The Benefits and Limitations of Composing via Step Sequencer

Step programming is a composition technique that was initially created as a way to enter and playback note information on hardware synths and drum machines in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Today’s sophisticated Digital Audio Workstations — like Logic, Pro Tools, and Cubase — are in many ways descended from the original hardware sequencers. The familiar "piano roll window" method they use to visually represent musical information over time draws directly on innovations from the original step sequencers. For a contemporary emulation of old-style step sequencers, check out Reason’s ReDrum module or Logic’s Ultrabeat module.

Step sequencing is, in some ways, a clumsy, long-winded method of composition that can seem counter-intuitive. It certainly lacks the immediacy of traditional composition methods, like playing a bass line or a drum beat. However, like many technological developments, step programming has a number of specific charms, and its limitations can serve as inspiration for producers.

Origins and Early Uses

First off, programming and composing in this way is extremely accessible. With virtually no music knowledge, you can start programming beats once you grasp the central concept. Music technology teachers have found that simple online beat makers like Splice and html5drummachine function as a highly effective route into beginning to work with electronic music.

The programming process also sheds light on how others put their beats together. Once a user starts to move the note information around, they can begin to hear the effect of small decisions, and this method of composing can reveal the mechanics of how different rhythms are constructed. It is simultaneously a creative and a teaching process.

Donna Summer - "I Feel Love"

Perhaps the most famous early use of a step sequencer in pop and rock is Donna Summer’s game-changing disco classic "I Feel Love" from 1977. Produced by Giorgio Moroder, the famous undulating bass line was created using the step sequencer on a Modular Moog going straight into the desk, synced to a 16-track Studer A80 tape machine.

Its rhythm, note length, timing, timbre and overall rock-solid rigidity are all the direct result of how it was played via the sequencer. "I Feel Love" clearly demonstrates how the compositional limitations of modular synth step sequencers are more than adequately compensated by the ease with which they lend themselves to improvisation.

Happy Accidents

This ability to improvise and develop a musical idea whilst programming a step sequencer can easily lead to what might be called happy accidents — musical developments that were unplanned, but turn out to be successful.

When step programming, the audio continually loops, allowing the user to make changes on the fly that are actioned next time the loop plays. The cyclical nature of composing allows for a process of adjustment and refinement that can have powerful creative results — ones that would be unlikely to emerge from playing an instrument.

As the music loops, all changes to the notes, the timing, the accents can be seen and heard instantly in context, and this immediacy lends itself to suggesting other creative avenues, which are then easily tried out.

Roland TB 303 Bassline Synth

Step programming also has the potential to create extremes of mood from the ease by which the user can — intentionally or by accident — create unorthodox or unconventional note sequences or rhythms.

Step programming is a flawed interface that is, by nature, inherently awkward to use. But this fiddliness sometimes counts in the producer's favour, as it can easily produce dissonant or unorthodox musical ideas that perhaps would never have occurred through more conventional composing.

Equally, a random change to just one small aspect of a programmed sequence can entirely change the emphasis or mood, taking the music in a completely new direction. Step programming allows for the breaking of musical rules and genre restrictions and can, therefore, facilitate joyously odd, unorthodox and otherworldly riffs and rhythms.

All these positive qualities came to fruition in the 1987 release of "Acid Tracks," the seminal Chicago house record from Phuture. This hugely influential dance track created the sub-genre Acid House and sent the value of the previously obsolete Roland TB 303 Bassline synth sky high.

Nathaniel Pierre Jones, better known as DJ Pierre, with friends Herb Jackson and Earl ‘Spanky’ Smith were putting together early house tracks and using a 303. By misusing the controls of the box, they found that the 303 was capable of producing a unique, futuristic sound — a hyper-synthesised, science fiction set of squelches and pulses that sounded entirely new.

Phuture - "Acid Trax"

What was original about "Acid Tracks" was the constant mutation of the main synth riff: the producers had tweaked the filter envelope, cut off, and resonance controls on the 303 in order to constantly alter its timbre — a technique that turned out to be both phenomenally popular and extremely effective on nightclub dance floors. This was all made possible by the nature of the step sequencer in the 303 and facilitated by its cyclic nature.

As Pierre recalls in The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, "I started turning the knobs up and tweaking it, and they were like, ‘Yeah, I like it, keep doing what you’re doing.’ We just did that, made a beat to it, and the rest is history."

The other-worldly rise and fall of that first, constantly unfolding acid line was the direct result of jamming on the step sequencer. Equally, the dissonant tones that characterised "Acid Tracks" and much of acid house were attributable to the quirks of programming notes on a tiny step sequencer like the 303 and the ease with which it facilitated unorthodox note sequences.

An Accident Evolves

For a bizarrely prescient example of how the Roland TB 303 would go on to be used, Charanjit Singh’s little known "Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat" from 1981 demonstrates how the particular qualities of step programming — and, in particular, the ease with which it facilitates unconventional and un-western note sequences — almost inevitably led to certain types of musical ideas.

Pre-dating the first acid house records by several years, "Synthesizing…" was a home recording project that intended to fuse electronic disco music with Indian classical music. Using a Roland Jupiter synth, an 808 drum machine, and a 303, Mumbai-based musician Singh unwittingly produced an extraordinary glimpse into the future by almost accidentally inventing the discordant, bubbling bass lines of acid house.

Charanjit Singh - "Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat"

Prior to this, it was Kraftwerk who drove the use of step sequencers forward as part of their overall future-focused musical mission. Hugely influential in bringing machine music to the masses, their innovation was never limited by the available technology. If they needed something and it didn’t exist, they commissioned someone to make it for them, including their own electronic percussion instruments and vocoders.

According to Sound on Sound, Kraftwerk used "custom-built, very big, analogue-style sequencers with 32-steps," and you can hear their rigid pulse throughout their succession of influential albums through the '70s and early '80s. Kraftwerk even commissioned their very own specialist 32-step sequencer, the Synthanorma Sequenzer, and gave it a credit on their 1977 Trans Europe Express album.

The Limitations of Step Programming

There are, of course, criticisms of step programming, which tend to revolve around the inability to program any of the feeling, looseness, or groove that would come naturally from a group of musicians playing together. The criticism continues that this form of music-making, by definition, will be less organic, less authentic, perhaps less "human" than traditional composition and performance methods.

These are all completely valid criticisms, and many have commented on the loss of humanity in music caused by over-reliance on technology. Brian Eno, for example, has explored different ways to address this, such as using software that operates on the many parameters available to subtly adjust the timbre and timing of notes randomly, in an attempt to "rehumanize" music.

But this strand of thought isn’t so much a criticism of step programming as it is a more general observation on the reliance on technologies as a whole. This over-reliance comes at the expense of any actual playing or musicianship, with all the noise, mistakes, rough edges and character that actual playing brings.

Instead, step programming should be viewed positively as part of a larger arsenal of programming strategies and techniques in the studio. And while it’ll never be a suitable replacement for drummers, keyboardists, or bassists, it has given producers a new set of rich compositional tools, which can offer a very different and often extremely fruitful method of working.

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