Sequential Studio 440
Sampling Drum Machine/Sequencer
After last month's In Brief preview, Paul Wiffen gets his hands on a first production model of Sequential's new all-in-one drum machine, sampler and sequencer. Is it the master of all trades?
The Studio 440 aims to be the all-in-one MIDI recorder for drum programming, sampling and sequencing. But is it sophisticated enough to restore the market's faith in combination machines?
RAISE THE SUBJECT of the Linn 9000 among top musicians and programmers, and you can bet that whatever their reaction, it will be a strong one. People either love its sound, the convenience of combined rhythms and sequences that it offers, and its way of approaching the tasks it performs; or they hate the grittiness of its eight-bit sampling, its glaring omissions in the areas of programmable tuning, panning and MIDI, and the fact that nearly all revisions of hardware and software seem to crash every time a gnat hiccups 300 miles away. Even its strongest critics have to concede its good points, and its staunchest defenders are left speechless by some of the more testing moments in its operation (like when you discover that it doesn't understand the MIDI clock, or that the song you've been working on for days goes down the tubes when it locks up).
Yet as a dedicated drum machine, MIDI recorder and sampler, the Linn 9000 has filled a gap which no other machine could. Until now, that is.
Preliminary specs on Sequential's Studio 440 which began to filter through unofficial channels last summer - and their subsequent confirmation by Sequential in the autumn - made it clear that the machine would be addressing itself to pretty much the same market as the Linn, but with some major improvements.
The sounds would all use 12-bit resolution, with a sample rate of up to 42kHz, and a 32-sound user-sampling option. Pitch, Level and Pan would be programmable for every note as on previous Sequential drum machines, but now there would be eight separate outputs. Sequencing memory was to be 50,000 notes with floppy disk storage, and synchronisation would not be limited to unmusical SMPTE or prehistoric pulses-per-quarter note, but would push MIDI to its limits and introduce a new standard, MTC.
LET'S GET THE major complaint out of the way first. I can sum it up in one word. Amnesia. Let me explain. Much of this review was written aboard a TWA 747 flying over the Atlantic. This was made possible by a revolutionary arrival in my life, a Tandy 600 portable computer. For me, the Tandy machine has one huge advantage over every other computer ever made: when you turn it off (or the power gets accidentally disconnected), it doesn't forget everything it ever knew. Thanks, I ought to point out, to a battery back-up on its memory.
And it's a wonderful thing, battery back-up. Of course we've been spoilt by it on synths. We think nothing of it when we turn the cheapest polysynth off and back on again to find the sounds are still there. In fact, we only notice it when it doesn't work. Then suddenly, it's as if the synth itself has been taken away. If we're lucky, we may still have the factory sounds stored on data cassette somewhere, and we can spend many happy hours trying to get them to load back in. If we're lucky...
Sampling keyboards have brought us face to face with the harsh reality of computer memory, because with the sole exception of the Kurzweil, they all lose their sounds (many forget their operating system as well) when disconnected from the mains.
But the Studio 440 is the first drum machine to lose everything (sounds, sequences, programming setups, et al) when it is switched off. In making what is probably the cleverest drum machine in history, Sequential have also produced the stupidest.
The 440 gets around this by saving everything to 3 1/2-inch floppy disks. But I'm still not sure that the average musician will take kindly to a drum machine that won't make a sound until you've loaded a disk (which takes 40 seconds), won't play back any pre-recorded patterns until you've loaded another one, and resets some of the most crucial parameters every time you do.
The memory of the 440 is many times larger than that of any other drum machine, especially in terms of that available for holding drum samples. The 512K allocated for this is four times the size of its nearest rival (the E-mu SP12), as are the 32 user sample locations available. All this memory and speed on the 440 is truly wonderful, but why couldn't Sequential have fitted a battery to retain those sounds when the machine is turned off?
But perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies, in that at least the 440 has its operating system on ROM. This automatically boots up when you turn the power on...
THE 440 IS an expensive beast, partly because it boasts a good selection of clever software tricks (more later), and partly because, as already stated, it is well endowed with memory.
The most immediate result of the latter feature is that the sound quality of samples made on the Studio 440 is exceptionally high. As it turns out, many of the factory samples are not even made at the best available bandwidth, yet they sound brighter than anything I've ever heard on a drum machine before.
