Thoughts on Musical Sequencing in HW

I wanted to post an overview of how we are approaching sequencing for the development of our sequencer.

Firstly, this machine will be quite a bit different than any other sequencers that have been done so far (aren't they all :D).  Ours includes a very distinct and well-defined creation workflow from start to the extent of what this machine will do.

When Software Wins

The first thing we realised is that it cannot be feature rich like a DAW (which arguably has just about every feature minus some rather severe, albeit required, UX limitations).  Because to get all of those features, you need a generic hardware interface (or a truly massive HW UI which is so vast, it becomes unergonomic).  And so you really need to say goodbye to WYSIWYG and immediacy.  It's why a mouse/keyboard is a great interface for a computer and its ever-changing applications and even single applications that boast an extreme amount of utility.

A computer/DAW is the most software (SW) feeling tool.  A hardware (HW) sequencer could have a SW kind of vibe but it's usually not as SW feeling because it has a few more 'analogue' data entry devices (encoders, buttons, etc.).  SW gets a bad rap in the music world - it seems many who are in SW land want to get out.  Sick of using a computer or that every part of the music-making process has to be done this way.  What we are more interested in is where HW works and where it doesn't.  We feel HW works best on the front-end... the place where you create, where you play an instrument, where you do some physically direct thing and get immediate feedback.  It's easy to say you want something in HW that replaces a DAW.  But what do you lose?  What do you gain?  Test this yourself, try some very feature-rich hardware sequencers and ask yourself: 

  • How often are you entering in data that can be done much faster in a DAW with the lowly mouse/keyboard? 
  • How often can the HW not do sth you want it to do compared to a DAW... and is this actually a good musical constraint? 
  • And most importantly:  How inspiring is this HW for creation (is the HW allowing for more creative input or killing it)? 

It's likely you have experienced the same issues we've had over the years.  HW ends up being a compromise and while everything is some form of compromise, making something with lots of DAW power, but exposed, for example, through a single encoder and some pushbuttons doesn't make the HW itself creative.  It's just data entry done in a slower way.  You'd still rely on the software to do something nice for you... behind this basic, compact, and immediacy-killing generic interface. 

If you have something specific you want then it's just a matter of 'editing' in the data as quickly as possible and without boundaries.  You aren't in a creative space - you are in a 'get the job done' space.  It's similar to the process of transcription of music in your head onto sheet music.  You do not use this process by itself to create new music - that was done by your brain - instead, it's used to document or store it.  In every experiment we've run over the past, 8 or so years, a DAW simply blows away any HW sequencer we've used for these kinds of specific data entry or edits.  The only reason then to keep doing data entry in a HW sequencer would be because of its other facilities.  But with that UX, you aren't going to see it as an instrument nor will it be anywhere near as fun and inspiring as it could - or maybe even should - be.

So then what is the point of a HW sequencer?  SW type systems like a computer/DAW (the extreme extent of SW) are super fast at data entry.  They are also awesome at the ability to add or edit anything you'd dream of.  This is great for stuff that comes to you in your head and simply needs stored somehow.  But what about creativity and the human experience during this mental state?  It seems mr. clicky mouse or encoder + a few pushbuttons starts to now see some serious problems.  Folks don't play a guitar with a mouse and keyboard.  We need something closer to an instrument as the interface to experimentation, creativity, and fun.

When Hardware Wins

People like us like the idea of a hardware sequencer because it can generate things that cannot be pre-thought, programmed, or played in by a human.  Basically, no specific data entry or editing (of course ours has some, but it is more guided data entry than 'I want to do this exact thing in my head' which it may or may not be able to do - constraint!).

In our view, a HW sequencer is a matter of curation, creativity, and fun... with the added practical requirement of creating a 'long enough' chunk of a song.  It includes tactile and visual immediacy, which many feature-laden DAW-like hardware sequencers immediately lose because they are trying to do too much with too little - and as stated above, at this point it's easier to just do it with a DAW.  As much as folks in modular love HW, at some point you are wasting lots more time and gaining non-negligible amounts of frustration to try and get certain HW to do what you want.

So for ours, we have decided to avoid setting people up for frustration when using our hardware as best we can.  Instead we focus on how to add some well-refined and carefully tested features that allow the creative HW sequencer to go much farther towards a voice's complete song section or even song without sacrificing any of the core things that make hardware sequencing something you'd want to use in the first place. 

Musical lengthening on the machine includes how to handle up to very sparse variations as well as riffs that quickly start out much longer in length - many HW sequencers have some issue in both of these departments.  Things are too loopy or too short.  You get little pieces of small riffs.  When using the 'fun' modular sequencers, we'd still need another 2 sequencers to modulate them and even then, we were stuck many times - even for extremely fundamental musical goals like adding something like a sparse variation or a fill.  And we weren't trying to be too picky!

The alternative (in HW) as discussed above is to use an encoder editey, very softwarey feeling sequencer.  But now you've lost a lot of the fun and immediacy that hardware should afford.  You are editing in notes one at a time with an encoder and a few common buttons, likely with many alternate functions.  It's so tedious and slow - even navigation and seeing where you are is severely limited compared to a DAW.  We would always ask ourselves how much faster that kind of editing can be done with even the simplest PRV in any DAW.  Once the HW novelty wears off, we'd rather just use a computer and mouse over this kind of sequencer.  At some point, time spent to do something matters.

But where HW sequencing wins is when it keeps you positive, creative, and lite all the way up to a very reasonable point (the boundaries of this HW) - this point should be at least where you are pretty far into a solid chunk of a song - lines that can stand on their own as 'the thing.'  And this 'thing' was something you couldn't have simply put your data entry cap on and plugged it on in manually - in any HW or SW tool.  Our sequencer will allow you to go farther while keeping you in the HW that is done in a way that is always fun and inspiring to use and not a data-entry machine with a sacrificed UX trying to emulate (some of) the power of a DAW.

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