If you want a unique approach to hardware sequencing or a charming accessory for the bridge of your alien mothership, the Genoqs Octopus could be just what you're looking for...
It's increasingly rare to find fresh, radical new studio products — especially in hardware. The emphasis seems to be giving you more of this, or a cheaper version of that. If, like me, you grow bored of this safe, conservative direction, you'll be glad to know that at least some pioneering spirit remains out there. Let me present the Genoqs Octopus — a vision of loveliness currently upstaging everything else in my studio and to which all my recent visitors have found themselves drawn, often drooling.
The first question is easy to anticipate: what is it? The short (and wholly unsatisfactory) answer is 'a MIDI hardware sequencer'. The longer answer is, of course, this review, but beware, the complete story could involve a lifetime of exploration...
The Octopus is a beautifully crafted instrument set in red beech, painted and lacquered to produce a high-quality finish. The large (630 x 270mm) front panel is slimline and gently angled; the tapered wooden framework is attached to a rear control box by an industrial strength cable concealed underneath. This control box contains the internal, auto-sensing 110/220V power supply, twin MIDI inputs and outputs, a USB connector (currently unused) and a port intended for USB-powered snake lamps, which you can drape over the panel when working in low-light conditions.
As user interfaces go, the Octopus seems a cut above casually strewn adjectives such as innovative, bold or unusual. With no less than 258 push-buttons, 21 endless encoders and that amazing panel of tri-colour LEDs, this cephalopod deserves its own classification. There is no conventional display or screen; instead all information, every numeric value, each and every parameter, is represented using LEDs. If this type of interface stirs any memories, perhaps you recall another remarkable hardware sequencer from 1997, the Latronic Notron. Although this too eschewed conventions such as a display and employed similarly styled buttons and some comparable functions, these sequencers are unrelated except in the broadest sense.
On power-up, you are presented with a burst of information, courtesy of LEDs in red, green or orange — some of which may be blinking. At first this is bewildering, given the size and complexity of the panel, but with a little familiarity things do start to make sense.
The panel is divided into two halves: the large 10x16 matrix on the left-hand side where the bulk of play time will be spent, and the circle of buttons and LEDs that contain the transport and Mode controls, plus chord and scale functions on the right.
Understanding the Octopus's various modes is key to being able to navigate quickly and effectively. The first of these to greet you, represented by a flashing orange Mode LED, is Page Mode. The Octopus can hold up to 144 pages of musical data, each page containing up to 10 tracks of up to 16 steps. Don't leap to any conclusions about the number of simultaneous tracks or events that this represents — or even the maximum length of any particular phrase or sequence: we'll get to that shortly. For now, let's focus on what a single Page offers, as this allows a gentle introduction to some of the sequencer's unique features.
It's good to start with something familiar — so I quickly located the transport icons and hit play. In response, a row of 10 red 'chaser' LEDs began marching across the matrix, one LED per track. Tempo adjustment is via the unlabelled rotary encoder at the top right-hand corner of the panel and is your baptism into the world of Genoqs' LED-based data displays. As you turn the encoder, the LEDs around the outer circle act as a kind of bar graph, with green, red and orange representing values of between one and 199 bpm. Tempo may be set directly by clicking the buttons next to each LED, with double clicking employed to set units of 10. If this seems a little hard to visualise, it's actually not so bad when in use — at least in the calm unhurried environment of the studio.
For my first taste of Octopus, I connected a synth to MIDI output 1 and activated some of the steps in the matrix — by pushing buttons. These buttons consist of small steel ball-bearings with a positive, audible click. Each button-press within the matrix causes an LED to light green, generating a note whenever the chaser light passes that step. Press it again: the LED goes out and the step is silent. Steps can also be skipped by pressing the step and MUT buttons simultaneously. Anyone familiar with analogue step sequencers will soon grasp this, although, unlike other such devices, you don't set each step's pitch with a dedicated knob.
Every Octopus track stores base values for pitch, velocity and so on, which offers definite advantages for creating certain types of sequence. For example, when triggering notes of a drum kit, each track represents an individual voice, with the matrix displaying up to 10 of these simultaneously. When creating musical sequences, you may prefer independent control of each step's values. There are several techniques to achieve this. The first of these serves as a useful introduction to a commonly used Octopus concept: zooming in and out.
