If you thought the days of hardware sequencing were past, think again — Sequentix's P3 is a tremendously flexible MIDI sequencer whose power is concealed beneath a cool retro exterior. We step to it...
Practically any piece of kit we could want in our ideal electronic music studio can be replicated in 21st-century software. Recording, audio editing and manipulation, simulating real instruments (electronic or acoustic) — it can all be done from the desktop.
This is generally a good thing for all sorts of reasons. The virtual studio is much more compact (and tidier) than its hardware forebear for a start. And who misses crackly leads? However, the virtual approach isn't well suited to everything. Hardware instruments have a hands-on element, and the last few years have seen an upsurge in nostalgia for the knobs, sliders and buttons that festooned pre-MIDI synths, drum machines and sequencers. They don't replicate well in software, and accessing their on-screen equivalents with a mouse is really not the same experience. Hence the rising tide of external hardware control surfaces, and the ever-present global cottage industry in knobby instruments — worldwide, there's probably more choice of analogue and analogue-style instruments, modules and controllers than there was during the '70s and early '80s. They're usually better made and more stable, too!
Analogue-style sequencing has often been the subject of software recreation — bizarrely, many examples are available for the all-but-defunct Atari ST and its relations. Though the results can be useful and often stimulating, the lack of true hands-on interaction on the ST is particularly noticeable — hence the popularity of classic originals and modern recreations. By analogue sequencing, I refer to devices that offer a limited number of steps — say 16 — each of which is equipped with a couple of knobs that typically govern the values of control voltages routed to analogue synths. One row of voltages is usually routed to oscillator pitch and the other(s) to whatever elements the operator requires. Voltages in a pure analogue system can, if patched appropriately, produce timbral changes, introduce rhythmic interest, apply transpositions to other sequencers, and so on. However you decide to patch such a sequencer into a system, the knobs can be tweaked on the fly as the sequence plays back, creating a dynamic (and also potentially unrepeatable) performance.
And now you're about to learn of one more such device: the P3 sequencer from Sequentix Music Systems. The name may be new, but Sequentix main man Colin Fraser has been around on the electronic music scene for a while. A visit to his personal web site (www.colinfraser.com) reveals an almost unhealthy interest in the guts of Roland's classic TR808 and TR909 beatboxes. He's also managed to rework chunks of the original (and quite wretched) operating system for Roland's otherwise awesome JX10 super synth, for which he definitely deserves a gold star.
Anyhow, Colin also has a slightly less unhealthy interest in analogue-style step sequencing, and for years he developed and sold an intriguing example as a kit. However, changes in EU law have meant that Colin can no longer sell this kit to members of the public, so he has turned to manufacturing finished versions of the device that he now calls the P3. And why not? After all, most of us would rather be making music than soldering.
Conceptually, the P3 straddles both the analogue and modern digital worlds; it's taken the analogue sequencer's approach to creating music, but then given it software that speaks MIDI. The interface will be familiar to anyone with experience of classic or modern examples of the analogue step sequencer: data generated is controlled by two rows of 16 knobs, and a row of 16 buttons. If you're familiar with competing products (see the 'Alternatives' box on the previous page), you might be thinking that other similar machines offer three rows of knobs or have a larger panel festooned with even more knobs. However, as you start to investigate the P3 in more depth, you discover that it's an eight-track device capable of much more than competing machines without moving too far from its essential remit. In a nod to more modern ideas of sequencer design, the P3 is fully pattern-based and those patterns can be chained and manipulated to create phrases outside the basic 16-step limit.
Although the last few years have seen the release of several analogue-style step sequencers with multiple rows of knobs, none of these has quite the same feature-set as the P3. Analogue Systems' RS200 sequencer and Analogue Solutions' Oberkorn are both three-channel 16-step devices, but they don't have built-in MIDI output (although the Oberkorn has MIDI In, so MIDI sequencers and synths can at least talk to it). Mind you, the lack of a MIDI Out on the RS200 and the Oberkorn is fair enough, as both are designed to drive analogue CV/Gate-driven modular synth systems, so they're not directly comparable to the P3. Doepfer's MAQ16/3,on the other hand, is also a three-channel, 16-step affair and does have MIDI, but it doesn't have the P3's advanced ability to combine and offset sequences of different lengths and timebases. All the options mentioned here cost roughly the same as the P3 in the UK, and have been reviewed in SOS: see the links on the right.
ANALOGUE SYSTEMS RS200
ANALOGUE SOLUTIONS OBERKORN
The design and layout of something that aims to be hands-on is important, so let's have a look at the package as a whole. The P3's build is solid with just the slightest air of home brew about it, but in a good way. There are no real rough edges, and quality components and machining are apparent throughout. We're in a world of chunky knobs and buttons which remind you immediately of Roland's classic 1970s MC4 microcomposer and related devices. Even the activity LEDs appear chunky, and the wooden end cheeks are definitely solid. Before you ask, the P3 can be rackmounted if you wish; the necessary 'ears' come as part of the package.
