From the creators of the first digital drum machine comes the world's most powerful MIDI controller - the new Linn Sequencer. Mark Jenkins believes it could well cause a lot of us to re-think the way we record.
Mark Jenkins believes the Linn Sequencer, the newly introduced 32-track MIDI recorder from the designers of the first digital drum machine, could well mark the end of the recording process as we know it. Doubtful? Then read on...
That may seem like a sweeping statement, but the Linn and its drum-equipped predecessor, the Linn 9000, are both capable of controlling MIDI synths in such a comprehensive manner as to make recording tape almost redundant. In fact, bands such as the Human League have already discussed reducing the size of their demo facilities from twenty-four track to eight-track since going over to composition on a Linn.
What we have in the Linn Sequencer is the MIDI compositional section of the Linn 9000 without the drums. Launched just over a year ago, the 9000 took off in a big way despite a need for software updates to the earlier models, but remained very much in the professional price bracket.
While the Linn Sequencer doesn't look anything like the earlier model, being squeezed into a familiar nineteen-inch rack mounting format, it is similar internally and in its softwaregenerated capabilities. More importantly, it's affordable - just £1695, which is much less than the Yamaha QX1 was at the time of its launch, and much more powerful.
While the Linn 9000's controls are laid out as a column of silver buttons, the Linn Sequencer has its controls on two sets of touch membrane keypads, plus an LCD display and a few odd controls. This may give the initial impression that there's a lot missing, but in fact the LCD display is positively verbose in its indication of record and edit options, and many of these can be selected simply by pushing the Increase/Decrease or Yes/No buttons.
At its simplest level,the Linn Sequencer is a thirty-two channel polyphonic MIDI sequencer with realtime operation. Step Time software should also be available by the time you read this, but the existing software can auto-correct music to the nearest quarter note, so your playing doesn't have to be terribly precise to use it for very regular beat programming.
The Linn Sequencer works just like a multitrack tape recorder (part of the reason why you may be saying goodbye to your existing tape machine soon) and depends very much on easy to understand Play/Stop/Record/Rewind/FF/Locate controls. The basic LCD display shows a Pattern Number, Name, Bar Number, Track Number, MIDI Channel Number and Status, so a typical start-up display could read 00-Chorus BR:65 TRK:1 CH:1 RCRD.
From this point, all you have to do is hit Record and Play, and perform on the MIDI keyboard. The Linn Sequencer will record as many bars as you've programmed and then slip back into Play mode for the existing notes, although you can continue to overdub new notes on subsequent passes.
Once the first track is recorded, you can select another track simply by moving the cursor to TRK with the Left and Right arrow keys and punching in a new number. You'll want to change the MIDI channel number of the next track, and it's logical to keep the channel number the same as the track number for convenience's sake. Once this is done you're ready to go again; you can record thirty-two separate tracks, each of which can be assigned to any of the sixteen MIDI channels, and all tracks can be sixteen-note polyphonic with full recording of key velocity, sustain, after-touch, pitch-bend, modulation and patch changes.
The capacity of the Linn Sequencer is 100 sequences, and these can be either short patterns or long chains of patterns forming Songs - the Linn doesn't differentiate between the two. Each of the thirty-two possible tracks can be 999 bars long, although one which has been created in Song mode can be longer and can have an infinite repeat on the last few bars for a fade-out. A very clever touch that one.
"The main problem with the Linn Sequencer is that it may cause you to completely rethink your approach to recording."
The built-in disk drive on the Linn Sequencer (storing patterns to tape was never this much fun) permits storage of around 110,000 notes on disk in just a few seconds, and the fact that you can reload a whole disk or a particular track in equally few seconds makes the Linn Sequencer ideal for live work as well assessions.
As we mentioned, music can be recorded with auto-correction from a quarter note to real-time. You can also set Auto Repeat on, and this repeats any note held at the same speed as the Auto-Correct function. Editing is highly versatile - you can erase any track or portion of a track, or any notes you like simply by holding them down on the keyboard while in Erase mode. Obviously this takes a certain degree of skill, but the Step Time software will make editing even easier.
As the design philosophy of the Linn Sequencer is based on a multitrack tape recorder, it's possible to Solo or Mute tracks at will. This is astonishingly handy for careful checking of your overdubs, and can be carried out very quickly. It's also possible to store a bar number in memory and skip to it at anytime by hitting the Locate button, or to programme a short loop around a small section of memory while you work on a particular overdub.
