backward a step based on the clock to create some variety in the playback. There are also options for setting velocity, MIDI channel, first and last step, and many other features.
Michael Rucci 16-step Sequencer
This little 16-step sequencer is one of the cool hand-made products by Michael Rucci. He builds and sells these on his Etsy shop. This sequencer is all analog and gives you 16 sliders to set your CV voltages. There is a CV out for notes, as well as a sync-in and two sync outputs. It also includes a power switch, start and stop control, speed control, and mode selector. The mode selector allows you to select from 2-16 step playback, as well as several playback directions and unique combinations.
I included the Yamaha QY10, which is neither a step sequencer nor contains CV/gate connections just to mention that there are many other options available in stand-alone hardware sequencers. The Yamaha QY10, for instance, can be purchased for around $50 and it provides up to 8 tracks of MIDI sequencing. It has a pattern mode, which allows you to sequence up to 8 parts at a maximum length of 8 bars, and a song mode, which allows you to chain patterns together to build a complete song. There are few real-time hands-on controls, but there are a few, like transpose, mute, volume, and pan. Chords can be programmed into the patterns and switching patterns in real time can create a lot of variety.
As you can see, step sequencers can vary quite a lot from one model to another, especially now that the technology has advanced beyond the abilities of the original models. Today, they are an inexpensive way to add some creativity to your workflow and some hands-on performance options to your live shows.
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