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Faderfox SC4

MIDI Controller & Step Sequencer
By Paul Nagle

Faderfox SC4

The Faderfox SC4 combines a capable MIDI controller with a step sequencer in one compact box.

Faderfox are a well-established purveyor of hand-built MIDI controllers for the musician and DJ. For the last decade, this one-man operation has turned out an impressive array of portable devices in the ‘Micromodul’ line. Heralding the fourth generation of these, the Faderfox SC4 is a dual-purpose MIDI controller and step sequencer. In common with its predecessors, it’s compact, unashamedly eye-catching and at home either in a USB or MIDI hardware environment. After viewing some of the online demo videos, I simply had to (humanely) hunt one down...

Foxy Box

Call me shallow if you will, but I’ve always been attracted by good looks and flashing lights. The SC4 is constructed of lightweight (350g) but rigid plastic and has a laser-engraved metal faceplate. Eight gently notched encoders and a galaxy of LEDs promise that operation should be an uncompromised pleasure, and for the most part it is exactly that. The encoders have an integral push-button action that doubles their usefulness and each is accompanied by a crown of 10 green LEDs and a red central LED providing instant feedback in the various modes. For once I didn’t even miss having a full display and found the four-digit LCD perfectly adequate for the tasks given. The neat, petite (180 x 105 x 70 mm) package is raised at a slight angle so the controls don’t obscure any informational LEDs.

A class-compliant USB device, you can connect the SC4 to your PC, Mac or even iPad without fuss (it draws less than 500mW). No power supply is included, but any generic USB charger should work. I found my iPad charger worked just fine, but the SC4 was equally happy to suck power from my iPad Air, forming a promising portable partnership.

Hardware synth users are advised to order a second specially made MIDI lead since only one is supplied. MIDI comes in the form of two 3.5mm mini-jacks, similar to those seen on Korg, Arturia and other recent gear. Unfortunately, the adapters from my new Korg Electribe wouldn’t play ball, nor did I have any luck connecting the two instruments directly via a 3.5mm stereo cable. Clearly, there’s no standard for ‘MIDI over mini-jacks’ — the latest erosion of an ageing but still relevant protocol. Many SC4 users will choose a direct USB connection with their computer or iPad and won’t care less about anachronistic MIDI hardware or weirdly specific cables.

Controller Assignment

The first action (after watching the power-up routine’s LED workout) is to load a Setup, Faderfox’s name for a collection of encoder assignments. The SC4 contains 30 Setups, each of which has eight Groups of assignments, selected by green buttons at the bottom of the panel. The factory Setups have been prepared for general-purpose MIDI duties, sequencing and specific actions within Ableton Live 8/9, but you can tailor any (or all) of these to suit your needs. In its sequencing role, a Setup contains eight different patterns.

Loading takes place in the Edit menu, accessed by the two black shift buttons at the top of the unit. From here on, the first encoder should be treated with respect, because turning it just one notch selects a new Setup, either to work with or to edit. As of firmware version 1.02, there’s no confirmation of the Setup switch, nor are any current edits retained.

The first 16 Setups are primed for typical MIDI controller transmission and if your synth has a learn function, there’s no reason not to adopt these right away. However, if you require specific CC assignments — eg. to tweak a hardware synth — there’s no option but to dig in and edit. It’s relatively painless, just a case of setting the type of control, the MIDI channel, the control number and any preferred acceleration (for encoders) or toggle action (for buttons).

So what kind of data can be sent? Well, turning an encoder covers MIDI CCs and program changes, plus higher-resolution output such as pitch-bend and 14-bit MIDI CCs (eg. as used in Ableton’s high-resolution mode). In the current firmware there’s no provision to transmit aftertouch but this is scheduled for the next version. The button action sends simple CC on/off values (zero and 127) or notes.

Several operational sweeteners have been slipped in to assist when managing a large number of objects, for example you can assign every encoder (or button) in a Group to the same type in one go. While not as fast or visually rewarding as using a software front-end, it shouldn’t take too long to create a complete Setup, which you should instantly save by pressing encoder 1. Turn it by mistake and you’ll be sorry.

The editing process is repeated for each of the eight Groups, adding up to 128 controls within each Setup. This should be sufficient for the important bits of most soft synths, DAW mixers and hardware synths. The main issue could be remembering the functions performed by each Group since the names are fixed at GrP1-8. I found this fairly unhelpful when I began making a Setup for my Waldorf Blofeld (a powerful synth not blessed with many controls). The SC4 lacks sophistication in other ways too, for instance you can’t confine your output data to a specific range as is possible with some other controllers.

