Korg’s SQ‑64 step sequencer bridges the gap between ‘deep’ and ‘hands‑on’.
The SQ‑64 is smaller than you’d think and mightier in every other respect. It’s sleek, sharp and angular and feels far more stylish and understated than the Arturia alternatives. It’s heavy, solid, metallic and stands less than 2cm tall, with its eight rubber feet sticking firmly to your table. The entire surface is covered with things you can touch. The buttons are raised, the lights break the surface, and the decals give it a roughness beneath your fingers.
The surface is covered by 64 pads or buttons. These can represent many things, but they most obviously offer a button for every step of a sequence — which will please anyone who’s gotten lost in the pages of 16‑step devices. Each button has a slit towards the top edge with a Cylon‑like red glow that’s dim when inactive and brighter when enabled. A similar white LED also lurks behind and makes an appearance in certain circumstances. LEDs cut into the top edge of the SQ‑64 indicate activity on each of the CV outputs. The OLED screen is clear and subdued and split into four sections to describe four functions; you would think these were controlled by the four buttons that sit immediately beneath, but in fact you’ll find the four knobs to the right are what you need to be fiddling with.
The SQ‑64 has four tracks of 64‑step polyphonic sequencing. Three are melodic, with up to eight notes of polyphony, while the fourth is rhythmic and capable of pumping out 16 monophonic paths of percussion (eight over CV). In addition, you get Sync In/Out and a MIDI input so you can connect a keyboard controller. All of the patch sockets are on the back, which means I can’t butt the SQ‑64 up against my rack because of all the cables. It would seem to me to be more Eurorack‑appropriate to have the sockets on the top, which would solve my butt problem and also enable you to see where to plug things in. At least the indicator lights along the top edge sit directly above each socket, making the cabling that bit easier to achieve.
With a track selected, you get to view all 64 steps across all four rows of 16 buttons. It is a wonderful thing to be able to view your whole sequence. With no track selected you get to see the first 16 steps of each running together which is no less fabulous to watch. The four buttons beneath the display are employed to switch between the possible four banks of 16 steps.
The sequencer has four modes called Gate, Pitch, Mod and Loop. Each mode comes with a slightly different set of four possible parameters displayed on the screen and accessed with the knobs. To access the relevant parameters for a step you have to hold the corresponding button down.
It’s beautifully sleek, visually arresting and seems perfectly sized for overloaded desktops.
In Gate mode you choose the length of the sequence up to 64 steps and turn the steps on and off with a press. For each step you can set Length, Offset, Probability and Step Division. Length goes from zero (which is still something) to 100 percent and then becomes a Tie to the next note; alternatively, holding the Gate button allows you to Tie notes quickly by selecting them. If you keep dialling clockwise you can enter a Slide between notes. Offset lets you push or pull the note up to half a step in either direction. Step Division is another name for ratchet. You can add in two‑ to 16‑note repeats, either flat or with increasing or decreasing velocity.
It’s worth noting that while each track is sent out over CV, 3.5mm MIDI and USB MIDI regardless of what you’re connected to, not everything applies to each protocol. For instance, Slides only appear over CV, whereas the velocity ramping in the Step Divisions will only happen over MIDI.
The last step factor is Probability, which has some nice tricks up its sleeve. Probability dials down from 100 percent (where a step plays every time) to five percent (not often) and lends a nice degree of variation to your sequences. Turn the knob anti‑clockwise and you enter ‘Alternation’ patterns. These patterns dictate how often the step will fire over two, three or four cycles of the pattern. It’s a really useful way of making a shorter sequence feel like a much longer one, or just to add in some variation. For more variation, you can rotate the gate pattern forwards or backwards, picking out different notes along the way.
Fill is a global Gate function that fills in the steps between the active steps, randomly adding in notes as often as the percentage you crank it to. This can get quite interesting where you’ve recorded a chord progression and then turned off most of the steps; it’s like having a rhythmically challenged accompanist. It’s not quite as nuanced on track D, where the Fill fills in on all sub‑tracks simultaneously, but it is a fun way to take a minimal drum pattern into unconsidered places of panic.
The percussion track has 16 sub‑tracks that all share the same number of steps and tempo/timing of the master track, but you can program them independently for 16 channels of percussive sound over MIDI or eight over CV. This track doesn’t accept any pitch information, tie or slides but you still have Length, Offset, Probability and Step Division.
In Pitch Mode you have track controls over Transposition, mono, chord or arpeggiator Playback, Scales and a very useful Add Gate feature. This allows you to switch on steps in Pitch mode without having to switch back to Gate mode.
To dial in a note value you hold the step button. You’ll find space for eight notes for each step, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to add more than the first note using the screen, buttons and knobs. It appears that chords can only be added and then edited by recording them in live. This feels like an oversight, because once the notes are there you can edit all of them, and it appears to me that the same function could just as easily be used to turn on extra notes. Once you have a chord on a step you can also transpose it and dial in some inversions. The CV output always gets the lowest note.
By holding Pitch and pressing the Track button you invoke Keyboard Mode. This turns the bottom three rows into a makeshift piano. From here you can record directly into the track sequencer in real time. There doesn’t appear to be a step‑record function where you tap notes and have them added to the next step, and this feels a strange omission on a hardware sequencer. You can create a sequence ‘offline’ by holding a step and pressing a note in the keyboard layout, which is fine, but it doesn’t quite have the efficiency of conventional step‑recording.
