Eight-track MIDI Sequencer
MT new boy Bob "I'm Confused" O'Donnell checks out the cutest eight-track sequencer available. Have too many corners been cut to reduce the cost?
This dinky little box of tricks brings stand-alone eight-track sequencing to a new price level. Have Korg cut too many corners to get it there?
DESPITE THE POPULARITY of many sequencing software programs, dedicated hardware sequencers seem to be making a comeback. Roland's MC500 is proving to be incredibly popular, and with the recent introduction of the company's less expensive MC100 and Yamaha's QX5, the future of hardware sequencers is looking quite positive.
First-time sequencer buyers, in particular, seem to be attracted to the easy portability and overall affordability of stand-alone units. Even though many hardware units lack the editing capabilities of software programs, many first-time users prefer the simple operation of hardware sequencers. Korg have apparently taken notice of this phenomenon, and with the introduction of their inexpensive SQ8 eight-track sequencer, they're addressing this growing market in earnest.
THE GENERAL SPECIFICATIONS for the SQ8 include the ability to record up to 6500 notes with velocity on eight individual tracks, each of which can be set to its own MIDI channel; the ability also to record pitch-bend, modulation, program change and aftertouch data (which can also be filtered out); and the possibility of being operated in either real-time or step-time recording modes. Pretty basic, perhaps. But I did forget to mention one small point: it does all this in a package that measures a little over 7" x 3" x 1", and weighs less than two pounds.
Korg have added to the simplicity and convenience of operating the SQ8 by thoughtfully incorporating a stand into it. As a result, it can either be laid flat on top of a keyboard or other nearby surface, or propped up for easier viewing. Unfortunately, Korg haven't applied this convenience principle to powering the unit. Despite the fact that it requires a mere nine volts to operate, the SQ8 does not offer the option of battery power. Korg do include an external power supply with the SQ8, but having to use an adaptor definitely decreases the unit's potential portability.
The SQ8's connections to the outside world are very simple: a MIDI In port, a MIDI Out port and a mini headphone jack for monitoring the unit's metronome output. In one of Korg's many cost-cutting measures, however, the SQ8 does not come with headphones. It doesn't have an internal speaker either, so if you want to listen to the metronome's click as you record, you'll have to supply your own Walkman-type headphones. Thankfully, the volume level of the click is adjustable, but that small benefit doesn't excuse Korg from omitting what should have been a standard accessory. To be fair, the unit does have a blinking visual display of the tempo, but how many people will really depend on that?
In addition to its compact size, one of the first things you notice about the SQ8 is its well-organised, uncluttered front panel. A row of multi-function keys runs along the bottom and right-hand side of the unit, and an informative, pre-printed LCD (much like those fitted to Roland's drum machines) fills the upper left-hand portion. All relevant information about tempo, time signature, measure number, MIDI channel(s), track status, current function and remaining memory can be displayed at once, making it very easy to determine exactly where you are in the sequencing process.
THE SQ8 OFFERS six basic functions, each of which has an effect upon the sequencer's overall configuration or the status of individual tracks. To access any of these functions, you simply push the centrally-located Function key until the arrow points to the function you wish to use.
Thanks to its battery backed-up memory, the SQ8 displays all the information stored from the last time it was used as soon as you switch it on. The function cursor defaults to the Tempo/Beat location and allows you to reconfigure the basic recording and playback parameters quite easily. The tempo is variable from 40-192bpm, and the time signature (which Korg refer to as Beat) can be chosen from one of five possibilities: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4.
Now, for 90% of the music you may want to record, these time signatures will probably suffice; but if you want to record that 7/8 groove that's been floating around your head, you're going to need another sequencer. Another limitation (pointed out in the very basic owner's manual) is that once you've started to record or play back at a particular tempo, you can't change it; the tempo remains fixed until you stop. Admittedly these are not major faults, but unfortunately, they are typical of the corner-cutting measures that are found throughout the SQ8's operation.
A much larger problem stems from the SQ8's inability to sync to the outside world. While it does output MIDI clock, start, stop and continue commands, it does not respond to any of those messages. Consequently, it must serve as the master clock for any MIDI system it is being used in, and in this context, its rigid tempo controls take on a greater significance, too.
The next section accessed by the Function key is MIDI Channel mode. This allows you to specify any of the 16 MIDI channels for each individual track. To do this, you simply hit the key assigned to the track you want to change the MIDI channel for, and then use the up/down buttons to choose the appropriate channel. The SQ8 only operates in the Omni Off/Poly Mode (Mode 3), so transmission and reception of MIDI data can only occur on the properly selected channels.
"While it outputs MIDI clock, start, stop and continue commands, the SQ8 doesn't respond to any of those messages, so must serve as the master clock for any MIDI system it's used in."
The Play Track function comes next for some reason, but I'll follow the example set by the manual and skip over that to discuss the Record Track function first. Once you've entered the record mode, all you have to do to begin recording a sequence on the SQ8 is select the track you wish to record on (you can only record on one at a time) and push Start. The bar indicator counts down two measures of whatever time signature you've chosen to record in, and the SQ8 then begins recording automatically. The letters "REC" initially appear blinking in the display next to the track you are recording on, but as soon as the unit begins to receive data, the display stops blinking. (This subtle little feature prevents you from missing that "incredible take" as a result of dodgy MIDI connections.)
To stop recording, you simply press the Start/Stop button and the record display begins blinking once more. You can then begin recording again from the point where you had stopped, but be forewarned that the SQ8 only works in complete measures. This means that if you stopped in the middle of a measure, the recording starts at the beginning of the next measure.