Layout and labelling is clear and straightforward, although accessing the operating system through the two-line, 16-character LCD can initially be a little involved. Most of the panel is dominated by the 16-strong rows of knobs and buttons. However, as we'll see, two rows of knobs is not quite the compromise you might expect; they transmit a wide range of data on multiple channels that can be quickly accessed on the fly. The buttons also double up, depending on which operating mode you're in, though they mainly let you enable or disable steps and select patterns. The LEDs located immediately above the buttons have three possible colours — red, green, amber — which handily provide visual feedback depending on the currently selected mode. A 3x3 matrix of buttons beneath the LCD provides transport control and access to the OS, and three function keys line up with display parameters. A dedicated data knob governs parameter changes and another knob controls tempo. Finally, there are two buttons — Upper Mode and Step Mode — with associated functions that change depending on what mode you're in. In general, they're used to select different operating modes for the rows of knobs, letting you quickly adjust step velocity, length, and delay as well as setting step gate time and enabling you to tie steps (to create legato effects), or skip them altogether. The P3 controls have a certain amount of multifunctionality that initially seems confusing, but is straightforward once you've played around for a bit. Entries on that small LCD usually help, too — once you're familiar with their abbreviated forms, that is!
Round the back, a single MIDI In is joined by no less than four MIDI Outs. Currently, these outs all transmit identical data, but it should be simple enough for you to set up target instruments to accept the notes or data on the MIDI channels that are required. In addition, there's a further five-pin DIN socket labelled 'Sync'. On the review model, this transmitted Roland-style DIN Sync, allowing pre-MIDI devices such as the TR808, TB303 or MC202 to be easily synchronised to the P3. This socket can also be wired to transmit MIDI Clock, a cleaner option to deriving the clock from MIDI Outs that are also sending note and controller data (potentially a lot of the latter).
Power comes from an external supply, inevitably. A PSU is supplied to British purchasers but non-UK customers will have to provide their own, although fortunately any off-the-shelf 9V AC/DC supply will do the trick.
The P3 does everything its designer planned for it: it works now, it works well, and you most certainly should buy one if its feature set appeals. In short, it's a mature, stable, and reliable product. Nevertheless, the OS is in a constant state of tweaking, as you'll discover if you keep up with the P3's Yahoo group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/analogue-sequencer). Colin Fraser responds regularly to user queries here, and users can interact and swap tips. You'll also hear about regular software updates — the OS is being tweaked all the time to meet user requirements, add new features and fix the very occasional bug. Fortunately, the process of updating is not a problem, since Colin supplies the upgrades as MIDI SysEx dumps that any user can easily handle. His reasoning is that while there's space left in the CPU flash RAM, it might as well be used for something! So at the time I was finishing this review, there was talk of an alternate P3 operating system being developed which would be dedicated to rhythm programming. This isn't quite as odd as you might think: the P3 OS can easily be changed via SysEx and your data can be offloaded and reloaded in the same way. Moreover, it seems that the average P3 user is quite loyal: several users have more than one, and to them, the idea of one P3 dedicated to rhythm generation and another given over to music is quite attractive.
While completing this review, I heard that a major OS update, v3.1.006, was being planned, and managed to get a sneak preview of some of the new features from Colin. There's quite a list of new stuff, and I can only briefly summarise. Modifier keys now have added Help messages, there's direct access to Pattern Edit and Play Mode pages (by holding down the Page key and pressing various step keys), and there's a Quick Configuration option in Pattern Edit that offers preset aux configurations. A much-anticipated polyphonic record mode moves the P3 closer to modern ideas of what sequencers can do, and one of two new 'dub' modes just records notes into gaps. There are also some new facilities for remote control of record and track muting/unmuting functions via MIDI continuous controller messages, which make the P3 even better suited for live use. Less interesting but potentially useful are a buffer overflow warning — you'll get this with a MIDI data loop — and the display can now show your choice of sharps or flats for the black notes! A new PDF manual containing details of all these new features is planned to accompany the update [Note: the update, complete with new PDF manual, was released on the Sequentix web site just as this review was going to press. See www.sequentix.com/sq_download.htm for details — Ed].
