With the affordable and innovative Beatstep Pro, Arturia may have created a sequencer for the masses.
Arturia’s original Beatstep offered a simplified introduction to the looping, hands–on world of the step sequencer. Its price ensured complaints were kept to a low murmur, but there were some crucial limitations, not least that it consisted of a single monophonic sequence line and only synchronised to the outside world via USB. Earning its ‘Pro’ title, the new Beatstep will happily sync to just about anything, plus it serves up twice the number of simultaneous sequences and throws in a drum track for good measure.
Whatever mix of gear you’ve acquired over the years, the Beatstep Pro is in a position to bid for two jobs — sequencer and MIDI controller — thanks to connectivity you can file under ‘comprehensive’. This amounts to a set of eight analogue trigger outputs, MIDI, DIN Sync, CV and Gate, plus USB–sourced MIDI, yet you can still expect change from £200$250. It sounds almost too good to be true...
Superficially resembling a typical drum pad–based controller for software synths and DAWs, the BSP is a slimline tablet of metal and off–white plastic. It’s a solid and portable package of 415 x 163 x 36 mm and weighs a comfortable 1.45kg. I mentioned just now that it can perform two jobs, but if there’s a darkened studio corner in need of bright coloured lights, make that three!
While the Beatstep Pro can rightfully claim to be a MIDI controller and step sequencer, the emphasis is firmly on the latter. There are three tracks, consisting of two ‘melodic’ parts and a drum sequencer. Arturia had the inspired idea to colour–code each, picking green and yellow (the manual claims orange) for the two regular sequence tracks and purple for drums. Whichever track you select, its colours are replicated on the active step keys, even if the drum part’s posh purple is portrayed as a rather watery pink. The colouring ethos extends to the lettering of the rear panel. Admittedly it’s not quite so striking there, particularly the yellow text which is fairly indistinct against the panel’s creamy background.
Instead of an analogue step sequencer’s rows of potentiometers, Arturia opted for 16 gently notched encoders. It’s a good choice: the notch is sufficient to identify semitone advances yet smooth enough not to hamper those innocent spinning pleasures. The main functional difference between encoders and traditional knobs (or sliders) is that there’s no visual feedback of the pattern ‘shape’ — but you can, at least, learn the value of any encoder by lightly touching it. In practice it’s a fairly strange sensation devoid of physical feedback, but welcome all the same.
For note entry and performance, the 16 backlit rubber pads transmit velocity and polyphonic aftertouch (once you enable this in software). They’re well–spaced for finger–performing and arranged into two rows so correlation with the encoders is obvious. It takes only a minor sprinkling of mental agility to map these positions to the more condensed layout of the step keys, which are arranged in a single row. I think it’s fair to say that these 16 rubbery buttons, ever–ready to add or remove notes X0X–style, are a big part of why operation is a such a pleasure compared to those obsessively multi–functional devices where every conceivable duty is crammed onto drum pads.
Menu–haters rejoice: the only displays are numeric and deal with pattern selection, tempo and other values. The lack of a conventional display does impose some user interface restrictions, though: eg. to modify deeper functionality or configuration, you have to rely on Arturia’s MIDI Control Centre (MCC) running on your Mac or PC.
To fully appreciate the BSP’s cosmopolitan nature, turn it on its edge for a moment and check out the line of sockets. There are a total of 18 mini–jacks, plus a micro–USB socket; between them they provide MIDI In and Out, analogue clock (again in and out), eight drum triggers, and — last but not least — the CV, Gate and Velocity outputs of the melodic sequencer tracks. Viewed with the experience of plugging and unplugging many 3.5mm jacks over the course of the review, my main thought is that it would have been mighty helpful to duplicate the labelling on the top of the panel. Fortunately, a felt-tip pen works wonders.
Two grey plastic adapters turn those theoretical MIDI In and Out sockets into something a MIDI cable can recognise and get chummy with. They’re TRS–type jacks so different to those shipped with the original Beatstep and a black adapter performs an equivalent chumminess service for DIN Sync. Plug in a suitable cable and clock can be carried to (or from) machines like Roland’s TB–303 or Korg’s KPR–77 drums.