Now, for the first time on a drum machine, you can reproduce the sound of a cymbal right up to the final dying whisper of vibrating metal (thanks to the 42K sample rate, and the long sample times the huge memory makes possible). As most percussion sounds last well under half-a-second, you can afford to squander up to ten seconds at full bandwidth on capturing a complete cymbal, and still accompany it with a full drum kit (bass drum, snare, toms and hi-hat).
You're also given the ability to "audition" the results of the 440's three available sample rates (42kHz, 31 kHz and 6kHz) before you actually make your samples, and to recover any portions of memory not required in the final sound.
The former is a particularly clever trick, achieved by feeding the audio signal through the 440's ADC (analogue-to-digital converter) and then straight back out through its DAC (digital-to-analogue, would you believe) stage without storing it in memory along the way. You simply choose which sample rate you want to hear, play your drum sound into the 440, and the way you hear it is the way it will sound when it has been stored in the machine. So, you can find out if you really need to use the fastest rate (42kHz) to capture that snare sound, or if you can get away with 31 kHz and save memory for other sounds.
The sampling procedure is very similar to that on the Prophet 2000, with the three sample rates, length, sample and trigger level all programmable. However, the whole process is made considerably easier by the sort of help that only a 32-character backlit LCD and hardwired pots can give you. No longer do you have to set length in blocks of data and have your trigger threshold altered when you change another parameter.
Once a sound has been sampled, you can play it back instantly from one of the eight 440's pads by selecting the bank in whose row that sample location appears. And from that pad, you can immediately put your sound into a new pattern. Alternatively, by sampling or copying into the particular location used before, you are able to replace a sound in a pattern which has already been created. Much, much easier than replacing sounds by triggering an AMS off-tape.
IF YOU HAVE a bit more patience and can wait to use your drum sound, you have the ability to truncate it, loop it, adjust its envelope, append it to another sample, name it, recover any unused memory, and so on.
Let's look at these capabilities a bit more closely. The first thing we should point out is that each sample on the 440 can exist in two separate forms, based on the same sample data, but with a complete set of independent parameters. These two versions are referred to as the Normal and Alternate versions. In the usual run of things, the Normal sample will be used unless you hit the Alternate Parameters button. If you do this (and there's an LED that tells you), the sound always plays with those alternative parameters, and this fact is remembered even after you go onto play other sounds and saved to disk. When you return you will find the Alternate version, until you hit the Alternate Parameters buttons to toggle back to the Normal version.
On most of the factory sounds, the alternative version is used to call up reversed samples just like those available on the Sequential Tom. Except, that is, for the open hi-hat sound, which uses different Start and End Points in its Alternate version to give a "closed" sound. This can then be selected via footswitches (the 440 has two inputs for fully assignable switching and triggering functions), so that hi-hat parts can be programmed in exactly the same way as real hi-hat lines-by opening and closing with your foot.
But these two uses of Alternate Parameter mode, good though they are, are really just the tip of the iceberg. Any of the parameters we are going to look at can be set up independently for the Normal and Alternate versions. So you can have different loops, different analogue parameters, and so on and then just switch between them at will.
Start and End points for your sample loops on the 440 are shown as five-or six-figure addresses, which is certainly an improvement on the nearest 1000 bytes shown in the Prophet 2000's two-digit display.
And you can still step between zero crossings by selecting Auto, which is the fastest way to get rid of clicks.
Loop points can be set in the same way, but it's when you get into computer-assisted looping that the 440 really comes into its own. First, the Auto facility looks for zero crossings or zero slopes depending on whether you are using forward or forwards/backwards loops to get the smoothest possible transitions. But when you can't go any further with that, you can turn to that innovation of Northern California, the crossfade loop, the first of its kind on a dedicated percussion sampler.
Now, looping is not normally associated with sampled percussion sounds (though a rudimentary form of it is featured on the SP12). However, the sort of looping facilities offered on the 440 (a choice of sustain and release loops, zero crossings and crossfade looping), are more flexible than those of just about any keyboard sampler.
The digital editing on the 440 is also the sort of thing you'd normally expect from the most flexible keyboard samplers, with splicing (again with crossfade), reversing and gain boosting all available.
And in the enveloping field, the 440 gives you programmable Attack, Sustain and Release times on both Amplifier (loudness) and Filter (brightness) envelopes, with velocity control (the 440's pads are velocity-sensitive) of attack, release and envelope amount and pitch-tracking for attack, sustain and release. This sort of envelope is much better suited to dealing with samples in general than the conventional ADSR. Sampled sounds are recorded with their own decay characteristic built-in, so rarely do you have any use for envelope decay. On the other hand, programmable sustain time (as opposed to level, as on ADSRs) is a much better idea, especially on percussion sounds, as you can achieve the sort of effects you would normally need external gating for.
