As software writers continue to flood the market with sequencing packages, Kawai go dedicated. Dave Bertovic investigates the hardware alternative.
Kawai's first sequencer offers a multitude of elaborate features including extensive editing capabilities, patch storage and a floppy disk drive.
WHEN PERSONAL COMPUTERS met MIDI, software sequencers were one of the results. Personally, I was amazed and excited by the flexibility and processing capability that was now available to those who wanted that kind of power. Nor was I alone in my enthusiasm, as is attested by the number of personal computers and sequencing packages currently in use. Why, then, would any manufacturer want to design another hardware sequencer?
There are a number of reasons - good ones at that. First of all, if a musician doesn't need a computer for other reasons, purchasing one for the sole purpose of sequencing may represent a sizeable investment. Secondly, if you plan to work in more than one place (at home, in the studio and live performance, say), a computer may prove to be cumbersome and difficult to set up and tear down. Also, some people find certain key strokes and mouse movements used in executing various functions difficult or clumsy, especially when speed is important.
Hardware sequencers are still a viable alternative to computers and software as they're easy to transport, easy to use and, lately, relatively affordable. Also, recent advances in operational functions and memory capacity (including the addition of an onboard disk drive on some units) have made dedicated sequencers more attractive than ever.
Kawai's first venture into hardware sequencers is the Q80, a powerful and flexible sequencer with a good-sized memory plus a disk drive.
MEMORY FOR STARTERS: the Q80 has internal storage for up to 26,000 notes and their corresponding velocities. These notes can be used to create up to ten songs. Each Song may consist of up to 32 Tracks, each Track containing one musical part's notes, time signature and MIDI channel.
Each Song can use up to 15,000 of the available 26,000 notes. The Songs can be chained to play in any order. More control over each element (note or chord) of a Track is available with the Active Quantising and Step Recording functions (described later).
The Q80 also utilises a function, called Motif, that can be used within each Song. Similar to a pattern in a drum machine, a Motif is a separate memory area that can be used to create Song parts one at a time. There can be up to 100 Motifs per Song.
A Song, then, is comprised of Tracks (01-32), Motifs (00-99) if desired, and a Tempo Track. The Q80 also provides an additional 64K of internal memory for storing MIDI System Exclusive data (in ten separate files) for patch data storage as well. Each of these ten files consists of 16 tracks and a whopping 999 SysEx messages. If that isn't enough, you can store approximately 150,000 notes in up to 112 songs on one floppy disk. That's a lot of memory.
The Q80 uses the standard MIDI In, Out and Thru ports for its MIDI connections. Also provided are tape sync in and out, a metronome jack, and a footswitch input (all four are on ¼" jacks). A socket for the AC transformer is provided along with the on/off switch.
The Q80's front panel provides a well-arranged grouping of functions into a matrix switch-and-LED array. Centred on the panel, the top group allows access to the unit's operational functions and the lower group accesses track numbers or note values (when editing). To the right of the centre function groups are the cursor left/right keys, and below them are Record, Stop, Play and Reset Rewind, Fast Forward buttons. At the top of the panel is a large increment/decrement dial for data entry and the 16-character, two-row backlit display. Last but not least, to the left of the front panel is the Q80's 3½" double-sided floppy disk drive. A blank floppy is even included with the unit.
The single most impressive feature on the Q80 is its ability to allow you to create songs in their entirety, recording directly on the 32 tracks, or to "piece together" a song by recording parts as Motifs and then string a number of these segments together in a track to form a song. What is extremely useful is the ability to use Tracks and Motifs together to achieve some very elaborate and intricate sequencing.
SIMILAR TO OTHER sequencers and computer software packages, the Q80 offers editing options to fine tune the sequence after it's been recorded. In Bar Edit of a song or motif, you are able to alter the following parameters: volume, transposition, quantisation, note split, note shift, velocity, and gate time. You are also able to insert, delete, erase, mix, copy and move events, and Make Motif and Event Extract in Song and Motif modes. An Event Edit function (the proverbial "MIDI microscope") is also provided. These edit parameters deal with the performance characteristics of a Song or Motif such as pitch-bend, vibrato, sustain pedal, volume pedal, and so forth. You also have editing control over MIDI events such as patch number, Omni Mode on or off, Local Control on or off and so on.
