Brother PDC100 Sequencer
Martin Russ tries out Brother's latest hardware sequencer.
Martin Russ gets back to hardware when he looks at Brother's latest hardware sequencer, the PDC100.
Whatever happened to the hardware sequencer? Hi-tech gossip these days always seems to be about the latest version of a software sequencer, or how much you paid for a memory expansion, or other computer topics. I know of two types of gigging keyboard players, and they can be roughly divided into hardware and software users. The software users prepare their backing tracks — sorry, 'supporting instrumentation' — on their main sequencer and then lug the computer, disk drive, monitor and keyboard to gigs, sometimes in a flight case. The hardware users can also prepare parts of their music on a computer, but they often just record straight into the hardware sequencer and, in any case, it is the hardware box which is used live. In my experience, the hardware people seem to have better tempers...
Computers were not meant to be subjected to the humid and frigid conditions on the inside of a transit van on a cold winter's night, and repeated plugging in and unplugging of connectors on a computer is a bad idea as well, so the case for the dedicated hardware sequencer looks quite good. But getting everything right in a hardware box can be more difficult — you can't usually just release a new version on a disk. Brother have had several stabs at making sequencers, so how does their latest version, the PDC100 Pro Disk Composer shape up?
Brother have put a lot of thought into the PDC100. The green LCD display is bright and back-lit with an excellent viewing angle, the control buttons have just about the right 'clickiness', and the menus are printed above the buttons for reference. There is also rather more to the sequencer than the sparse controls, compact size and very light weight might suggest. This is a 32-track sequencer with real, step-time and punch-in record modes (but no sound-on-sound overdubbing), a separate Beat/Tempo track for tempo mapping, phrase cut/paste, and extensive event editing. The internal RAM memory is 128 kbytes, which represents just over 20,000 musical events (notes) capacity. The 3.5-inch double sided disk drive can store up to 32 named song files on one disk, although the PDC100 can only have one song in memory at once and you are restricted to one common 'setup' file and 39,400 musical events (notes) in total on one disk.
Hiding all the functions behind just six buttons means that there are menus and sub-menus — there are nine main topics with up to six sub-topics each. You need to spend some time getting used to the menu structure, but your fingers quickly get the hang of it, especially the short cuts like pressing the two white buttons on the left to return to the Record/Play mode. The display in this mode also shows a good deal despite only having two rows of 16 characters: Measure, Beat, Time Signature, Tempo, Record Track, and Memory Left are all shown on the one display. Recording is another two button operation — the two middle buttons this time. The Forward and Rewind buttons move in whole measures, rather than individual beats, and by pressing the green Shift button as well you can move the the start or end of the song. The Shift button also allows tempo changes to be made in this mode.
The order of the menus that you step through is designed for ease of use: Track Information followed by Setup for one direction, and a Display of incoming MIDI data followed by the Editing functions in the other direction. The main menus loop round so you can select any option by just holding the button down and waiting for the autorepeat to get you to the right option — the sub-menus just move from right to left and do not loop round (a pity!).
As usual with almost any sequencer these days, there are more editing and filtering facilities than it is reasonable to describe in a review beyond saying that you can delete, insert and copy bars, phrases and events. The maximum quantisation resolution is 96 ppqn, which is 16th note triplets. You can cut, copy and paste measures from one track to any other track, or use the 64 'Units' (phrases) to piece together songs from segments of up to 100 bars in length. The tempo mapping is on a 'per measure' basis, so abrupt changes in adjacent bars will cause sudden jerks in tempo, and so you have to program in smooth changes 'by hand' over several measures. One useful feature is a MIDI note Metronome, which allows you to set two note numbers, channel and velocity for a drum machine hi-hat or any other sound; if you prefer the PDC100's on-board bleeper you can also use that. You can transpose tracks on playback: this can be useful for thickening pads when arranging, or for changing key to match a singer's range.
The 32 tracks can each handle 16 MIDI channels (some sequencers assign channels to tracks) although you can force the tracks to assign incoming or outgoing track data to specific MIDI channels. But the ability to handle all 16 channels means that transferring data from a computer sequencer to the PDC100 is significantly easier than it might otherwise be, since the job can be achieved in one pass (assuming that you don't overload the PDC 100's buffers). System Exclusive can be recorded in tracks too, so you can do voice and setup dumps before songs, and even use the PDC100 as a data filer. The one major omission is MIDI file read and write capability, but given the development so far with Brother sequencers, this may be a future product.
Hardware sequencers may lack the graphical sophistication of a computer, but for stage use they have all sorts of advantages. The PDC100 makes the most of those advantages at a very reasonable price.
£351.33 inc VAT.
Bluebridge Music, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Russ
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