As well as this, you can determine pitches of notes. If you want your sequencer to play a melody, bassline or repeating textural part, you’ll want to choose the notes that it plays. This can be done with a knob, a set of buttons, or even sometimes a simple keybed (see the Arturia KeyStep). Sometimes you can even choose additional things like note length, velocity, rests/ties, effects and more.
How do I connect a sequencer to my synth?
There are usually a number of ways to connect sequencers to synth. If it’s a software sequencer, there’s not too much to worry about; if it’s hardware, these are your most common options:
- MIDI – you’ll often see the 5-pin MIDI DIN connection on synths and sequencers. A simple male to male DIN cable will do the trick, carrying everything from pitch to articulation info in one go.
- CV – if you fancy getting a little more adventurous with your hardware, controlled voltage can be useful. Usually in the form of a 3.5mm jack, you’ll usually have more than 1 CV connection to play with: pitch, gate and mod(ulation). Connect these to their corresponding connections on your synth and you’re away – these are particularly useful with modular and Eurorack setups.
- USB – naturally this is mainly for connecting sequencers to your computer. It allows you to send info to your DAW via your hardware, giving you a more tactile approach. You can sometimes send info the other way, like pitch and tempo to keep things in sync.
Are all sequencers compatible with other hardware?
For the most part, yes. If they weren’t, they’d be a real pain to use and probably wouldn’t sell very well.
As mentioned above, the vast majority of sequencers use pretty universal connections. This makes life a little bit easier, even when you’re using multiple brands. You might like the sound of one brand’s synth, but prefer to use a sequencer made by somebody else. As long as you’ve got MIDI or CV on each one, you won’t have any problems!
(above) the Arturia KeyStep has just about all the connections you need to connect to any setup – MIDI, CV & USB.
How can I synchronise my sequencer with other hardware?
This is where clock signals come into the equation. A clock is a consistent rhythmic pulse that can be sent to any/all synths or components in your setup. This pulse communicates a simple, repeating rhythm, ensuring that all synths in your setup remain synchronised in tempo.
If you’re connecting via USB to a DAW, the DAW itself will communicate tempo info via said connection. If you’re going hardware to hardware i.e. computer-free, you’ll usually find a dedicated clock connection that allows hassle-free syncing. Clock connections are usually 3.5mm jacks, like CV. Connect the clock out from your sequencer to the clock in on your synth, and you’ll hear everything lock together. Clock signals can be daisy-chained too, so you can have several bits of hardware all synced together – winner.
Hardware sequencers vs software sequencers
As mentioned earlier, sequencers can come in either hardware or software form. Software sequencers will often be more flexible, purely because they’re built-in to your DAW or a dedicated plugin. This usually means you’ll have more parameters to play with, more steps for longer sequences, and a more holistic view of your patterns in real-time.
(above) Apple’s Arpeggiator plug-in is built into Logic Pro X and doubles up as a step sequencer.
With hardware sequencers, however, you get the hands-on approach. You can literally reach out and interact with your sequence in real-time. Plus there’s the borderline-DIY satisfaction of getting your hardware to synchronise and play music fluidly. For more on this topic, check out our article on hardware vs software synths.
A compromise would be some sort of controller. A controller is a piece of hardware that you can connect to your DAW and use to manipulate parameters of your choice. Many come pre-mapped with certain controls, but you can usually tweak which button or knob does what. This allows you to interact with your music in a similarly hands-on way while making the most of the flexibility of your DAW.
A great example of this is Akai’s Force – a combined sequencer, controller and all-in-one music product toolkit. Here’s Matt from Akai using it to demo some slick guitar-driven electronic jams: