Hardware sequencing has come into prominence in recent years, with the infamous 'd-word' (dawless) being synonymous with insta-style videos alluding to an idyllic escapism from the shackles of a computer. In reality, this form of making music has been around since the dawn of electronic instruments, at a time when computers weren't at the centre of the show.
So in a sense then, hardware sequencing has come full circle... or should that be cirkle? We're here to look at the options for jamming away from the daw, looking at the progression of sequencing electronic music.
ARP 1601 Sequencer
The ARP sequencer in combination with the 2600
Produced in 1976, the ARP Sequencer was one of the first on the market. It consists of two 8-step sequencers which can run as a full 16-step pattern or as two concurrent 8-step sequences. The beauty of the machine was it's quantization circuitry which would adjust the slider output voltage to the nearest relative note, having it play a familiar scale rather than a-tonal madness. The innovations didn't stop there, each note step has a bus switch above the slider to route notes to one of 3 specified outputs. No wonder it was used by the likes of John Carpenter, Depeche Mode and The Human League. Second hand market price: £?,???
See the Arp Sequencer in action.
Roger Linn covers the basics of the MPC60
The cornerstone of the Hiphop scene and the godfather of the all-in-one machines that were to follow - the MP60 was designed by Roger Linn in collaboration with Akai. The MPC3000 followed and many more versions over the years. Each one features sampling and sequencing in one box, controlled by a grid of velocity sensitive pads, buttons and faders - built to last and designed to be more intuitive beat making machines than the failed Linn 9000. Roger Linn went on to release the Linnstrument which is a more familiar grid-based sequencer. Second hand market price: £1,500
A love letter to the MMT-8 by SunshineJones
This standalone sequencer was incredibly fully-featured and reliable when it was released in the late 80s - it was used by a host of electronic artists including Orbital on Chime. The MMT-8 allows for up to 8 MIDI tracks to be recorded and played back, with a total of 100 patterns and 100 songs to be arranged and stored in temporary memory. Although it doesn't allow you to save anything on the unit itself, songs can be exported via MIDI and stored externally. It's still going strong in modern times with mods available to expand the memory by 16 times! Second hand market price: £70-100
RM1x Soundscapes by meecek
The RM1X by Yamaha is a fine example of the 90s era groove boxes - an all in one sequencer, sampler and synth with lots of on-board effects and features. Designed as a tabletop unit which could be rack mounted, it has the distinctive style of a 'Dance Music Machine'. Features include an arpeggiator, 22 Effects, and over 650 on-board sounds. There's a chromatic keyboard along the lower section and will allow you to play and record polyphonic sequences and a floppy drive to back up your tracks to floppy disk. Second hand market price: £225
Video from MIDERA
Sold as the all-in-one production suite in 2001 and used by many live electronic artists including Ceephax Acid Crew, the Yamaha RS700 is a fairly low key contender with lots of things going for it. It's got 4MB of memory (upgradable to 64MB), beat slicing features and a tone generator with 1000+ Synth sounds and 16 Drum Kits. It has numerous on-board effects, SmartMedia backups and a 200,000 note per song limitation - which should suffice, unless you're making black MIDI music! The RS7000 is the big brother to the RM1X thanks to its extensive features - and its price reflected that. Second hand market price: £500
E-MU MP-7 / XL-7 Command Station
Video from Miami Nites
From the left field of the sequencers come the EMU MP-7 and XP-7 - which somehow manage to encompass the streetwise 90s aesthetics and ethos in a single unit. It has an MPC-influenced design with the superb Proteus 2000 engine containing the Xtreme Lead or Mo-Phatt sounds respectively. This means excellent sound sets from the off with big beats, bold leads and rich textures beaming out from the on-board ROMs. It's backed up using some bundled software which might need some clever IT skills in modern times - but it definitely will deliver some big beats! Second hand market price: £400
Video by Sequentix
Bringing us up to modern day is the holy grail of sequencing - the Sequentix Cirklon as used by Aphex Twin, The Chemical Brothers, Philip Oakie and a host of other prominent artists (check the artists page). It's the hardware enthusiasts dream with 5 independent MIDI ports, expandable CV and gate outputs as well as USB MIDI. The second edition is pricey but you're paying for a feature rich sequencer, tank-like build quality and a full colour TFT touch screen. Mk1 second hand market price: £1,500
Video by loopop
Fresh out of France is the Pyramid, a modern 64 track sequencer which is designed to be your hardware and computer hub. It has limitless notes, cc's and effects per step, backs up everything to SD card and covers 40 years of sequencing connections with MIDI in/out, USB MIDI, CV/Gate in/out and Din Sync out. It also covers an impressive range of MIDI options including a quantizer, arpeggiator, swing, harmoniser and scaler - all of which can be sent to any of the available outputs. New price £680
Just like the original ARP, a number of CV sequencers are out there, offering the chance to sequence notes and parameters through control voltages alone. Having a finite step length may seem limiting, but this will only seek to push music makers to be more ingenious solutions - making odd step lengths, dividing the clock and even triggering steps via audio. The Doepfer DarkTime is one of the most expensive options, with the newly remade Korg SQ-1 next in line followed by the likes of the Rakit Baby 8 which is supremely affordable.
No Sequencer? No problem...
Many drum machines and groove boxes have their own built in sequencers, so it's easy to keep them synced with other gear using MIDI clock - taking the sequencer out of the picture. With multiple clocked devices it's possible to send the outputs to a mixing desk for live arrangements emanating from the combinations of tracks being muted, tweaked and soloed. Gear such as the Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators use pulse-clock instead of MIDI and you will find devices that will convert between them - such as the Korg Volcas. No excuse not to jam!
So, there we have a look at a brief history of sequencing. Getting away from screens is a daily challenge so in spite of the fashionable 'dawless' buzzword - there is definitely something to be said for making music without conventional visual feedback.
What sequencers have you enjoyed using over the years?
VCVRack 2, 5 Modern Poly Synths, Faderboard
UA Volt, Berna 3, Chiptunes and Thriller vocals
Patch flip and exploration
New mini Hydrasynth and Soma Cosmos pairing