Strokes brings unconventional Eurorack‑style sequencing to your DAW.
Strokes is an unusual beast: a dedicated sequencer plug‑in that runs inside your DAW sequencer, generating MIDI note and other messages to drive other instruments of your choice, whether software or hardware. It can do simple pattern‑based programming, but also has facilities for generating patterns that you might not naturally come up with yourself, and can be a platform for exploring polyrhythms and randomness in repetition generally.
Strokes started life as a Max For Live device but now it’s available as a VST3 and Audio Unit plug‑in for Windows 10/11 and Mac OS 10.11 or later. I tested version 3.4 on the Mac, and as I write an AUv3 plug‑in has just been released which will work on the iPad in hosts like AUM.
Strokes’ resizeable GUI can be bewildering at first sight, but with only a little familiarity it proves very clear and straightforward. Essentially there are eight parallel ‘channels’ that send out MIDI notes, and 12 modulation sources alongside that generate MIDI CC messages.
Channels 1‑4, along with an adjacent Accent lane, are relatively speaking the most conventional bit of the plug‑in. The programming lanes often look and behave a bit like Roland drum machines going back decades. However, the number of steps (from 1‑32) is adjustable on a lane by lane basis, and they can run backwards and in alternating directions too. More importantly, there’s another mode on offer, ‘Euclid’, which is distinctly un‑Roland‑like. This programs steps for you according to four dedicated parameters. Euclidean sequencing might sound esoteric, but in practice it’s about dividing the chosen number of triggers as evenly as possible across the steps available. This can lead to entirely evenly distributed patterns, but also dozens of others that are more complex and syncopated. At the same time the combination of variable lane lengths, time divisions, and the other Euclidean parameters (including loop length, which can be longer or shorter than lane length) immediately open up intriguing and addictive possibilities for polyrhythms. The ability to mute channels or instantly ‘invert’ patterns — turning programmed steps off and empty steps on — adds a lot of flexibility for experimentation.
Channels 5‑8 occupy a separate smaller area of their own, and these really are esoteric! They’re algorithmic note generators driven by interactions of events on channels 1‑4, and sometimes the accent lane. As such they are ‘programmable’, but in a way that’s really not as most of us know it (captain). More about this, if you’re interested, in the ‘Logic’ box.
Next up (or rather, down) is a section labelled Shares, which, to ruthlessly summarise, reduces event density on the note channels with varying degrees of randomness, for more or less unpredictable, ongoing variation of programmed patterns.
With these sections alone a lot of sequencing action is possible. But there’s a whole other world nestling just alongside...
Matrix and Weights are Strokes’ modulation generators: between them they output 12 streams of MIDI CC data, which any good DAW can distribute elsewhere.
Weights is the simpler to understand: it’s a bank of four separate envelope followers/generators that are triggered by events on the note channels. All four channels at once, if you like. The result is a variety of adjustable modulation shapes, from simple pulses to complex, vacillating mayhem.
Matrix, meanwhile, is more abstract: a sort of ‘chess game meets step sequencer’ that takes inspiration from Make Noise’s Eurorack module, René. Modulation values are generated as a position indicator moves across a 4x4 grid of value knobs, in response to note events. This happens on eight layers simultaneously, according to different rules: some move vertically, others horizontally, a couple crab‑like, and not necessarily across all 16 positions. It’s arguably bonkers... but the beauty of the Matrix lies in the way it forces you to think about step sequencing in a totally different, two‑dimensional way.
The remaining sections are more utilitarian in purpose. Scope is a handy visualiser of the modulation values being generated by Matrix and Weights. And finally Patterns switches between five plug‑in‑wide pattern snapshots and, independently, seven alternative MIDI note layouts for channels 1‑8. These numbers are not randomly chosen but correspond to the five black and seven white keys in an octave, with which (via MIDI) Strokes can itself be ‘played’ in real time.
