The analogue‑style hardware sequencer has always suited some ways of working better than its software cousin, and the latest company to try to bring it up to date are MAM.
Occasionally, when I'm feeling nostalgic, I pine for my Roland TR606 and TB303. It's not the sounds that I miss, but their simple, effective method of creating rhythm and bass patterns — so often buried under the menus of today's more sophisticated drum machines and sequencers. It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise when a new sequencer dropped on to my doormat, seeming to offer the programming mechanism of those little plastic boxes but without their plinky, farty sounds. The SQ16, from German company Music And More, is described as a 'Step Sequencer', and offers 16 monophonic MIDI tracks: the first 13 are designed to play percussion patterns, the remaining three note sequences.
This sequencer might be described by a dodgy estate agent as 'deceptively spacious'. To you and me, it's a versatile drum computer, housed in a compact, pale grey metal box and measuring some 12.5 x 7 x 2 inches. The construction quality inspires confidence, the paint job is restrained and the panel boasts no less than 62 red LEDs, 45 black plastic buttons and two small three‑character display windows. Many of the buttons are configured so that repeatedly pressing them cycles through a series of options, the active function being indicated by one of the LEDs.
The rear panel offers MIDI In, Out and Thru plus a Sync output (to drive those old Roland drum machines; there's no CV/Gate outputs, however), and the power switch and external adaptor socket.
In the tradition of step sequencers and drum machines of old, one of the SQ16's LEDs lights at each step during playback. There are 16 of these in total: underneath each one is a black switch, used for different tasks depending on which mode the sequencer is in. For example, during Pattern playback, pushing one of these buttons causes a new Pattern number to flash in the left‑hand window. When the active Pattern reaches its last step, this new one takes over. In conjunction with these buttons, the four 'Pattern Group' buttons (at the top right‑hand side of the panel) give access to the full range of 64 Patterns which can be held in memory at any one time.
Tempo is set by pushing a dedicated button in the transport section — at which point two of the 16 buttons take on the role of value 'increment' or 'decrement'. For some reason, MAM have chosen buttons 11 and 12, respectively, for these functions. Not only does this seem illogical, but I suspect it will render tempo adjustment far from convenient under stage lighting conditions. I searched for some means of storing tempo within either a Pattern or a Song but in vain.
Having mentioned Patterns and Songs, now is probably a good time to explain some SQ16 terminology, starting with the Play Modes: Pattern, Song and Chain. A Pattern may have a maximum of 16 steps and up to 16 tracks. Tracks consist of either 'Instruments' or 'Notes' on any MIDI channel, and are always monophonic. Instrument tracks trigger the same MIDI note on each step, and are ideal for programming percussion. Note tracks, on the other hand, can play different notes on each step, thus making them suitable for bass lines and the like. I'd have preferred to let the user decide how many tracks to use for each function but, as things stand, the allocations are fixed, with Instrument tracks being numbered 1‑13, and Note tracks 14‑16.
Song Play mode is used to chain Patterns to play in a specific order. Songs have up to 152 steps, each of which can trigger a Pattern a maximum of 32 times. A dedicated 'Song Edit' section includes all the controls necessary to set up the order of Patterns in a Song. While Song Edit is active, buttons 15 and 16 take on new duties, serving as a means of deleting and inserting song steps.
Finally, Chain Play is ideal for the type of performance where you don't want to fix the order of your backing sequences. Each active Pattern plays in numeric order: to remove one from the playback sequence, simply push its selection button, restoring it again with a second push.
Just for fun, I created eight seperate Patterns, each lasting a single note. Then, using Chain Play, I was able to simulate an eight‑step sequence. Nothing clever in that, of course, except that by deactivating any step during playback, the overall length was reduced, thus recreating the 'skip' function so beloved of Moog or ARP sequencer owners. It's possible to get a little lost using the SQ16 (I know I did!): when this happened, I found the Play mode button a handy means to return to 'normal'.
Wham Bam Thank You Mam
The SQ16 is intended to be far more than a simple Pattern playback device. It's an interactive tool, with the emphasis on creating and modifying rhythms. At the most basic level, you can mute or unmute individual tracks as it plays. This function is activated with the 'Inst/Note' button, while two dedicated buttons, 'All On' and 'All Off' toggle the status of tracks so that they all play or are all muted. If you need to switch between several different combinations of muted/unmuted tracks, 15 memory slots are available, with a further slot reserved as a 'solo' for the instrument you are currently editing. Each step in a Song can have unique mute settings, so you could build a Song from only a few Patterns, or even just one, adding variation by the simple act of muting and unmuting tracks.
Down at track level, individual steps can also be switched on and off during playback. First, press the 'Inst Step' button (for Instrument tracks) or 'Note Step' (for Note tracks), and an LED will light at every active step. Its associated button may then be used to toggle the status. Flip between different tracks (using two buttons in the Select/Edit menu) and the resulting LED displays illustrate the overall 'shape' of your Pattern perfectly. It sometimes confused me when I activated a series of steps only to hear no results because the track itself was inactive — it might have been better to exclude inactive tracks from this function. That said, this is an easy way to build up patterns in the familiar tradition of Roland drum machines or Cubase's Drum Edit page.
