Toraiz Squid: Early Impressions Review

Pioneer DJ surprised us when they started making gear not just for DJ’s, but for hobby and professional musicians as well. They launched the very respectably sounding AS-1 in collaboration with Dave Smith of DSI fame, and more recently the SP-16, a full-fledged MPC and Maschine contender. And now, they launched something as arcane as a powerful MIDI sequencer. Do we need another MIDI sequencer in 2019? Read on!

Heritage

Why “Squid”? Well, I happen to own one of the few genoQs Octopus sequencers made, and it’s interesting to note that several features and ideas from the Octopus/Nemo sequencers are actually present in one form or other in the Squid. Maybe there’s more to the name than just a nod to the past, and perhaps even the genoQs engineers have contributed to developing the Squid one way or another, but that has to be remain a speculation for now.

Connectivity

To be fair, the Toraiz Squid is more than “just” a MIDI sequencer. It actually offers generous connectivity to older gear as well as Eurorack, in the form of two (!) DIN Sync jacks, 2 CV/Gate jacks, clock pulse in/outputs and of course two MIDI ports. This makes it possible to use it with many interesting combinations of gear, in contrast to most MIDI sequencers over the years who couldn’t be bothered to implement “deprecated” protocols such as CV or DIN Sync when MIDI was around. The Squid can in fact even be synchronized from one of these arcane protocols, so if you always wanted to have your TR-808 be the master of your setup, now is your chance.

In a world where manufacturers tend to omit the MIDI Thru port, it would have been nice to see more than two MIDI ports, but a splitter can always be used.

In use

Pictures say more than a thousand words, so if you want to skip reading, here is an early overview video I made with the Squid (firmware 1.10). It was possible to learn all of these features and use them on the fly after a couple of hours of reading the manual and trying things out, and I perceived it as pretty logical and straightforward in operation, and all controls are well thought out. It’s a hands-on device that invites to experimentation and improvisation.

Among the few complaints you’ll find so far is the lack of song mode or indeed any kind of pattern chaining. It soon becomes apparent that the Squid in its current state is not intended to be a tool for making entire compositions that can be played from start to finish by the press of the play button. Instead, let’s look at what the Squid offers in the area of song creation.

Tracks, Patterns and Sets

The top level of the musical structure of the Squid is called a Track. The best way to think of a Track is as the output of one or more of your patterns. A Track specifies a physical output and a channel, and contains up to 64 Patterns.

IMG_4369Each Pattern plays through a Track, and you get to choose which Pattern is active per Track. This means that although you have 64 Patterns per Track, only one Pattern per each of the 16 Tracks can play at the time. If you want to combine several patterns – one obvious application would be to have individual patterns for kick, snare and hi-hat to be able to manipulate each of them during a performance – you have to set up one Track for each, possibly sacrificing Tracks in the process (as they may end up being set to the same output/channel configuration if all drums come from the same instrument)

This differs from some other sequencers who can play multiple patterns simultaneously on the same tracks (using mute states or similar) but it also makes operation much simpler as you create your performance simply by selecting Track (instrument) and Pattern as you go. Activating Patterns (changing which one is playing) can be done immediately or on the beat, making complex “playing” of pattern changes possible. To mute for instance the snare, you would go to Track mode and mute the snare track (instead of muting a pattern)

Again, this is slightly different, but I embrace the design choice by Pioneer DJ as it vastly simplifies operation and makes it more immediate. But what if you need to change multiple Patterns at the same time? This is where the Pattern Sets come in.

This had me confused in the beginning, but a Pattern Set is simply a snapshot of the currently active Patterns in all Tracks, and the mute state of each Track.  You can store 16 of these snapshots, and call them up by hitting the respective pad when in Pattern Set mode!

Recording

The Squid supports step- and realtime recording via its pads. You always record to the selected pattern and recording length is constrained to the length of the pattern which can be up to 64 steps, but by manipulating the pattern speed – patterns can be played back at half or double the speed relative other patterns, you can sacrifice some resolution for even longer patterns. In the end, the Squid is strictly pattern-based and should be viewed in that perspective.

While step recording can be performed via MIDI (as of firmware 1.10), realtime recording cannot, and has to be recorded by playing the pads of the Squid itself. While this may be a bummer for some, the pads are actually very playable with a nice tactile response and their sensitivity can be adjusted.

The usual quantize functions are available, slightly simplified by allowing a maximum value of 1/32 (but no triplets (!))

I need directions

Squid DirectionsOne of the several fun and creative aspects of the Squid is the “Running Direction” controls, where you can change the way your pattern is played back with the push of a button. Patterns can be reversed, played column by column, in a spiral, back and forth, etc. and the directional patterns can also be reversed and flipped around to create even more variation. The playback mode is stored with the pattern itself, and if you stumble on something you like, creating a new pattern out of it is simple, as you have dedicated copy and paste buttons. This is actually a surprisingly good way to find interesting variations of your patterns – try it for instance on your bassline or hi-hat pattern.

Timing and Notes

The “Melodic Controls” offer additional controls over the musical content in your patterns. You may for instance restrict your notes to a certain scale and key, and transpose the pattern (permanently or in real time). In “Chord” mode, the pads change to represent entire chords, which can also be harmonized automatically to the current key. The built in arpeggiator is great fun, and by setting it to “Random” and record a mix of legato and staccato notes into a pattern, the arpeggiator will automatically spice up the pattern with random notes now and then, always in key if you wish.

