In the age of the DAW one might think that dedicated step sequencers have lost their appeal, becoming a relic of the past as our computers took over the music-making process, but that’s simply not true as many producers, musicians and electronic music makers still swear by them. We have rallied our community to find out which step sequencers are worthy tools in 2017 and here is the subsequent list, in alphabetical order:
Ableton revolutionized the music making process with the first Push controller and the second iteration takes things even further. Push might look odd at first with its button-filled grid layout, but it's a lot more than a simple controller: it’s a MIDI instrument that can act as keyboard, it’s a DAW controller designed specifically with Ableton Live in mind (notably the 'Clip Launch' feature), it’s a “regular” MIDI controller, and it’s also a very capable step sequencer. In that regard, it’s sequencing capabilities are quite powerful, with 64 buttons on an 8x8 grid that can be used to trigger notes and build sequences. Push also features 10 assignable encoders, a modulation strip, a high-resolution RGB display, plenty of "other" buttons and it’s assembled on a sturdy anodized aluminum chassis to survive the perils of the road. Currently only two DAWs (Live and Bitwig) can take full advantage of what it has to offer, but if you’re using other DAWs you can still have some good fun with Push 2 even though it might take a bit of extra effort to set it up. Also available as a bundle with Ableton Live software (Intro, Standard or Suite). Read our user reviews.
The first Beatstep was quite a hit and despite some initial quirks (which were mostly solved with updates) it became quite popular, so it was basically inevitable that a 'beefed-up' version would surface at some point and Arturia didn’t disappoint with the Beatstep Pro. At its heart there are two monophonic sequencers with up to 64 steps each featuring note, gate time and velocity. There are also 16 assignable encoders for note or MIDI CC, but things get more interesting when you discover the 16-track drum sequencer (one track per pad), which, when combined with the other two sequencers and encoder assignments makes what Arturia calls a “project”, which can then be internally stored for quick onboard recall. On top of that there are variable, probability/random functions and a looper/roller slider for quick stutter and rhythm changes. There’s no shortage of connectivity options, with the Beatstep Pro offering MIDI input/output on ¼” connectors and USB (USB also supplies power), 2 sets of pitch/velocity/gate control voltage (CV) outputs for the monophonic sequencer and 16 drum CV gate outputs for the respective sequencer. Arguably one of the best options as far as “bang for buck” goes and a great tool to make the most from a hybrid digital/analog setup.
Doepfer always nails it when it comes to analogue synths and it’s no different when it comes to sequencers either - the Dark Time proves it! Initially designed as an add-on to the Dark Energy synth, this sequencer comes with two rows with eight knobs, each knob with two switches (skip/off/on and stop/jump/cont) - for controlling the 'steps'. There are three sequencer direction options (forward, backward, random) with three sequencing modes: 16-step monophonic, 8-step duophonic and an 8-step “combi” mode, where the lower row of knobs is used to set the gate length. Dark time also features voltage/tuning options (1/2/5V or octave), gate voltage (0/+5V), a transpose switch, a total of twelve analogue connectors (five inputs and seven outputs) and a MIDI input/output on a regular DIN and USB connectors for easy integration with just about any setup. Dark Time features the familiar dark faceplate with lovely wooden side panels, which can be removed for easy pairing with Dark Energy or another Dark Time, and it’s also available with blue or red LEDs (featured). Definitely a cool choice if you wish to 'stay analogue' all the way through.
Arguably one of the very best hardware sequencers out there, the Elektron Octatrack is a mighty piece of electronic music-making equipment, boasting up to 64 steps per pattern, eight audio tracks & eight MIDI tracks, each with its own time-signature and length. MIDI tracks feature an arpeggiator, up to the three LFOs and ten configurable CCs for controlling external gear. The eight audio tracks are equipped with LFOs, amplitude envelope and many effects, including filters/EQs, compressors, reverbs, delays, distortion, time-based modulators, a 'spatializer' and more. Octatrack is actually more than sequencer with a powerful sampler that’s capable of doing real-time recording, time-stretching and pitch-shifting, so besides serving extremely well as a studio workhorse Octatrack also enables interesting live performance options with extensive real-time control capabilities, featuring two scenes with crossfader, eight track mute/enable buttons, six assignable encoders and a backlit 128x64 pixel LCD for quick visualization. Elektron also packed in some good connectivity, with four mono audio inputs, two stereo outputs, headphones output, MIDI input/output/through, a USB port and a compact flash (CF) card slot for memory expansion. Read our user reviews.
Five 12’s Numerology is the software intruder on our list and its endless depth easily warrants its spot here: it’s arguably the most advanced software sequencer out there, with a plethora of features to take your MIDI devices, soft synths and music making options to a whole new level. Numerology is all about generating phrases, modulators and putting everything together through its many sequencers - I say “many” because Numerology is totally modular and allows to user to have as many or as few sequencers as s/he needs. These sequencers come in a variety of forms, from note randomization and generation to audio modulation with its onboard effects. Perhaps the only downside is that it only works on Macs and there’s unfortunately nothing else quite like it, which means there are no plausible alternatives for PCs. Numerology is available two versions: a more affordable “SE” suited for general MIDI tasks and a “Pro” version (featured) with multi-out Audio Unit hosting, CV-based modulation and OSC support. Read our users reviews.
