Genoqs take a unique approach to hardware sequencing, as we've seen before from their Octopus sequencer. Now they're back with a smaller and far more affordable model: the Nemo.
In 2007 I encountered one of the most jaw‑droppingly sexy hardware sequencers yet made: the Genoqs Octopus. My gear lust was aroused, but after scouring every bank account and coat pocket, all I could put together was a teary farewell as the review ended. Music is a big part of my life but spending over 2000 Euros to expand my hardware sequencer collection was (and is) a step too far.
I'm glad to report that Genoqs have followed up their flagship with a smaller, lighter and more portable model. This one even makes (passing) concessions to affordability — and the only discernibly fishy element is its name: Nemo.
Labelled a MIDI Performance Sequencer, one glance is enough to reveal the Nemo's Octopussy heritage. There's no wood on this occasion and the panel is more compact — but those smooth, blue aluminium contours are eminently strokable and just as classy in their own right. The Nemo can be played from any flat surface but I predict its fondle factor will earn it a place on many laps. Incidentally, the external power adaptor inspires more confidence than is usual for the breed, but it can still be yanked out in moments of carelessness.
Twin MIDI In and Out ports are provided as standard — a great feature of the Octopus that, amongst other uses, facilitates recording of MIDI notes at one input while synchronised to MIDI clock via the other. Having twin USB connections sounds equally promising too, but for the time being only one of these has been exploited — to host a USB light. Although this is not supplied, a trip to my local 'Everything For A Pound' shop swiftly yielded an LED‑based snake model that looks great and illuminates the panel text perfectly. Suddenly low‑light operation seemed feasible.
As our pictures show, the Nemo is a rare and idiosyncratic creature. Like its older sibling, it has no conventional display. Instead, when numerical values are needed they're presented as bar-graphs on the panel's matrix of tri‑colour LEDs. And for data entry duties or performing live tweaks, nine shiny encoders, incremented subtly, are precise, yet speedy. There are usually several ways to arrive at the same result, so if a value can be set by an encoder, it can often be dialled in directly from the panel; the user interface boasts over 90 positive‑clicking silver ball‑bearings that serve as switches.
Before starting our Nemo adventure, it's worth revisiting the SOS review of the Octopus from March 2007 to establish a few key principles. Genoqs machines aren't like other step sequencers: instead of a potentiometer with which to set the value of each step, they take an object‑based approach involving offsets to attributes such as pitch, velocity, length and so on. Thus, making a sequence from scratch is a matter of selecting a note, or notes, then turning the relevant encoder — for example, 'Pit', which is used to offset the pitch of your selection. By continuing in this way, swift changes can be applied to pitch, velocity, length and note start point. The four unlabelled encoders on the Nemo's left-hand side aren't neglected either: they make equivalent adjustments to currently unselected notes. Finally, there's a single encoder for tempo adjustment. This takes on a secondary role within many 'deeper editing' tasks — one of generic data entry.
With a machine like this, there's no substitute for hands‑on practice; perhaps in acknowledgement, Genoqs have opted to present the manual in the form of a 'Navigation Guide'. Settling down to read, I was instantly reminded of those exotic foreign holidays where, instead of exploring ancient temples and mysterious bazaars by yourself, you are tied to the pre‑determined route of some flag‑carrying local. Bristling with terminology, yet lacking either an index or sufficient practical examples, I found the Guide hard going.
Happily, the Genoqs team and other enthusiasts are keen to answer questions and generally dispense wisdom via their web site and regular forum updates. Visiting this site is worthwhile for us too, because it offers detailed comparisons between the Nemo and the Octopus. The functional differences are mostly those imposed by the size of the panel, as this defines what the user interface can deliver. To this end, the number of tracks that can play simultaneously has received the biggest pruning of all: down to 16 from 90. However, many similarities remain — not least because both sequencers share common OS revisions and are developed in parallel. So if some features have not yet percolated through, it could be that Genoqs are still pondering how best to shoe‑horn them into the user interface.
