How Do You Do Your Live MIDI Sequencing?

Arturia BeatStep Pro

While advancements in music technology have led to amazing new instruments, some popular musical devices and applications fail to accommodate musicians with rudimentary to advanced skills in traditional techniques. Don’t get me wrong! I am all for making music technology accessible to the masses. However, with the inclusion of a few key features these devices and applications could not only be good fun for those without formal music education, but also useful for those with it. Furthermore, including those features would encourage non-traditional musicians to develop new techniques and expand their capabilities, knowledge, range, and interaction with other musicians.


One example of this is the step sequencer. Once again, don’t get me wrong! I love step sequencing. I even built a rudimentary step sequencer in Max back in 2009. Later on I made it into a Max for Live device that you can download here. Step sequencers are everywhere these days. At one point I remarked that it’s hard to buy a toaster without a step sequencer in it. To date that’s hyperbole, but step sequencers have become ubiquitous in MIDI controllers, iPad apps, synths, drum machines, and modular systems.

I love step sequencers because they encourage us to do things differently and embrace chance. However, for pragmatic music making anyone with some basic keyboard technique will agree that being able to record notes in real time is faster, more efficient, and more expressive than pressing them in via buttons, mouse clicks, or touch screen taps. Simply including a real time record mode in addition to the step sequencing functionality would improve the demographic range and usability of these devices and applications. Many instruments already do this. Elektron machines all have real time recording, as does the DSI Tempest (although it lacks polyphonic recording). Arturia has gone a step (pun intended) in the right direction with the BeatStep Pro allowing for real time recording, also without polyphony. Also, most DAWs handle real time MIDI recording beautifully. So if all of these solutions exist, what’s the problem?

For the last five years I have been developing ways to perform as a soloist without the use of a laptop computer. Q: Wait a minute, don’t all those machines you’re using have computers in them? A: Yes, but they are designed as musical instruments with tactile controls and feedback. They also rarely crash and don’t let you check Facebook (yes, that’s an advantage). There’s a whole series of arguments both for and against using laptops for live performance. Let it be known that I have no problem with anyone using laptops to make music! I do it in the studio all the time. I may do it again live at some point, but currently I have been enjoying developing techniques to work around the limitations that performing without a dedicated computer presents.

Cirklon courtesy of Sequentix

These performances include two to five synchronized MIDI devices with sequencing capabilities, buttons, knobs, pads, and/or a keyboard. I may start with some pre-recorded sequences or improvise the material, but usually it’s a combination of the two. As a musician, producer, and sound designer I have been collecting synthesizers for years and have no shortage of sound making machines. What I am lacking is a way to effectively and inexpensively manage sequencing my existing hardware in real time and with polyphony for live performances. Solutions that do more than I need and therefore cost more than I’d like to spend include the Sequentix Cirklon and Elektron Octatrack. There are also vintage hardware solutions like the EM-U Command Station or Yamaha RS7000. This is something I’ll investigate further, but usually they are bulky and difficult to program on the fly.

Pyramid euclidean screen

What I’d like to see more of are small, modern devices that push the capabilities of live sequencing into new realms while maintaining the practical workflow techniques trained musicians rely on. It’s happening to an extent and internally on the Teenage Engineering OP-1 with their frequent firmware updates. It’s happening on a few iPad apps, but most of the MIDI sequencing apps still lack real time recording and/or polyphonic recording. The Pyramid by Squarp is the most promising development I have seen in this department recently (more about Pyramid at a later date, but for now read this from CDM). Have you found a device or app that handles all your MIDI needs? Do you know about something on the horizon that will make all your MIDI dreams possible? What devices do you use manage your live MIDI performances?

8 thoughts on “How Do You Do Your Live MIDI Sequencing?

  1. I have recently done tons of research on this. I wanted a dedicated sequencer. Nothing else. I eventually landed on the Yamaha QY700. People have spoken very highly of it. Sound On Sound in 1996 called it “simply the best hardware sequencer ever made.” It is currently being shipped so I will see how it is when I get it. Only downside I see is it uses floppy disks.

    The other options I kept seeing pop up were an Akai MPC 1000 or 2500 with JJOS. The Roland MV8800 was also mentioned a lot and sounds promising.

    I feel like I am searching for the holy grail. It is also sad in a way that my search leads me back to 1996. Why are there not dedicated midi sequencers any more? I understand the frustration. I have had my eye on the Pyramid as well. Here’s to hoping the Yamaha QY700 delivers.

  2. Thanks for the note, Alex. It’s great to hear I’m not the only looking for a modern solution to this dilemma. Please do let us know how it goes with the QY700. I’ve heard that it’s pretty easy to swap the drive with a USB floppy emulator so that might help if you are dreading using floppy disks. I’ve also read a little about JJOS for the MPC and it sounds interesting.

    AND! You’re absolutely right about having to seek out gear that’s decades old to do something that should be ubiquitous in MIDI controllers of all varieties. Some great MIDI controllers with all sorts of processing power have been released recently, but real-time polyphonic sequencing in them is nowhere to be found. I started a thread on gearslutz about it, but was mostly shot down by people suggesting I buy a workstation, or go back to including a laptop in my live rig.

    Another possible solution is an iPad MIDI sequencing app. There are several out there, but I have found them limited and awkward to use for real time performance. We’ll see what happens in the near future, but in my view there is a very large hole missing in the hardware market when it down comes to fully functional MIDI sequencing.

  3. The Kilpatrick Audio Carbon sequencer is supposed to be aimed live performing rather than setting your sequence up and then letting it run. you can punch in on sequences, or use a variety of pattern modulations to alter the sequence but not completely change it. it’s being crowdfunded at the moment, and although they are almost at 50%, I’m really hoping it makes it to production. Nice to see a different approach being tried rather than the piano roll format of many soft and hardware sequencers.

  4. Yeah. Carbon is definitely on my radar since it was announced. Perhaps I’ll be writing about it here sometime in the future. Things are starting to look up for dedicated hardware sequencing.

  5. Hi John, I ran across this post and I’m equally on the hunt for a newer sequencer. It’s funny, my search seems to be leading me back to the Kawai Q-80EX or a Yamaha RX3. Funny that my search for a simple realtime MIDI sequencer takes me back so far… THe Pyramid though caught my eye, so I’m interested in your thoughts!


  6. i write my tracks on xgworks 3, save them to midi type 0. then playback the tracks on karafun midi karaoke player. for the sounds i use sound fonts on virtual midi synth or an external synth. job done

Leave a Reply