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Squarp Instruments Pyramid

Hardware Sequencer
Published July 2017
By Paul Nagle

Squarp Instruments Pyramid

Squarp’s Pyramid is a versatile 64-track sequencer with a penchant for polyrhythms.

Fresh from its Paris workshop, the Squarp Instruments Pyramid is a slimline, minimalistic hardware sequencer loaded with features. Of course, even the term ‘sequencer’ is open to misinterpretation these days, since it can conjure ideas ranging from the short voltage loops of a Moog 960 right up to a computer-based Digital Audio Workstation. Of these two extremes, the Pyramid is closer in concept to a DAW, prioritising live and step recording over a Moog-style row of knobs.

The specs are impressive. Up to 64 polyphonic tracks are supported and a Euclidean sequencer engine sits alongside the more conventional kind, which happily takes care of polyrhythms and polymeters. An array of MIDI effects are included too, plus pads and keys for direct performance capture. Despite all this, the Pyramid is neat and self-contained, you just need to give it some synths to control.

The Interface

Online photos and even videos did not prepare me for just how light and petite (206 x 268 x 44 mm) the Pyramid was going to be. It’s a black aluminium box weighing just 1.6kg, so I’d recommend attaching the rubber feet right away to keep it from sliding around — or possibly off — your desk. At first glance it appears that most of the action takes place at the left-hand side, where there’s a small black and white LCD and encoders, but on closer inspection you realise that the blank-looking area opposite is actually a lightly printed touchpad. (In more recent models this has been switched to a clearly indented space that’s impossible to overlook.)

White rubber buttons are used as transport controls, for pattern, track and sequence selection and for various secondary functions including note and chord input. Instead of the more common ‘shift’ or ‘function’ key, there’s a ‘2ND’ key, which is named pretty logically if you think about it. Squarp provide an overview template to be placed over the panel to get you started. It’s a handy introduction to some of the functionality but no replacement for a printed manual.

Colour is used to navigate the four operational modes and to identify the second functions of the buttons, but the use of colour doesn’t extend to the 16 track keys, which remain white in all modes. So although there are two levels of brightness (used, for example, to identify tracks that are muted), they don’t offer a massive amount of visual feedback — multi-coloured LEDs could have given so much more. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt recently by the imaginative use of colour on other chunks of French technology (the Cyclone Analogic drum machines). Anyway, red represents Live mode, green is for Step entry, yellow is for Track-related activities and, finally, blue is Sequence mode, the top level of the hierarchy.

Pyramid Scheme

It’s probably best to start with an explanation of some of the terms. Each of the 64 tracks can be a repository for notes, chords, Euclidean patterns and automation events — either MIDI CCs or for parameters of the built-in MIDI effects. A track is of variable length, from 1/4 bar up to 384 bars, and each track sends its data to the selected MIDI output and channel, to USB MIDI channels or to the CV/Gate port. A track can access up to 32 patterns, with the user left free to switch these manually during performance. However, only one can be selected per track — there’s no way to string patterns together.

To create longer structures, you begin by muting and unmuting tracks and taking a snapshot. These snapshots are stored, along with the currently selected pattern, in a Sequence. There are 32 Sequences in a project and these, too, can be selected manually in performance, but they offer the additional advantage that they can be chained together to form songs. The chain can either loop or play through just once.

As you’d expect, there are various performance-oriented ways of transitioning from one Sequence to the next. Here it’s worth a quick aside to consider the various track run modes that determine how running patterns should behave. Any track set to ‘Free’ (the default) will not have its pattern interrupted when a Sequence switches but will continue smoothly looping regardless. On the other hand, ‘Relatch’ is useful if you’d like some (or all) of your patterns to be restarted when the next Sequence begins. The final mode, ‘Trig’, tells the track’s pattern to play once through and stop — ideal for initial cymbal crashes or similar.

In Use

With two MIDI outputs and a CV/Gate output, you can assign as many hardware synths as you think necessary — or USB-accessed soft synths if you’re that way inclined. Having divided up your attached synths and taken note of their MIDI channels, it’s worth considering how to make best use of all those tracks. They’re arranged in four groups (A-D) of 16 and you’re free to allocate multiple tracks to the same instrument — indeed you’ll probably want to. It’s worth naming your tracks and being aware of other attributes that may prove important such as the patch it should play. Another example concerns whether a track should be transposable, either by incoming note data or by a ‘master transpose’ track. Typically you might wish some or all of your drum tracks never to be transposed.

