Digital Sequence Recorder
In a world dominated by software sequencers, Rowland Jones finds he still has a soft spot for Yamaha's hardware variety.
In a world dominated by software sequencers, Rowland Jones finds he still has a soft spot for the hardware variety.
The great debate still rages: are you better opting for a dedicated hardware sequencer or a software-based system which runs on a computer? The current trend seems to be towards computer-based sequencers, unless you need to sequence your music in a live performance situation, where a hardware system is likely to prove more reliable. That may be why there is a growing trend towards hardware-based sequences which are 'software updatable', in that the operating system is loaded from disk rather than being built into the machine itself. The Roland MC500, Akai ASQ10, Kawai Q80, and Korg Q1 are fine examples. These machines are obviously less cumbersome and fragile to take 'on the road' than a computer system, with its separate screen and keyboard. But there is one over-riding factor in the decision-making process - personal taste - which, of course, has very little to do with rational thought. In my case, it's a gut reaction that says, 'I like a piece of solid equipment to rely on' ...which brings us to the Yamaha QX3 sequencer.
This certainly is a solid piece of kit, similar in shape to Yamaha's own RX5 drum machine. One criticism levelled at dedicated sequencers is the lack of visual information available in comparison with what's possible on a computer monitor. A fair criticism but, having said that, the QX3's 2x40 character LCD is easy to read and has its own contrast control located on the rear of the unit.
The top half of the QX3 front panel contains a screen-printed guide to the Job commands used in Record/Play, Edit and MDR (MIDI Data Recorder) modes, which is extremely useful and saves constantly having to refer to a manual. The large dial is used to change tempo, or to locate a specific measure, beat, or clock depending on which of the four adjacent buttons is selected. Directly above these are the track selection buttons, which define the tracks you are recording on, listening to, or editing.
The left-hand section of keys operate in several ways. They can be used to name tracks, songs, chains and set-ups, using the alphanumeric characters shown on the lower half of the keys. They can also select the pitch, dynamics and duration of notes when editing or recording in step-time. In this mode, the keys at the right of this section are used for entering other types of data, such as Program Changes, System Exclusive and Aftertouch. Finally, there are three buttons which can store measure locations. Data is stored on 3.5" floppy disks inserted into the disk drive on the right-hand side of the unit.
The back panel of the QX3 contains MIDI In, Thru, and two Out sockets, as well as Tape In and Out used to transmit and receive a FSK signal for synchronising to tape. There is also an output jack for feeding a metronome click to a mixer input channel or amplification system. But why doesn't the QX3 have an audible click as well (as on the QX5)? Many people programme their sequencer before going into the studio and are quite likely to have a limited number of audio channels available to them. In this case, to have to use a channel of your mixer or portastudio just for a 'click' is frustrating: I ended up plugging in a spare set of headphones but it's hardly satisfactory.
I mention the QX5, as it is a unit which I have used extensively. To my mind, it was the first truly important Yamaha sequencer, being both affordable and providing comprehensive facilities; the QX1 was too expensive, the QX7 and QX21 were restricted by only having two tracks. I expected the QX3 to be a development of the QX5, with larger capacity and without two of its drawbacks - namely, no 'serious' method of data storage (do you call tape storage serious!?) and multi-multi-function buttons! In the event, I was quite surprised to find that the QX3 has a basically different design in the way it records data.
The QX3 offers 16 parallel tracks, each of which can record data received on one MIDI channel only, whereas the QX5 had eight tracks but could record on all 16 MIDI channels simultaneously. This means that, before recording, you need to define your 'set-up', including which channel each track will receive data on (normally set to 'Omni') and the transmit channels (normally set 1-16 according to the tracks). In this way, the QX3 offers you the flexibility to record on one or several MIDI channels at a time.
