Software Sequencers: Integration and Composition

Sequencers can be a staple in any production setup, and when worked with properly, can accompany almost any genre of music. Software sequencers currently on the market are simulated versions of physical devices such as vintage analog, step, or digital sequencers. In this article, we’ll discuss the technical aspects of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) integration and the role of sequencers in the creative process.

Getting Creative with Software Sequencers

Software sequencers are great tools for musical idea, beat, and melody creation. Sequencing is ultimately the generation, recording, management, and editing of both audio and MIDI events in a time-based format. Software sequencers typically offer timelines, where audio and other media are laid down in time increments. Timelines are similar to what is found in DAWs, which presents an obvious advantage over analog sequencing technologies. MIDI controls typically allow for standards such as tempo, note length, and key change functionality to construct musical and rhythmic foundations as well as timbral motifs using loops, edits, fades, and effects. Audio editing and manipulating functionality will provide similar tools.

Virtual step sequencers such as drum machines are a great way to sketch ideas or lay down rhythms due to their interface. With a series of step buttons, typically with volume and note length options, virtual step sequencers are intuitive and accessible for most users. Since the concept of counting is familiar to most users, there is no need to understand rhythmic notation, rather rely on feel for beat creation.

Virtual analog sequencers excel in live performance environments. Essentially a virtual instrument played with a keyboard controller, analog sounds (if sampled properly) add unique textures to compositions. With roots tied to '60s and '70s analog synths, oscillators and filters are modeled digitally, along with patching cables to provide a similar experience in an analog environment. Users with a keyboard controller, laptop, and software can essentially recreate sounds based on large, old school synths. When used in a live environment, users can play leverage this as an additional instrument and run easily through a PA with an audio interface. Virtual patching also allows for endless configurations.

Plug-ins, custom developed tools, and additional libraries should also be considered when getting creative. Offerings from Rob Papen, Propellerhead (Rack Extensions), and plug-in freeware are examples of these options. With all these options, the sky's the limit technically and musically with software sequencers.

Integrating a Sequencer with Your DAW: Open Source vs OEM

Many popular DAWs -- including ProTools, Logic, and Cubase -- contain software sequencers right out of the box which utilize MIDI with either a pencil tool (or something similar) or by using a controller. Often sequencers from outside of what’s included with a DAW are more desirable and might work better with the palette of tools a producer has at their disposal. Depending on the computing platform, there can be inherent MIDI capabilities within the operating system, but sometimes additional software might be necessary. There are plenty of software MIDI routers, mixers, and patchbays available as well as OS drivers and plug-ins for those comfortable with putting together a custom configuration. Depending on what the user is attempting to achieve, open source tools and freeware are going to either present challenges or compliment one’s setup. Like anything open source, one will have to rely on unmoderated forums and other resources if there are questions or support is necessary.

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An example of an OEM sequencer integration is ReWire, which is an API for streaming audio data from one application to another that was jointly developed by Propellerhead and Steinberg. Considered an “invisible audio cable” connecting two computer programs, ReWire also sends MIDI data between applications. There are three components to ReWire (mixers, panels, and devices) and it is currently supported by several DAWs such as Ableton Live, Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, ProTools, Sonar, and Max/MSP. There is also a Rack Extension Platform, which provides tools ranging from DSP programming to samples in addition to an API/Code Library, LLVM Compiler for C++ code, and a test/debug tool. Support is included with licensing via email, documentation, and forums.

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