A Micro–USB cable is included, but a power supply is not. You can therefore take juice from a computer’s USB port or from a regular USB adapter borrowed from a phone or iPad. Nudging aside my usual reservations about the spirit of 1983 and MIDI adapters, a bigger concern was with this choice of micro–USB. It’s a small and not especially snug–fitting connection that’s never going to scream ‘gig me hard baby’. A more rugged power solution (such as the tight USB sockets of NI’s Maschine or Akai’s recent MPCs) would have been preferable.
The package also includes a Y–shaped ‘anti-ground-loop adapter’, which cuts the background noise you can experience when USB–connected to a computer. It works fine, but the Quick Start Guide’s claim it can provide connectivity to a tablet device is lacking a vital piece of information for users of iPads. To prevent the iPad complaining of inadequate power, you must switch on the BSP holding down shift and stop. My thanks to a member of the blossoming BSP Facebook forum for that nugget.
No manual is supplied, just a couple of quick–start guides that contain (amongst other information) a pointer to the full manual’s location and an invitation to download the latest MIDI Control Centre software to check for updates. The MCC will perform this essential task (and others) for you, but for now let’s park the mouse and give some synths a workout.
Sixteen projects are held internally, with each project containing 16 patterns per track. In common with step sequencers of yore, the two melodic tracks are monophonic, but drum patterns can play up to 16 simultaneous notes. In addition, there’s a set of MIDI controller assignments and a stored tempo for each project should you need it.
Opting to embrace everything in 16s brings lots of benefits, for example the track button, when combined with the step keys, becomes an instant pattern selector. Or, for one–handed operation, up and down selection arrows are provided along with a helpful button, ‘PRST LNK’. When this is engaged, all three patterns are selected in unison — very handy when they’re designed to complement each other. As well as switching patterns, you can just as easily switch to a new project, all without stopping the music. If you treat the 16 projects as different songs, this could be enough for a live, non–stop set.
With almost all of my synths and drum modules potential sequencing partners, I began with simplicity: a single MIDI cable and my four–part Novation KS4 synth. Actually, it’s hardly rocket science to make a few CV and gate connections instead, but however you start, the means of building sequences is consistent — and there’s nothing to stop you driving MIDI and CV gear simultaneously.
When either sequencer track is selected, the rubber pads are illuminated to resemble a single-octave keyboard (C–C), complete with transpose keys. For the drum track, the pads switch to representing the 16 voices of a drum kit. The MIDI channels default to 1, 2 and 10 for the three tracks respectively, but are easily changed direct from hardware. Each track also has a mute button and a button that toggles the encoders’ functionality.
In the case of note sequences, those charcoal grey encoders are used to program the pitch, velocity and gate length. Drums are a little different: the encoders still adjust velocity and length, but instead of pitch there’s a per–step shift function. (The notes in a kit aren’t editable from hardware, they’re defined exclusively in the MCC.) Individual hits may be shifted in time (over a range of +/– 50 units) and the maximum shift almost overlaps the next voice, giving flam–type effects. The potentially handier function of shifting all steps simultaneously is promised in a future update.
The act of turning encoders tends to lead to patterns you wouldn’t ordinarily play as emphasis is added here, a note lengthened there. Ties and slides can be added too — functions that are treated equally by MIDI synths, but there’s a subtle difference at the CV outputs. There, slide events generate fixed-voltage slews of 60ms, for that instant acidic touch.
Real–time note input is just as straightforward and accompanied by a MIDI metronome if necessary. With or without the metronome, you simply hit record (the record button turns blue) and begin playing on the pads or an external MIDI controller. There’s one final recording method too which involves touching any encoder while playing a note — its value is captured into the step.
Using the pads and shift key, you can change a pattern’s direction and playback rate or activate any of the scales printed on the panel. Anyone expecting an elaborate scale–correction implementation that remaps notes or deactivates those not required on the keyboard will be disappointed. The scale function is very simple, it merely limits the encoders from selecting unwanted notes. A single user scale may be defined in the MCC.
Although you can’t filter the notes on the keyboard, your scales aren’t stuck in C. Transposition is achieved by holding down the relevant Sequencer button and pressing a pad to select a new root — this is stored when the pattern is saved and is displayed (by a flashing key) each time you press a track button. If you prefer, you can opt for MIDI–based transposition instead, from a keyboard set to the ‘transpose channel’. Finally, ‘TRNS LNK’ ensures that transpositions of one melodic part will always affect the other.
