Anatek Pocket Sequencer
When inspiration strikes and you're out of reach of a sequencer, Anatek's latest Pocket unit can save your soul, if not your life. Vic Lennard picks a pocket.
Forget the compositional power of software-based sequencers, forget their editing options and scorewriting facilities - consider instead a sequencer small enough to fit in your pocket.
MOST OF US know how unpleasant an unexpected attack of inspiration can be - you're sitting at a keyboard in a music shop or at a piano in a pub, and suddenly the notes start to flow. You finger the chords, the melody rings through your head, the drum beat is instinctive... You arrive home anxious to capture your inspiration in your sequencer - but somehow your brain suffers a system reset just as you flick the mains switch on your own keyboard. The melody line has evaporated, the chords are in the wrong order and the drum beat has become a tom fill from EastEnders.
I suppose it's a sign of the times that so many of us rely on sequencers to store our ideas instead of the "tadpoles on telephone lines" that served the classical greats so well. However, ideas are often instantaneous and a sequencer small enough to fit in your pocket could be an attractive aide memoire when it comes to those moments of inspiration. Well, wait no longer - Anatek, the Pocket Product people from Canada - have just released their Pocket Sequencer.
THE POCKET SEQUENCER is of the standard Pocket Series size (about 8cm x 5cm x 3cm). On the top is a three-way toggle switch with Record/Stop-Continue/Play and three LEDs. The right-hand (red) LED is the power/MIDI activity indicator, the left-hand (red) LED shows the condition of the record buffer and the bar metronome, while the centre (green) LED is used for the beat metronome and to show that data is being saved to memory.
There are sockets on the side for MIDI In and Out, and a footswitch, which is used to control the sequencer functions. Finally there is a slot which takes a small, plastic 256kBit card (with lithium battery back-up for memory), one of which is included with the package. Anatek have cheekily emblazoned "256k" on the side of the card as this infers its storage capacity is 256kBytes while it actually stores only 32kBytes. In fact, some 7kBytes of the card are taken-up by the operating system so reducing the RAM to around 25kBytes.
If you've read any of MT's previous reviews on the Pocket range you will already have guessed that Pocket Sequencer, like its stablemates, is powered via the 5 volt MIDI line.
POCKET SEQUENCER HANDLES 16 tracks of MIDI sequencing with a resolution of 96 pulses per quarter note, and is capable of recording all MIDI data including System Exclusive for synth memory dumps. Of the unit's 16 tracks, each is dedicated to one of the 16 available MIDI channels. This means that it works best with a keyboard which can change its MIDI channel output assignment. A soft Thru is automatically provided so that you can hear pre-recorded tracks along with whatever you are currently playing, without needing a merge box.
Using the three-way toggle switch is inconvenient - it's a shame that Anatek have opted for these instead of three separate switches. At least there is an alternative with Pocket Sequencer via the footswitch socket - a non-latching footswitch will operate most of the functions. The polarity is checked when the sequencer powers up.
As with any sequencer, you need to set Pocket Sequencer's tempo/metronome click and time signature before you start work. Pressing and holding the Stop/Continue button causes the green LED to flash at the current tempo, and an internal sounder bleeps along to the beat. You can now set the tempo by tapping in beats either on Middle C, the control bar or the footswitch. Holding down the control bar then sets this tempo, with a rather rude tone advising you of this. Pocket Sequencer uses various different tones to guide you around its functions. You set the time signature in a similar way except that instead of pressing Middle C, there's an enclosed chart for reference. The white notes between C3 (MIDI note number 64) and E5 (88) are used for this setting. The tempo and time signature set initially cannot be changed during the course of a song.
To record the first track, press the record (left) side of the control bar and the red LED indicating Record status comes on. A tap on the footswitch gives you a one-bar count, and then you're off. When you finish, another press on the footswitch stops the sequencer and leaves the red LED flashing to inform you that there is data in the record buffer. Press the footswitch again and the track plays back. Quantisation involves entering the same mode that was used for tempo setting and further reference to the chart - white notes between C2 (MIDI note number 48) and B2 (59) are used for the various quantise values, with C#2 (49) turning quantise off. Playback again - you can change the quantise value if you get it wrong. More to the point, if you record again on this track, the quantise will act as a pre-record option. Unfortunately, this means that you can't set different quantise options for different parts of the same track.
If the recorded track is now OK, you need to save it to the RAM card by pressing and holding the Record button. If the track has failings, you have two options: to re-record from the top or to punch in and out on the offending section. You can't do this from the footswitch - you have to double-click on the Record button to enter Punch-in mode. Set the sequencer to play, and the moment you press a note, it changes to Record mode with the footswitch stopping as before.
