A few weeks ago we published our first blog article, putting together a curated list of boutique Midi controllers made by a fairly small handful of makers, that went a little further than the rest in regards to reliability, quality of build and use of noble materials like wood or aluminum. Handmade or low-number production items have some definite advantages when it comes to customization, uniqueness and long-lasting durability.
However there’re some areas where mass produced goods definitely have the edge. A small one-man shop might have the utmost attention to detail when delivering each unit, as it’s after all his or her “baby” that he or she is personally manufacturing and assembling. But most one man -or small team- businesses cannot afford to make a product that is overly ambitious -in regards to features for example- or it starts getting risky for the companies’ own survival. If they want something that carries a lot of added functions, some help from extra software designers, beta testers, engineers, etc. would be needed, making it hard for a tiny company to compete in such circumstances given the initial R&D cost.
This is where economies of scale have certainly found their niche. If we talk about -mainly Midi- mass produced controllers, there’s certainly a huge and growing offer in a market receiving hundreds or even thousands of new products each year. That´s why we often think, “What controller stands up from the crowd? How can I get more for my money? ” Some manufacturers have thought of this too, adding not only standard Midi control functions but also useful features like SysEx or NRPN support.
That’s fine if all you need is a knobby interface but, what if your controller was more than just a controller? What if it could also sequence other gear? We normally think of Midi controllers as hands-on, human operated tools, that are connected to other hardware -in order to tweak it or play it as an instrument-, or usually tied to our DAW -which in that case would be the main sequencer-. The idea to incorporate sequencing into controllers themselves is powerful, as it means that we could choose not to turn on our computer -or hook up an extra sequencer- when we’re in a “composing mood”, letting ideas flow easily and comparatively faster. It also, in many cases, allows us to move from a “hand played” vibe to a more robotic mood without having to dismantle our hardware setup. Moreover, I tend to believe that each sequencer has a workflow that leds you to create a certain kind of melodies or song structures, so I think it’s sometimes nice to have more than one sequencer, in order to prevent things sounding “samey”.
So, if you were thinking of buying a Midi controller that also sequences (or some might say, a sequencer that also controls) you’ve come to the right place! Here’s our list of our favourite ten, current or not, sequencing controllers.
ARTURIA BEATSTEP PRO
Arturia took the world by storm when they launched their original Beatstep back in 2014. It didn’t look revolutionary at first, since it seemed to be just another tiny affordable controller -much like Korg’s nano line- with pads and knobs. But boy was this different. Arturia packed a lot of extra features into it: apart from finger drumming and knob tweaking the Beatstep could also work as an analog-style 16 step sequencer, a midi to CV/GATE converter and a setup centerpiece sending program changes and MMC transport messages.
The Beatstep Pro took things much further, expanding its predecessor’s features inmensely. Its sequencer is a lot more powerful: instead of one monophonic sequence you have 3 simultaneous tracks with up to 16 simultaneous notes, it can hold up to 16 projects of 16 patterns for each track (with up to 64 notes per pattern), it can sync to almost anything (being able to work as a Din Sync to Midi converter too, great for 808 or 909 owners), adds a looping feature that’s great for live performance, plus it boasts 8 analog trigger outputs (perfect for analog drum modules or modular systems).
It’s probably our favourite in this list, and for a reason! You can buy it here.
The second Arturia product in this list is the Keystep. Compared to the Beatstep Pro it’s quite the opposite in approach. Instead of including almost infinite features, the Keystep’s key (pun intended) is its simplicity. We’ve all seen before little sequencers included in synths like Roland’s SH-101 or Sequential’s Prophet 6. The main idea behind the Keystep is pretty much that -a small Midi recorder plus arpeggiator on top of a keyboard controller- and while simple it’s loads of fun. We also love the fact that it includes proper 5 pin Midi ports -something that’s becoming increasingly rare nowadays- and cv/gate outs for analog gear.
M-AUDIO TRIGGER FINGER PRO
Now sadly discontinued, the Trigger Finger Pro packs a lot bang for buck compared to its “non-pro” predecessor. Apart from its MPC-like 4×4 pad grid -perfect for beat making-, the Pro has backlit RGB pads, a generous display, transport buttons, assignable knobs -added to the faders available in the previous model- and a 16 step x0x style sequencer with its own row of buttons. The sequencer is also standalone, making it a really nice companion to drum modules like the Vermona DRM.
ZAQ AUDIO ZAQUENCER
Not really a sequencing controller but a software hack, the Zaq Audio Zaquencer can turn an affordable midi box into a sequencing workhorse. Using the Behringer BCR-2000 as a platform, this custom firmware lets you use Behringer’s controller as an analog-style standalone sequencer, that has also memories to hold up to 192 patterns. Given how cheap these go second hand we think it’s great for the money!
AKAI MAX 25 & MAX 49
These are now being discontinued. They were very nice controllers but went somehow under the radar for some weird reason. While similar in idea to the Keystep -a keyboard controller with included sequencer, arpeggiator and cv/gate outs-, they added drum pads, touch strip faders, DAW transport controls and real pitch/mod wheels. I think they’re great as a studio centerpiece “do-it-all” controller.
Faderfox is known for making quality controllers and this one is no exception. The SC4 very compact and is the only one from the company that includes a sequencer. The sequencer itself works on a similar principle to the RYK and Intellijel Metropolis sequencers that modular synth nerds have grown to love. It definitely is one of the most special products in this list -and probably the only one apart from the Frostwave that’s not really mass produced-.
FROSTWAVE FAT CONTROLLER
Frostwave was an australian company, run by Paul Perry, that focused on weird synth friendly effects and controllers like the Resonator (a standalone MS-20 filter module) or the Blue Ringer (an extremely nice ring modulator which I own and love myself). The Fat Controller was one of the first devices to mix Midi control and sequencing in one box. Apart from mimicing a mixer, it was also possible to use it as a 16 step sequencer that boasted faders instead of knobs, giving it a similar feel to classic ARP sequencers.
AKAI MPD 232
This is pretty much Akai’s version of the Trigger Finger Pro. It’s a pad controller, that also features an LCD screen, faders, knobs and 16 step buttons for Roland style sequencing. The main difference between them is the number of controls (8 knobs plus 8 faders). It can also work standalone and includes DAW transport control buttons.
Another favourite of ours. While not so well featured regarding sequencing capabilities, the main features of the Kordbot are its chord buttons which allow you to play and store chords, making it an incredible song writing tool. It also includes a really cool touch strip that lets you “strum” chords much like on a guitar, something that surely has its roots in Suzuki’s legendary Omnichord and Q-chord autoharps.
The Regelwerk is similar to Frostwave’s Fat Controller, just a LOT more complex. This now discontinued unit can work with SysEx messages and regular Midi commands in order to be used as a 24 fader control surface. As a controller it also has up to 64 memories, a very nice feature for working with multiple DAWs for example. When used as a sequencer it works essentially like a cut down (but still very powerful) version of the previous Schaltwerk and MAQ sequencers from the german brand.
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.