What's the difference between Bar Edit and Event Edit? Well, the former deals directly with the musical data: the notes or chords as they exist in a Song or Motif. Bar editing permits you to delete a bar, group of bars, or entire Track, insert a bar or Motif into any point within a Track or Motif, erase a bar or group of bars (this results in a rest because the bar lengths remain intact), mix bars between Tracks or Motifs, and copy a bar or group of bars to another location within the same Track or Motif. You are also able to transpose a bar, group of bars or entire Track or Motif, "Move" or shift the timing of the notes for an entire Track forward or backward by any number of clocks (resolution on the Q80 is 96 ppqn, giving 384 clocks per bar), and quantise editing (see Quantising described below).
There are numerous Bar Editing functions. Note Split and Note Shift are two interesting edits that allow you to divide a Track or Motif into two pitch ranges (Note Split) such as splitting a Track into a bass track and a lead track, and transpose notes selectively within a Track or Motif (Note Shift). This is a transpose function that allows you to change the pitch of notes that are a certain note value, such as "shift all F#'s up 3 semitones", rather than the Transpose function, which transposes everything in the bar into a new key signature. A feature like this is helpful if you change drum machines or the drum note assignments you normally work with. The Velocity Modify function allows you to adjust the MIDI velocity amounts per bar, group of bars or entire Track or Motif, and Gate Time modify permits you to edit note durations (more on this later).
Make Motif is a handy little function that allows you to take a section of bars within a Track and group them into a Motif, while Event Extract takes all MIDI control events for the Track or Motif and transfers them to another Track or Motif. By the way, in a Motif, the same Bar Edit parameters are available with the exception of Volume, Move and Make Motif.
On the other side of the river, Event Editing is concerned with MIDI "control events". These MIDI control events are MIDI performance commands that affect the playing style of the music - adding or removing patch change commands as well as adding, removing or editing amounts of velocity, vibrato, sustain pedal, volume pedal, breath controller and so forth. In Event Edit for Tracks and Motifs, you can delete, replace or insert MIDI controllers. You can also adjust velocity and gate time for individual notes (as opposed to the Bar Edit functions, which can only adjust everything in a bar or group of bars).
"Quantising: Active Quantising allows you to quantise only those notes that are way off in timing, and leave those notes alone that are just a little out of time."
The Control Change function allows you to reassign existing MIDI controller numbers in a Track or Motif. This feature lets you take pitch-bend of a chord for example, and transform it into a sustain command instead. Other MIDI command edits include MIDI Mode Changes (On or Off status for Local Control, Omni Mode or Mono Mode), program change, channel pressure, pitch-bend and System Exclusive data.
But that's not all the editing you're able to perform, because in Step Recording you are given the ability to perform many of the above functions in addition to others not found in Song Edit or Motif Edit. For example, Step Record permits you to enter notes and chords one at a time (chords can also be constructed by pressing the Chord button and entering the intervals one note at a time from the keyboard). Extremely difficult musical phrases can be entered into a Track one note or one chord at a time. In the Step Record mode, you are also permitted to add or remove rests, ties and slurs, notes, bars, bar marks and bar rests. The Step Back function allows you to return to the start point of the last note edited so that additional notes can be added or removed, if necessary.
ONE OPERATIONAL FUNCTION that stands out as being particularly uncommon but useful is the Q80's Active Quantisation (AQ). Here's how it works: similar to the quantising or "auto-correct" function of other sequencers, AQ adjusts the timing of notes by arranging them in memory to the nearest beat value as they occur. As with other sequencers, the Q80 allows quantisation to be performed during recording. Alternatively, a track can be quantised after it has been recorded. For example, the beat value might be set to 16th notes, where the Q80 will adjust notes to the nearest whole 16th. AQ allows you to quantise only those notes that are way off in timing, and leave those notes alone that are just a little out of time. This approach allows a more natural feel when the track is played back.
AQ can be used to correct an entire Track or a certain range of bars within a Song or Motif. AQ also permits selective quantisation of individual notes and the deliberate shifting of notes out of time for some interesting musical effects.
