Erica’s Black Sequencer combines ambitious functionality with some of the best knobs money can buy.
The Black Sequencer has been a long time coming. You get the impression that Erica Synths had some challenges to get over while wanting to release the most extraordinary sequencer they could possibly manage. I’ve had one from since about a month before the official release. From that time to now, a month after release, I have had numerous firmware updates from Erica’s chief of vision Girts bringing more and more functionality. The last one I deliberately waited for before writing this review contained the Record modes which enable the CV and MIDI inputs on the front panel. Girts says they’ve packed it with as many ideas as they could come up with without resorting to tiresome menu diving or too much double‑trouble button combinations. The result is that it’s spilling over with a festival of features and could well be the party your rack has been waiting for.
First, the knobs. These are deliciously turnable sculpted treacle toffees that click meaningfully beneath your fingers like you’re trying to crack a safe. With encoders you come to expect a bit of wobble but these are rock‑solid nodules of Bakelite that you can twist with full force to leap from value to value and dial in parameters. The clicks are not just for fun either, they relate to a semitone change in pitch or a 10‑percent increase in Gate, something you can feel while you’re engaged with something else and not looking at the display for confirmation. They have multiple uses in showing steps, manipulating data, navigation, and a firm push turns things on and off. They are fabulous; Erica Synths have aced it on the knob front.
The knobs are only half the story and make up only half the module. The other half is a cluster of patch points above and a cluster of buttons beneath the centralised glow of a remarkably lovely black‑and‑white OLED screen next to a lone but powerful Data knob.
The display is quite brilliant while flirting on the edge of being too small. It can show you the state of all 16 knobs with a clarity that only needs a glimpse while every time you move something a single parameter throws itself up large so you know exactly what’s being changed. The well‑designed labelling and icons give you enough information and even when things get tiny it still manages to be wonderfully clear.
The screen pulls you in and definitely takes your focus away from anything else. It can be a bit transfixing. The knobs become the means by which you manipulate the screen rather than the interface themselves, which was not what I was expecting. So while the knob interface feels fantastic it’s all there to serve the screen, reminding you that this is a digital machine and that may not be to everyone’s taste
So, what can it do? The Black Sequencer is a four‑channel CV/MIDI sequencer with 12 possible analogue outcomes mirrored over MIDI. Each channel has a CV, Gate and Mod output where the Mod outputs are multifunctional and although related to their channel they don’t have to work with it — they can be off doing something else. Each channel can have its own length up to 64 steps, direction and time division of the master clock.
The Black Sequencer is a four‑channel CV/MIDI sequencer with 12 possible analogue outcomes mirrored over MIDI. Each channel has a CV, Gate and Mod output...
The CV outputs are all about notes and these can be quantised to a chosen scale although they can be released into microtones if you wish. The emphasis is firmly on musical notes rather than free‑flowing voltage and the display only ever gives you note names with a ‘+‑’ indication if it’s microtonally flat or sharp. You can add a good dose of glide per step to enforce some more freeform movement.
The Gate outputs have a lot more going on. The Gate for each step can have its own length, probability, ratchet, number of repeats, arpeggiator and microtiming. Switching between each mode gives you what the current 16 steps are up to on the display and the knobs become data encoders for whatever it is you’re doing. It’s very easy to navigate and keep track of everything. If you need to see more than the first 16 steps then the Bar buttons will keep you in the right place. That was perhaps one of the things hardest to see when trying to make changes on the fly. While it tells you exactly which of the four bars you are on in the bottom right corner it’s not always obvious at a glance.
Arpeggiating is properly amusing. You can allocate one of many arpeggiating modes to each step. Now, you’re not holding a chord so it takes the liberty of deciding on the notes for you. These tend to be trills going up from the step’s note in a variety of scales (these will be editable in a future update). The number of notes are that played within the step is tied to the Ratchet number. It can set in this mode by holding shift while turning the step encoder. The arpeggiator probably has an earnest intent, but I can’t keep a straight face because it’s just so much fun and adds a load of chiptune‑style interest and joy to any sequence beyond your usual ratcheting.
From the initial idea of being a modulation track the Mod outputs have evolved into all sorts of things. You can do the regular modulation thing in stepped or sloped voltage levels for each step displayed as a plus and minus bar graph. But if you hold the Setup button while pressing MOD you get a bumper pack of other intriguing possibilities.