Strokes is one of those software tools that could all too easily seem intimidating and conceptually slippery. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward to grasp, particularly if you have any prior knowledge of typical Eurorack sequencer workflows or Elektron devices. The interface is clear and responsive, and with almost no additional panels or views, no right‑click functionality, and nothing at all related to loading from or saving to disk, it’s a quasi‑analogue experience. Hit Play in your DAW and Strokes starts doing its thing. Press Stop and it stops too. The fact that there are only four conventional note lanes, constrained to single pitches, feels old‑school but refreshingly uncomplicated too.
For me, the musical potential sang out from word go; at least with various concoctions of electronica, EDM, glitch and minimal‑leaning genres in mind. It’s a wildly different experience to recording to your DAW or clicking data into note and automation lanes: in many ways more liberating and experimental. As I used Strokes to drive various drum samples, synths and sampled instruments, I continually ended up with patterns, ostinatos and riffs that wouldn’t have happened with more conventional ways of working. Crucially, many were worth saving and developing. Polyrhythmic interactions and randomness is a big factor here, and as time went on I found more and more use for the modulation outputs too. To actually save what Strokes does, by the way, you literally ‘record in’ its output to the other MIDI or instrument tracks it’s driving, in real time. Subsequently sifting through and selecting material can in itself spark different and productive ways of working.
It’s an inspiring and fascinating tool: an in‑DAW playground for modular‑inspired, pattern‑based experimentation.
Any downsides? Well, there’s no way of programming velocity in note lanes, let alone flams or ratchets. Meanwhile, I’d gladly accept some more fully featured ways of copying and clearing patterns. Selecting an empty and unused pattern for the first time will copy into it anything you currently have programmed, which is something, but it’s a blunt tool. Also, for all its visual clarity, Strokes’ interface is a bit light on information, in places. The algorithmic channel modes and Matrix layer behaviour are unguessable, and only lightly documented in the manual. Some Weights knobs are unlabelled too. I put some of this to John Howes, the developer of Strokes, and he enthusiastically proposed a few really elegant solutions. As I submitted this review there was already a new beta version that tackled some of the issues, and had other nice features.
So the future of Strokes looks bright, but even in its current form it’s an inspiring and fascinating tool: an in‑DAW playground for modular‑inspired, pattern‑based experimentation. At its very modest asking price it’s an absolute bargain.
Because Strokes sits outside the box of what plug‑ins normally do, DAW compatibility is definitely a ‘thing’, and there are variations in the user experience from one DAW to another.
There’s some specific documentation and support on the Cong Burn website for setting up in Ableton Live, Bitwig, Cubase, FL Studio, Logic, and the virtual modular environment VCV Rack. I tested in Studio One 6 without difficulty, and other DAWs will doubtless work too, as long as they support the flow of virtual MIDI from plug‑ins to other tracks. On the Mac, the AU version is developed exclusively for Logic users, and everyone else will need to use VST3.
Ironically, given Strokes’ heritage, it’s Ableton Live that provides the most non‑standard experience: a companion Max For Live device is still required, and there’s an unusual (but entirely effective) scheme for getting MIDI messages out of the plug‑in and routed somewhere else.
Channels 5‑8 are out there, no question. They produce notes — or not — depending on interactions between other note lanes and the accent channel, according to a range of eight preconfigured logic functions that are arbitrarily numbered. It’s arguable whether they are ‘programmable’ in any meaningful sense, but they’re certainly a vast mine of happy rhythmic accidents. What really helps here is the bank of flashing indicators that show the note activity associated with each logic mode, for all four algorithmic channels, all the time. So you don’t have to have a clue how a pattern is produced, but if you spot one that is flashing away with the sort of density of events you might want for a hi‑hat part, say, then it’s just a case of choosing the corresponding mode and configuring the appropriate MIDI note for the channel.
A dedicated pattern sequencer for your DAW that opens up all sorts of polyrhythmic, pseudo‑random, non‑linear possibilities. Huge fun, and musically potent too.
Plug‑in £35, iOS £19.99. Prices include VAT.
Plug‑in $39.99, iOS $22.99.