The Nemo's highest level of operation is known as Grid Mode. Think of this as an interactive musical arrangement comprising 64 pages arranged in four rows of 16. Each row can have one active page, and since every page contains four tracks of musical data, a maximum of 16 simultaneous tracks are available. If you'd like a selection of pages to play in series, activate 'page clustering'. Adjacent pages will then play consecutively, each repeating up to 16 times before advancing to the next. Cluster boundaries are marked using empty pages, which is fine until you begin to run out of free pages, when it suddenly seems quite wasteful.
Dedicated Mute buttons are used to toggle the output of each row. For greater precision, a second mode is required — Grid Track mode. Switch into this mode and a 4x4 grid of red and green LEDs springs into life, dynamically representing the mute status of all 16 tracks. This is a very powerful tool that is capable of overriding mute information stored in every page. I learned to be especially careful when page clustering was active, because it's very easy to wipe the mute status of many tracks on many pages. And if you do, there's no going back!
Should you wish to take on‑the‑fly backups, a snapshot facility is provided. It's ideal for those times when you just know a mistake is imminent. Taking a snapshot memorises the contents of the currently‑playing pages (but not the entire machine) and should you later wish to return to that point, a double click retrieves the stored data. However, some clicking precision is required, since a single click will make all the post‑snapshot changes permanent. Alas, my personal ESP ability is slightly impaired of late, so I'd have preferred a simple Undo instead, especially as there are already adequate copy/paste facilities for tracks and pages.
I won't get embroiled in all the different modes of operation, but Page Mode is worth a look because it offers the closest analogue to old‑school sequencing. We've already seen that every Nemo page contains four tracks. Each track may be up to 16 steps long and is endowed with a base set of attributes: pitch, velocity, note length and so on. Thus, when you enable any step by pressing its button, the note generated will initially possess those attributes. Each track has a specific destination channel and MIDI port, a choice of five directions, and a wide range of clock divisions enabling it to run at anything from sloth pace to amphetamine frenzy. For greater flexibility, tracks can be chained together, up to a maximum length of 64 steps. Cast your mind back to page clustering for a moment and imagine all 16 pages of a row playing in series — the gateway to monster sequences of up to 1024 (16 x 64) steps!
If you require shorter tracks, the Mute button comes into play. Hold Mute at the same time as a step button and that step is marked red and will be skipped on each pass. This technique of altering track length becomes rather cumbersome when you do it regularly, and can result in lots of button‑pushing. I note from the Genoqs forum that a way to reinstate the track length attribute (seen in an earlier Octopus OS) is being considered, and I'd welcome that.
Step‑based sequencers are designed for interaction; they're not about reproducing complete songs while you grapple with an unused knob on your mixer and bask in the adulation. The Nemo is packed to the gills with tools to bring sequencer performance to life. As there are way more of these than we can cover in depth, I'm going to opt for a blunderbuss approach and hit you with a cross‑section of my favourites. In no particular order...
Scanning the Nemo's panel, you should spot a series of waveform‑like squiggles printed along the bottom row. These are preset envelopes — or 'Flow Shapes' — and their job is to add movement to a track's attributes and generally spice up your sequences. I set a track's MCC (MIDI Continuous Controller) number to correspond to my chosen synth's filter cutoff. I was then able to easily distinguish each of the nine shapes (the one marked '??' is for future use) and hear the effects. The flow shape's output is scaled using the main encoder so you can use the function to produce small, subtle changes — if subtle is your bag. Once you know what to expect, applying flow shapes to other attributes — velocity or note length, for example — can effortlessly change the feel of a vanilla pattern of notes.