It's worth summarising the P3's hierarchy. Its memory is divided first into a number of Banks; a Bank contains a collection of Patterns for each of the eight Tracks. The user has control here, since the Banks can be customised. Depending on your needs, you can select three Banks of 16 Patterns per track, six Banks of eight Patterns per track or 12 Banks of four Patterns per track. Think of a Bank as a 'patch' or overall song containing the data for one performance, and you can see that more complicated 'songs' can be compiled at the cost of fewer 'songs' available on board. In addition, a Bank contains eight Parts that provide Pattern Playlists for each Track; there are eight Playlists for each Part. Patterns chained in a Playlist can be further manipulated, and it's worth remembering that each track has its own independent Playlist. This sounds complicated, but the P3 manages it quite elegantly.
A look at a Pattern reveals the depth going on here. It's easy to think of each of the eight tracks in a Pattern as a 'row' of knobs, as one might with a more ordinary sequencer, but the P3's approach means that although most editing is done with rows of knobs, you can output much more than just pitch values or one type of continuous controller data with each step. To summarise, each step in a Pattern generates a pitch and velocity value, can be assigned a delay, length, gate time and tie value (the latter for producing held notes and legato effects), and/or can be skipped entirely. A transpose defeat switch for each step (also available for a whole track) means that a global transpose command, such as might occur when chaining patterns, is ignored; you might prefer this when working with drum or percussive sounds. What's more, there are four auxiliary 'functions' per step, each of which could be assigned to any MIDI controller or to so-called auxiliary events (of which there are four, entitled A to D).
You've also control over pattern length (up to 16 steps) and 'timebase', with a range of resolutions of between a whole note and 32nd-note triplet. Interestingly, Patterns that run simultaneously can have different lengths and timebases and there are options to randomise and reverse playback of tracks. A sort of pitch-quantise tool lets you force your work to any of a wide range of scale types, turning randomly-entered or unattractively out-of-tune pitches into some sort of harmony. You'll also discover real-time note capture and pattern modulation — tracks and patterns can interact with each other such that, with or without your intervention, new melodic or textural material will be generated by the P3 itself. The result is rather like algorithmic composition where you make the rules as the sequencer plays, though you have the option of intervening and taking over at any time.
The focus in much modern multitrack sequencing tends to be on the notes. But of course, MIDI allows the recording and generation of a wide range of controller information for dynamic parameter control. In a sophisticated MIDI-equipped device such as the P3, you can take this concept a step forward (or is that a step backward?) in that the controllers can be routed and re-routed (in the P3's software, of course, as well as within target MIDI devices) in a conceptually similar way to repatching modular synth patch leads. Thus, with the P3, you're free to transmit notes and controller data, and manipulate both as they are playing back. And this is a core P3 concept; pretty much any operation can be applied to a performance while the sequencer is playing back. You rarely have to hit stop or interrupt a performance.
The P3's MIDI spec offers a lot of creative flexibility, but it also opens the sequencer up to third parties. If you join and lurk on the P3's Yahoo Group you'll discover the work of one Dave Jones. His P3Tools software is resolutely Windows-only, but provides a straightforward way to manage many global P3 functions. You'll need Microsoft's NET Framework for the package to run (and a P3, obviously), but once you have these, the software will let you configure MIDI ports, upgrade firmware, upload Patterns, Parts, Playlists and configuration data, give meaningful names to Banks, Parts, Playlists and Patterns and more. It's a most worthy effort, particularly as it costs precisely nothing. All Dave asks is that if you find P3Tools useful, you send him some of the music you make with your P3!
The sequencer has three operation modes: Play, Pattern Edit and Playlist Edit. Obviously, the various knobs and buttons behave differently depending on what mode you're in, but pay attention to that little display: a flash in one corner reminds you of which mode you're in, and the parameters listed are often unique to each mode. One thing that usually doesn't change when you switch modes is sequence playback, as mentioned above. And not only are you largely free to move around the OS without needing to stop and start playback, but notes and other standard Pattern data can be created in all three modes, although the approaches are a little different.
When powered up, the P3 is in Play mode. The first eight buttons are used to mute and unmute patterns (mutes can be automated, too), or to select Parts in the current Playlist. The second eight buttons select Playlists; up to eight Playlists can be instantly linked to form longer patterns. The LCD initially seems to be too small for the job expected, but in Play mode it easily accesses no fewer than six pages of three parameters each, arranged in two switchable 'columns', with three function buttons selecting parameters for editing. The display works in a similar way, with different numbers of pages, in the other operating modes.
Making a sequence from scratch is simple: start a pattern, and enable the steps you'd like to play with the row of buttons. Middle 'C' will be playing back, but you change the note values with the bottom row of knobs. And that's it — an instant pattern. If the wide note range is too much for you, you can constrain it to an octave or two or whatever makes life easier for you, and post-note-entry help is available with the aforementioned 'force to scale' option which pitch-quantises your pattern.