The SC4’s rear panel is a  simple affair, with just a  USB port and two mini-jack sockets for MIDI I/O.The SC4’s rear panel is a simple affair, with just a USB port and two mini-jack sockets for MIDI I/O.Faderfox supply a bundle of ready-made scripts for Ableton Live 8/9, plus three factory Setups dedicated to the ever-popular task of boosting the Live experience. A single SC4 can control up to eight tracks and the Setups provide control over volumes, pan, mutes, effects sends as well as performing clip launches, view switching and a whole raft of handy functionality. The LED crowns are updated bi-directionally, so even if you make changes outside the SC4’s control, they’re smoothly reflected back again so you’re never out of sync.

Another item tucked away in this menu is the handling of incoming MIDI data, specifically whether it should be merged with the SC4’s own output before being sent to the USB and/or mini-jack MIDI ports.

Foxtrot

The Groups have an alternate but arguably more engrossing identity, that of sequencer tracks. Setups 17-27 are defined this way in advance; select any of them and the first seven groups take on specific sequencing roles, the display offering a helpful reminder. The green LED crowns give their usual overview of the contents of each step. Starting at the first track, this means the notes played, in the range F3 to B4 (two lit LEDs indicate a black note). Pressing any encoder toggles whether its note is played or muted and this is reflected in the status of the central LED.

A step’s maximum range is 19 notes and when this isn’t far enough, you’ll need to switch to track 2, which governs the step’s octave transposition. The range is a healthy seven octaves and the transposition is enabled and defeated by pressing the step’s encoder, one of many performance tricks that shape the SC4’s special brand of sequencing.

The next track is concerned with velocity and legato, with each encoder press used to enable a legato slide into the next note. This suits synths with Minimoog-style single triggering and TB303 clones that glide when played legato-style (ie. most of them). The fourth track departs from the usual conventions of step sequencing in that it provides control over the length of each of the eight stages. In this implementation, a stage can span anywhere from one to eight clocks, where a clock equals a 32nd note. It’s capable of cool timing nuances, jumps and irregularities, as per the sequencer that inspired the SC4 in the first place (the RYK M185). By setting all steps to the same value (a feat accomplished by turning the LEN encoder while holding the left shift key), the pattern can switch to triplets or run at half or quarter speed, or double or four times the speed. Pressing an encoder skips that step, shortening the sequence.

Continuing along the row of green buttons, the fifth, Repeat, is a feature every sequencer should have. Each note can repeat at a frequency of between 1 and eight clocks, with the fastest repeats (32nd notes) ideal for instant Berlin School sequencing of a type commonly associated with Tangerine Dream. Check out their early ’80s album Thief for some classic examples of this.

Having enjoyed the fast, robotic precision of repeat, it’s time for a little uncertainty. The next track deals with the idea that patterns needn’t be identical every time they play. Right now this only relates to setting a variable probability of a note being triggered, but who knows what the future might hold? I’m hoping for random note repeats, octave shifts and legato, always assuming there’s a way to cram them into an already packed interface.

The SC4 takes the same shape as its Micromodul predecessors.The SC4 takes the same shape as its Micromodul predecessors.After the slightly exotic concept of randomness, it’s back to regular functionality for track 7 where you can sequence a MIDI CC of your choice. You might need to switch briefly into edit mode and switch the underlying CC to match your target synth, but otherwise it’s straightforward to use. Which brings us to the last track, one that isn’t involved in sequencing at all. Instead it’s a typical MIDI CC assignment map, perhaps reserved for important parameters of the synth you’re remotely triggering. If you prefer, this last track could just as easily be switched to sequence a second CC.

Whichever track type you select, the values on it can be randomised during playback to conjure up instant variations. If the results don’t impress, either randomise again or revert to the stored pattern. Incidentally, an error in the English version of the manual implies that everything, including pattern data, is saved in a Setup. This isn’t the case. Patterns must be saved separately as you go along, if you want to keep them.

Sequencer Control

With eight tracks to play with, it’s slightly surprising that the SC4 is resolutely monophonic, transmitting on a single MIDI channel (chord tracks are planned for a future update). Despite this limitation, there’s plenty to get to grips with, once you master all the key combinations. In the first of these, pressing keys seven and eight invokes Sequencer Control mode. (If you’re in any doubt, the track LEDs both remain lit and the display reads ‘SeqU’.)

In this mode the tempo is set by the first encoder, either by tapping it or turning it. Hold either shift key and 10ths of a beat per minute are available. Other encoders supply a heap of global functionality, such as setting the gate duration, overriding the pattern length, transposing, nudging, swinging and changing the direction of playback. Fortunately, all these functions are engraved on the panel, along with corresponding button actions such as enabling remote control, scale quantise, and so on.

Of the options I just breezed through, gate length refers to the note trigger time, variable between 10ms and 3 seconds. A future update promises to introduce lengths that are programmable per step. Pressing encoder two resets the pattern to the beginning, a vital manual action when you’ve been experimenting with stages of different lengths or simply wish to resync relative to other gear. The Length encoder enables you to automatically restart patterns at a specified interval. Such restarts can dramatically alter pattern playback, say by imposing fast one-clock (32nd note) repeats. If set to the maximum of 64 clocks, even patterns with odd lengths are forced to run at predictable cycles. If you’d rather leave them running freely, the function can be turned off.

