After years of obscurity, step sequencers are making a huge comeback. If you have an iPad and want to know what all of the fuss is about, check out these top picks.
With the popularity of hardware step sequencers soaring, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some step sequencer apps that can help you add a little creativity to your production practices. If you are used to working with the more traditional linear sequencer or DAW, then you may not know about the creative advantages that step sequencers have to offer. And while step sequencers aren’t the best solutions for all genres, their immediate musical response and their experimental nature, offer the composer many rewarding results.
Step sequencers are not new. Don Buchla produced them for the Buchla 100 synthesizer as early as 1964. Moog followed suit with their own version, the 960, in 1968. By the late ‘70s step sequencers had become very popular with electronic musicians, but by the early ‘80s digital sequencers and MIDI started to take over as digital synthesizers with multi-timbral capabilities were becoming more popular. On-board multi-track sequencers were developed and included on keyboard workstations throughout the ‘90s and the rise of the computer-based Digital Audio Workstation dominated the market. Step sequencers were all but forgotten, except by a few dedicated modular synth users.
In 1996 Doepfer Musikelektronik released the first Eurorack-format modular synthesizer system, the Doepfer A-100. This began the movement that has led to an explosion in popularity, along with the developments in analog modeling and the comeback of true analog synthesizers. Because of this movement, hardware step sequencers are as popular as ever and are found on many of the new synths now being produced.
There’s an app for that
It’s true that if you think of a good idea for a new app there are probably already a few that do it. That is the case with the step sequencer. There are quite a few apps that recreate classic step sequencers and many more that take the basic concept in new directions.
StepPolyArp by Laurent is a real-time polyphonic step sequencer and arpeggiator. It allows you to play your sequences or arpeggios with an incoming MIDI note. There is a latch feature to keep it playing. You can assign different MIDI channels to different notes of the sequence to have more than one sound playing at a time. 16 patterns within one present can be recorded and switched between at the press of a button. It supports Ableton LINK, so you can synchronize the playback to other apps and it even has its own sound bank.
Euclidean by 4Pockets is a new step sequencer based on Euclidean rhythms. It allows you to program 4 separate sequencer lines and control playback options in real time, generating various combinations of notes and chords. Each track can be tweaked by changing the number of steps, the playback direction, the scale, the key, the root note, and many other options. You can save 8 different patterns per present and you can switch between them in sync with the tempo.
Gadget by Korg is more than a simple step sequencer, it is a complete workstation. It is based on a step sequencer format, but it is multi-timbral and you are only limited by the power of your iPad. Gadget includes several instruments called gadgets that you can choose from to create your musical parts. Each part is played by a step sequence up to 8 bars long and you can group many parts to make a complete song. Gadget also sends out MIDI notes so you can control your external gear.
Modstep by AppBC is one of my favorite apps. It is a bit old and hasn’t been updated in a while so verify that it works on your iPad before you purchase it. What I love about it is that each square on the screen is a different sequence. Each column is assigned to a MIDI output or another app on the iPad. What is nice is that you can trigger parts by tapping on the screen. You can play any combination of squares. You don’t have to trigger the whole row at the same time as you do in Gadget. It is very similar to the way Ableton Live works and it gives you many possibilities during a live performance.
Groovebox by Amplify is a complete workstation that includes synthesizers and drum machines. Each instrument has a built-in step sequencer to record your parts, but the best part is the built-in keyboards that are configured based on your key and scale settings. This allows you to quickly move your finger across the keyboard and create sequences without any wrong notes. It is very entertaining and you can come up with some great grooves.
Fugue Machine by Alexandernaut is another unique step sequencer. It takes your simple sequence and plays it back in four different ways at the same time. There are four play heads that you can configure to play the same notes in different ways, like different octaves, speeds, and directions, creating many combinations of the notes in your sequence.
Ooda by Ryan Robinson has just been released and it is very creative in the way it allows your sequence to be manipulated. It includes something Ryan calls wormholes, which are settings you can assign to any step that will send the playback to a different step. Four separate voices can be played at once and each voice can have its playback parameters.
Rubycon by Roger Mann is a recreation of the Moog 960 step sequencer. It has four rows of 8 steps that can be used for pitch, duration, velocity, and MIDI CC. There are settings for play, pause, and skip for each step and controls for note ratcheting, which is a rapid repeating of the note, used in classic Berlin school compositions.
Many other step sequencer apps are just as interesting, but these are just some of the ones I have enjoyed using myself. Whichever you choose, you will find them to be a great way to generate new ideas and create some quick baselines, arpeggios, and rhythms. The magic that happens when you start a step sequencer up and start tweaking knobs is amazing and when things happen unexpectedly they are usually the most interesting.