You can also do overdubs where the new notes played in are merged with the existing ones on the track. As this is unlikely to be at the start of the track, the record and play buttons act as fast forward and rewind once the sequencer is in Play mode. It would have been helpful if some markings had been included on Pocket Sequencer's screening to remind us of this. If you use the transport controls, you can also stop at any point and then drop into record there.
Multitrack recording is a straightforward continuation from here: change the MIDI output channel of the keyboard and record as before (although you will now hear any notes which have already been recorded and saved to the RAM card). You can even toggle between a take on RAM card and a different take in the record buffer. If you want to have the entire song repeating, there is also a loop facility.
"Alternatively, Pocket Sequencer offers anybody who fancies the latest bank of sounds from someone else's keyboard, the ideal medium with which to steal them."
On the erase front, you have the option of targeting a single track or the entire memory. As the number of the track is associated with the MIDI channel number, you simply enter erase mode and press any note on the keyboard. Beware though, if you've reset the keyboard's MIDI channel since recording the track you now wish to erase, as this method will bin the wrong track.
Pocket Sequencer responds to MIDI Clock and Song Position Pointer if you are syncing it to an external sequencer or drum machine. It also outputs MIDI Clock, Start, Stop and Continue commands as well as Song Position Pointer, so you can use it as a master device. Useful this - you could program your drums on a drum machine and the rest of the keyboards on Pocket Sequencer to save sequencer memory.
From running various experiments, it appears that Pocket Sequencer will save around 22Kbytes of SysEx data. This will handle the edit buffer from any synth (which is usually less than 1Kbyte) and will also record a patch dump from the likes of the Yamaha DX7 and Roland Alpha Juno. Unfortunately, most of the modern synths have SysEx dumps in excess of 22kB including the Korg M1, Roland D50 and Oberheim Matrix 1000.
POCKET SEQUENCER RECORDS everything - including All Notes Off messages. Some manufacturers transmit this MIDI message from a MIDI keyboard each time all notes have been released to ensure that any notes left hanging by the loss of a note off are silenced. A problem occurs here, however, when you overdub. As the track is playing back, every time an All Notes Off message appears, it cuts off the new notes you're playing. Anatek are considering adapting their operating system to handle this.
Another drawback is that you can't turn individual tracks on and off at playback - you have to erase a specific track to mute it. While this is a shortcoming of the unit, however, you could simply turn down the sound source as an external means of muting.
To help keep down the delays associated with MIDI's serial nature, Pocket Sequencer uses running status to play back pitchbend and aftertouch. However, it uses a 9nH message for notes on and 8nH for notes off, so retaining and transmitting the note-off velocity value. Bearing in mind the small number of devices which respond to note off velocity, perhaps it would have been better to use 9nH with a velocity of zero for note off. This would have allowed running status to be utilised for notes as well. Pocket Sequencer actually uses this method if a lot of quantisation is used, to give a maximum storage of about 6000 notes. However, if recordings are made in real-time, you could get as little as 2500 notes. In use, I got a figure of around 3500 notes. The reason for this is the storing of the timing of MIDI events, which also utilises RAM. Perhaps Anatek should mention the point that the number of recordable events is increased if quantising is used.
IT'S AN INTERESTING idea, a 16-track sequencer that you can whip out of your pocket at a moment's notice. Admittedly, you'd need to carry a footswitch to make Pocket Sequencer friendly, but it is possible to run it from the control bar at a pinch. And there are no mains or battery problems - all you need is a couple of MIDI leads and a keyboard (or any other MIDI controller). Anyone of a creative nature could benefit from Pocket Sequencer. Alternatively, Pocket Sequencer offers anybody who fancies the latest bank of sounds from someone else's keyboard the ideal medium with which to steal them - perhaps Anatek should include a sticker marked "Swag" for such occasions.
The main drawback of Pocket Sequencer is that you can only record one song on each RAM card, irrespective of the amount of memory still free. This is also true for SysEx dumps - you're only allowed one of these, and you can't use Pocket Sequencer for SysEx and a song at the same time. Looked at this way, £159 (the cost of Pocket Sequencer) is excessive for a one-dump or one-song sequencer. The cost of extra RAM cards has yet to be announced.
Still, Pocket Sequencer works, and may well find a market among those requiring extreme portability and those in love with MIDI gadgetry for its own sake. Considered as a first-time or main working sequencer, however, Pocket Sequencer doesn't make too much sense.
Price £159 including VAT.
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Review by Vic Lennard
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