Force To Scale
If you want to experiment freely without generating the gratingly atonal, 'Force To Scale' is your friend. It does exactly what you'd expect — i.e forces any notes the Nemo produces to conform to the chosen scale. Four scales may be stored for quick retrieval and each is fully editable. Although there's no way to tie pages to specific scales (the selected scale applies globally), you can at least set FTS off for individual pages — particularly important when playing drum kits. External MIDI input can be filtered through FTS too, by merely arming a track for record.
Although the Nemo is really a step‑based sequencer, you can record directly into either of its MIDI inputs — and with a surprising amount of feel thanks to an internal resolution of 192ppqn. As note start points are recognised track attributes, you have full control over them — either before or after recording. Thus you can (non‑destructively) quantise real time performances, shift individual steps or pull (or push) entire tracks against the rest for spookily effective shifts. If this isn't enough, MIDI controller information and chords can be recorded too.
Track Effectors are Genoqs' implementation of track cross‑modulation. The mechanism consists of two switches for each track, denoting whether the track is a 'Feeder', a 'Listener', or both. Feeder tracks supply their value offsets to any lower‑numbered Listener tracks which may, in turn modulate attributes on tracks further down the line. Clearly, this is one area where the Octopus, with its 10 tracks per page, still reigns supreme. That said, even four pages of cross‑modulation can lead to pleasantly chaotic, evolving patterns — especially when you start to mix tracks that have different speeds, directions or lengths. Force To Scale is a great partner for this function, as effector offsets to pitch can be kept safely within the currently chosen scale.
Step Events offer yet more ways to insert automated changes to note or track attributes. You can end up in pretty crazy territory, though, especially when you use Step Events to modulate track direction or to introduce incremented pitch offsets into tracks that are already cross‑modulating each other via the Effector mechanism. The Remix function is used to create further variations in a track, mildly scrambling several attributes each time you use it.
The Nemo contains three banks of 16 preset phrases waiting to be triggered on any step of any track. Phrases include arpeggios, note delays and 'unpredictable' variations to pitch, velocity and note starting point. Compression may be applied, so that their notes fire out at normal speed on one step, and like bullets on another. If you're seeking more of those instant tricks to perk up a limp sequence, step phrases come highly recommended. It's envisaged that some means of editing the phrases will appear in the future, as is already possible on the Octopus.
To make better use of the available tracks, you can mix down the contents of several onto a single track. With typical Genoqs contrariness, this function is known as Track Flat (or FLT) and, other than the limitation that individual track speed, channel and direction are lost in the migration to the host track, it's a valuable way to cram in more data.
Typically, with step sequencers, you wait patiently for each step to be reached before hearing what it contains. The Nemo has a splendid audition feature that is also a performance trick in its own right. When you're in Page mode, a press of the Edit button changes the way steps behave, so that whenever a step button is pressed, the step's MIDI data is transmitted. If the step contains a chord, hey presto — you can trigger that too. I haven't mentioned the Nemo's transport buttons until now (they're present, and they do exactly what you expect), but if you hold down a track button and the pause button at the same time, an individual track can be paused while the other tracks continue. In that way you could prepare a static track full of chords, or maybe step phrases, ready for manual launching whenever you need them.
The four encoders of the 'Mix' block can be drafted in to control external devices. There are four banks of these MIDI controller assignments (A‑D) to call on, and if this isn't enough, the four Edit encoders can send CC data to tracks 1-4 as well.
In this review I've concentrated on what the Nemo is capable of, glossing over the finer points of navigation and the various operational modes. Mastery of such a complex instrument doesn't come overnight. This is partly because so much power is concealed behind that smooth blue panel, but it's also because the manual's fixed path to enlightenment doesn't offer easy ways to dip in when you're trying to achieve something specific. However, once I overcame that obstacle I was rewarded by a genuinely fresh musical experience.
