Last week someone posted a challenge on a music forum I tend to frequent. The challenge was to make short demo tunes in the vein of those old, slightly cheesy, keyboard demos that used to accompany Keyboard Magazine, and be built-in into some synths. They usually started cheerfully, had a bit of Jordan Rudess in the middle part, and ended on a thoughtful electric piano note.
For some reason, this had me going. Digging deep into the bowels of my cupboards, I emerged with a few items that has not seen daylight in quite a few years: A Kawai K1 module that I bought for dirt cheap for nostalgic reasons (the Kawai K1 keyboard was my first “real” digital synth) and a QX5FD sequencer.
Oh, that QX5FD. It’s a weird old piece of technology. Why FD? Because it was outfitted with a disk drive, which offered a glimpse into the future, where storage is fast and flexible. This was pretty much the sequencer to have, if you were into the Yamaha way of doing things. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Much like a typewriter, the sequencers of yesterday are primitive, yet strangely inspiring. They know only one thing, how to store, manipulate, and replay music data back to you. Via MIDI. They don’t even have built-in sounds, and they were ridiculously expensive back then. ’cause memory was pricey, that’s why.
The thing that is interesting, is that they were breaking new ground. Nobody really knew back in the 80’s how a sequencer was supposed to look and behave. The results are often an interesting design mix between well-established tape machine anachronisms and innovation. Pretty much like the old Premier-Smith typewriter I have on display in my living room. It has two sets of keys, one for upper case, and one for lower – because no one had yet thought of inventing the shift mechanism!
The QX5FD is pretty much as good an example of these design compromises as it gets. You get a criminally small display (which still through some clever design manages to present pretty much the information you need at most times) and 8 recordable tracks that can be muted and un-muted on the fly, in a sturdy box with buttons and a data wheel that are still working flawlessly some 30 years later.
Then weirdness sets in. First of all, it doesn’t know whether it is a tape machine (linear) or a pattern sequencer. When you record, it never loops, it just goes on, and you can’t instruct different tracks to loop of different lengths, they all need to be of the same length, or some will go silent as the loop will follow the longest track. It just can’t make up it’s mind whether it’s a linear sequencer, or pattern based! (Roger Linn would get this right with the MPC drum sequencers, but that’s a different story)
And then this: All operations concerning parts of a track – yes, you need to know whether you want to do something to an entire track, or part of it, as they are different modes – has to be performed on track 1!
It is probably shrouded in the mists of Yamaha lore whether this is down to a design decision to make it easier to understand or less error prone, or if it’s simply a reflection on memory limitations – or the limitations of the software development know-how at the time. But you always record to track 1, and all editing and quantization (time correction) is performed on track 1. So it should come as no surprise that the first menu choice triggered by the Track Edit button is “Swap”. The way of working is simply:
- Record track (1)
- Edit track (1) as needed
- Swap track (1) with an empty track
- GOTO 1
Oh, and should you need to do some edits later, you need to swap in those tracks to track 1 each at a time, do your edits, and swap them back. Suddenly eight tracks feels just right, just think if it was 128!
Apart from tracks, Yamaha also has “macros”. I have no idea why they’re called like that, instead of “phrases” or something that would make musical sense. They are another kind of small tracks, that you can keep and insert wherever, I guess they would be used for fills, and other flourishes. I never used them, and I know no-one that used a Yamaha sequencer back then who did either.
Now, to the main question – are these beasts really useful today? Well, I have to say, even with things like Maschine and Ableton Live at my hands, this thing is still blindingly fast when it comes to capturing an idea or noodling a few bars of a beat. It’s just so easy. You have almost a key per function, and a lot of the commands have a sort of musical quality to them, as you learn to punch the JOB key 6 times to reach the quantize menu. I remember a lot of common commands became part of muscle memory when I was a heavy hardware user, and it amazed me how fast I learned certain command sequences yet today.
There’s just something intriguing with a machine that is totally dedicated to one thing. You can’t use it to check Facebook, or tweet that you procrastinate over your new song. It may help you to focus, if that’s what you need. And then there’s the limitations and quirks. I remember Mike Lindup (of Level 42) stating in an interview that the rhythm of a funky chord progression had been made even more interesting – and funky – by a quirk in the way his Roland MSQ700 corrected his playing. And about a month ago I watched an interview with Bernard Sumner of New Order where he fondly remembered that part of a line of Blue Monday got more rhythmically interesting because the sequencer accidentally shifted that part a quarter note (or something similar) off timing-wise.
You just don’t get those happy accidents with a blank-paper sequencer that always reproduces everything you give it. I also find that it makes me listen more to the music instead of looking at it (on a screen). And the the agony of copying (and swapping!) bars to make everything of the same length makes me instead re-record parts over and over, making the workflow iterative. The first 8-bar skeleton bass line is replaced by a longer bass line, and finally I play a bass line throughout the song. Which makes it more interesting in many cases. And guess what? There are professional writers that still swear by typewriters at times – because they force them to re-write chapters or sections, to improve the language and flow, instead of trying to edit it in!
Would I go back in time, to a place where I had to wrestle with these sequencers, and a ton of MIDI cables, as my only option to create music? Hell, no. But to have it as an option, to hook up my iPad to once in a while – yes indeed.