Each step can be set to Mono, Chord or Arpeggiator. Mono and Chord (or polyphonic) are self‑explanatory, but switch it to arpeggiator and something sounds immediately wrong. The arpeggiator is moving so fast it sounds like a gurgle and I haven’t found a way of improving upon it. I have to assume that it should have time divisions and hopefully these will come along in an update because unfortunately at the moment it’s unusable.
Modulation Mode allows you to set a value for each step that will send out an appropriate voltage from the CV Mod output, and it will send velocity or another Continuous Controller over MIDI. You can specify a linear or exponential curve to govern the rate of change from one modulation value to another from step to step, or have it jump to the next one. You can set a variation amount for randomising the value and a range to hem it in, giving it a nicely varied feel.
A single Mod output is fine for CV but perhaps a bit lacking over MIDI, because you’re most likely to use it for velocity which leaves you with no other modulation possibilities. There’s no facility to add modulation across multiple steps through a knob‑twist during playback. For all its connectivity, the SQ‑64 doesn’t have any CV inputs other than Sync, and it can’t record anything other than notes over MIDI. Creating live modulation data rather than having to enter it per‑step would definitely be a feature request for me.
This is funky little mode where you can mess about with your sequence and loop either a range or a selection of steps. You can then apply some time multiplication or division (like the arpeggiator should have) and introduce some randomisation over the order of the steps. It works separately from the track so you can do whatever you want without it actually changing the sequence underneath which reappears as soon as you go to another mode. What you do in Loop Mode is also retained individually for each track, letting you return to it in the state you left it. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this mode.
Under the annoyingly unlatchable (feature request!) Shift button is an adventure playground of performance features and yet more variations. I think perhaps Korg felt it was somewhere you would momentarily dip into but no, I spend a lot of time here once I’ve got some patterns going.
The first thing you can do is mute the four main tracks and the individual percussion sub‑tracks. The next section gives us playback options: Reverse, Bounce, Stochastic and Random. Reverse and Bounce are obvious enough, and Random sets the track off leaping from step to random step. Stochastic mode, on the other hand, is completely fascinating. The sequencer has to make a decision as to whether the next step will be one forward, one backwards, two forward or the same step. Every time you enable Stochastic mode the probability of each of those happening changes. Watching the white LEDs meander their way along the steps can be very absorbing, as are the unexpected melodies it generates.
You can set the timing division for each track to 1/32, 1/16, 1/8 and 1/4 and then Triplets if you wish. It’s a great way of dropping the intensity of a track or piling on the pressure. With all the possible timing variations going on with different tracks, there’s a handy Resync button which resets the track to step 1. Polyrhythm is an option to let each track rotate on its own timing rather than waiting for the longest track to finish before repeating.
Each Project can contain 16 Patterns per track, all laid out in front of you, and you tap the one you want to play. The tracks are not tied together, so you are free to mix and match your patterns. You can drop back into the sequencer modes to edit the current pattern on the fly, and it will be retained if you recall another pattern and then come back. You can then move from pattern to pattern and have it drop in at the end of the current pattern, bar, beat or step. It’s nicely fluid.
In Chain Mode you can create chains of patterns and, again, these are independent per track. The process feels rather convoluted and seems to involve too many confusing button combinations, which achieve not quite what you were hoping for. It just takes a bit of practice and becomes an effective way of creating songs from your patterns.
The track independence is powerful and versatile and brings both the danger and joy of accidentally mixing your patterns up and subverting your intentions.
The workflow on the SQ‑64 is perhaps more methodical than spontaneous, but having all 64 notes spread out in front of you makes it easy to follow a plan. It’s true that note entry via button holding and turning a single knob is not as immediate as a knob‑per‑step, but it’s really a question of which workflow you prefer.
What excites me most about the SQ‑64 is its ability to move things off the beaten track. It’s obsessed with variation in a way that really speaks to me. The moments of probability, of randomisation, of stochastic movement and Fill brings a level of interest and enjoyment that’s beyond my fingers’ meagre abilities. That vibe of playfulness is carried through in the Loop Mode and under the Shift key as you discover new ways to run or ruin your patterns.
It’s not perfect, with a few oddities and missing features (Korg say they are working on an update to tackle some of my criticisms) but it’s beautifully sleek, visually arresting and seems perfectly sized for overloaded desktops. The connectivity is plentiful, and I’ve enjoyed pulling in MIDI synths, software synths and modular all together into one place. The SQ‑64 could be the box that ignites a fusion of hardware and software music making in a modest tabletop studio.
The SQ‑64 is very at home with MIDI and all the polyphonic action is aimed at either a connected computer or external synths. It can also be a pretty decent MIDI controller. The pads turn into a keyboard, the track buttons into controllers and the four knobs take on the movement of values. This is separate from the sequencer functionality and is enabled under its own button. I think velocity sensitivity on the buttons/pads is the only obvious thing missing, and adding a MIDI keyboard controller would quickly sort that out.
- Seeing all the steps.
- Masses of variation.
- Stochastic wanderings.
- Looks fabulous and is very solid.
- Great connectivity.
- A lot of heavy button‑mashing.
- Pads not velocity‑sensitive.
- No step recording.
- No live modulation recording.
The Korg SQ‑64 brings competent four‑channel 64‑step sequencing to the desktop with lots of playful probability, great connectivity and subtle but effective use of lights.