Firstman SQ-01 Sequence Synthesizer
As sequencers become increasingly accepted by musicians for freeing the hands for more gratifying activities (don't giggle, Jones Minor in the back row) than playing endlessly repetitive riffs and so on, so digital technology comes up with cheaper and better ways of improving this interface between man and his more or less artistic pursuits.
The SQ-01 is a neatly-packaged combination of a multi-channel monophonic sequencer and basic features synthesiser which Firstman describe as a "mini music lab being to music what the calculator is to math (sic)". Be that as it may or, more likely, may not, its design philosophy seems to put it fairly and squarely between the beginner's sequencer facilities of the Casio VL-1 (no criticism intended) and the rather more advanced real-time recording operation of the Roland CSQ-100. Despite certain limitations, the SQ-01's facilities should make it quite applicable to the pro side of the market.
The sequencer is constructed wholly from CMOS chips with a couple of CMOS 1024 x 4-bit RAMs for note storage. Unlike various real-time programming counterparts, where any duration of note is 'recorded' as it's played, the SQ-01 is loaded using the principle of pulse time, with a total capacity of 1,024 'events' of equal duration. This capacity is organised as four master channels (A, B, C and D), each holding 256 events, and subdivided into four numerical channels (1, 2, 3 and 4) of 64 events each. Thus, with a sixteenth note as an event, the 64 events that could be programmed into sub-division 1 of master channel A would be four bars of 4/4 time. 6/8 time can also be selected for loading notes, in which case each subdivision will hold 48 sixteenth holes. The eight touch pad SEQUENCE controls on the right side of the unit enable all the sixteen available sequencer sub-divisions to be programmed from the various combinations and LEDs light up to register your choice. REC engages the recording mode of the SQ-01 for the loading of one sub-division or 64 sixteenth notes at a time. Unusually for this type of sequencer, it's also necessary to prescribe one's choice of envelope before the commencement of recording a sequence. Pitch specification is limited to 25 notes, one octave in the LOW transposition setting and the other in the HIGH setting, and transpositions have to be selected before the entry of any pitch. After each pitch has been selected, the required event duration is entered by pressing [16th] or [16tie] to give multiples of sixteenth notes, the former giving an untied note and the latter slurred notes. Rests are similarly entered with [rest] . If you're entering long duration notes like semibreves, for instance, it's only too easy to make boobs with one's mental arithmetic (or, as Firstman might put it, one's mental math). Fortunately, this isn't fatal as mistakes can be corrected by pressing REC and STEPping to the error to put right one's miscalculation. There are three other sequencer controls to consider: TEMPO, which does what you'd expect, the actual range of playback speeds being dependent on your initial implementation of pulse time when recording; RELEASE, which varies the duration of a note after its initial attack during playback; and BAR, which selects playback of 2, 4, 8, 12 or 16 bars from the start of each sequence. A tempo LED also flashes to indicate the tempo and metre, with a flash every third pulse or event in 6/8 time, and every fourth pulse or event in 4/4 time.
That completes the nitty-gritty of programming the SQ-01; pressing the generously large PLAY/STOP pad starts the whole playback ball rolling, and, wonders of wonders, one finds that once one numerical sub division of a master channel has done its 64-note or 4-bar thing, then so the channel LED clicks (well, not literally) over to the second, third and fourth sequences in turn, dependent on what the BAR knob is pointing to. End result: 4 channels of 256-note pulse-time sequences. The main limitation of this sequencer is that what you get out is no more than what you put in, unless you do some jiggery-pokery with CVs via the sockets a derriere. It would be nice to be able to use the keyboard to transpose the sequence on playback, but then maybe that's asking just a little too much from a unit costing the same as the Spider (£199), but with much greater storage capacity and the extra bits and pieces of the synthesiser added on top.
As the photo shows, the synthesiser part of the SQ-01 occupies five knobs at the top of the unit: CUTOFF FREQ, RESONANCE, FINE, FREQUENCY and SUSTAIN. There are also, of course, the two envelope pads that we've already alluded to in the previous section. As you'll imagine, this is what could be described as a 'basic synthesiser', and the manual is deluding itself if it thinks that "the seven octave range oscillator, pulse and sawtooth waveform generator, 24dB low-pass filter and envelope controls interact for the infinite sound creation we have come to expect from the finest and most sophisticated synthesizers". That criticism doesn't mean that the sound the SQ-01 produces is bad; on the contrary, it's often very pleasant, but it's the predictable pleasantness of a cheap, one oscillator synthesiser lacking the dynamic envelope shaping and filtering that today's synthesists really do expect. The saving grace is undoubtably the filter which gives some nice resonant effects, but as there's no provision for any sort of filter sweep it's all a bit static. The SQ-01 also limits one to two basic sound types: a sawtooth waveform with a short attack and long decay (selected with the envelope touch pad); and a pulse waveform with a short attack and short decay (the A, touch pad). Not surprisingly, there's a difference between these two sounds, but I for one don't like my waveforms pre-packaged in somebody else's idea of an envelope. Put a stamp on it and send it back to Japan! To be fair, there is a RELEASE function for varying the release time of the envelope and the SUSTAIN control, but the all-important attack profiles of notes are fixed to the two choices already outlined.
One thing we haven't mentioned so far is what the SQ-01 likes to be fed on in terms of power. Well, situated at the bottom of the unit is a metal plate marked 'battery box'. This is detached from the main body of the SQ-01 with two knurled screws — these then promptly vanish from sight as there's no washer to keep them in reasonably intimate contact with the battery box plate. The newly-opened cavity reveals a couple of drifting battery holders, of the sort that have a habit of cutting the life support, courtesy of flimsy wires that spontaneously detach themselves from the holders. That wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that two of the 1.5V batteries thus jettisoned are (were) for memory back-up... Embarrassment prevails. The SQ-01 consumes 1.5W of power in full swing, which works out at around 150mA — rather reminiscent of the insatiable appetite of the Spider, isn't it? A 12V AC adaptor obviously makes everything much more secure, and, as I found out, it's also rather essential if you're after a fairly consistent performance from the synthesiser as far as tuning is concerned. So, if you elect to use batteries (you dangerous fool, you!), be sure to plug in your ¼-tone perceptual apparatus. I must admit, I really don't understand why an AC power supply isn't built in — a striking case of false economy.
On the plus side, there is plenty of interfacing capabilities at the back of the SQ-01: CVs in and out, GATEs in and out, CLOCKS in and out, a foot switch for remote stop/start, the obvious audio out, and a SYNCHRO jack for synchronising the stop/start of one SQ-01 with another, should you choose to use them en masse. Firstman also make the BS-01 Bass Pedal Controller which plugs into the CV and GATE inputs and enables recorded sequences to be transposed and restarted at the beginning of a sequence by depressing an appropriate pedal. Sounds like a splendid idea, but so far it hasn't appeared in the U.K. and there's no clue as to how much it will cost.
In sum, then, the SQ-01 is pretty versatile, especially in terms of interfacing, and it offers excellent value for money. The black spots, on the other hand, stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. The design game is a curious thing, isn't it?
The Firstman Sequencer is distributed in the U.K. by London Synthesiser Centre, (Contact Details).