Black & White & Cred All Over
Doepfer MAQ16/3 MIDI Analogue Sequencer
A digital, hardware MIDI sequencer with the behaviour patterns of an analogue sequencer? Derek Johnson explores the ins and outs of a German machine designed in consultation with Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider.
In an age of highly-specified software sequencers, running on clear, visible monitor screens and providing editing features of such depth and scope that some of us never get the chance to use them all, why would anyone want to make a digital, hardware MIDI sequencer which behaves like an analogue sequencer — no fancy graphics, no quantising, no real-time input? No doubt that's what the more hardened software-using techno heads out there will be thinking when confronted with the Doepfer MAQ16/3. There will be a certain number of readers, however, who won't need the reason for this beast explaining at all. They'll be the people, like me, who have fond memories of the distinctive sound produced by analogue sequencers like the classic SQ10 from Korg, which, like the German-made Doepfer MAQ16/3 to be reviewed, featured three rows of 16 knobs, the ARP Sequencer (as used by Vince Clarke), and the Tangerine Dream custom sequencer of the 70s and '80s. There may even be those who recall having had much fun with such sequencers themselves — a Yamaha monosynth I used to own (the CS30) featured a built-in 8-step sequencer that was surprisingly versatile. They'll also be the people who understand why there's a bit of a queue forming to purchase this unusual device, at the head of which, I'm informed, is the Human League!
Let's just get one thing straight right away: in all but one or two insignificant areas, Doepfer's new MIDI-equipped MAQ16/3 is more powerful, more reliable and just as easy to use as any of the aforementioned vintage sequencers. It goes without saying that it's rather easier to locate than any of them, since this German-made unit is made in quantity and now has UK distribution.
Basically, analogue sequencers are ideal for creating repetitive, droning music (of the classic repetitive, droning synth music school) or music with a minimalist feel of gradually shifting timbres and pitches, but with a little care the limited patterns can often be made to produce more seemingly complex results. This is especially the case with the Doepfer MAQ16/3, since it can generate any MIDI information you like — notes, velocity data, program changes, aftertouch, pitch bend, mod wheel and so on. Each of its three rows of knobs can transmit data on any three MIDI channels (or all on the same channel if you like), and note sequences can be transposed (by an external MIDI keyboard) on the fly. The device can be sync'd to or from MIDI clock, and the results could be recorded in real time into a fullblown MIDI sequencer for manipulation later. It really is the business.
Physically, the MAQ is unprepossessing: a simple black 4U high, rack-mounting case, with three rows of 16 knobs (each of which has its own red activity LED) and eight editing buttons. A large data entry knob and a three-character LED display fill out the front panel. Build quality is solid enough, if lacking in subtlety, though the knobs do feel a little flimsy. Internally, the circuit boards are very tidy, and the whole unit is easily accessible in case of emergency — this was just as well, since a knob had shorn off the review unit in transit. A few minutes with a screwdriver and some superglue, and the MAQ was back to normal. Power comes externally from any old 9V PSU, and a pair of MIDI sockets complete the facilities on offer — note that the MIDI In socket is for incoming clock or transposition data only. Notes are not passed through the MIDI Out.
While the three rows of knobs are where the action occurs — they are used to determine note or MIDI parameter values within a sequence — it is with the collection of eight buttons that the user defines exactly what is going on. The MAQ is relatively easy to use — a button marked Channel is obviously used for setting the MIDI channel of each row, for example — and this is just as well, since the English manual can be a little obtuse, though it is clear enough to ascertain what each button actually does and what the unit is capable of.
Parameters are altered by pressing one of the eight editing buttons and changing values with the big knob. Where you're changing values for one of the three rows individually, each row is selected by pressing the desired button again. Press the Channel button once to set the MIDI channel for the first row, press it again to set the channel for the second row and so on. The small display is rather limited, but you soon get used to how it works — it's quite logical. Most of the editable parameters gan actually be altered in real time, while the sequencer is running, which can lead to some very funky results. Of course, chaos can just as easily ensue.
The eight buttons on the front panel, each of which calls up a menu, don't hide anything too mysterious — for the most part each is used for altering one parameter only, as follows:
This button determines the type of event generated by each of the three rows of knobs. First of all, they can generate MIDI note numbers, within a range of one, two, three, four or five octaves. Secondly, they can generate any other kind of MIDI event — pitch bend, program change, aftertouch and the various controllers; if you've decided you want a row of knobs to generate pitch bend, the display will show 'PIT', for example, but the undefined MIDI controllers come up as numbers in the display.
If two rows of buttons share the same MIDI channel, one row could generate notes and the other could add pitchbend, aftertouch or a transpose factor, for example.
The Channel button sets the MIDI channel for each row. Obviously, each row can operate on any of the 16 MIDI channels
• FIRST/LAST STEP
There are 16 sequence steps per row possible, but if you want to limit that number, simply use this menu. Each row can start at any point and end at any point within the 16 steps. You could start at step three and end at step 12, if you liked, which would result in a nine-event loop.