It can act as a whole other note‑sequencing lane. It can generate Decay envelopes or ASR envelopes set individually per step or produce a master ADSR envelope. It can be an LFO or can have different LFOs per step which I’ve found to be quite quirky and fun rather than seriously useful. And maybe most importantly it can become a trigger sequencer. It’s important because unlike a few other four‑channel sequencers the Black Sequencer does not have a dedicated drum section. Turn the Mod tracks into trigger sequencers and you have the possibility of running four melodic channels and four percussive ones. The Mod tracks are tied to their channel though. Increasing the pattern length of your tune on channel 1 will increase the length of the Mod track. Similarly, if you play with the excellent Mute and Solo performance controls the Mod track will Mute and Solo along with the CV/Gate tracks. The whole Mod section adds in a lot of versatility that you don’t normally see and while not entirely independent they bring a lot to the game.
There’s no special MIDI functionality, it’s not polyphonic and doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve when connected to a DAW. You get pitch, note on/off, changeable velocity and a chosen CC# for the Mod output and it all simply behaves and moves in the same easy workflow as the analogue sequencing does split over four MIDI channels. Both MIDI and CV outputs work simultaneously so you could combine your MIDI and CV sound sources.
Everything has randomisation built in these days but few do it by pulling a rabbit from a hat. The Magic button is the Black Sequencer’s roll of a dice. Hold it down and press anything and it will totally destroy whatever you have programmed there. It’s the sort of function that would benefit from an Undo option, but Erica Synths suggested I should reload the pattern — so make sure your pattern is saved before you mess with the Magic. Fortunately, in the settings you can rein in the range of the Magic button and have it make less dramatic changes. This gives you some instant pattern generation and a useful way of adding variation to any function you like.
Something that didn’t make it in the first version of the firmware was the input and recording functions and this opens up a whole other way of interacting via the connection of a keyboard. Plug it in via CV or MIDI and you can affect what’s being played or record directly into the sequencer.
In Input Mode you can ‘Fill’ in notes over the sequence or ‘Add’ voltage with a keypress which essentially transposes the sequencer. There’s also a slightly weird combination of the two where it only transposes as you hold a note which also gives you one long gate. You can also set it to ‘Thru’, turning it into a useful MIDI‑to‑CV converter.
In Record mode you can record a live sequence, overdub on existing notes in a loop, step record or choose a step and press a key to give it that note. You can turn quantisation on or off although it’s inevitably contained inside some sort of grid even when being captured microtonally because this is a step sequencer. There’s no metronome built in, although it’s easy enough to kick out a bunch of triggers to something percussive. They do offer a bpm‑relevant flashing record button on the display when recording, which is at least some help. Trying to pull off a precise live recording takes some practice, but there are all sorts of fun to be had in Overdub mode.
At the time of writing the Mod Input is not working yet but it will provide freeform modulation recording in a future update.
You can store 16 songs of 16 banks of 16 patterns in a project on the SD card. The patterns of your current bank are represented by the 16 knobs and can trigger with a push. Hold the Pattern button down and you can chain up a bunch and let it go. To carve out something more precise you can program a whole string of patterns in Song mode.
You can alter everything on the fly so you can get stuck into rotating sequences, changing lengths, gates and throwing Magic about the place safe in the knowledge that patterns are not overwritten until you physically save them. There are a few performance tools, though. You can Mute/Solo the tracks with the press of a button and you can go into the Perform mode by pressing Shift‑Magic. This turns the first 12 knobs into a little keyboard where you can transpose all or some of the tracks and the bottom row of knobs become ratchet fills, one for each track. There’s also a function where you can select various patterns of notes in your sequencer via a twist of the Data knob and apply Magic to them for instant variations. Combined with Input modes and Record Overdub there’s a lot of scope for improvisation.
For me, it’s the best hardware modular sequencer I’ve ever used in or out of the rack.
Erica Synths have poured everything they can think of into the Black Sequencer and it’s positively glowing with functionality. It’s immediately playable, musical and offers an analogue feel over a digital engine. Although it comes with a very welcome and detailed 23‑page manual, you can accomplish all your usual sequencing tasks just by fiddling about. Well‑labelled buttons reveal expected parameters with clear information and so you find yourself making music quickly and easily; you never have to go hunting for anything. The knobs feel brilliant, the display has a well‑thought‑out clarity and the modulation outputs constantly surprise you with creative possibilities. You could totally run your whole rig and perform it with this sequencer.
The lack of a dedicated drum section is perhaps the only thing that might make people look at other sequencers that do. Erica Synths would probably suggest pairing it up with their Drum Sequencer if you wanted to do it properly. For me, it’s the best hardware modular sequencer I’ve ever used in or out of the rack.
- Very musical.
- Best encoders I’ve ever turned.
- Multiple modulation modes.
- Fun per‑step arpeggiation.
- Magic functions on everything.
- Could run your whole rig.
- No dedicated drum section.
- You are mostly working on a screen.
- I’d quite like two.
Erica Synths deliver four channels of CV/MIDI sequencing and versatile modulation with style, vitality and favourable knobs in the Eurorack‑based Black Sequencer.