What is a Music Sequencer, and What Does it Do?

by ReverbLxnd in Mixing

You'll have a pretty good idea of what a sequencer is, and how it works after this article, and you'll be able to use any sequencer, pretty much.

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Today I want to take a look at the wide world of sequencers.

Sequencing is a broad topic. But I like it because there’s a lot of really cool things you can do with it.

It’s going to be fun.

This is an introductory article. We are going to look at what is a music sequencer, and what it does, the different types of sequencers, and a few other basic concepts around sequencing.

I’m planning on delving deeper into this topic in later posts, subscribe to the newsletter to keep tabs on when I put up a follow up to this article, if you haven’t already.

What is a Sequencer?

A MIDI sequencer is a recorder and looper for the notes that you play. You play some notes (the sequencer is listening), it records everything that you are playing, and spits it back out just like you played it. The best sequencer you have available to you is almost certainly your DAW.

The techniques and methodology gets a lot more complicated from there but this is the basic idea — it’s like a note recorder.

Sequencers pretty much everywhere.

It’s safe to say that most DAWs today are really mature MIDI sequencing programs each with their own techniques.

If you’re really interested in the idea of sequencing but not sure that you need to invest in a standalone sequencer, many modern synths and keyboards have sequencers of varying degrees of sophistication builtin.

And… you guessed it… there are many different types of sequencers — more on that later.

I – for what it’s worth – really enjoy a very basic step sequencer like you can find in most hardware synths.

Let’s talk about what a sequencer does.

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What Does a Sequencer Do?

To understand what a sequencer does, we are going to use the example of a hardware sequencer such as, say, the Arturai Beatstep Pro (or Keystep)…

…but don’t worry if you don’t have this exact brand…

…once you understand what a sequencer does and how it works, you’ll be able to use any sequencer in the market, both hardware and soft.

Right off the bat, let’s explain the fundamentals of a sequencer.

You may also have heard a sequencer being referred to as a step sequencer.

What is a Step Sequencer?

The reason sequencers are also referred to as step sequencers is because every sequencer uses steps.

Let me explain…

The steps will be located somewhere on the hardware sequencer as numbered buttons (typically 1 through 16 for a 16-step sequencer), or a dial (typically found on 4-step to 32-step sequencers).

What is a Step?

A step is basically a location on a grid where you can send information to your sound source. Every step allows you to send 3 types of information — pitch, velocity, and gate.

On a 16-step sequencer, you will have 16 steps and 16 knobs that correspond to each step. On step #1 you have knob #1, and so on.

Stepping through Pitch

Pitch is pretty straightforward — the highness of lowness of a note.

If you press step #1 and then knob #1, it should show you what note you’re on in step #1.

If you turn knob #1, it going to turn through all the pitches your oscillator can play, typically, about 6 octaves (that’s a huge range of notes).

The note you set step #1 is where you’ll start your sequence.

Same goes for the other steps.

Each note has it’s keyboard. So you are not limited to using the knobs.

If you press step #2 and knob #2 you get the second note. If you turn knob #2 you adjust the second note in your sequence.

Once you have a sequence of notes to step through you can play them at a certain tempo.

You set up the notes you want your sequencer to play, you hit play, it steps through playing them in numerical order.

The tempo (bpm.) will be indicated in your sequencer.

If it starts out at 120 bpm, you can adjust this to say 90 and then hit play again. Now it will be playing slower at 90 bpm.

With most modern hardware sequencers, you can set where the tempo affirmation is coming from. If nothing is set, the sequencer will generate the tempo itself but it can receive tempo from other sources.

You can “send tempo” from your DAW to your sequencer through the USB interface.

There is also MIDI, so if you have an instrument that sends MIDI you just select MIDI mode.

Setting the Velocity

Velocity is dynamics. Dynamics are variations in loudness between notes and phrases. If you read sheet music, they are indicated by notation such as piano (𝆏 for quiet), mezzo piano (𝆐𝆏 for moderately quiet), and forte (𝆑 for loud).

Dynamics are important to make music sound exciting, dramatic, realistic, or whatever you need to convey to the listener.

On a sequencer, velocity of measured on a scale from 0 to 127.

This is not arbitrary, it is based on the MIDI scale.

Zero is nothing, 1 is as quiet as you can get and 127 is the loudest. The default value is 100.

Sending the Gate

The easiest way to understand the gate is as an on-off signal.

The pitch tells the sequencer what note to play. The velocity tells the sequencer how loud (or quiet) to play it. The gate tells the sequencer when to play it.

When you play the sequence, it sends a gate on each of the notes on the steps playing the notes.

If you deactivate a certain note with the gate, it won’t be played because the sequencer is not sending any gate.

