Analogue Solutions get back to basics with their new sequencer, the Europa.
"There are plenty of MIDI sequencers out there, but the problem is, they have too many features...” is how Analogue Solutions choose to introduce the Europa. Having set the tone, the slender manual then proceeds to extol the virtues of simplicity, recommending a skim of itself so you don't miss anything before filing it away.
This is a pattern‑based sequencer consisting of 16 monophonic note tracks and a drum track. Its drum track generates analogue triggers alongside its MIDI notes, while the note tracks deliver MIDI only. Imagine the brains (but not the tone generation) of 16 Roland TB303s plus a TR606 and you'll have a fair idea of what to expect.
It doesn't take DCI Gene Hunt to recognise the old-school values in evidence. Lacking a conventional display — tempo is shown only as a flashing LED — the Europa's white steel panel holds all the information needed for everyday use. Although some buttons have alternate functions that take over when the sequencer is stopped, 10 minutes' pottering should be sufficient to grasp the lot.
A compact desktop unit (measuring 365 x 195 x 80mm), the Europa's gently sloping design and well‑spaced controls provide club‑class accessibility. Many LEDs pepper the panel, their traditional red glow further boosting the impression of an '80s‑style product. A row of 16 buttons select patterns, tracks or individual steps — a concept that will be familiar to anyone who's idled away a few hours on a classic drum machine.
Naturally, the decision to go without a screen does impose some limitations (which I'll mention as we go along) but none are fatal. Once you've mastered the various modes of operation, you can whizz around easily, the LEDs and your ears sufficient to reveal what's going on.
Even the transport controls are ultra‑minimal, consisting only of a combined play/stop button and a second button that resets the sequencer to its first step. When externally sync'ed, reset is essential to successfully align the Europa with another sequencer or drum machine, and of course lets you restart when you like.
A 12-note keyboard, complete with octave transpose buttons, is the sole means of selecting notes and drum voices. The keyboard may be small, but it's perfectly formed and feels great. Equally straightforwardly, a dedicated knob and four‑position switch take care of both tempo and sync operations. The latter offers internal or MIDI clock sync, plus a choice of two external sources. If you've ever wasted precious moments of your life flicking through illogically named menu pages in search of sync options, this implementation will be pure bliss.
Despite MIDI being its driving force, the Europa also offers no fewer than nine analogue outputs and two inputs to go with the expected MIDI In, Out and Thru. This generous dollop of analogue connectivity is perhaps not a surprise, given the rather obvious clue in the name 'Analogue Solutions'. We'll consider some applications for the analogue I/O later, but to finish off the whistle-stop tour, all that remains to say is that power arrives via a 12V adaptor. There's a physical power switch too, something so often omitted in this glittering future of the 21st Century.
Making music Europa‑style begins with one of the 80 available patterns. These are stored in five banks, each bank containing a pool of 16. Given the interface choices, expect to hear the number 16 quite a lot. For example, it represents the maximum number of steps in a pattern, the number of note tracks and even the possible number of bars in a song.
Before coming to songs, let's add notes into at least one pattern! The Europa's no‑nonsense operation is worth a run‑through. Once learned, I suspect you could return to it even after many months' absence and carry on as smoothly as if you'd never been away. You do occasionally need to stop the music — for example, to define a pattern of fewer than 16 steps. Really short patterns (you can go down to one step) might not seem massively useful, but who knows: one day you might want to string two patterns together for a jaunty little tune in 17/8. No triplets are offered, and once the pattern length is established it applies to all tracks, ruling out some of the polyrhythmic joys of other sequencers.
Assuming we're starting with a note sequence or bass line, you first ensure the upper Mode LED is lit. Then, having selected a track, you can use the Edit button to toggle between the entry of notes, velocities and legato events. When entering notes, you choose the note value with the miniature keyboard before selecting the steps on which it will play. The keyboard's range is extended by the octave switches and at any time you can select a step then change — or merely view — its contents.
When you add a note, the LED flashes alternately bright and dim. A second press of the step button deactivates it, although it remains selected. In such cases, the LED flashes between bright and off, although the visual difference isn't huge. Should you require notes that span several steps, hold down the first and the last note together and voilà: one long note.
To introduce dynamics into your patterns, there are 12 available velocities. These, too, are entered using the keyboard, with the note LEDs acting as a vertical bar graph. The final Edit option, legato, delays the end of a note until a fraction after the next note is played. Clones of 303s, such as Analogue Solutions' TBX303, require legato to introduce the characteristic glide so beloved of acid freaks everywhere. Many other synths also have fingered portamento and a legato mode for envelopes, which can be exploited in the same way.
Rigidly robotic sequences have formed the basis for more dance tracks than I've had bottles of cheap cider. Yet sometimes you just want the machine to loosen up and get into the groove. To this end, 12 preset swing values are provided, each having its own particular feel. Swing's job is to offset a pattern's even steps and, usefully, it can be applied on a 'per pattern' basis. So you can copy the same pattern multiple times, bestowing a different swing amount upon each. In this way you can audition and compare several variations before settling on the one you prefer.
I didn't mention it earlier, but you can copy patterns and tracks freely. Actually, you can copy and paste drums, tracks and patterns, all during playback and without interrupting the flow. This implementation offers a neat undo facility: if you suspect you're about to drastically alter a pattern before the shiny eyes of your audience, first take a copy. Then, when you do your worst (and it really is your worst), quickly paste the contents of the edit buffer back again without blinking an eye, or admitting guilt.
As shipped, the Europa's track and MIDI channel numbers match. Although logical and convenient, this isn't always ideal. I mentioned previously that note tracks are monophonic, so to create polyphonic sequences or chords, you first have to assign several tracks to the same MIDI channel. Track/channel assignments require the sequencer to be stopped, and they apply globally to every song. This may be a tad restrictive, but it's probably less confusing in the long run.