Obviously, tempo is programmable, and it's also possible to programme changes of tempo within a pattern these can be sharp or smooth as desired. It's also possible to tap in a new tempo, even while the Linn Sequencer is already playing, simply by hitting Tap a couple of times in the rhythm of your new beat. When you do this, the machine automatically calculates the new tempo and switches to it.
Before you start recording a track, you may well want a count-in, and the Linn can generate one from its Metronome output. This can be in any time signature, and once again time signatures or changes of time signature are programmable for each separate track. Once pattern recording has begun you can slip out of Record back into Play mode, but that doesn't mean you can't return easily to Record mode for drop-ins - just hit Record again if any last minute overdubs take your fancy.
Building up complex sequences couldn't be easier, because the LCD display acts as an idiot's guide to sequencing. You hardly need to look at the handbook of the Linn Sequencer before beginning to work with it - the display will ask you what function you want, how many bars you want to deal with, what the start and end points are, where you want the music copied to, and so on. As if this isn't enough, there's even a Help button which will call up an explanation of your options on the display and tell you what buttons you need to push to obtain the desired result!
You're fairly flexible in the way tracks can be built up, and quite often you won't have to play parts several times since the Linn Sequencer has an advanced Insert/Copy function. Bars can be moved from one location to another, in the same sequence or a different one, and this means that you can copy whole verses or choruses rather than risk playing them incorrectly a second time. You can delete bars in a similar manner, and also step through the pattern using the Single Step function to locate and correct problematic notes. It couldn't be easier.
"The built-in disk drive... permits storage of around 110,000 notes on disk in just a few seconds."
Any or all tracks can be transposed using a MIDI keyboard, and in the final software revision this transposition will be recordable.
Once you've mastered the techniques of copying and transposing sequences you can go into Song Create mode, which allows you to play chains of any sequence for any number of bars. If you want to play only the first eight bars of a thirty-two bar sequence at the start of a song, that's OK - the Linn Sequencer will cut down the sequence for you as appropriate during the copying process.
Obviously you'll want to store your finished sequences to disk, and you can hit the Alpha button to make the keypad act as an alphanumeric pad so that you can allocate names to your sequences before storage. You can step through a directory of the sequence names on any disk, and the Linn Sequencer formats its own disks (perfectly standard 3¼" disks costing around £4 each) so there are no hidden extra costs.
This is pretty advanced on the Linn Sequencer. Although it has been announced as an option, SMPTE will probably become standard, and apart from the MIDI inputs and outputs there are also two programmable click outputs, two programmable footswitch connectors which can become Start/Stop/Locate/Repeat and so on, and a Metronome output. The click outputs can deal with other Linns, with drum machines from other manufacturers and soon, but you'll need a small convertor unit to drive Roland Sync 24 machines.
It's fair to say that the Linn Sequencer has been 'human engineered', but there are ways to make its playing even more human. The Time Correct function has a Shuffle setting which you can select from 0-5, and this introduces small random errors into the playback timing for a more natural feel. Another human engineering aspect is the provision of a Remote Control unit which is wired into the back of the Linn. This is an option, but a fairly valuable one since it puts the Erase, Repeat, Tempo, Rewind, Locate, Fwd, Record, Stop and Play functions right into your hand.
Since the Linn Sequencer will usually be hidden out of the way in a nineteen-inch rack (the rack mounting flanges are standard, by the way), the Remote Control seems a good idea. But, in fact, you can't afford to site the Linn Sequencer too far out of reach in a typical studio set-up, since it's very likely to become the nerve centre of your entire operation, and you will need to refer to the LCD display and keypad quite frequently.
Overall, it's very hard to criticise the Linn Sequencer at all. It's enormously powerful but terribly straightforward to use, and if you have any problems it even tells you how to solve them. It's well-equipped with synchronisation systems and MIDI facilities, well-constructed and very fast in operation.
The main problem with the Linn Sequencer is that it may cause you to completely rethink your approach to recording. Perhaps that money you'd put aside for improved acoustic isolation in the drum booth or an upgrade to your tape machine could be better spent on a Linn Sequencer and a couple of MIDI expanders? Perhaps it's time to trade in the 24-track for a Teac 4-track (you know - one track forSMPTE, one for guitar and two for vocals), and run everything else live from the Linn Sequencer to the master tape. If these are the sort of thoughts produced by an hour-long demo of the Linn Sequencer, what would happen if you actually went out and bought one?
Review by Mark Jenkins
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