To zoom in to an individual step, you simply double-click the relevant step button. The matrix display changes and now provides detailed information about that particular step, ripe for editing. At the same time, the Step LED flashes orange, to remind you that the mode has changed to Step mode (orange is a colour generally used to indicate when a mode or function is active). After any zoom operation, the Esc(ape) button is on hand to return you to the previous page. For now, we'll do just that because I want to mention a faster, simpler way to adjust pitch: holding down a step button whilst turning the Pitch encoder (labelled PIT). The encoder is stepped so that you can feel the adjustments in semitones and turning it applies an offset — negative or positive — to the track's base pitch. This method works for an entire track too — simply hold down the button to the left of the track, in the column marked 'SEL' and turn the PIT encoder. Voilà, the whole track is transposed. As you delve deeper into the Octopus, you encounter this object-oriented approach frequently, whether in the context of notes, tracks or whole pages.
The other Edit encoders work in the same way — thus you can tweak individual events such as velocity or note length, or make sweeping changes to an entire track (direction of playback, for example), its MIDI channel, and more. Within minutes you can conjour up elaborate multitimbral patterns, each of up to 16 steps.
Suppose you want to create longer patterns? Here you look for the orange LED that represents 'Track Chaining'. There are four different chain modes on offer, enabling you to choose 10 tracks of 16 steps, one long chain of 128 steps over eight tracks (two tracks being unused), two chains of 64 steps or four chains of 32 steps.
The software version reviewed here is v0.98 and Genoqs state that when they reach version 1.0 they will make the code open source, so that programmers can tweak the operating system, or totally rewrite it. Open Source code is not a new idea but it offers a kind of immortality that jealously protecting every line of code can never achieve. This is a brave step, so I wanted to include a few words from Genoqs' Gabriel Seher:
"The motivation is first to let Octopus live on, long after we have lost motivation or interest or any other necessary mental resources to carry on with development. For example, if OSC [Open Sound Control] is going to be the big thing, anyone with the right skill may pick up where we left off and carry on. Or maybe someone wants to use the Octopus surface to control something else or in a different way — the possibilities are endless."
The next release (v0.99) appeared just as I was finalising this review; it features additional track cycle modes, user-editable track directions and more.
Once comfortable with Page mode, it's time to zoom out a little — because the Octopus offers much more than a single page of tracks to play with. In fact, it can handle arrangements in which up to nine pages are active and if each of those pages has 10 tracks, that adds up to 90 tracks playing at once!
One press of the Grid button transforms the matrix once more: this time into an overview of all 144 pages. In this mode, a green LED represents a page that is currently playing, while a red LED informs us that the page contains data but is inactive. Clearly, 144 pages is a lot and even the best organised amongst us could be forgiven for failing to remember the contents of some (or most) of them. In answer to this, row zero of the matrix provides a special aide mémoire in the form of 16 'Page Sets'. These locations store combinations of pages you wish to play together, so you could treat them as 16 separate songs, if you like.
If the maximum of 128 steps in a single page still isn't enough, Grid Mode offers the opportunity to play pages in sequence. As you might imagine, this 'Page Cluster' technique quickly seduces you into producing highly complex arrangements, especially as each page in the matrix may be repeated up to 16 times.
With many tools and tricks on offer, you are bound to occasionally generate notes that are out of key. To combat this, each page can be confined to the notes of a particular musical scale. A series of example scales is provided but you can also create your own for every page.
This is fine if you're working with individual pages, but what about when you play lots of pages simultaneously? With no overview of the keys your pages were originally recorded in, it could be a source of major (or minor) discord when you, deliberately or accidentally, select pages that conflict. Fortunately, a Grid-level scale can be imposed, overriding any that may be in action already. The only downside of this is that all tracks will be affected — there is no means of excluding percussion tracks, say. And as we all know, a semitone shift for a drum kit can mean the difference between a manly kick and a girly rimshot.
Having zoomed out to the universe-like structure of Grid Mode, let's return to the opposite end of the scale and briefly consider the fine details of individual data. I mentioned that in Step Mode the matrix represents the data of a single step, tweakable via the curved row of Edit encoders. Many of the abbreviations for these encoders are obvious; for example, the MCC encoder represents a MIDI Continuous Controller whilst STA represents the step's start value. The Octopus has a resolution of 1/192 of a note, so the STA encoder becomes very useful when pushing or pulling a step forwards or backwards in time. This is not something you can typically control to this degree on a step-based sequencer.
Another rarity for such sequencers is the capacity to send chords. The Octopus can transmit chords of up to seven notes on each step, with some sophisticated strumming options offered to break things up. When viewed from Page Mode, a step containing a chord is shown in orange.
Finally, in order to inject variation into your looping patterns, steps can generate incremental changes — adding or subtracting a value on each pass. So your sequence could get gradually higher in pitch, eventually wrapping round the entire MIDI range or constrained within specified limits. These limits only apply to note pitch or velocity, though. It would have been handy to restrict other values too, such as MIDI channel or MIDI Continuous Controller value.