An odd feature which deserves mention is the SQ8's ability to record in fast-forward. I'm not really sure what purpose this serves, except perhaps to reduce the drudgery of recording whole notes, but it's there if you want it.
When you've finished recording a track, some of the more serious limitations of the SQ8 start to become apparent. To hear what you've just recorded, the owner's manual tells you to press the Reset key, which automatically converts the recorded information into "play" information (signified by a star next to the track number in the display). What it doesn't tell you, however, is that once you do that you've made it impossible to alter that track with the few editing features that the sequencer offers. Believe it or not, once you've converted recorded information into playable information, the only way you can change it is by erasing and re-recording the entire track. In other words, to hear if there are any mistakes, you have to put the information into a form that you can't alter anyway. Now, if this isn't a serious Catch-22 situation I don't know what is.
If you are absolutely sure that you made a mistake, however, the SQ8 has a nice feature which does allow for some basic editing. Once you've stopped recording, you can press the Rewind button and the sequencer outputs the MIDI information in reverse (!), so that you can listen for the point at which the mistake was made. Once you've found it, you can punch in (recording can only start at the beginning of a measure, remember) and re-record the track to the end. Punch-outs, unfortunately, are not possible. If you made more than one mistake, make sure that you rewind to the point where the first one occurred, otherwise you'll have to record over your first punch-in.
One other small point that you need to be aware of (and which, again, the owner's manual doesn't address) is that the SQ8 erases as it rewinds in record mode, so if you rewind too far you'll have to re-record starting from the point you rewound to. Hitting the Fast Forward button won't do any good because it only starts to record in fast forward. Needless to say, this is a frustrating and serious drawback.
Returning now to the Play Track function, the SQ8 allows you to listen to or mute whichever tracks you want, as long as the selections are made before playback is started. This flexible setup allows you to record and store two or more individual songs in the unit, even though it has no special provision for this application. Making use of my trusty CZ101, I was able to record one multi-timbral sequence on tracks 1-4 and then, while muting the playback on those tracks, record an entirely different sequence on tracks 5-8. A glamorous application of technology it is not, but given the SQ8's healthy 6500-note memory, it does represent a viable way of squeezing out as much performance from the machine as possible.
Another nice feature available in Play mode is the Measure Memory function. What this allows you to do is locate a specific measure at which the SQ8 will automatically stop. With a bit of intelligent planning, you could also use this feature to record two independent eight-track sequences, one on each side of the marker. (To do so you'd have to record track 1 of song I, then track 1 of song 2, then track 2 of song 1, then track 2 of song 2, and so on.) Fast forward and rewind are also available in Play mode, but thankfully, they operate in normal tape transport fashion, without destroying any information.
"To hear if there are any mistakes, you have to put the information into a form you can't alter any way; if this isn't a serious Catch-22 situation, I don't know what is."
Erase Track is the fifth function which can be accessed by the Function key, and it operates just as you would expect it to. You can either erase tracks individually or do all eight collectively. The SQ8 also features a data protect switch, which allows you to prevent accidental erasure of important sequenced material.
The final function is the ominously titled Step Write/Other. Like the rest of the machine's functions, the SQ8's step-time mode is somewhat limited and can be a bit frustrating to work with. The smallest increment that you can use is a 16th-note, and every note that you input has to be divisible into 16ths, so triplets are not possible in step time.
The actual inputting process requires you to hold down the note that you want to enter, and then press the Up button as many times as there would be 16ths during that note's length. A half-note, for example, requires eight button pushes, while an eighth-note requires only two. If you don't hold the note down while you're pressing the Up button, the SQ8 interprets these button pushes as rests.
I'm happy to report that you can enter the step write mode from the real-time recording mode, but unfortunately, you can't do things the other way round. Once you leave the step write mode, you can only go to the unalterable play mode.
The Step Write/Other function also allows you to turn four general system parameters on and off. Key Transposition allows you to change the key of the sequenced data based upon a MIDI note input, but only if the machine is reset, stopped or repeating; Repeat On can be used for the entire sequencer's memory, or, in conjunction with the Memory Measure feature, for a small segment of a complete sequence; Echo Back allows the incoming MIDI data to be sent out of the SQ8's MIDI Out port, like a MIDI Thru feature; and Aftertouch Off tells the sequencer to ignore incoming (and memory-hungry) aftertouch data. For some unexplained reason, the status of these functions cannot be stored in memory, so they have to be reset each time the power is turned on.
AS A BASIC vanilla flavour, real-time recording sequencer the SQ8 does a perfectly respectable job. It offers very simple operation, a decent-sized note memory and, with eight individual recording tracks, more flexibility in recording than most of the competitors in its price range. It seems one of the main reasons behind the introduction of the SQ8 was to offer a machine which quickly and easily displayed the multi-timbral capabilities of Korg's impressive new DS8 synthesiser, and that it should do well enough.
So, if you're the type of musician who doesn't like to mess around with editing and you're in the market for a portable, inexpensive first sequencer, I suggest you take a look at the SQ8.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a sequencer with a healthy selection of editing features and a bit of flexibility, I suggest you look elsewhere. The SQ8 simply overlooks too many insignificant (and significant - like the lack of an external storage medium) details to justify its addition to most sophisticated MIDI systems. In fact, the limitations it places upon the user can turn what should be an enjoyable experience into a tedious and frustrating one.
Price £199 including VAT
More from Korg, (Contact Details)
Review by Bob O'Donnell
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!