A pattern can be any length from one to 64 steps spread across up to four bars. Patterns running on each of the three concurrent tracks are independent in terms of length, clock division and direction — ideal for polyrhythms and complexity! Switching clock divisions changes both the playback resolution and the granularity of recorded notes, with the available options printed adjacent to the pads. The range goes from quarter notes up to double–speed 32nd notes with triplet versions included too, something the original Beatstep couldn’t match.
The earlier model does have one feature its new sibling doesn’t: a random direction. The Pro’s patterns can run forwards, backwards or ‘alternate’ (forwards and backwards), but to achieve randomness, the implementation is different. Before looking at how it’s done, there’s a direction–related issue I must mention. On switching directions, there’s no mechanism to tie the switch to the pattern’s end: the change kicks in immediately. This is one of several ‘opportunities’ to get out of sync, and not just with other gear but with other Beatstep Pro patterns too. Arturia are aware of this, but until there’s a solution, direction changes should be practised with care.
Continuing to tread carefully, pattern selection has a couple of caveats. Newly selected patterns kick in instantly, which is another of those ‘opportunities’, but it’s an even more sobering experience if you didn’t save first. There’s no edit buffer or means to go back to your edited pattern. Saving is further complicated by a lack of visual indication of empty pattern slots, so unless you have a great memory, it’s worth keeping notes.
While the sequencer persona dominates, the Beatstep Pro is still a capable MIDI control surface and DAW controller. In the MCC you can program individual pads to transmit MIDI data on any specified channel. Riding high on users’ wants list is the desire for equivalent functionality for the drum sequencer. It’s an idea that’s particularly appealing to owners of Korg’s Volca Sample, since that versatile box places every sample on a separate MIDI channel.
The encoders and buttons function exactly as they would on a regular MIDI controller, so they’re ideal for tweaking a mix or key parameters of the synths you’re sequencing. If you hit record while in Controller mode, the button turns a more traditional red. However, the colour is informational and really only significant for DAW control. Nothing is recorded in this mode — knob twiddles are performance only. Currently, no sequencing of MIDI CCs is possible, a Beatstep sequence consists entirely of notes, each with a length and velocity.
The MIDI Control Centre software is your one–stop shop for project backup and restore, MIDI controller definitions, and all the programming nitty gritty beneath the BSP’s impassive facade. For maximum convenience, both CV outputs offer either Octave/Volt or Hz/Volt operation, joined by either V–Trig or S–Trig gates (a lusty 12V). The bottom eight drum pads send a (positive) trigger to each of the trigger outputs, its list of potential uses extending far beyond triggering drum or synth voices.
Initially, I found the sequence tracks pitched too high, a problem resolved by either shifting the range in the MCC or by transposing patterns. The encoders have a range of six octaves, with C0 the lowest note available (MIDI note 24). Since MIDI has velocity information built into each note, it’s good to see the sequencer tracks turning velocity into volts (0–10V) ready to be sent to your favourite modular destinations.
In my quest to connect as much gear as possible, I ran across a couple of issues. The first related to a drum machine running mysteriously at half tempo (then mysteriously fixing itself); the second was the BSP’s refusal to track my (Hz/Volt) Yamaha CS30 synth from the second CV output. After more data–sharing amongst fellow sufferers, it was revealed an MCC bug (subsequently resolved) had scrambled some of the values of the analogue outputs.
Although I’ve praised the connectivity in general, an honorary mention must go to synchronisation. A seemingly innocent blob of rubber is all you need to set the sync source in a hurry. There’s an internal clock you can either dial in directly or set by tapping, with the tempo specified to 100th of a bpm. Or you can lock to external clock from USB, MIDI or the analogue input. Only the last of these requires explicit software configuration, but it’s worth it — I sync’ed successfully to a Roland CR8000 drum machine, but Korg’s Sync48 protocol is supported too. If you put aside the sync adapter (and tweak the MCC settings again), you can sync to an external clock or modular LFO, etc.
Interestingly, the MCC features graphical editors for all three sequencer tracks. These were of little interest until the day I needed to find and fix a single drum hit I’d shifted accidentally.