Gates have lengths.

You can have the gate on (or open) for a very short time, or for a longer time.

The gate value is from 1 to 99. The default is 50.

Looping the Steps

So far, we’ve only set the first four steps.

One sequence has 16 steps but for simplicity, let’s say you don’t even need the other 12 steps. You only need 4.

There is a function called last step.

If you hold down that last step button, you’ll see that the default (step #16) is lit. You can change that to step #4 by pressing that.

When you hit play, our little will start looping over and over again.

This is a very basic example.

You can also space the notes out. For instance, to space them out as if they were quarter notes i.e. places notes on step #1, #5, #9 and #13.

Cool.

You see how it starts getting easy make music with very little information.

When you hit play, it just plays it in order, the same way every time. You can reverse this order, by pressing shift and the reverse button so that it plays backwards.

You can also have it go from left to right the right to left i.e. alternating. You hold shift and hit alternate.

You can also change the subdivision of the rythmn from a 16 note to an 8th note, and so on.

Recording

To record, all you have to do is hit record when you hit record.

Simple.

You can see how easy that was.

Types of Sequencers

To round this off, let’s briefly look at the most common types of sequencers.

Analog Sequencers

Examples of this would be the archaic Moog sequencers, Q960 Sequential Controller or KORG SQ-1.

These typically are hardware sequencers with a series of knobs that represent each step. Those knobs can be turned to send out a certain voltage. That voltage will be what determines the pitch.

These sequencers can be used to affect other things too such as the parameters of a filter or something like that. It all depends on what you’re setting the voltage to.

You have these knobs and, hopefully, get the sample of the pitch that you want, then you turn the sequencer open the gate.

Numerical Editors

These are mostly found in trackers.

Examples of these would be FastTracker 2, Impulse Tracker, LSDJ or something modern such as Renoise.

You have multiple tracks. You put in a note name, then you have columns to the right of that representing octaves or a slew of effects that are available through the tracker.

The create effects such as bending the note, or changing the position you are playing the sample from, or something similar.

You can tell the steps in these through numbers and letters.

These will do all kinds of stuff to a particular note. The tracker usually runs down a list particular things.

Score Editors

These look like you’re writing sheet music.

These are traditionally used by composers who are classically trained.

Examples of these would be Dorico and Musescore, another notable example here is Sibelius.

You have to know how to write and read music to use one of these.

Step Sequencer

Here, each unit of time is represented by a step.

This are exactly like we covered before.

Some more examples of these would be Novation Launchpad Max4Live Step Sequencer, Elektron Digitakt, Roland TB-03, or Roland TR-808.

Drum machines, and a lot of monitor groove boxes all use these.

There is a step sequencer on the OP-1 Endless Sequencer, FL Studio (started off with just being a step sequencer), SynthStrom Deluge etc.

Piano Roll Editor

This takes its name from player pianos back in the day where you would have a roll of paper with punch holes in it of varying length in various spaces to represent notes.

The piano rolls represented duration of notes and the mechanism of the piano player playing through it, they would see this little punches in the paper and play those notes.

In modern DAWs, you’ll see this all over the place.

It’s usually left to right in terms of time, and then the vertical axis is for pitch.

You can choose a quantize length (length of the note) that you want each entry on the piano roll to be.

Generally, if you are recording MIDI into these things, you’ll just play and you can edit it out later.

Ableton Live’s has got a very robust piano roll. Reason, FL Studio, Logic X, Cubase and most modern iOS DAWs all use piano roll editors.

Now, were going to start getting into the more exotic types of piano editors.

Euclidean Generators

Euclidean rthymns were first keyed upon by Godfried Toussaint.

Basically, it’s the idea that distributing a certain number of notes over a certain amount of patterns will generate most rythmic patterns that we experience.

For instance, 4 kicks over a 16-step pattern will generate the classic 4/4 beat that we’re used with in house and a lot of classic EDM.

If you change the number of notes to something other than 4, and the number of steps to something other than 16, you start getting euclidean rhythms.

Examples of these include Sonic Potions LXR, Mutable Instruments Grids, Patterning, Ruismaker.

Generative Sequencing

In Conclusion

If you are going to be making music, you have to know what a sequencer does and how to use it when you need to.

If you can get your hands on one, you’ll have no problem understanding what a sequencer does.

In fact, you’ll have no problem generating all kinds of baseline single-note monophonic sequences on your first foray in the world of sequencers…

…but you’ll still be learning about chords and how to best structure and stack chords together.

As I said at the beginning, I plan to delve deeper into sequence programming. In the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter so I can notify you when I put up new articles on this.

That’s it for this article.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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