However, the SQ16 has plenty more to offer; in fact, it has an identity quite unlike that of a 'normal' drum machine. Perhaps its main strength is that almost every function is intended to be used without ever hitting 'stop'. The 'Inst Step' and 'Note Step' menus hold more than just those On/Off functions. They also permit editing of each track's 'Accent' track, a rudimentary means of boosting the velocity of certain steps, which works in conjunction with 'Step Sets' (which we'll come to shortly). In the case of Notes, there are two further options: Hold (which sets whether two adjacent notes glide into each other) and Note/Edit (which allows the note value of each step to be adjusted in semitones).
The SQ16 forfeits some ease of operation in return for the freedom to allocate any of the Instrument tracks to any MIDI note. Yes, it means you can build a drum kit with any 13 drums you want, but it also means you must memorise which track corresponds to each percussion voice. The simple bass drum, snare drum, and hi‑hat labels which made Roland's MC303 so easy to control are absent. In the heat of action on stage, I wouldn't put any money on being able to reliably mute that frantic tambourine pattern without accidentally removing something else instead — and that's before we start using the features which vary the track's MIDI note during playback!
The 'Pattern' button provides four options: Length, Scale, Step Set and Midi (sic) Set. During playback, you can vary the length of the current Pattern from one to 16 steps, using (as ever) those 16 versatile buttons. The rather misleadingly named Scale option specifies the number of steps per beat, from a ponderous one step per four beats right up to eight steps for every beat, thus allowing you to set Patterns to play at double speed, half speed, and so on.
The next option, Step Set, is a means of translating the contents of the aforementioned 'Accent Track' into MIDI values. Sixteen Step Sets are available, each with two velocity values: 'normal' and 'accented'. These two velocity levels may be chosen from just 12 different values across the 0‑127 spectrum. I disagree with MAM's statement that "with a drum sequence, it is often sufficient to use two different velocities to vary the volume of an instrument," but I accept that, with the design they've chosen, more possibilities would only increase the confusion. Overall, the combination of Accent Tracks and Step Sets offers a fairly straightforward way to breathe life into your rhythms. Since you can change which of the Step Sets is used during playback, testing out alternative dynamics for any track requires minimum effort.
Five different accent modes are on tap including three 'delay' accents, which generate new MIDI notes with increasing or decreasing velocities. You can choose from Forward Delay (delays are added starting at the accent velocity and ending at the normal velocity), Reverse Delay (the delays begin with normal velocity and end at the accent velocity) or Forward‑Reverse Delay, which generates new notes with increasing velocity, followed by notes with decreasing velocity. You can specify the number of repeats and the delay time, so there's actually quite a lot of mileage to be had out of this feature alone.
The last 'Step Set' parameter, which applies to Note tracks only, is Step Length. This allows you either to halve the length of each step, making them more staccato, or to set them to 'Slide' mode where, in conjunction with the Hold setting, notes may be instructed to slide into each other, TB303‑style. The manual states that this function works with a MAM MB33 synth, but I was unable to verify exactly how, as I couldn't see any extra information being transmitted.
The final Pattern option is Midi Set. A Midi Set is mercifully simple to explain: it controls the assignment of MIDI note number and channel to Instrument tracks, and the MIDI send (and receive) channels for Note tracks. One application of Midi Sets could be to compensate for variations in the mapping of drum voices across different sound modules, although you could use them to transpose instruments during playback too — as long as you can keep a handle on which drum each track is supposed to be playing.
Not all the SQ16's functions are hard to grasp and, although it is primarily a drum‑pattern generator, its three monophonic Note tracks are a welcome inclusion. Notes can be recorded from a MIDI keyboard using a selection of Step Time options or via a built‑in arpeggiator. The Step Time options are (as represented across the two display windows): SGL STP, SGL LEG and SGL ALL. If Record is activated, SGL STP (Single Step) is the most basic mode to enter notes: play along with the sequence and a note will be recorded into each active step. No pitch‑bend, mod‑wheel or patch‑change data is recognised so, basically, a step either contains a note or it doesn't. If you hold a note as the sequence passes several steps, only the step where the note began gets anything recorded into it. You can record in loop mode, adding new notes as you wish or overwriting existing ones — a performance feature full of potential.
In SGL LEG (Single Legato) mode, all recorded steps are held until the start of the next note. Finally, SGL ALL (Single All) is curious: it merely fills all active steps with the last note played. As a note sequencer, the SQ16 is clearly unsophisticated, lacking even a means to send an initial program change for setting up the right patch in your synth. Editing, too, is minimal, and yet adequate in the circumstances. For example, whilst recording, hold down the 'overdub' button and the note at the current step is erased. To wipe all notes, keep it held down for a complete run‑through of the Pattern.