You'll get used to swapping between modes as you get to know the P3, and move to Pattern Edit to access a huge range of parameters to make the pattern work for you — and that's before you bring the other eight tracks into play. The standard parameters work well enough — gate, tie, velocity — but you can add 'delay' to the mix for a little unpredictability, and throw in the auxiliary events, which can be assigned to any MIDI controller you like. Auxiliary events essentially boil down to a way of using parameter values from one P3 track to alter the parameters of another track. Operations named grab, swap and push should give a flavour of what you can do, and the data operated upon includes notes, velocity, length, delay settings, and more. Auxiliary events don't change patterns — that is, the data being processed doesn't change, although its playback will be audibly different. It gets more complicated, both sonically and in terms of operation, when you introduce the Accumulator, which operates on notes, velocities and auxiliary D, to the mix. Basically, with this engaged, the values of these parameters will be cumulatively added every time the Pattern loops around — so things will get 'louder' or transpose by a given amount each time a Pattern plays through.
The true step-time pattern creation of the P3 is enhanced by a number of real-time record options, which allow you to tweak knobs while patterns play and have the movements recorded. A variant of this is 'Arpeggio Capture': if you play in a chord during recording, each note in that chord will be assigned to a consecutive step in the current Pattern. It's not a true arpeggiator, but coupled with the programmable transposition options in the Playlists, or the accumulators, the effect is as good as.
We'll look at Playlists in a moment, but it's worth noting that Parts can be chained in Play Mode: just press a lower and a higher Part button and all the Parts in between will cycle. A Playlist feels initially like a simple Pattern: there are eight steps, each of which can accommodate one Pattern. But as mentioned earlier, each of the P3's eight tracks can have its own Playlist, and each step can be transposed and repeated up to eight times. That equals 64 'bars' in total, but remember that you can change the rules during playback, of both Patterns and Playlists, and that Pattern track data can be influencing other tracks during playback. You may find yourself operating mainly in Playlist mode, especially when you remember that Patterns can be written from scratch — and edited — while a Playlist is playing back.
There is a lot of precise control available here, once you've sorted out what the knobs do in the different levels of OS. Learn the rules and you can quickly achieve planned results. But one of the joys of analogue systems of any kind is the influence of chance — nudging a knob or button unexpectedly and getting a result. The P3 isn't as unstable as a genuine analogue sequencer (its knobs, remember, aren't transmitting real voltages, so there's no drift or fractional values), but chance has been built into the feature set. The note and 'upper' randomiser option are two obvious examples: use them and you fill a pattern with unexpected values. But being able to rotate existing patterns (by moving or retarding their start step) can produce an unexpected change in feel or something completely new. Auxiliary events can also have a hand in generating new material that you might not have expected.
I could, if pushed, have a whinge about the P3's cost. But while it's not cheap, its price is not completely out to lunch. There are other analogue sequencers being built now that hover in this same price bracket but are nowhere near as ambitious. And there's little else to complain about. The deceptively compact display has been cleverly deployed and the OS is logical and easy to navigate — once you put in the time to learn it.
The P3 isn't a replacement for traditional software (or hardware) sequencing (although there are musicians who use Sequentix's box to the exclusion of other options). However, it allows you to work in ways that wouldn't occur to you in a software environment, as well as with drum machine, real-time record and step-record methodologies. You'll certainly generate results that wouldn't arise in software — the knobs have a lot to do with this. All you have to do is move past the initial learning curve and get used to the display, and then your focus will stay on working with the knobs and manipulating sound. The interaction of patterns and the ability to have events influence each other means that you will always find surprises and new ways of generating material that are unique to any P3 owner.
I could see a place for the P3 in any creative musician's collection. It's a great live tool, whether for the diehard dance brigade or those following a Jean-Michel Jarre or Tangerine Dream-like furrow. In the studio, it can be a brilliant source of inspiration. It goes much further than its competition in its approach to sequencing whilst keeping to its 'knobby analogue' ethos, and its ability to mangle and recompose existing material without offloading data to a software sequencer is very welcome — although of course if you wish, you can lock the P3 to a software sequencer and record a Playlist or the results of your noodling. In short, there's no other product, soft or hard, that exactly matches what's on offer here. If you've any leanings in the direction of knobby analogue sequencing, you're probably already a P3 owner or are saving up to become one. It's a winner.
- Nice chunky design.
- Easy to use once you get into it.
- Incredible flexibility extrapolated from an essentially simple concept.
- Sequentix is a company that enjoys fantastic interaction with its user base.
- No gate and CV outputs for analogue purists.
- Display rather small.
If you've enjoyed using analogue sequencers in the past, I think the P3 will top any experience you've had so far. If analogue-style sequencing with MIDI instruments appeals to you, you should check it out!
£499 including VAT (plus £15 shipping for UK deliveries; contact Sequentix for shipping rates outside the UK).