Another edit function is Gate Time - a function found within Step Record mode. This, in effect, allows you to quantise the end time of the notes when played back from the Q80. As an example, the Q80 will correct for note timing at the moment the key is pressed: if a quarter note is played, but held on the keyboard for too little or too much time, quantising will not lengthen or shorten it, it will just correct its start point. Gate Time allows you to edit the note's duration, so that a quarter note (or any other note value) will be exactly a quarter note in duration, or any other duration desired, expressed as a percentage of the Step Time. In MIDI terminology, Gate Time allows you to specify the time between the Note On and the Note Off commands of a given note.
If you want to replace a section of a track with new music, the Punch-In/Punch-Out function allows you to erase and replace a section of notes specified as a range of bars. This can also be performed automatically as the Q80 allows you to specify the punch-in and punch-out points in advance, and will enter and exit Record at those times. The punch points can be entered by the use of a footswitch plugged into the rear panel. Punch-in/punch-out recording can also be used in Step Record mode. In addition, the Punch-In/Punch-Out function will permit you to rehearse the new part before actually committing it to memory. In Rehearse mode, the track is played up to the punch-in point (just like pre-roll on a multitrack tape recorder). At the punch point, the specified track range to be replaced is muted so that you can rehearse the new part.
THE Q80 PROVIDES numerous system functions (both MIDI and internal) and data storage operations. "System" operations include MIDI basic channel select, clock source select (internal, MIDI or tape sync), metronome on/off, and mode (Record only or Record/Play). A "Rec Data" function allows you to selectively filter out specific incoming MIDI data, and the Q80 also offers MIDI echo select, pedal assign (to determine the status of the pedal jack: Start/Stop, Continue/Stop or Punch In/Out), Step Function (for determining if the tie, rest, velocity and gate parameters in Step Record are linked to MIDI controllers), and memory protect on/off.
Memory operations primarily have to do with saving and loading to and from disk, and transmitting and receiving MIDI patch or pattern data to and from a synthesiser or a drum machine. One of the more useful functions of the MIDI data mode is the ability to delete certain blocks of information that may no longer be needed. MIDI data is stored in ten files, each file having 16 tracks and each track having 999 blocks. 64K of internal memory (RAM) space is dedicated for this purpose. The Q80 allows you to delete all Tracks, just one Track, all blocks within a Track, or just one block.
Disk operations are straightforward as well. Songs are saved and loaded one at a time and you may re-assign the Song numbers if necessary. MIDI patch or pattern data can also be saved and loaded in the same manner. If you want to save several versions of the same Song, you are also permitted to rename the Song in this mode so that another file with the same name will not be erased.
THE KAWAI Q80 is one of the more powerful hardware sequencers on the market, yet it's fairly easy to get around as well. In fact, I found it to be at least as friendly as any other MIDI sequencer I've used. It has some excellent editing capabilities, making it a contender when shopping for a sequencer, either hardware or computer-based.
Impressive as it may be, an instrument can never be everything to everybody, and there are certain things that need to be addressed here. For one, the Owner's Manual is sketchy in many areas. If you're not familiar with current sequencer technology, some of the functions may not be as clearly covered as you might need. A series of complete examples would have been extremely helpful in most sections of the manual. The Motif function is especially mysterious until you actually start using it, and learn by trial-and-error. You must also be very careful when editing a Track within a Song, because if a Motif is present within a bar range, an Error message appears. This has the potential of occurring often if you need to do a lot of editing.
You cannot copy a Song to another Song location within the Q80. You can, however, save a Song to disk and then load it back into the Q80 under a different Song number. Also, you can only name it when saving to disk.
Finally, a drawback to the Punch Record function is that you must punch-in and punch-out at even bar marks. You cannot punch in or out in the middle of a measure. This can be a significant limitation depending on your situation.
ASIDE FROM THE few minor points mentioned above, what the Q80 does, it does well. In particular, I have found disk storage to be one of the more useful additions to sequencers in general over the last few years. The drive unit appears to be well-built, and its operation is smooth and almost silent.
If you are presently shopping for a sequencer of any kind, the Kawai Q80 is worth a serious look. If you're not looking right now, keep it in mind.
Price £595 including VAT