The set-up information actually includes a lot of other data as well, such as 'echo back'. This function defines whether incoming data is transmitted as it would be played back, unchanged or not at all, and this (and all other set-up data) can be saved to disk and loaded before recording. This enables you to store several different set-ups: one for 'multitrack' recording on a single track and channel at a time, and one for 'multi-instrumental' recording across all tracks using 16 channels. I used the latter configuration to record some material from another sequencer. The receive channel allocation divided the piece across the tracks on different MIDI channels, which made editing considerably easier.
Let's assume you want to start recording using a single instrument. First, you set the tempo using either the dial or the numeric keypad. Pressing the Record button takes you to the next stage, where you select the track you want to record on. As soon as you hit Run, you get a two bar count-in and you're recording. Dead easy!
But you're not delighted with your performance, so you repeat the process and this time you perform perfectly. Or do you? Because, in doing this, you'll find that you're now playing along with the original attempt. This took me by surprise at first, simply because it isn't like the QX5, on which previously recorded data is erased. However, this changed to frustration as I had to go through several keystrokes to clear the track. There is a way around this to a certain extent (which I'll come to later) but I do feel that it would have been better to be able to specify the record method you preferred - replacing or adding to the recorded data. (The Akai ASQ10 sequencer achieves this by having two record buttons - Record and Overdub.) Apart from this hiccup, real-time recording is excellent, giving you three punch-in options. Having set the appropriate 'in' and 'out' points, you can use the QX3's Auto Punch-In facility to record between your specified points. The 'Just' punch-in option means that, whilst the sequencer is running, recording starts as soon as you press Enter and stops when you press Exit. 'Meas' punch-in operates in a similar way, except that the in and out points are at the start of the next measure after you hit Enter and Exit. These options are extremely useful, and in case you do get the 'red light' panic once the machine starts, the LCD tells you quite clearly whether you are 'punching' or 'waiting'.
Overall, the real-time recording facilities are good but it would have been useful to have some sort of loop record facility, to enable drum machine type programming.
Once you've laid down the basis of your masterpiece, you will probably want to fine tune it (just a little, of course!). Pressing the Edit button takes you into Edit mode, where there are 29 different editing options (see panel) which provide extremely comprehensive data manipulation facilities. I've picked out a few of these that deserve further explanation:
• NOTE SHIFT This enables you to change any note to any other and is particularly useful for editing rhythm tracks, where percussion instruments are allocated to different MIDI note numbers.
• QUANTISATION This function adjusts the timing of the Note-On information but leaves the duration (gate time) of the note untouched.
• CHORD SEPARATE This allows any simultaneous events which occur on a certain beat/clock to be separated by a certain number of clock pulses, allowing you to produce even arpeggios. (Bear in mind that if you execute this function and then want the arpeggio to be slower, you can't 'spread' the chord further because the chord no longer exists! Therefore, you should always make a safety copy of the original track before attempting this.
As well as the Edit mode options, the QX3 offers you 'Insert/Change' alternatives which (surprise, surprise) allow you to change the existing data or insert new data. This covers Pitch, Step and Gate Time, Velocity, Pitch Bend, Controller, Tempo Change, Aftertouch and System Exclusive data. In order to find the exact point where you wish to make the amendment, you can use the dial first in Measure mode and then Beat mode to look within the measure. Pitch data can be inserted either with the keys on the QX3 or from an external MIDI keyboard.
This Insert/Change option is also used as the basis of step-time recording. I have to say that I am not a great fan of step-time editing, it seems quite far removed from music the way I have had to do it in the past. But with this system, which shows the notation, I felt I was actually learning a new and useful skill. I also liked the way that loudness is indicated in the LCD by musical terms (pp, mp, f, etc), so that changing the velocity data to, say, 127 gives you the appropriate notation, 'fff'! One application I found Insert mode most useful was for inserting Program and Controller data into a sequence, making it very easy to control my FB01. (Bear in mind that although instrument changes will appear on the display, the volume changes will not.)