I quickly decided that reserving a full page of tracks for drums made sense, and not just for ease of muting each instrument. Every track has its own set of four MIDI effects — the equivalent of a DAW’s MIDI plug-ins — and as the effects process the entire track, it makes life easier to have them separated from the outset. We’ll look at the real-time effects processors in a little while but, for now, let’s try programming a simple pattern.

The most direct and intuitive starting point is Live mode. If required there’s a metronome available to trigger a selected note on an attached instrument. Recording is then no harder than hitting the record button and playing freely, either from an external controller or using the squishy one-octave keyboard. No polyphony limits are imposed and, unless you’ve added a Quantise plug-in to the track, the recording is as natural as the 96ppqn resolution allows.

In Live mode, the pads are divided into the keyboard and ‘smart pads’. Together they take care of notes, chord generation and ‘beat repeats’. Here I must pause and give beat repeats a quick mention — it’s a variation on the old Akai MPC trick of repeating notes. In this incarnation, the lower row of buttons sets the repeat time, and the max speed of 64ths is suitably frenetic. Play any of these repeat buttons in combination with the keyboard and, voilà, the note is repeated. Naturally you can record this.

Those who prefer a traditional X0X approach can add notes in Step mode instead — and edit them that way too, regardless of how they were recorded. There are a number of navigational shortcuts available, and one I learnt early involved hitting the Step button multiple times to select the individual notes used in a pattern ready to be edited via the step keys. While in Step mode, pressing Record toggles between mono and polyphonic editing, the latter being a very fast way to wipe whole chords. The LCD graphics do a decent service here, even to the extent of offering a small but usable piano roll editor.

The Pyramid’s front panel measures 206 x 268 mm.The Pyramid’s front panel measures 206 x 268 mm.

Having built up a few tracks by a combination of live recording and step entry, Track mode is the next stage in creating a full arrangement. There you pick a group of tracks that play well together, after which you can switch to Sequence mode and select a new Sequence. By default the Pyramid copies all the current mute states to any blank new Sequence, thus it’s a realistic proposition to make dynamic structures on the fly with no fear of losing the last reference point. The song progresses by further muting and unmuting of tracks or by selecting new patterns to populate.

In no time at all you’ll have committed the most common shortcuts to memory. Some involve odd finger positions in conjunction with the push-and-turn encoders and, more often than not, two-handed operation was required. Having mastered the basics, now could be an ideal moment to study the manual’s section on time signatures, polyrhythms and polymeters. Squarp have tackled the subject with a thoroughness rarely seen, marking out the Pyramid as a hot source of polyrhythms.

If you delve into the Settings menu, you can choose between polyrhythms and polymeters — an important distinction that defines the way the sequencer behaves. Choose polyrhythms and a time-signature of 3/4 delivers bars of three quarter-notes with the bar duration the same as if it were 4/4. On the other hand, opt for polymeters and the same 3/4 signature produces shorter bars, because each quarter note now has the same length as the notes in a 4/4 bar.

Those approaching from a traditional step-sequencer background might be used to running odd-length patterns of three, seven, 12 and 14 steps against each other. Achieving this type of thing with the Pyramid is not totally straightforward but it can be done. First you must pick one of the unusual time-signatures offered (16/4). Then, by setting the Zoom value to ‘x1’, the pattern length is effectively set in steps. Once you adapt to it, this is perfectly manageable, but Squarp say they plan to make this easier in future to humour old-timers such as myself.

While playing with polyrhythms, I found the ‘Disp’ track view hugely helpful for its visualisation of the progress of each track. I recorded a simple piano piece of eight bars, copied the track and allocated the copy to a second piano module. Then I added a quarter step to the track length, a feat the Pyramid makes very easy. On the first loop the two pianos played together but after that they gradually drew apart — a fun way to turn my dull keyboard fumblings into something altogether more complex and interesting.

Having got a feel for the joys of mixed or compound time-signatures, I felt brave enough to tackle another of the Pyramid’s unusual features: Euclidean patterns. To do this, first set the track’s mode by holding the Step key and turning the main encoder. The options are: ‘note’, ‘chord’, ‘Euclid’, ‘Effects’ and ‘CC’.