The Sequentix Cirklon is highly regarded by our users as one of the very best hardware sequencers out there, with a concise and highly efficient feature set. This robust 19” rack unit boasts 64 MIDI sequencer tracks (four banks of 16) that can be either mono or polyphonic, and it's powered by a 32-bit ARM Cortex CPU with a proprietary sequencing engine for superb timing accuracy. It features 19 pushable encoders, two assignable knobs and 35 high quality keys, with all the controls easily visualized on the big (240x64 pixel) LED display placed at the centre of the unit. For seamless integration with the outside world Cirklon comes with five pairs of 5-pin MIDI I/O, MIDI USB, one DIN sync, and to support further connectivity it can be equipped with an optional card to add integration to analog gear with 16 CV and 8 gate outputs. The onboard memory can also be expanded through a SD/MMC card slot to store even more sequences and easily recall everything. Cirklon is easily one of best options for a "centrepiece" sequencer at the heart of any music production production studio, and its elegant layout will definitely help to make the most out of any setup, be it digital, analogue or hybrid.
Social Entropy’s Engine is a brilliant sequencer that packs a lot of functionality without overly complex menus for a very straightforward workflow. At its core there are eight polyphonic tracks with individual sequence lengths, scales, time signatures, shuffle and skipped steps, which enables many possibilities including polyrhythms and polymeters. Engine works with two kinds of tracks - synth and drums - with four voices on the synth tracks and up to sixteen voices on the drum tracks. Each track has four banks of 16 patterns that can be chained for up to 64 steps, all quickly recalled through a 'snapshot' system. Taking it further, there’s also a “song” mode which puts those snapshots in sequence with real-time editing and recording. Engine also features six assignable knobs, tempo knob, a handy one-octave MIDI keyboard, a drum roll/arpeggiator button, a sequencer direction button and a large numeric/text display with an old-school look to it. In order to connect your gear Engine comes with two MIDI outputs, one MIDI input, a sync port (DIN), USB MIDI and an optional CV expansion board with 16 outputs is available if you want to use it for analogue sequencing. A very enticing solution if you’re looking for hands-on control without diving into tons of menus. Available in two colours: blue (featured) and red.
The slick looking Pyramid is Squarp Instruments’ first entry in the highly competitive sequencer/controller arena, and what a great way to start! This powerful little box is a sequencer and a lot more, with pattern generation, MIDI editing, interfacing and integration capabilities. The Pyramid comes with a 64-track polyrhythmic sequencer with euclidean groove generator, a compact MIDI keyboard, smart trigger pads, five clickable encoders that can be assigned to any parameter, unlimited CC/FX automation per track, MIDI effects per-track including delay, LFOs, a 'randomizer' and much more. Pyramid is powered by a fully operational control system for real time use and provides extensive information that saves you from using your computer as much as possible, with 35 backlit pads displaying the basics and an LCD display for advanced settings. Pyramid is not exactly cheap, but well worth the investment if you're a power user.
The Yamaha RS7000 has rightfully earned its place in the “best hardware sequencer ever” debate, with amazing functionality and extensive hands-on control capabilities that truly honours its “music production studio” label. The sequencer is really powerful, with 16 tracks that can house internal sounds, trigger external MIDI, sync beats with different tempos and you can actually build a whole song just by chaining patterns. Perhaps its most interesting feature is the “Integrated Sampling Sequencer”, which automatically chops samples to generate MIDI sequences, greatly expanding what can be done with the onboard sounds. It also features an arpeggiator with many included phrase presets, a grid groove editor and clock shift. Yamaha squeezed many features into this box, and besides the sequencer the RS7000 is also a very capable sound generator and processor, equipped with a real-time sampling capabilities, filters, LFOs, effects, a polyphonic AWM2 synthesizer and up to a thousand onboard sounds. Speaking of polyphony, the RS7000 has an impressive 64 voices of polyphony, so there’s no shortage of simultaneous sounds. The only challenge will be finding one of these beauties in the first place, and that might be kind of hard because people are not really willing to sell theirs! Read our user reviews.
The ZAQ Audio Zaquencer turns the Behringer BCR2000 MIDI controller into a full-blown step sequencer, giving a whole new meaning to the rotary encoders on the BCR. The Zaquencer is not an update or a patch for the original firmware, in fact it’s a whole new operating system that replaces the original one on the BCR2000 to offer a full-blown 32-step sequencer with four tracks and full computer-less operation (once you’ve done the firmware flashing process of course). It also has a bunch of cool features, including note pitch, a chord function with different chord options, individual mutes, a clock divider, shuffle per track, backwards/ping-pong/random directions and much more. The Zaquencer can save up to 192 patterns in the BCR’s flash memory, making patch recall quite a breeze. The Zaquencer goes for $79 with an optional plastic overlay for $23 (plus shipping), and since the BCR2000 is relatively affordable and easily available you can get a pretty powerful sequencer for not much cash.
There's our list - hopefully the products above will help to get your ideas in sequence and keep you on track for great results! Honourable mentions goes to Roland’s AIRA range, especially the System 8, TB-3 and TR-8, and to the latest Synth/Sampler iterations of the Korg Electribe. Now please tell us about your setup and how you’re using those sequencers! Are you analogue, digital or hybrid? What's your "must-have" in the sequencer realm?