Most hardware step sequencers were conceived in humble reverence to the sequencer gods Moog and ARP. I'm the last person to understate the influence of those legendary voltage dispensers, but technology moves on and Genoqs have bravely selected their own path — which they're travelling in style! Previously I complained about the lack of a display, but I won't be making an issue of it again. The interface is a deliberate choice and its strengths and weaknesses are self‑evident. I'll happily concede that an LED‑based display contributes to the Nemo's striking looks, and even enhances the aura of mystery.
Given Genoqs' track record of updates and enhancements, the future promises further delights. Apparently the user‑editing of track directions and step phrases are high on the to‑do list and a new function, Hypersteps, is in the pipeline too. Hardware sequencer aficionados get excited by stuff like that — even before they know the details. Or is that just me?
Summing up is no easy matter. This is, after all, a high-quality instrument and therefore neither cheap nor an impulse buy. I could catalogue remarkable abilities until the clown fish came home but it wouldn't change the fact that the Nemo isn't for everyone. Let's face it, performing with sequencers isn't for everyone. But if you couldn't quite stretch to an Octopus or if you're a little geeky, experimentally‑minded or simply looking for that elusive something to kick‑start your creativity, the Nemo is way more than a flash in the pan.
Nobody does it quite like Genoqs — but another German sequencer, Manikin Electronic's Schrittmacher, springs to mind as a similarly priced (if more conventional) step sequencer. The Schrittmacher has 16 rotary encoders, twin MIDI outputs, a 240 x 128 display and 32 freely configurable parameter lines.
Staying in Germany a little longer, there's one more alternative to consider: the much cheaper and more traditionally‑styled Doepfer MAQ16/3. With its three rows of 16 knobs, this baby has much in common with analogue sequencers of old — it even has CV and Gate outputs, as well as MIDI. Although very hands‑on, it doesn't really cover the esoteric delights that are Genoqs' domain.
One final sequencer that deserves a mention is Yamaha's Tenori‑On — that cute little flashing, bleeping square of fun that, as well as having an internal sound chip, can drive external MIDI instruments. Like the Genoqs line, Tenori‑On dares to stray beyond the 'row of knobs' mentality; it's simpler and more immediate than the Nemo but can still be a useful ideas generator, as well as a fun performance instrument in its own right.
When I reviewed the Genoqs Octopus, it had no means of offloading or restoring musical data. This has long since been remedied; you'll be pleased to know that backing up the Nemo is as straightforward as connecting a MIDI cable to your computer and squirting a dollop of SysEx at it. Backup becomes important pretty quickly because the Nemo has no concept of 'songs'; any musical connection between pages is for you to establish and memorise. For simplicity, I tended to treat the Nemo's entire contents as the components of one song. I'd therefore love to see that unexploited USB port brought into play, perhaps as a means to quickly access individual pages — or the entire machine state — from a USB memory stick.
Finally you should always back up your work to internal flash before powering off. The Nemo doesn't save as it goes along, so in this respect it should be treated like a computer. Stop the music and perform the simple backup process from time to time. That way, if you fall over and yank the power adaptor out, you won't lose two hours worth of magnificent, ever‑changing, never‑to‑be‑recreated Steve Reich impersonations...
• 64 pages (patterns).
• Four tracks per page, with 16 steps each.
• Four concurrent pages (ie. 16 concurrent tracks).
• Control over velocity, pitch, length and start points, MIDI channel and MIDI Continuous Controller data for each track.
• Individual and editable runtime directions for each track.
• Polyphonic steps of up to seven notes (*chords or multi-trigger).
• Track self-modulation, via step events.
• Cross-modulation of tracks (via the Effector).
• 32 MIDI channels via two dedicated MIDI ports.
*Each step can hold a seven‑note chord, recorded in real time or entered manually, but there are restrictions caused by the way data is displayed. Genoqs represent note values by LED colours, and just three colours are available. This translates to a three‑octave span for the notes of your chord (each octave gets its own colour) and means each note can only be used once. Still, chords are a major plus, and a strumming feature can be used to break up the chord rhythmically, in an upwards or downwards direction.