Euclidean pattern mode is based on up to 16 steps and ‘fills’ — fills consist of either a single note or chord. No matter how many steps you allocate, they fit evenly across a bar, and in the case of odd numbers, they generate patterns with a decidedly different flavour once several are looping. In this mode, the ‘Disp’ key, graphics offer a good impression of what’s going on, in the form of a polygon whose corners represent the number of steps, with ‘fills’ (blobs) representing notes. Creating a few Euclidean beats from the voices of one of my ‘world’ kits instilled warm nostalgia for djembe lessons many years ago. These are the kind of multi-layered grooves you won’t get from conventional sequencers or drum machines.

If messing around with time isn’t enough, you can breathe life into your patterns by recording incoming MIDI CCs. Or why not use the assignable encoders and touchpad? Assignments for these can be made either for specific tracks or at global level, and in the latter case the assignment shifts as a new track is selected. The touchpad proved to be invaluable for drawing in controller automation, aided and abetted by on-screen graphics. However, while I applaud the manual’s enthusiastic invitation to “create an infinite number of automation” (sic) on the same track, I’m reminded that MIDI is a serial protocol and that sending tons of data to a single port is not without impact. As a worthwhile alternative to excessive controller wiggling, the Pyramid also implements a ‘step lock’ means of adding single automation events. This is a fair approximation of Elektron’s parameter locks and, as automation applies to both MIDI data and to parameters of the MIDI effects, it’s hugely versatile.

Logically enough, you can create song templates to speed up your workflow, setting attributes as required and naming tracks in advance. Similarly, there are options to ensure you auto-load the song you were last working on at power-up. In terms of storage, a 4GB SD card suitable for storing hundreds of songs is supplied, but unlike some sequencers, you must learn the habit of always saving before power off. It’s also worth noting that standard MIDI files (type 0) can be imported and exported, which opens up a whole new line of communication with your DAW.

Making Connections

The Pyramid is powered by a mini-USB adapter, which doesn’t look or feel terribly robust. If used with a computer, you could power it from a suitable cable, indeed you’d have to because there’s no option for an external power supply. And in case you were wondering, the power draw is too much for an iPad.

At the back of the Pyramid we find a power button and mini-USB port, a slot for the SD card, mini-jack sockets for VC/Gate I/O, a quarter-inch footpedal input, two MIDI outputs and a MIDI input.At the back of the Pyramid we find a power button and mini-USB port, a slot for the SD card, mini-jack sockets for VC/Gate I/O, a quarter-inch footpedal input, two MIDI outputs and a MIDI input.

The rear panel sports a single MIDI input and two separately addressable outputs. The second output is highly configurable and optionally doubles as a DIN Sync output and MIDI thru, plus you can specify whether to suppress MIDI start/stop/continue messages.

Although the Pyramid is conceptually a MIDI sequencer, CV/Gate is not left out. Indeed, there’s more of it than I first imagined. Not only is there a CV and Gate output (able to handle both Oct/V and Hz/V synths) but the ENV output can repackage various attributes of the CV track including velocity and aftertouch, as well as sending DIN Sync in a goodly number of intervals. It could therefore supply clock to your modular if required.

Via the CV/Gate inputs I experienced the rare delight of playing my MIDI instruments directly from a Roland SH101. It was also pretty fab to use a voltage from an LFO in my modular to sweep the filter on a MIDI synth. Simultaneously, another LFO could drive the transpose parameter of the Scale effect (to release magical cascades of in-key but not predictable notes). Using the CV input is as simple as making the connection while holding ‘assign’.

If all this whets your appetite for more sources, the CV pedal input (stereo) can be drafted in, taking the total to a respectable four — and naturally you can record this incoming data as easily as MIDI data. Last but not least, there’s a graphical monitor for both MIDI data and incoming CV, which is much appreciated when tracing voltage issues.

MIDI Effects

It’s heartening to see how many sequencers are going beyond straight playback and incorporating elements such as randomness, repeats and probability. The Pyramid doesn’t offer alternate playback directions or old-school features such as skip; instead it takes an approach similar to some DAWs, that of providing a selection of plug-in effects to change the way a track plays. There are four effects slots per track and they’re executed in order, with the proviso that if quantisation is used, it automatically occupies the first slot. Currently the effects are as follows: Quantizer/Humanizer, Arpeggiator, Harmonizer, Swing, Randomizer, Delay, Equalizer, Scale Edit, Note 2 CC, BPM, Chance and LFO.

Briefly (for that’s quite a list), the Quantizer/Humanizer is the expected means of forcing your notes to conform to perfect timing, but it can also introduce timing imperfections. If you record with the quantiser active, your notes are processed accordingly and you could later (eg. to save effects) reuse this slot for another effect.