Recording and selecting patterns is only half of the fun. For a spot of harmless gratification, small sections of the running patterns can be looped, to a resolution of between quarter to 32nd notes. It’s intuitive enough: press one of the four pressure pads beneath the Swing/Random encoders and all tracks start to loop. Looping is a source of fast–repeating single notes or temporary mini–loop breaks of four steps. When you release the pressure pad, playback attempts to leap back to where it would have been. Although not yet flawless, looping is one of several non–destructive ways to avoid ‘sequence fatigue’.
Switch over to Controller Mode and the looper becomes a roller — for the MIDI events explicitly mapped in this mode. Instead of looping it repeats the events assigned to pads held down, but is clever enough not to repeatedly send MIDI program changes, if you defined that particular MIDI event.
The map of Controller Mode events need not be related to the MIDI channels of the sequence tracks. You can therefore use the roller functionality to accompany running patterns, manually firing off notes or samples on gear that isn’t being explicitly sequenced. The roller is limited to common time, so isn’t usually a good mix with other time-signatures or patterns with odd lengths, although it does understand triplets.
Flipping back to Sequencer mode, another antidote to endless repetition is Randomisation. This provides most of what a random direction would, with the added bonus that it won’t mess up synchronisation. It can be applied universally or in differing amounts per track, with the ‘Current Track’ button adding a friendly touch to a process that’s based on just two values: randomness and probability. Arguably these terms have similar meanings, but in Arturia’s clarification, the randomness value determines how much randomness will occur; the probability value sets how often the randomness occurs. In practice, the effects differed according to whether percussive or melodic parts were getting the treatment. For Sequence 1 or 2, setting probability at maximum and a randomness of just 1 changed almost every note but identical values made little obvious impact on a drum pattern.
There’s no user control over whether notes, velocities, lengths or triggers are to be randomised; the results are a mixture of all these attributes. The notes generated correspond to those used already in the pattern: it’s not one of those ‘scary randoms’ where you have no idea what to expect. For drum patterns, heavy randomisation plunges you straight into ‘improvised fill’ territory; any muted drum voices are automatically removed from the probability process.
Lastly, swing — positive or negative — is applicable to all tracks or can be applied in differing amounts to each. Mixing amounts can get messy, but there’s no denying it’s helpful for breaking free of the otherwise perfect step–time.
It seems that 2015 might just be remembered as the year of the step sequencer. If so, the Beatstep Pro is already a candidate for poster boy. Its interface is fast, open and a progression from past designs — the former Beatstep notwithstanding. Those pads serve well for the input of melodies, bass lines and drums and the encoders are spot on for sequence creation and disassembly.
In use, the Beatstep Pro hardly ever needs to stop. However, if you change direction or switch to another pattern, the instantaneous switching can leave you out of sync and in need of a restart. Arturia are working on improving this and solving other issues, while promising to add new features such as pattern chaining, encoder ganging and a slicker save operation. However, the one thing that can’t be improved in software is the micro–USB adapter.
Ultimately, the Beatstep Pro is an inexpensive, alternate slant on step sequencing. Innovations such as its accessible randomisation and use of colour make their own worthy contribution and further sweeteners are to be found in its MIDI controller capabilities. There are less obvious spin–off functions too, such as the ability to serve as a basic MIDI-to-CV converter or be the source of multiple analogue clocks. It’s thanks to this extensive connectivity that the Beatstep Pro is able to span generations of gear, sequencing CV or MIDI, in the box or out. Highly recommended.
All of a sudden new sequencers are sprouting under every bush, each focused on particular aspects of sequence creation or manipulation. However, I can’t think of a serious challenger at the price that offers such wide connectivity or so welcoming an interface.
- A versatile, hands–on step sequencer packing more than three times the muscle of the original Beatstep.
- Talks CV, MIDI, Analogue clock and USB–MIDI.
- Integral drum pads and MIDI controller capability — the pads send poly aftertouch.
- Excellent value.
- You have to source a power adapter and power is via micro–USB, which not the most robust format.
- Currently some bugs and omissions.
- Requires a computer and MIDI Control Centre software for configuration.
The Beatstep Pro is a blast for sequencing synths and drums, both MIDI and CV. It isn’t the most advanced hardware sequencer ever made, but it offers a superb example of low–cost hands–on gratification.