So far we've seen how a piece can be recorded and edited on the QX3. Now if you tend to write continuous pieces of music, then fine, the QX3 can accommodate your needs, but more than likely your composing is done in sections; verse, chorus, middle 8 etc. The QX3 stores compositions in terms of Songs and Song Chains, which are equivalent to a verse and a song. (It sounds confusing but is easy enough to use.) Assuming the piece you've finished is the verse of your forthcoming classic, you'll want to preserve it. In fact, you have to because the QX3's memory is volatile, ie. it is erased when the power is turned off. Pressing Save gives a reading of the storage space available on whatever 3.5" disk you have loaded. Incidentally, if at this stage you suddenly realise that your disk isn't formatted, you can format the disk without losing what's in the memory. Assuming that your disk is formatted, use the dial to find an empty file number, and save the verse. You can now clear the machine's memory, ready to write a suitably stunning chorus and save that as well.
To put these elements together you need to enter Chain Edit mode, use Insert to select the Song, eg. the verse or chorus and how many times you want to repeat it, enter this information and move on. Once you've finished this there's a slight problem: you can't play the Song Chain until you first save it, return to Play mode, and reload it. Then if you want to edit the Chain, you need to clear the memory, re-enter Chain Edit mode and reload the Chain. Strange but true!
Apart from this 'niggle', the disk storage is incredibly convenient in comparison to using a QX5 and an MDF1 (let alone a cassette recorder!), since having the storage as part of the same machine saves re-patching your system. Song data stored on the QX3 includes title, names of tracks, and tempo, which is extremely useful, especially if you've spent considerable time working on a piece of music which has to run to a specific length, such as a jingle. The Time Display feature of the QX3 allows you to get an accurate timing of the length of a piece. So, to adjust the time you only need to adjust the tempo.
To go from a situation where you can adjust the tempo to the Time Display mode requires five keystrokes, but this can be reduced by using F1 or F2. These are two user-programmable 'macro' keys, each of which will store up to 128 consecutive keystrokes and replay them at the press of the one button. An extremely useful feature.
I utilised the F1 macro key to overcome the problem I mentioned earlier on, that recording on a track does not erase previous data. When recording on a given track, to erase what you have just recorded in readiness for another take requires some eight keystrokes. But using the trusty F1 key enables you to do this at a single stroke, as they say. The only reason that this doesn't totally alleviate the problem is that those eight keystrokes include two that specify a track number, which means that F1 would need to be re-programmed for each track as you were working on it.
Returning to data storage for a moment, the QX3 can also be used to save and load System Exclusive Bulk data. It will receive and transmit information such as voice data in its MDR (MIDI Data Recorder) mode, although be warned that entering this mode erases all song data in the memory.
Having considered the major features of this machine I should draw some conclusions, but that I'm afraid means re-entering the great hardware/software debate. The QX3 is not software updatable, and doesn't have a large visual display such as a computer system can offer. On the other hand, what it does have is a very reassuringly solid 'feel', not only in its physical construction but also in the way in which it operates. It is easy to use and, apart from a few minor criticisms, is well thought out.
The problem of course comes when you compare it with other hardware sequencers in the market. At its new RRP of £799, the QX3 is well below the price of other comparable dedicated sequencers such as the Roland MC500 MkII (at £1050) or the Akai ASQ10 (now at £1299), but these do have the added benefit of both being software updatable. A closer comparison might be the Roland MC300 (£620) but this has a smaller note capacity than the QX3. The other route, of course, is to opt for a computer and a sequencing program. £800 should easily cover the cost of a flexible package (and you'll get a computer that will do lots of other things apart from sequencing!).
But when it comes to the crunch, it's all a matter of personal choice: what you want, what you want to pay for it and whether, like me, you have a soft spot for hardware.
Thanks to Sounds Great, Heald Green, Stockport ((Contact Details)) for the loan of the QX3.
£799 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Rowland Jones
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