Swing also has a dedicated knob, and below that is a horizontal slider that will push the beat earlier or later when being manipulated. The movements of the slider (aptly named “GROOVE BEND”) can be recorded into the pattern allowing for an interesting way to add some human feel to a quantized pattern. If you want to go even more adventurous, there is the Speed Modulation function, which are unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a hardware sequencer. Basically, it’s an LFO that can modulate the timing of the steps in a pattern! The LFO cycle length is always set relative to the number of steps in a pattern, and you can choose from six different waveforms, including square (which is a great way to introduce more extreme timing effects) and depth. It’s an interesting way to add life to your patterns and can produce results ranging from a subtle push/pull of the beat to more dramatic rhythmic alterations (with a huge space of seasickness-inducing tempo variations in between). Perhaps this will generate a revival of the way drummers would push or pull the beat slightly early or late to emphasize the groove in the days before everything became quantized?

Finally, steps in any pattern can be deactivated, meaning that they will be skipped during playback. This is a great way to create patterns with uneven lengths to generate all kinds of polymetric stuff – for maximum variation, try patterns that have relative prime lengths to each other.

Rhythm and Speed

Below the Groove Controls resides a row of buttons marked “1/4”, “1/8”, “1/16”, “1/32”, “TRIPLET” and “DOTTED”. Holding one of these buttons instantly loops the pattern from the current step for the selected duration, making it possible to create breakdowns and builds on the fly and when releasing the button the Squid will you drop you back at the correct position of the pattern – as if the pattern had been running continuously in the background – a very musical way of implementing it. Adding the “TRIPLET” or “DOTTED” key will increase the loop length accordingly for odd time signature breaks and finally holding SHIFT will lock the loop until another button is pressed.

The Squid can also temporarily speed up or slow down your pattern by a factor of 2, using dedicated buttons, and holding SHIFT will instead nudge the tempo of all patterns slightly, making it possible to beat match playback to another source, DJ style. Any or all of these functions can finally be real time recorded to your pattern, expect the tempo nudge functionality of course. Note that this is a real-time control unlike the Pattern Playback Speed Setting which was introduced with firmware 1.10, which allows playback of a pattern to be set to 0.25x, 0.5x, 1x, 1.5x or 2x current tempo.

The Squid also borrows a page from Roger Linn and MPC’s through the Note Repeat function, which makes it possible to record repeated notes at a certain rate – 1/8th, 1/16th, 1/32th or triplet versions of them – by holding down a corresponding pad in either the top or bottom row together with any other pad. You can change whether the top or bottom row of pads becomes note repeat buttons in this mode.

Creating Even More Variation

The Randomizer generates new values for note, velocity and/or gate length for any active step in a pattern at the press of the respective button, and the randomizer can be limited in various musical ways to either generate subtle variations or transform your pattern completely. By holding down pads corresponding to notes (or chords) in your pattern and turning the note, velocity or gate length knobs, these values can be adjusted – this is also how you program your patterns in step mode – and when not holding any pads, all active notes of the pattern is adjusted, making for a very quick and intuitive way of modifying aspects of your pattern.

Another interesting feature that is uncommon in hardware sequencers is the Interpolate function. It allows you to set points in your pattern with a certain pitch, gate length or velocity value, and have the Squid automatically perform intermediate values for any steps in between. This means that you can program velocity swells, gate variations etc. in a quick manner, and what’s more, this can be done for up to three assignable CC values as well. (Up to five CC values can also be programmed per step)

Finally, there’s the TRIG PROB which allows you to set the probability for triggers to occur in a pattern. If set to 50% for instance, this means that roughly half of your programmed steps will be activated. This is a crude version of the step probability found in sequencers by Elektron and Teenage Engineering (to name a few) and unfortunately it only operates on the entire Pattern and not to individual steps. Hopefully a future firmware update would allow it to be set per step.

Going Back in Time

The Time Warp functionality is so unique that it requires a paragraph of its own. Basically, the Squid constantly records your performance to a “secret buffer”, and pressing the Time Warp button gives you access to the last 256 bars recorded this way, divided into patterns of 16 to 64 steps length (this can be adjusted afterwards)

When entering Time Warp mode, the entire pad matrix lights up in white, and the various pads will now switch between different parts of your previous performance and when you find something you like it’s as simple as switching to Pattern mode and select an empty pattern to save it as a new pattern!

I remember when this was a thing back in the early days of Logic, where hitting “*” would have your noodlings magically appear as a track, as if you had been recording all the time, and having this in a hardware sequencer is nothing short of amazing. It’s a wonderful feature, that speeds up the creative process quite a bit.

Conclusion

To find out more, you have to turn to the official user’s manual for the Squid, but this is a summary of the functionality I have found most intriguing and useful. The Squid is in its current state (firmware 1.10) not a tool for crafting compositions, and will not replace your DAW if you wish to create entire songs, as no song mode or pattern chaining exists currently. What the Squid is, is an amazingly fun, creative, and intuitive sparring partner for creating a performance out of patterns, offering hands-on tools that are rare to find. It’s like a hybrid between an MPC and the OP-Z with some of the best bits from both mixed, and its logical layout had me rarely looking at the manual after just half an hour of playing around with it.

Patterns can be manipulated in almost any way you can think of, and if you ever wander too deep in the wrong direction, 16 levels of undo is guaranteed to take you back, at least to solid ground again. Finally, if you want to craft an entire song out of your patterns, the freely available Squid Manager makes it easy to move pattern data as MIDI files between your Squid and computer at will.

As someone who has used dozens of hardware sequencers over the years, the Squid offers a fresh perspective on immediate music making, and is highly recommended if you are more into performance than songwriting, or if you’re comfortable not having an entirely DAW-less setup.

 

 

 

 

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