However, for the kind of longer looped samples you would make on a keyboard sampler, you may well want to be able to sustain the sound for as long as you hold the pad (or key on a connected MIDI keyboard). The 440 allows for this eventuality as well, by making sustain time controllable by the Gate. This is the only way you can control sustain time on ADSRs, so here you have the best of both worlds.
The fact that all three envelope times can be altered by pitch-tracking is particularly appropriate to samples, as they are so obviously pitch-time related. In other words, the higher the replay pitch, the shorter the time the sample lasts. So it's handy to be able to adjust your envelope times to match the time your sample lasts.
On the 440, each sound can be replayed over a two-and-a-half octave range. But tuning can also be controlled during sample replay via what are known as Bend parameters. This allows you to offset a sample's pitch and then control the speed at which the pitch returns to the original pitch. This can be further modified by the velocity and pitch-tracking, and you can also decide whether the bend starts as soon as you trigger a note, or when you release it. This allows a variety of syn-drum effects to be applied to acoustic samples.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the degree of flexibility and control available in the field of sample editing is that the 440 should under no circumstances be seen as just a percussion sampler. There is no doubt, in my mind, that the 440 is as good as any keyboard sampler for making, editing and looping sound samples of any description.
BUT HOW DO you go about replaying those samples and recording them in a sequence? Well, you can of course simply access the 32 sounds via four banks, which each allow you to trigger eight sounds at a time from the machine's onboard pads. These pads are a big improvement on the standard half-inch square buttons that most cheaper drum machines use, but not quite the size of the two-inch square pads on the Linn. They are made of rubber, a material well suited to the velocity-and pressure-sensitivity which they implement.
Next to these pads are three knobs which control level, pitch and pan position. You simply hold down the pad which triggers the sound you want to alter, move the appropriate knob, and the pitch, level or pan position of that sound is changed. There are 32 possible volume levels, 32 pitches (in semitones) and 32 pan positions across the stereo image. These are all memorised, too, so if you move to alter another sound's pitch or level, when you come back to the first sound, its values haven't changed.
Any recordings you make on the internal sequencer retain the volume, level and pan values they were recorded with, even if you overdub the same sound with different values afterwards. This means that you can achieve rolls around the toms or melody lines by overdubbing pitched sounds at different tunings.
But wouldn't it be good if you could set up the pads to put the sounds exactly where you wanted them? Funnily enough, this is just what you're able to do with the Kits on the 440. The best way to consider a Kit is to think of it as being akin to a preset on a synthesiser. In each of the four Kits available, you can assign any of the 32 sounds to each of the eight pads (the same sound to each pad, if required) and then assign each pad its own tuning, level and pan position. This could be a standard drum kit setup, say (left-to-right) bass drum, snare, hi tom, mid tom, lo torn, hi-hat, cymbal. Or it could be one sound, the snare for example, with a different volume as you go across.
But Kits don't have to be used just for drum sounds. The bass samples which Sequential give you (Slap, Picked, Analog and Digital synth) can also be spread across all eight pads with different pitches to allow you to play basslines. And programming basslines from pads turns out to be a great way of getting the same feel in the bass as you have in the drum pattern (which is the way all good rhythm sections should be).
Any other pitched sounds (Orchestra hits, piano lines, guitar samples, anything) can also be programmed from a multi-pitch Kit, and you may well find this beneficial if the part you're playing is very rhythmic.
What's more, you can play the pads polyphonically, so you can input chords this way, either by hitting more than one pad simultaneously, or by building up harmonies in several takes.
However, my feeling is that most people will still feel more comfortable playing pitched sounds from a keyboard, and by routing the 440's MIDI In to "Sounds", you can do just that. The bottom two octaves (of a five-octave keyboard) can access two Kits simultaneously via MIDI. So you can put the same sound with different pitches and pan positions over two Kits, giving you 16 different versions of the same sample available at the same time, or assign 16 different drum sounds to play from the keyboard. If you hold any of these keys down, the sound it triggers can be played over its full range of 32 semitones, using the two-and-a-half octaves above Middle C (F3 to B5) with Alternate Parameters being toggled by C3.