The other method of recording note data is via the arpeggiator. This has 10 modes in total, including the usual Up, Down, and Up & Down along with several more interesting ones: of these, I particularly liked the Sort mode which creates its arpeggios as if all steps in the sequence were active. This allows interesting 'gaps' to be created in the note pattern, depending on the number and position of any steps left inactive. The remaining modes incorporate some random elements into different combinations of the previous modes, resulting in slight pattern variations which typify the unique character of the SQ16. You can remain in Record mode as you skip from track to track (using the Select/Edit buttons) and if you are recording an arpeggio, holding down 'overdub' lets you audition a new pattern before overwriting any stored notes. Used in combination with Chain Play, you could record a series of arpeggios into several tracks sequentially without stopping: just switch on record, set the chain playing, and alter the chords as the patterns switch.
With the more difficult aspects of the SQ16 now comfortably behind us, there are just a few final items in the Global menu to consider. A complete collection of Patterns, Songs, Mute settings, Chains, Midi Sets and so on is known as a Block, and the SQ16 can store eight of these blocks, with one active at any time (Block 1 is loaded automatically on power up). Global menu items include Panic (though I never experienced any hanging notes), MIDI SysEx dump functions, Clock Source selection (the SQ16 can be controlled externally, if necessary), clock transmission status, and the like.
The final Global setting we'll look at relates to the Common Pattern. This powerful feature temporarily overrides individual Pattern settings such as length, MIDI Set, Step Set or Scale and applies its own values intead. Up to 16 Common Pattern settings can be stored, tinkered with and then discarded, at which point the individual settings smoothly take back the reins. No sequencer with such functionality would be complete without extensive copy operations, and everything from Tracks, Patterns, Songs, Mute Tracks, and MIDI Sets can be copied and pasted wherever needed.
"The SQ16 has an identity quite unlike that of a 'normal' drum machine. Perhaps its main strength is that almost every function is intended to be used without ever hitting 'stop'."
At the end of some early sessions with the SQ16, my brain was left with signs of reviewer's droop. Increased familiarity led me to see beyond some of the complexity and appreciate the creative possibilities on offer, especially in terms of real‑time manipulation, psuedo‑random playback effects and overrides of Pattern settings. Although direct control was always close to hand, several areas remained far from intuitive. The toughest of these, Rotate mode (see box), was initially baffling, especially as the first manual I received was wholly in German. Happily, a German friend of mine who owns an SQ16 was able to get me started, but it was only when the (rather dry) English text beamed into my PC that I made significant progress. I found that the SQ16 required a certain amount of discipline in order get the best rewards from it. I often forgot which percussion voices I'd allocated to each track, and thought the method employed to adjust tempo was cumbersome — probably too fiddly to use live. Ultimately, I see it as a versatile, if sometimes difficult device which in the right hands is capable of producing truly interesting rhythm patterns or note sequences. Only time will tell whether MAM have done enough to carve out a niche for themselves, but as a sequencer engine with no built‑in sound source, the SQ16 could be around far longer than some of those weary 'groove‑orientated' fashion accessories.
Spin Me Right Round Baby
The SQ16 is a complex beastie in many respects, but the Rotate feature is, frankly, close to mind‑bending. Its purpose is to generate rhythmic variations by shifting the step play position forwards or backwards according to rules you set. It can be switched on or off during playback (for each track) without affecting the underlying data in any way.
To give you a (very simple) appetiser, imagine a looping eight‑step Pattern consisting of two tracks: a bass drum and a hi‑hat. Now, imagine if we could give the hi‑hat a command such as 'every seven steps, jump two steps ahead'. The bass drum would remain constant but, on reaching step seven of its first pass, the hi‑hat will skip ahead to the second step of its pattern and continue from there. On the next loop, it would skip the first two steps, starting on the third — and so on.
Even if our original hi‑hat was a lesson in pure funk, the 'rotated' pattern would be far more complex — and that's discounting the other possibilites of Rotate, such as telling it to reset to step 1, or to produce no notes for a given period. Rotate has parameters of Delay, Shift and Reset, plus four 'modes' (including random) and works in ways I couldn't even begin to explain fully here. It exists to delight geeks and experimenters, and is easily the most powerful implement in the SQ16's toolbox: a source of all kinds of subtle, random and even mixed time‑signature tricks, once you understand the rules.
- Quick production of sequencer or drum patterns.
- Real‑time manipulation of notes, tracks and performance effects.
- Fun, different and offers some unusual twists and turns.
- Not always intuitive.
- Tempo adjustment not conveniently implemented.
This sequencer sets out to provide easy step‑time recording and manipulation of drum patterns and 303‑style sequences. If you can fathom its complex nature, it can perform some fascinating rhythmic tricks to keep even the most experimentally inclined happy for a long time.
£299 including VAT.