If, like me, you had to browse the manual before discovering how to start the SC4, you’ll know this is achieved from SC mode by pressing encoder five. Turn it instead and the sequencer’s clock is nudged forwards or backwards, one tick at a time. While this is intended for precision lining up of notes with other devices, there’s no reason it can’t be applied creatively, say to extract a tighter feel from synths with sluggish envelopes. The sequencer can be synchronised to an external clock sourced from USB or MIDI, but when externally controlled, its own start functionality is disabled.

Swing includes half a dozen options to smooth away some of the SC4’s mechanical groove. Then we move back to pure step-sequencer tradition and adjustment of playback direction, which is either straight and predictable forwards — or backwards, pendulum or random.

The SC4 is very compact, with the front panel measuring just 180 x 105 mm.The SC4 is very compact, with the front panel measuring just 180 x 105 mm.Pressing the Direction encoder activates scale quantisation, but this is limited to just C major and C minor. C is always assumed to be the base key, and in this Faderfox is probably too close to Berlin School tradition. To play in another key, you have to add transposition with encoder four, although this isn’t automatically reflected in the values dialled in on the note track. If either scale is active, only notes that conform to it are available and, similarly, the randomisation feature I mentioned earlier will only generate notes within the selected key.

Much of the SC4’s Sequence Control functionality is accessible remotely, mapped over four octaves of MIDI notes. You can transpose patterns, change direction, length, reset the current pattern and more.

Pattern Control

I’ve long been a devotee of simple eight-step sequencers, indeed two of the sweetest synths I ever owned (the Yamaha CS30 and Oberheim TVS1) feature them. But sometimes longer can be better, and Faderfox’s inventive solution involves chaining the eight patterns of a Setup to run consecutively, forming structures of up to 64 steps.

Pattern Control mode is activated by another button combination, after which the encoders serve up pattern selection and playback. Sadly there’s no way to transpose or repeat individual patterns in the chain, but at least there’s a fast and seamless copy process. Patterns cued to play are indicated by a lit central LED, with the active pattern denoted by a tastefully flashing green orbital. You can also prepare a pattern ready for launch while others play in the background. Great stuff!

The parameters updated previously in the Sequencer Control page apply throughout the whole Setup. If you modify the direction, it is therefore enforced instantly on all patterns. This keeps things simple but feels limiting at the same time. Interestingly, when multiple patterns are selected for chained play, the chain direction also conforms to the global direction, which is another neat tool for performance.

Conclusion

Faderfox have built their reputation on good-quality compact controllers, but the move into sequencing feels like a natural extension. The SC4 borrows some of its character from the RYK M185 step sequencer, a user project for Roland’s System 100M (which also spawned the Intellijel Metropolis eurorack sequencer). Its framework of eight-by-eight stages is unusual and thanks to a number of innovative features, the result is a more complex sequencer than you might expect and one with clear leanings towards a golden era of Teutonic grooves. However, due to its monophonic nature, the SC4 is unlikely to be your sole sequencer, at least in a hardware environment. During the review period I used it with great effect to drive a Roland Jupiter 6, U-he’s Diva and Arturia’s iSEM. Thanks to its size and weight, it’s a superb controller for iOS apps in general.

As you’d expect, it’s also a capable MIDI controller generating notes, CCs and program changes, for example. While it’s a pity there’s no friendly software front-end, this won’t be an issue if you’re able to make use of the factory assignments or Ableton Live Setups. For hardware synth editing, you might have to resort to keeping notes.

The SC4 is not cheap but it crams more controller and sequencer power than seems believable in so small a space. Once you learn your way around, it becomes a visually excellent live, interactive tool. Apart from a few idiosyncrasies (and its 3.5mm MIDI sockets), the SC4 is brilliant fun from start to finish.

Alternatives

These are exciting times for step sequencer lovers. Arturia’s Beatstep is another sequencer/controller combination that includes a set of drum pads and CV output for your analogue gear. It’s cheaper, its sequencing more simplistic and it lacks a hardware MIDI input but has a wider scale selection and could prove sufficient for the sequencer-curious. A more traditional (and expensive) option, Doepfer’s Dark Time can sequence your CV/MIDI/USB gear and be a basic MIDI controller box too, at a push. Finally, the closest rival could be a two-pronged assault from the Behringer BCR2000 controller and the user-hacked additional personality Zasequencer from ZAQ Audio.

Pros

  • Innovative sequencing with a Berlin School vibe.
  • Equally at home driving soft synths or MIDI hardware.
  • A very compact MIDI controller.
  • Quality construction.

Cons

  • Not cheap.
  • Sequencer is monophonic.
  • MIDI via special cables.

Summary

A powerful sequencer and controller combination that’s tiny, lovely, but priced to deter casual interest.

Published June 2015