And that's about it for laying down note tracks. The process sounds more laborious than it is in reality. With practice, entering notes, selecting new tracks, then entering further notes becomes second nature. That said, I wouldn't have objected had there been some way to record directly from the keyboard, or from MIDI input. It's also a pity there's no provision for sequencing MIDI continuous controllers and that you can't send MIDI program changes, for instance to set up your synths with the correct patch for each song. However, I can't see how these things would fit neatly into the user interface without breaking the prime directive of simplicity. By Analogue Solutions' reckoning, this would be a sin on a par with hurling oneself wilfully into the burning pits of Hell whilst coveting your neighbour's ass.
Without becoming too dramatic — or even Drumatix — adding drums follows a similar path. When in drum mode, the keyboard selects each of the 12 available drums in turn, after which you can activate triggers to build your pattern step by step as before.
The Edit button toggles between triggers, accents or flams. A flam is a preset 50ms double hit which, depending on the tempo and drum voice chosen, can sound quite authentic. Each drum is triggered at a fixed velocity of 100, unless an accent is set, in which case it fires out at the MIDI maximum of 127.
Other than mentioning that you can change the MIDI note sent for each drum and that drums are transmitted on a fixed MIDI channel (10), that's very nearly it. Fortunately there's another side to drum triggering: an analogue side.
Arguably the Europa's most creative assets are its analogue trigger outputs. Each trigger corresponds to a white note on the keyboard starting at 'C', totalling seven in all. Their uses are plentiful; for example, you might connect several trigger outputs to the clock inputs of different analogue sequencers. In such cases, direct interaction with a row of steps opens up enticing rhythmic possibilities, such as sending triggers at half speed (by enabling only alternate steps) or by introducing strategic gaps or pauses. Naturally, the Europa makes an ideal trigger source for synth envelopes or for percussion modules such as Analogue Solutions' own Concussor series.
If you want to finalise a structure for your patterns — in other words, create a song — there's onboard storage for up to 16. Entering song mode requires the sequencer to be stopped, then it's just a matter of deciding how long the song should be and assigning a pattern to each bar. There's no reason why a song can't be built around a single pattern, either, with song development achieved by varying the track mutes in each bar. During song playback, you can press the Mute button at any time and experiment. You needn't perform any specific write actions, either — everything is saved as you go.
By this stage, I doubt it will elicit surprise when I reveal that a song's maximum length is 16 bars, and that each bar can loop up to 12 times. Helpfully, the loop visually counts down on the note LEDs.
The only other decision to make is whether the song should play through just once, or loop continuously. Even with a looping song, you can always override the next bar selection manually. This bar then plays its designated number of loops, after which the song restarts. If your songs are only a few bars long, this leaves the unused bars available to play variations that you've prepared in advance. During a gig, these would be instantly on tap to whip up an instant remix.
When gigging, it might make sense to sync the Europa to a drum machine capable of storing the tempo of each song. Or perhaps you prefer synchronisation to a machine equipped with tap tempo, or to a synth's gate output? Alternatively, the single knob and flashing LED approach could work just fine. If you enjoyed the swing implementation, imagine driving the sequencer from whatever you managed to rustle up for those analogue inputs. Mix a few LFOs in a CV mixer and you're cooking!
Which only leaves the two clock outputs to mention. Of these, the Sync output sends its clock signals only when the sequencer is running, but the second clock output sends them all the time, regardless. This could even function as an extra square-wave LFO for your modular synth, if required.
The Europa is an unusual device combining a no-frills MIDI pattern sequencer with analogue triggering. Given that it is petite, neat and not particularly expensive, and that it can drive 16 synths plus drums, it might be just the right kind of versatile. I found the sync implementation — specifically the source selection — wonderful. How many other pieces of gear render sync so painless?
If you've read this far you probably have some interest in step‑based hardware sequencing. Therefore the only important question that remains is whether or not the Europa's level of simplicity is appealing to you. Some of the limitations initially seem odd, such as the inability to sequence MIDI continuous controllers or the enforcing of a common length for all tracks in a pattern. However, for back‑to‑basics sequencing of drums and synths in one package, whether in live performance or the studio, the Europa is simple, logical and effective. No alarms and no surprises.
There aren't many pattern sequencers competing directly with the Europa. Once upon a time, there was an odd little machine called the MAM SQ16, and there have been several pattern sequencers from Future Retro over the years, too. Their latest, the Orb, is a single-track machine for controlling just one synth, and thus not really comparable.
Other pattern sequencers include the far more elaborate and expensive Nemo from Genoqs, but perhaps the closest rival of all — and it isn't especially close — is Yamaha's Tenori‑On. This cute hand‑held device can drive up to 16 external MIDI instruments as well as its own internal sound chip. However, it doesn't offer any analogue triggering, and operates in a rather novel way, thanks to its LED‑driven interface.
If you fill up the Europa's available memory, a System Exclusive backup and restore process is detailed in the manual. Currently this involves backing up or restoring the complete machine, not individual songs. I'm told that editing software is under construction, and this could prove the key to saving individual songs and patterns to compile live sets and so on.
Building songs on the Europa is painless, but if anything it's even better to do it on the fly in Pattern mode, manually selecting patterns whenever a new one is needed. This, plus the tweaking of synths and the mixing of drums would probably be the backbone of a Europa‑based live performance.
Other performance tricks include the muting of tracks and of individual percussion voices. As you'd hope, mutes are remembered across pattern changes. Finally, in addition to muting, you can transpose a track or tracks, in either octave jumps or in semitones. Sensibly, drums are not transposed unless you have deliberately placed them on a channel that isn't the designated drum channel. (This is worth doing, incidentally, as inadvertently transposed drums are often fun.)