In the real world, however, there are plenty of instruments that require a good bit more than a 32-semitone range to be reproduced properly. On a keyboard sampler we use multi-samples to do this, but you may be surprised to learn that the 440 can operate in this way, too. Here it's called Mapped Mode, and it allows you total freedom in the way you assign samples to certain ranges. In fact, all 32 sounds in the 440 can be assigned a range on the keyboard, to achieve realistic recreations of something with as wide a range as a piano. And up to two sounds per key can be assigned, so you could double up strings and brass, for example.
For those of you who have ever tried mapping on a Prophet 2000, there is no need to be frightened by the term on the 440. Thanks to the much larger display and simplified procedure, mapping on the 440 is considerably easier than on its keyboard-based predecessor. You simply select the original pitch and highest pitch for each sample, along with the MIDI channel you want to trigger it. This allows not only smooth recreations of one instrument over its whole range, but also multi-timbral keyboard layouts with access on different MIDI channels if required.
ONCE YOU HAVE all your sounds in the machine and set up to be played either from the pads or from an external MIDI keyboard, you can immediately start sequencing them. The Studio 440's format draws no distinction between drum patterns and sequences as such, but any internal sounds sequenced (drums or pitched instruments) are not tied to MIDI channels, so there are 16 MIDI channels available to sequence external sounds.
In order to start recording, you need to specify the time signature and length of your sequence in bars. Here the open-endedness of the 440's sequencer immediately becomes apparent, as you can specify a four-bar cycling sequence or 999-bar linear recording, to suit the way you prefer to work. Time signature can be anything from 1 to 64 over 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24 or 32, but it defaults to 4/4, you'll be pleased to hear. Still, it's nice to know that if the urge to record in 59/12 becomes too much to resist, the 440 can handle it.
Auto-correct (or quantisation) is given a similarly flexible range, from quarter-notes (for the most tragically unmusical) to thirty-second note triplets (for the fussy). This section also contains a Shift parameter, so that auto-correction can be shifted ahead or behind the beat.
The auto-correct parameters (you can switch them off completely if you want to) also govern the positioning of notes during auto-repeat, and the size of the steps in step-time recording.
A Metronome click is available for real-time recording, and this can also be set to sound over the quarter-note to 32nd-note triplet range. Metronome pitch can also be adjusted, so that it can be heard in a different register to whatever sounds are coming out of the machine. No more inaudible clicks here.
The Swing feature is a record function, and gives added weight to the first of each pair of two beats. It's a versatile beast, because being based on the auto-correct value, it allows you to swing at any level you like from (you guessed it) quarter-notes down to 32nd-notes.
Usefully, Auto-correct, Swing and Metronome settings can all be altered while a sequence is running, and the changes made take effect at the beginning of the next bar.
My principal criticism of this part of the 440 is that there is no way to Auto-correct or Swing parts already recorded "after the event", and nor is there any way of removing these effects if they produce undesired results without erasing and re-recording.
Some people may be used to working like this, but in the interests of having as open-ended a system as possible, there really should be ways to "audition" the results of Auto-correct of Swing without committing yourself to keeping them or redoing the part...
For those who like to work in tape-recorder fashion, the 440's sequencer also features programmable Punch In and Punch Out points in the sequence. These can be set up in terms of bar, beat and click (24 per quarter-note) numbers or SMPTE time.
And those who think that the drum machine approach is best can use the Work Loop, which cycles round and round a set number of bars.
The sequencer has eight tracks, which some might regard as a limitation, but is not restricted to "one MIDI channel per channel" format. You can merge as much data onto one track as you like, with all the internal sounds plus 32 channels of MIDI sequencing (16 from each of the two MIDI outputs) held on one track.
The only problem is that, unlike the Roland MC500, the Studio 440 doesn't allow you to extract the data on one MIDI channel out of a track for further editing. I trust this is something Sequential haven't had time to implement yet, as it can be a lifesaver, but the manual does seem a bit final when it says "once data is bounced together, it can't be unbounced". So there.
While you are working, you can Mute any or all of your previously recorded tracks so they don't distract you, and then Unmute them at will.
In fact, one of Sequential's demo sequences uses Mute/Unmute very effectively to change the parts in one cycling sequence, continuously changing the sections you are hearing.
Tempo and timing options on the 440 are also extremely flexible. The internal clock can be set in Beats Per Minute (40 to 250) or in Frames Per Beat (45.0 to 5.8) for the SMPTE-minded. The Initial Tempo for each sequence can be set, and then changed by up to +/-99.9 BPM or +/-18.0 FPB in each bar. This change can take place within the space of one beat, or over a maximum 99 beats. Alternatively, the timing throughout can be varied by tapping in the tempo, so you can add a more human feel to your sequences, or sync your sequences to music already recorded.
