Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI analogue sequencer
Ian Waugh unveils the secrets of a good old-fashioned analogue sequencer that generates MIDI data, courtesy of some good old-fashioned German R&D from manufacturers Doepfer, with a little help from their friends Kraftwerk. Vorsprung durch technik, as Ian says.
Analogue sequencing for the MIDI studio - is this sixteen steps to heaven?
Whoa! Hold on a minute! Before you gallop gaily on (or however on you tend to gallop) read that title again - MIDI Analogue Sequencer. Isn't that a contradiction in terms? And who wants an analogue sequencer these days when we already have dozens of incredibly clever digital sequencers? Well, Doepfer - the manufacturer - obviously think someone does. In fact Kraftwerk do, and apparently the group has been instrumental (sorry!) in suggesting features to add to the unit.
The MAQ 16/3 is a 4U-high rackmount unit. The cutesy name (Eh? - Ed) comes from the controls: it has three rows of 16 knobs and, unlike yer average analogue sequencer, also has eight menu buttons - Event, Channel, First/Last Step, Prescale/Time, Mode, Single Step, Preset and Start/Stop. You use the menu buttons to select a parameter and alter it with the rotary dial which sits beneath them.
The MAQ works like the kind of old analogue sequencer we used to know and love, but generates MIDI data rather than control voltages. In case the oldest form of music you're familiar with is house, the basic principle behind analogue sequencing is quite simple. You twiddle the rows of knobs to set the individual voltages which are sent to a VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator), for example, to generate notes. Of course, you can also send them to the VCF (filter) or the VCA (amplifier) to create all sorts of interesting sounds and textures.
As I've said, the MAQ doesn't generate voltages but MIDI data - a wide range of MIDI data, in fact, including note information (of course). What's more, you can use data generated by one row of knobs to control the data generated by another row. Here's a few examples of the sort of things the unit can do...
You can assign velocity data produced by one row to the note data produced by another. The First/Last Step menu lets you select how many of the 16 steps the sequencer uses. This can be different for each row so you can create a run of notes whose accents vary each time through the sequence.
You can alter the direction of movement through each row of the sequencer. The normal mode is forwards but you can play a row backwards, make it oscillate like a pendulum or select steps at random.
Assigning a row to produce Program Changes will make every note play with a different sound (synths which take a certain time to respond to Program Change messages may not handle this very well). If you make the note and Program Change rows different lengths and/or make them run at different speeds you can get some very interesting textures.
The Prescale/Time menu lets you adjust the period between two MIDI events in MIDI clock units. You can adjust the gate time, which is the time between two similar events (Note On instructions, for example), and you can also adjust the note duration which is the time between a Note On and Note Off instruction. Using this function, it's possible to make the rows run at different speeds to produce some very complex and intriguing effects.
You can also use it to sync the MAQ to another MIDI device. In MIDI, quarter notes have a duration of 24 MIDI clocks so Prescale may be used to make the MAQ and associated devices run in time. You can, therefore, make the rows run in a time-based relationship that appears to have no connection, yet still keep them synced to a MIDI clock. Got that?
The Single Step menu is used to play one step at a time across all three rows. This is useful when setting the values of the controls if you want the rows to produce chords (for example), or other combinations of MIDI data.
All your hard work can be saved to one of four battery-backed presets. You can also activate a SysEx dump and save the settings to a sequencer or MIDI Data Filer. Important features these, as it can take quite a while to get a good sequence up and running. That said, four memories does seems somewhat frugal, but a future update may provide more.
Having recalled a sequence, you cannot, unfortunately, edit it further. It's a problem caused by the decision that has had to be made about what should happen to a value when you touch a control. Should it jump immediately to the value determined by the position of the knob (as is the usual approach on digital synths. etc.) or should it immediately increment or decrement the value (and if so, what happens when the control can't be turned anymore)? There is a third option - as used on Fostex's DCM100 and Mixtab units - which ensures the control only takes effect when it reaches the position of the current value of the parameter.
Whatever the solution, perhaps it will be included in a future update, too. In the meantime I can only conclude that having any preset - whatever the limitations - is a good thing. I well remember messing around with the sequencer on my Roland 100M system and having to write down the knob positions before moving onto another project - and even then there was a lot of tweaking to do to get the originals back exactly.
The more you play with the MAQ, the more interesting the possibilities you discover. If you are old enough to have dabbled with analogue sequencers the first time round, or are actively engaged in their current renaissance, you'll be amazed at the extra functions on the MAQ. You'll also find it can do things the most advanced digital sequencer can't. The nearest software equivalent I can think of is M - but that doesn't have the charm of the rotary controls.
You can use the MAQ live by transposing sequences in real time from a connected keyboard. You can also twiddle the controls in real time during a live performance - although confess I'd be worried about twiddling a dial too far. It'll be interesting to see if Kraftwerk use it on their next album/tour - not to mention the new wave of young analogue devotees. The unit is ideally suited to producing those repetitive 'Tangerine Dream' sequence lines that are suddenly so popular again.
Niggles? The power supply is external and is one of those multi-connector jobbies. I can't imagine Kraftwerk approving of this; it doesn't even have an on/off switch. And the manual could be better too; although all the necessary information is there it does little more than list individual functions. Some worked examples and suggestions on use would have been helpful.
As regards the machine itself, some operations are rather involved and take a little getting used to. And I didn't like the way the display toggles continuously between the tempo and edit readouts. The manual claims you get used to it, but in my (admittedly) short acquaintance with it, I didn't. Neither did I enjoy repeatedly pressing the menu button when selecting a row for editing - or the way this is indicated as one of three dots in the display. In fact, the unit would benefit enormously from an LCD. Three-letter LED mnemonics are nowhere near as friendly as full-character LCD names.
But the biggest area of disappointment - and I can hear you all sigh at this point - is the price. This, I'm afraid, is not really a mass market device and low production numbers, inevitably, have meant higher retail cost. Shame. A lower price may have attracted the curious and the adventurous. As it is, there is likely to be some hard decisions having to be made as to whether or not the cost can be justified.
But what you get for your money is a unique piece of equipment which evokes the synthesis techniques of yesteryear while offering up-to-date facilities with MIDI control. For anyone interested in electronic music - ie. anyone reading this - the MAQ is something you'll love playing with. And that's not something you can say about many new products these days. Thank goodness there is still development and innovation in the music hardware business.
Price: MAQ 16/3 £666 RRP
Because of the specialist nature of the MAQ, it is currently only being sold directly by FAME and not through retail outlets.
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