Most often with the Octopus, you perform actions on multiple events at once, the most common grouping being an entire track. There are many Track attributes over which you have control, including obvious ones like velocity and pitch, but also the track's MIDI channel and output port, start point, length and direction. The five directions on offer are forward, reverse, ping-pong, random and Brownian (2:3 probability forward, 1:3 probability reverse).
To generate new material, tracks can be randomised, remixed (creating a 'mild' variation of the track) or their values toggled (active steps becoming inactive and vice versa). Before trying these functions, it's worth learning about the so-called Play Mode. Play Mode is poorly named because it actually means 'take a snapshot of the current page'. This is invaluable prior to making any edits that you later wish to undo. Simply press play and perform your wildest actions. If they turn out well, hit the 'Program' button to keep them; if not, hit the play button a second time to restore things to how they were. It isn't exactly intuitive but is well worth having!
Instead of randomising values to obtain something new, you may wish to generate shifting sequences that evolve over long time frames. This is the province of the Track Effector, a process whereby tracks can influence one another. Briefly, you decide whether tracks feed values into the Effector or listen to its output. The Track Effector gathers data in a downwards direction, so tracks you've chosen as feeder tracks should be higher than those designated as listeners. In this way, pitch, length or velocity shifts are used to transpose those attributes in tracks lower down the pecking order. Probably the most interesting results are experienced when employing tracks of different lengths, because the transpositions occur at different places on each pass. Similarly, tracks that run at different divisions of the main clock yield further variations.
I've held off mentioning it until now, but each track's tempo can run at different multiples of the main clock. Rates from 7x down to 1/7 speed are offered. Indeed, track playback is highly flexible: tracks can be paused independently, stepped through manually and even started manually — which can be risky if your timing isn't spot on. Fortunately, if everything becomes mad and chaotic, you can realign all tracks with the ALN (align) button.
There simply isn't space to cover every aspect of such a complex, specialised piece of kit. I would, however, like to mention Preview mode, because this is a rarely-seen means of auditioning a step manually rather than waiting for the chase light to zip past. Clicking the EDIT button makes its LED turns red; then when you press buttons in the matrix, the events are sent out instantly. You could therefore prepare pages containing notes, chords or controllers primed for manual triggering — all you need is a good memory for the contents of each page and each step!
One last thing to bear in mind is that saving your work is not done automatically. It is also one of the few tasks for which you must stop the music. A save operation takes about five seconds and you need to be careful not to lose power whilst this is happening. This is an instrument that may benefit from a surge protector or even a UPS, especially as there is currently no means of backing up or restoring your patterns via a MIDI System Exclusive dump — a scary omission that Genoqs assure me will be sorted for version 1.0.
The Octopus is a powerful step-based sequencer but this doesn't mean you're confined to the robotic precision of the analogue sequencers of old. You can also record in real time — without stopping the music — and that includes banging in chords and continuous controller data too.
Recording is via either of the two MIDI inputs, and if you choose to synchronise to an external device the Octopus obediently remembers the port at which it first receives clock and ignores any clock signals received at the other. Full marks for this: I've waited a long time for a sequencer capable of handling incoming clock and notes without need of a MIDI merge box!
Looking rather like the control panel of an alien spaceship, the Genoqs Octopus is a remarkable piece of hardware. This is not a sequencer to tuck away and provide your musical backing — it is a musical instrument begging to be played.
Depending on your point of view, the LED covered panel may excite or intimidate and it's easy to momentarily get lost or wonder what's going on. At such times an informational LED somewhere on the panel can seem like the proverbial needle in a haystack. For this reason I don't think the Octopus would be my ideal live sequencer — and not only because I prefer to play in a 'relaxed' frame of mind. Philistine I may be, but I'd have willingly sacrified a tiny fraction of design elegance for a friendly, informative screen.
There are currently a couple of functions missing that need to be added in the final OS release. The most significant of these is a means of dumping and restoring data via MIDI SysEx. Also, some form of protection from the Force To Scale function (see box above) is required to guarantee that drum tracks always play correctly.
Ultimately, I wouldn't worry about the (few) tricks the Octopus doesn't do — there are so many it does! To obtain the best results will require an investment of time and a fair degree of organisation but the rewards are a wealth of music and ideas you would never discover otherwise. Refreshingly different and uncompromising, I recommend any sequencer enthusiast to check it out.
- Stunning good looks.
- Powerful, flexible and enthralling.
- Up to 90 simultaneous tracks.
- Twin MIDI inputs and outputs.
- It is not, in any way, cheap.
- Sometimes I just pined for a display.
- Currently the OS lacks a means of dumping and restoring your work via SysEx.
A unique hardware step sequencer with a logical, object-oriented approach and more depth than Loch Ness. Reassuringly expensive and with that glorious LED matrix on which to draw pretty patterns, it could be the ultimate boy's toy.