The arpeggiator’s function may seem obvious, but once chained and used as input to the next effect, what began as a simple note or chord can quickly become something wilder and more wonderful. Harmonizer adds up to four new notes as offsets to the base note, while Swing performs its typical function of offsetting the even steps. Velocity is built into the swing process too, so within the same effect you can simultaneously emphasise either the odd or even notes.

The Randomizer can be aimed at note velocity, pitch or length — to accomplish several of these you’ll need to use multiple instances. The Delay function is a MIDI delay that generates extra notes with decaying velocities. At the moment it only has a limited number of intervals (eg. there are no dotted delays or triplets), but even so, it can be quite effective, especially when the feedback and delay times are automated.

The Equalizer also uses velocity, and in a rather novel way. The velocities in a pattern are increased or decreased relative to a specified note. Equally novel is the track-level Scale Edit. When enabled, notes conform to the selected scale and there are several rules controlling what happens to notes outside the scale. There are 26 scales supplied and if you’re particularly adventurous, you can combine different scales and root notes on several tracks. The only omission is a user scale creator, but I’m informed this is planned for a future update.

Note 2 CC is an effect that’s quirky but good: it extracts either the velocity or pitch from a MIDI note and translates it to a MIDI Continuous Controller of your choice — or program change, aftertouch or pitch-bend event. This can therefore be a godsend for devices that don’t respond to velocity but have MIDI CCs for other parameters.

Next, BPM allows you to define tempo events or draw in gradual tempo changes. And Chance simply applies a percentage chance of each note playing to the sequencer engine. One of its cooler options is ‘velocity’, in which the percentage value is plucked directly from each note’s velocity value. This means you can fine-tune the chances on a per-note basis. Further options include the ability to differentiate notes within a chord or to specify probability at beat level. The latter would be sweet if you wanted to ensure the most tightly played notes had the highest likelihood of being heard.

Finally, there’s a synchronised LFO with a variety of waveforms and speeds that can be directed to the MIDI CC or your choice (with aftertouch, program change, etc, as alternatives).

Taken together, this is a comprehensive suite of MIDI processors that grow in power when several are used in series. When editing effects, the encoders automatically take over the parameters and the whole thing is so much fun, I frequently used all four effects slots at once — and on many tracks. Currently lacking is any means of ‘printing’ or ‘bouncing’ these effects, other than by physically routing a MIDI cable to the input and recording a new track. It also seems that some would have been better as global (rather than track-level) effects. I’m thinking particularly of Swing, BPM and Scale Edit. If you desire all your tracks forced to a particular scale, the only way at present involves adding an identical MIDI effect to every one.

Conclusion

This is a superior hardware sequencer with a very versatile nature thanks to treats such as Euclidean patterns, MIDI effects and a serious attempt at polyrhythms. Although there are quite a lot of button and encoder combinations to master, it’s worth the effort. The more you learn, the easier it is to build songs and throw in performance flair via the touchpad and smartpads.

With the inclusion of CV/Gate and USB MIDI, the Pyramid is not fixated purely on MIDI hardware and is therefore effective in a mixed environment. While you might wish for more outputs (MIDI and CV), the choices made have resulted in a relatively affordable, portable package. It’s not perfect, however. For a start, it doesn’t feel particularly substantial and neither the rubber buttons nor mini-USB connectivity suggest the highest production values. There’s also no denying that the screen is very small given it’s a window to such a large world, but if you can cope with Elektron gear or similar, you’ll get by. Personally, I wouldn’t let any of these issues hold me back from enjoying the Pyramid very much. For sequencing fire-power and innovation, it represents tremendous value for money, and Squarp Instruments are committed to regular OS updates based on user feedback.

Alternatives

There are hardware sequencers to suit any budget now, from the simple but enjoyable Arturia Beatstep Pro to the massively versatile Sequentix Cirklon. Perhaps the nearest rival is the Social Entropy Engine, which has just eight tracks and a much simpler interface (no screen), but also a generally more direct approach to sequencing. The even simpler Kilpatrick Carbon has a colour screen and might be worth a look if analogue is a priority: it has four CV/Gate outputs. Lastly, it’s worth remembering that machines such as the Elektron Octatrack, Akai MPC Live and the Synthstrom Deluge include sequencing too — and a whole lot more.

Published July 2017