Korg SQ8 Sequencer
Is it an electronic tuner? Is it a portable metronome? No, it's the world's smallest 8-track MIDI sequencer. Mark Jenkins explores its inner workings and draws his conclusions.
The world's smallest MIDI sequencer reviewed by Mark Jenkins.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the SQ8 is Korg's latest addition to their series of excellent metronomes, or is perhaps an electronic tuner for an unusually hi-tech guitarist. It certainly packs a healthy number of knobs and switches into its tiny 30x8cms casing and is pretty heavily laden with functions for a unit weighing only 306 grammes.
As you've probably guessed by now, what we in fact have here is the world's smallest polyphonic MIDI sequencer. The SQ8 comes complete with a fold-out metal stand to support it atop a Korg DS8, or indeed a Prophet 2000, Korg DSS-1, or any multitimbral synth which lacks the luxury of its own onboard sequencer.
Multitimbral synths are what really make the SQ8 come to life, since the machine can handle eight polyphonic tracks (up to a total of 32 notes simultaneously) which can be recorded individually. Due to some limitations dictated by economic considerations, you may prefer to think of the SQ8 as a musical 'sketch pad' rather than a full MIDI sequencing system, in which case you should ideally be teaming it up with a synth or sampler which can play several different sounds simultaneously (ie. multitimbrally).
Let's look at the basic spec of the SQ8. It has a capacity of 6,500 notes and can also record velocity, pitch bend, aftertouch and patch change data. It transmits MIDI clocks but can't receive them itself and doesn't handle song position pointers or the Song Select command, simply because it records only one Song. It's powered by an external 9V transformer (supplied) and has a built-in metronome which can be heard through a pair of Walkman-style headphones (not supplied).
The SQ8 records in real-time or step-time modes and features Fast Forward and Rewind buttons which work both in record and play modes. You can transpose all eight tracks simultaneously (of which, more later), and a large LCD (considering the machine's overall size!) keeps you informed as to which tracks are full, the current tempo, and so on.
A tiny Function button takes you through the six main options available on the SQ8: Tempo/Beat, MIDI Channel, Play Track, Record Track, Erase Track, and Step Write/Other. In more detail, these functions work as follows.
Tempo/Beat allows you to change the tempo from 40 to 192 beats per minute using a pair of Up/Down keys, though you can't change tempo during playback or recording. Beat allows you to use some of the eight Track Select buttons to choose a time signature instead; 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 6/4 are available, with both tempo and beat being displayed on the LCD.
MIDI Channel for the current track is also set with the Up/Down buttons and you can change playback channels at any time. The Play Track and Rec Track functions we'll examine in a moment. Erase Track asks you to select a Track button then press Erase, or 'All Tr' and Erase, to wipe all the tracks currently recorded.
Step Write, coupled with the Stand By button, gets the SQ8 ready to record any note held down on the connected MIDI 'mother' keyboard, which is then given a note duration by tapping the Up key as many times as desired; for instance, eight times to create half a 4/4 bar. These aren't the same Up/Down buttons used for Tempo control and MIDI channel selections; these are alternative functions of the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons, a confusing piece of labelling if ever there was one.
'Other' covers Key Transpose, Repeat, Echo Back and Aftertouch Off, all of which are available by hitting various of the eight Track buttons. Key Transpose allows you to shift all eight tracks up or down in pitch under the control of the mother keyboard; the transposition occurs when you stop and re-start the sequence, or when it loops. This is a very exciting facility because it works in Play/Repeat mode, so you can transpose eight synchronised polyphonic sequences at the touch of a key. This really takes us back to the old days of large modular systems and analogue sequencers, and can be an invaluable function either for composing or for live improvisation. The transposition range is one octave above and below C4.
Repeat On simply causes the sequence to loop when it's finished, while Echo Back will send the incoming MIDI information out from the MIDI Out port (there's no MIDI Thru) so that you can hear what you're programming if you're using an external module as a sound source. Aftertouch Off will save a considerable amount of memory when recording in real time, aftertouch being disabled anyway while in Step Time record mode. The Fast Forward and Rewind buttons speed you through the current sequence at about 500bpm until you let go of them, at which point the SQ8 resumes playing or recording at a sensible pace.