This menu allows the length of notes and the time between them to be altered — still with reference to MIDI clock, but even so, rows can be made to apparently run at different speeds, or have different note values for each row, such as quarter notes in one, eighth triplets in another and 16ths in a third.
"Most of the editable parameters can actually be altered in real time, while the sequencer is running, which can lead to some very funky results. Of course, chaos can just as easily ensue..."
Each of the three rows can run in four different ways: forward, backwards, forward/backward (pendulum) or randomly.
• SINGLE STEP
Plays a selected step repeatedly, at your chosen tempo, to allow you to adjust the value of each step with the relevant menu button — say, changing a note from C to D, or altering the pitch bend value of that step. Using the big knob steps back and forth through a sequence.
It is possible to store four sequences on the MAQ 16/3. A Preset memorises the positions of all 48 knobs as well as all other parameters. This is also the menu that allows you to dump the memory contents via Sys Ex over MIDI.
Starts, stops or continues a sequence. Tempo is variable between 50 and 254bpm using the big knob, and if you turn the knob all the way to the left, the MAQ will sync to incoming MIDI clocks.
Using the MAQ16/3 is quite simple, as a perusal of the facilities available under the menu buttons should make clear. Initially, it's particularly easy to make fairly pointless noise with the MAQ16/3, but with practice and a lot of knob twiddling (no harm in that), quite fabulous patterns will emerge, especially when you start transposing in real time and using the various note length options to create shifting offsets. Setting up one row with a 16-note pattern, and the other rows with different length patterns also results in some intriguing musical effects that would be fairly hard and very unspontaneous to produce with sequencing software. With vintage analogue sequencers, there was always a problem with getting precisely pitched notes, but since the MAQ sort of 'quantises' to semitones — MIDI wouldn't let you do it any other way — this isn't a problem here. If you actually want intervals of less than a semitone, use pitch bend on another row running on the same MIDI channel or set up an alternate tuning table on your synth, if it will let you (a la Ensoniq TS10, Roland JV1000, Yamaha DX7 II, Emu MPS and so on). Of course, the vast majority of users will be rather pleased that they can get precise, accurate pitches.
Interesting, Korg Wavestation wave sequence-like effects can be emulated by defining a patch change on each event, and you can generate true random or slightly more predictable pseudo-random sequences by altering note lengths, pattern lengths for each row and so on. Completely unpredictable results can be had by adjusting the many parameters in real time, although you have to be careful not to generate stuck notes. The important point here is that if you have the MAQ sync'd to a more conventional sequencer, and leave it in record, all this wonderful randomness and shifting textures can actually be recorded as MIDI data and manipulated later. Lastly, the flashing red LEDs while the sequencer is active make a most excellent display.
I may as well get the black marks out of the way now, although there aren't that many, and none are particularly crucial. While it could be argued that the essence of an analogue-type sequencer is as a performance tool for creating changes in real time on the spur of the moment, the inclusion of user memories is welcome; however, four does seem rather limited, even though they can be saved via SysEx. The other problem with the Preset memories is that you can't alter the values set for the knobs after a sequence has been saved, nor can you chain two preset sequences together, since the MAQ has to be stopped before you can select another preset. These are all small problems, though, and perhaps they can be addressed with a software update. I also found the display a little temperamental — it can flicker somewhat while changing parameters.
Who will the MAQ16/3 appeal to? Well, Kraftwerk for a start. The madcap German electronic pioneers actually had a hand in the development of the sequencer, and many of their suggestions have been implemented in what was originally going to be a fairly simple product (note that if you're Kraftwerk, you can have the unit delivered with grey front panels, to match your live equipment setup!). Fans of Tangerine Dream, early '80s synth pop, and current techno rave disciples will all welcome the vibe offered by the hands-on manipulation of MIDI data offered by the MAQ. It would make a brilliant live performance tool (as of writing, UK distributor Mark Jenkins was preparing to give the MAQ16/3 its UK live debut on National Music Day). At present, this is a unique product — correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of any other MIDI-equipped device that you can buy new off the shelf that offers the facilities of the MAQ16/3.
I hate to say it, but I think the bottom just dropped out of the (admittedly small) secondhand analogue sequencer market. In my opinion the MAQ16/3 beats the pants off the lot of them and provides a feel you can't easily get from software sequencers. It's reliable, it clocks to MIDI, it has many features not included on any one device from the past, and most of all, at £666 it's actually affordable by those of who appreciate its facilities. There are many examples of algorithmic software out there, and Martin Russ even invented a rough template that allows computer-based software to emulate the effects of an analogue sequencer (see SOS On Line, February 1993 issue) but, just like vintage synths, nothing beats getting your hands on the knobs and twiddling in real time.
The MAQ16/3 provides a very inspiring and creative environment, which is odd considering how limited its resources are. Funny isn't it?
Doepfer MAQ16/3 £666 inc VAT and delivery.
FAME welcome trade enquiries regarding Doepfer products.
Future Age Music Express, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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