The amount of beats over which tempo changes are averaged out is variable between 2 and 8, and the process can be carried out at eighth or quarter-note levels. The timing of data being sent out of each of the MIDI Outs can be offset to cope with MIDI devices which respond late to MIDI data. The offset can be anything from + 15 to -14 milliseconds, and is independent for each MIDI Out. This is all very fine, but I can't help feeling that certain machines I know could do with a bit more help than 15 milliseconds. And seeing as it may be only one device which is late, or that different devices need different offsets, it would be better if this feature were independent for each track or MIDI channel.
Still on the sequencing front, there are a whole host of standard editing features on the Studio 440, plus a few which are not so usual. Erase, Bounce, Copy, Delete, Insert, Transpose and MIDI Channelise are fairly commonplace, but Replace (which substitutes one of the internal sounds for another in a sequence) and Velocity Scale (which allows overall MIDI mixing) are as interesting as they are unusual.
Rotate is even more off-the-wall, sliding a track forwards or backwards against the others by a specified number of clicks (for a subtle effect) or beats (for more experimental stuff). I found it best for advancing the snare in a track to "push" a whole piece along.
The 99 sequences can be joined together into 12 songs, but if this doesn't give you the required complexity, you can Dub Songs back to Sequences and then recombine these until you get where you're going. For example, you might combine several sequences together into Song 1 to make your verse, Dub it back to a sequence, do the same to create the chorus and middle eight, and then combine these into another Song to produce the finished form.
The only limit I found to the number of times you could go round this "Sequence to Song and back to Sequence" cycle was when I got to the stage where memory was full of the various components cleared along the way - but if you delete these as soon as they are no longer required, you could have a new hi-tech way of building up your first symphony.
And don't forget that you can save individual sequences at any time in case you need them later.
Synchronisation facilities on the 440 are nothing if not complete. For those antique bits of gear you have lying around, there are triggers and 24, 48 or 96 ppqn connections. And studio engineers will be pleased to see SMPTE (24, 25 or 30 frames/sec dropframe and non-dropframe varieties) which can only tell the time, not set tempo. Modem musicians will be glad to see the MIDI clock, together with those wonderful song pointers which allow synchronised playback from any point in your track.
Now, the problem normally is that systems like those described above are not directly compatible without some sort of interface, but by having them all on the 440, you can use one machine to act as a master interface device, running off-tape SMPTE in the recording studio and dispensing MIDI, clicks and triggers to its humble slaves. But Chris Meyer (software writer and MT contributor) hasn't contented himself with this lot. Single-handedly (or so it seems), he has developed the MIDI Time Code standard (originally referred to as MSMPTE) to facilitate communication between us (musicians) and them (engineers). It combines the absolute timing information accuracy of SMPTE with the cues for MIDI devices to trigger from. Needless to say, the Studio 440 both generates and receives MIDI Time Code.
TO BEGIN WITH, comparisons with the Linn 9000 are bound to occur. But as far as I'm concerned, there is no comparison. The increased sample fidelity and the fact that all the 440's sounds can be user samples is enough for me to declare it a clear winner. I prefer the 440's more sensitive pads (though this is a very personal thing) and the way you can assign sounds, tuning, level and pan position to whichever pads you want. The sequencing side of things is more open-ended as well, though there's no doubt some users will still prefer the immediacy of the Linn. Finally, the Studio 440 is a new machine, available now; the Linn 9000 is an old machine made by a company that no longer exists, and is no longer available.
To sum up the 440 is as difficult as it is to categorise it. As a digital drum machine, it is the highest-fidelity device there has ever been, and provides some excellent drum pads for you to trigger those high-fidelity sounds from.
As a sampler, it is equal to the best 12-bit keyboard or rack-mount samplers, and a lot more besides in some areas. As a sequencer it is a very powerful device, with extensive and innovative editing features, but without the ability to undo auto-corrected and merged tracks if the results are unsatisfactory. As a master controller, it does just about all the interfacing you are ever likely to need, whether in conjunction with MIDI or pre-MIDI devices.
But the real beauty of the Studio 440 is that it is all of these things in one box. The few omissions in the operating system may well be added in system updates, but the features already present make it the most comprehensive combination machine currently available on the market.
Shame it's so forgetful.
Price £3495 including VAT
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Review by Paul Wiffen
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