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Logic Pro: The Step Sequencer

Apple Logic Pro X Tips & Techniques By Stephen Bennett
Published December 2020

Screen 1: The Step Sequencer in action. The Inspector panel to the lower left lets you access key parameters such as step rate and pattern length.Screen 1: The Step Sequencer in action. The Inspector panel to the lower left lets you access key parameters such as step rate and pattern length.

Finally, Logic Pro X catches up with, and in many ways improves upon, the step sequencers in other DAWs.

For years, users of Logic Pro X have looked enviously at how much better rival DAW programs handle step‑time MIDI data input. Logic Pro X’s Hyper Editor (now called, confusingly, the Step Editor) could be beaten into shape to work as a step sequencer, but compared to how Logic Pro X’s competitors approached this type of music creation, it was clunky and non‑intuitive. While the Step Editor remains, Logic Pro X 10.5’s Step Sequencer finally beats the beats into shape.

The Basics

To get started, create a new Software Instrument Track from the main Track menu. Load Drum Machine Designer on it and select a kit from the Library. Right click on the Region area on the Main page and select Create Pattern Region. This drops in a 4‑bar Step Pattern Region, with 16 steps per bar, onto the Main page and opens up the Step Sequencer at the bottom of the screen. You’ll see there’s a group of grey boxes; this is where you’ll enter your MIDI events. The Step Sequencer window has many of the usual features you’ll find in Logic Pro X’s windows, namely Mute and Solo buttons, a Zoom slider and a ‘fill the screen fully vertically’ icon next to it. Any virtual instrument installed in Logic Pro X can be used with the Step Sequencer.

Even though the Step Sequencer is ideal for non‑real‑time input, you will also probably want to add steps ‘on the fly’. Clicking on a grey box adds a note if the Step On/Off parameter is highlighted, and you can drag along the individual ‘rows’ to generate a lot of steps all in one go — all steps are quantised on input. If you don’t want to hear the new steps as you add them, set the green MIDI Out parameter (the little MIDI plug icon) to off. If you click on the little speaker icon, your step sequence will play in a loop so you can add steps as it runs or, if you want to hear other parts of your Project as well, use the Space bar to start playback of the whole Project. To delete steps, just click on the step again.

If you open the Local Inspector (from the View menu; see Screen 1, above) you’ll see several parameters that can affect the whole step sequence or parts of it. You can change the Step Rate (how long the beats play for), set a swing value, change the overall direction of sequence travel (Playback Mode), adjust the Pattern Length and apply a scale quantise, which makes sure anything you play stays in the key of the song. If you select pattern lengths that cannot be accommodated on a single screen, you’ll see little boxes appear for the extra steps. These are called Pages, and you click on them to edit that extended part of the sequence.

In A Row

The Row section of the Inspector allows you to change the step rate for individual rows, adjust playback directions for that row only, and define where the loop for that row starts and stops, as well as setting the automation mode for that row. Most of the parameters in the Step section are quite self‑explanatory, and it’s the place where the nuts and bolts of MIDI events are adjusted. If you’re used to using hardware sequencers, the Gate parameter will be familiar as it defines the time a trigger signal is applied to a MIDI note. However, many of these parameters are more easily adjusted in real time using the Velocity/Value pull‑down menu items, shown in Screen 2.

Screen 2: The Velocity/Value drop‑down menu.Screen 2: The Velocity/Value drop‑down menu.Velocity values of individual steps can be adjusted here by dragging the little line that appears up and down, as can their note values and therefore which sound they play back. You can jump octaves, skip selected notes, define how many times they repeat (you can get some really nice noises at high repeat values), set the gate length, offset each note’s start to create specific grooves and change the step rate.

What this all boils down to is that we have terrific control over the horizontal and vertical of every step — something Vince Clark would have killed for in the 1980s. The Chance parameter defines how likely it is that a note is played back, making it easy to input some randomness into your sequences if that’s what you want. Click on either edge of a step when Tie is selected, and it connects it to the adjacent step. You can visually adjust loop start and ends for the individual rows from here as well, as in Screen 3.

Screen 3: Adjusting loop lengths in the Step Sequencer.Screen 3: Adjusting loop lengths in the Step Sequencer.

Hardware sequencers are, of course, used for more than just creating and processing MIDI note data, and the same is true for the Step Sequencer. It can also be used to automate the parameters of Instruments and effects on a track. To do this, select the last row in the Step edit window, and choose Learn from the Cross icon under the Edit menu. A red Learn button will appear. Adjust a parameter on the Track (in my example I’ve used the distortion Drive parameter), and turn Learn off when you’re done. Make sure Step On/Off is selected, and drag right across the steps in the Drive Automation lane to highlight them and make them active.

If you click on the little triangle on the left, you’ll see the values for that automation parameter, which can be adjusted directly (Screen 4). Which numbers you are actually adjusting depends on the parameters chosen in the Automation Value menu, many of which have similar functions to those in the Velocity/Value menu, but act on automation data rather than the MIDI data that plays the actual notes.

Screen 4: Using the Step Sequencer to apply automation.Screen 4: Using the Step Sequencer to apply automation.

Pretty Poly

While the Step Sequencer will work in any meter, the prog rocker in me was a tad disappointed to find that individual rows or complete Step Sequencer Regions cannot be set to different time signatures, as I’m quite fond of having several instruments playing across bars only to come together when the multiples of fours align. I did, however, manage to get it working like this after a fashion — see Screen 5.

Screen 5: You can set up complex polyrhythms by adding Step Sequencer Regions in one time signature, changing the signature, and then adding other Step Sequencer Regions.Screen 5: You can set up complex polyrhythms by adding Step Sequencer Regions in one time signature, changing the signature, and then adding other Step Sequencer Regions.

First, set the time signature to 4/4, create a step sequence, and fill it with notes. Now create another track, change the time signature to 7/8 and create another Step Sequencer Region. You then need to change all the rows in the 7/8 Region to a pattern value of a multiple of the numerator — 14 works well in this case — and enter your notes. Once recorded, set the time signature back to 4/4. The first Region and the second Region will then play back in their respective time signatures.

You can continue to add Regions with multiple time signatures in this fashion, and it works well if you remember to adjust the pattern value to a multiple of the signature’s numerator. The Step Sequencer really needs a parameter to set the time signature for individual Step Sequencer Regions. Just adding more pattern length step values would do it, so I hope this appears in an update for us polyrhythmic types.

Conclusion

Finally, Logic Pro X catches up with, and in many ways improves upon, the step sequencers in other DAWs. Programming it from a pad controller is great fun, and you can build up complex patterns quickly in real time and then do some extensive fine tuning afterwards. Using the same controller to work with the Step Sequencer and Live Loops is pretty mind‑blowing, opening up the possibilities for true live performances using Logic Pro X. There are some preset patterns and templates available too so you can quickly see what the Step Sequencer is capable of — just click the icon to the right of the View menu to see these. Like the Live Looper, the Step Sequencer is not just for the creation of EDM, and I can see it being used from everything from experimental music to controlling MIDI lighting rigs. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.  

Steps & Loops

The Step Sequencer works nicely with the Live Loops feature of Logic Pro X 10.5. Step Sequencer Regions can be created directly in Loop Cells by right‑clicking, in the same way as you do in the Main page Step Sequencer Regions. Step Sequencer Regions work together with the Main page Regions in just the same fashion as Live Loops do. You can read more about Live Loops in the October 2020 issue of this magazine.

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