Monday, March 01, 2004

the bench intro to sequencing part 1

by J. Phoenix ~ Things have busy in the Phoenix Lab lately, getting ready for an mp3 release of tracks called :Beats:. They'll be available this month. They're what I spent this winter recording, and are low tempo, chill-out grooves. Hope you'll check them out, and let me know what you think of them.

March was supposed to have been on the subject of synthesis, however, that will have to be delayed until next month. Instead, we're going to cover the basics of Sequencing, one of the most important and useful things a producer can learn.

Essentially sequencing is using a piece of hardware or software to "write" music to be played back, just like composers of old would write the music for an orchestra to play. The difference is that they were restricted to pen and paper, where we have graphic interfaces, visual cues, and the ability to instantly listen to our musical thoughts being played back. Sequencing can also be looked at as arranging notes, bits of recorded sound, or drum hits in sequence to create music.

There are several types of sequencers that exist, but the basics remain the same throughout. A sequencer will be concerned with the pitch of the note it is playing, and the duration of those notes. All sequencers will allow you to arrange notes and when and how long those notes will be played. There are two primary types of sequencers that most of us will have to deal with.

The first is primarily used for drum sequencing first being seen with the classic Roland 808. It is a sixteen step sequencer, with each step representing a 16th note, and all 16 steps representing one bar or measure of music.

The picture shows you what Propellerhead's Reason Redrum's 16 step sequencer looks like to give you an idea. Using the sequencer, you can create a drum beat easily. For example, to create the ever-present four to the floor thump, you simply lay down notes on 1, 5, 7, and 13.

Sequencers often have a means to control velocity, or how hard/loud a note will play. Reason uses a 3 step system for their Redrum drum machine, soft, medium, and hard. So, for example, we could take the same four to the floor, but make the bass hit like thump, Thump, THUMP, Thump.

A sixteen step sequencer is great for laying out rhythm sequences, as it gives you a quick visual response for what you are creating in step. However, it isn't necessarily the best way to sequence things with pitch, like sequencing a melody on a synthesizer. For that we run into the second type of sequencer, usually referred to as Piano Roll, Keyboard, or Grid. Reason's Matrix Pattern Sequencer controller is a good representation of a Piano Roll sequencer.

Like the Redrum 16-step sequencer, the Matrix sequencer is concerned with when a note plays, and how long it plays, but it goes one step further, allowing you to control what pitch the note will play and allows you to sustain notes longer. It also has a more detailed velocity section for fine-tuning how hard a note is played. I've highlighted specific sections on the Matrix to explain them better. The Green highlight shows you the set up for pitches of notes.

You can see an octave keyboard on its side, and connected to that is a switch. Where the keyboard touches the black and red grid shows you which pitch is playing. The switch goes between 5 octaves of notes, allowing you to sequence upper and lower registers of pitch. The red marks in the black grid are the notes themselves in time. Each note is a 16th note normally, but you can tie notes together to make them longer.

This highlights the velocity/duration part of the sequencer. Below the notes, there is a wave pattern. That pattern shows you the velocity of the notes being played. The higher the line, the harder/louder the note will be played. The velocity graph also lets you tie notes together, allowing you to make notes last longer than 16th notes. You could make a note sustain the entire measure if you wanted. The Matrix can also be made longer up to 32 steps, allowing you to sequence a two-measure pattern.

To get the best understanding of sequencing, my suggestion would be to start looking into music theory, if you haven't been exposed to it. It will teach you the most about what you need to know on rhythm, melody, notes, and pitch and their relationship to each other. In this article for space's sake, I really didn't want to go into details on the music theory behind sequencing, Tune in next month for Sequencers, guest-columned with TJ of d33p thou9ht and Two J's and some T. TJ once read The Beginner's Guide To Electronic Music (all 900 pages) and we haven't been able to get him to stop talking about sine waves, side-band frequencies, and resonant filters since then. Dictionary not included.

One last note: You might have noticed the screen shots in this article are from the Propellerhead's program Reason. From here on out I will be utilizing screen shots of Reason and will be using screen shots from Sonic Foundry's Soundforge to demonstrate ideas. This allows a common ground between readers familiar with Reason, and Soundforge; it also makes things simpler to demonstrate. To anyone looking for software to begin producing with, I recommend Reason to start with. Props to Propellerheads, you can find their software at

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