A combined Start/Stop/Continue button controls everything else while the Reset button (mistakenly labelled 'Keyset' in the handbook) returns you to the start of a sequence, takes you out of Record mode and into Play mode, and so on. As for the nuts and bolts side of things, there's a power switch (battery power isn't an option, unfortunately, but you could always construct a little battery box yourself if music on the move is important to you) plus a memory protect switch, a volume control for the metronome bleep (a luxury which I would have readily swapped for any one of half-a-dozen absent facilities), and an internal battery for memory back-up so that all patterns remain intact while the power is off.
How do you use the SQ8? Quite simply, hook up a MIDI synth, choose a tempo and beat value, don your headphones or plug into a mixer to hear the metronome, select Rec Track then a track number, and hit Start/Stop/Continue. The SQ8 gives you a count-in and you then perform in real time; the method for step time entry was outlined above, and in either case a display shows you how many bars you've used. There's also a rather ungainly 'petrol gauge' readout which gives you a percentage of memory remaining.
Press Start/Stop/Continue again to stop recording, and when you hit Reset you'll find the track you chose flashing the word 'Play'. You can press any combination of Track buttons to choose whether or not to replay recorded tracks, but you can't mute and un-mute tracks while the SQ8 is running.
The Measure Memory function (not 'Measure Protect' as in the handbook) specifies a measure at which the SQ8 will stop or loop; it can be chosen in the Play or Fast Forward modes and is seen to be in operation when a small 'm' appears in the display. As for accuracy of playback - the real-time resolution is 1/48th note and the smallest step-time resolution is 1/16th note, which means fast triplets can't be executed in step-time.
As you'll have guessed by now, the Korg SQ8 is a very basic sequencer, and drastically short of editing facilities. When in Record mode you can Stop and Continue recording from the same point; you can go into Rewind (erasing as you go) and drop back into Record to correct a mistake, but if you overshoot you'll find yourself wiping out the good bits of the take. Once you hit Reset to convert the track to Play mode there's nothing you can do to edit it.
Or is there? Some reviews of the SQ8 have suggested methods of expanding its potential by recording two or more songs in memory at once (using four or fewer tracks each), or even by placing one song either side of the Measure memory point, which means recording Track 1 of the first song, then Track 1 of the second song, then Track 2 of the first song, and so on...
Less obvious but infinitely more powerful, and not even hinted at in the handbook, is the SQ8's ability to merge tracks simply by connecting its MIDI In socket to its MIDI Out and selecting Play for between one and seven tracks, and Record on the remaining one. By the time the whole song's played you have all the MIDI information on one track and can wipe all the others, just as on an 8-track tape machine. Using Play Track will then allow you to select any one of eight multiple polyphonic songs for live performance, with the only remaining annoyance being the fact that the SQ8 has to act as the master clock (no MIDI Clock In synchronisation, remember?), meaning you can't define the tempo of the song using an external drum machine or change it during playback.
That's a minor quibble, but the lack of editing facilities on the SQ8 is not. Still, there are ways around this as well; if you want to splice something onto the end of a previously recorded track, you just use a separate track to record the additional data and merge the two together afterwards. If you want to correct a mistake in the middle of a piece your options are more limited - you could always try using the merge method combined with a footswitch wired to open the MIDI input cable to leave out the bum notes (don't hit it while there's a note sounding though!).
Looked at in this light the SQ8 seems a very exciting piece of equipment. It's ideally suited to showing off the multitimbral abilities of Korg's DS8 FM synth and will act as a basic studio sequencer, a stage accompaniment machine, and a quick musical sketch pad with equal facility.
The main problem with the SQ8 is that there's nowhere to store your song(s). Not even a tape dump routine is provided, so presumably the idea is that you compose on a complex computer system, such as a Steinberg Pro-24, in the studio and dump the MIDI information into the SQ8 for stage performance. In this role, the machine faces some competition from the Indus MIDI DJ which we reviewed in our May issue, but it does have the advantage of being less than half the price.
If you're a long-time sequencer user, the SQ8 will give you nothing you haven't seen before and will rapidly become frustrating. If you haven't used a sequencer before or have fairly basic requirements in the sequencing field, its attractively low price could make it ideal; if you want to improvise, transposing and chopping MIDI sequences, it's the only ball game in town at present. And if you really love sequencers, appreciate the abilities and limitations of the SQ8 thoroughly, and are scared stiff about taking an Atari 1040STFM on stage for sequencing, the Korg SQ8 could be a life-saver.
Price £225 inc VAT.
More information from Korg UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Mark Jenkins
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!