Steinberg Sequel

So why would any EQ reader be interested in a program that seems interested mostly in beating Garageband at its own game? Well, just read these words from the online FAQ:“When you buy Sequel, you automatically purchase the right to use the contained sounds and loops, so you can use them without limit in any production.”And we’re talking 4,500 loops (plus another 500 when you register), along with the ability to cut your own hard disk tracks, use loops from other sources, and play the 600 included MIDI instrument sounds from a MIDI keyboard.
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If this sounds to you like a music library where you get to call the shots, well, you’re right. And if it sounds like a big honkin’ loop library, it’s that too. If you need to throw music together fast — whether it’s for backing tracks, songwriting, audio for video, or just for the sheer inspiration of it all — keep reading. And also keep reading if you’re into groove-oriented music, because it has all the elements needed to put together totally credible groove-type projects. It may be priced like a “lite” program, but it most certainly isn’t.
There are some familiar elements: It has a “one screen interface” like Ableton Live, a philosophy like Cakewalk’s Project5, the panache of Garageband but with cross-platform operation, some Acid in terms of simplified audio stretching, and the Cubase lineage. Nonetheless, the end result is unique; Sequel weighs in at under $100, and seeks to stake out its own claim in the world of music making. It’s arguably simple, but by no means simplistic: Go to www.sequel-music.net, click on Check Out Sequel, then click on Geek City for tech specs on import/export formats (you can even export to iTunes so it shows up in your iTunes library), resolution, and the like.
This marketing is pretty Eurocentric, and appears aimed primarily at the people who would rather make the music they hear at clubs than dance to it (even the graphics remind me of the flyers you see for underground dance clubs in places like Germany). As someone who spends a lot of time in that musical world, I was taken aback when I went to the Steinberg booth at Musikmesse and a Yamaha representative said “You’ve got to see this, it’s like it was made for you.” He was right. And it might be right for you, too . . . but maybe not for the reasons you think.

GETTING STARTED

You need an Internet connection to get Sequel registered; as it doesn’t use a USB dongle (where you can take the dongle to a different computer) there’s no offline registration option, so if your music computer never touches the Internet, you can turn the page now. Once you register, your code is toast, so choose wisely: desktop or laptop? I chose desktop, which in retrospect was a mistake, for a couple reasons. First, Sequel seems like it would definitely help pass the time the next time my flight’s canceled and I have to enjoy the sights of scenic Hartsfield-Jackson airport until I can get rebooked. Second, it does have a lot of cool instrument sounds, but no way to rewire into host software. So, if ensconced in a laptop, you could treat the laptop as a keyboard instrument, and feed the audio into your host. Third, it doesn’t put much strain on a CPU.

If you register the program, you can get another activation code to replace your original one should your hard drive die or you switch computers; but there’s no way to get it working on your desktop and laptop without buying two copies.

Sequel comes on a single DVD, of which 4.77GB is content that’s compatible with Steinberg’s SoundFrame media browser. Yet you’re not limited to the included content; you can drag in AIF and WAV files, and it (most of the time) manages to get them to match the project tempo. And when it doesn’t, you can tweak the file to get it to fit. It also imports Acid files with their tempos. However, there are limitations in terms of the instruments; Sequel is not an “open system” that accepts VST instruments, nor does it do rewire (host or client). Too bad — it would make a great rewire client.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. . . .

THE USER INTERFACE

As mentioned, Sequel is a one-window interface (Figure 1). Across the top is a control strip with transport and a toolbar with project, automation, and edit buttons. These have cryptic icons, so leave tooltips checked until you figure them out. The only traditional menus are for files (e.g., exporting, managing projects, new/open/save) and basic edit functions (cut/ copy/paste/duplicate/split, add track, delete track, and the like). Better yet, though, the Smart Tool cursor, which changes the cursor’s function depending on where it is in an event, lets you do most common editing functions (mute, repeat, resize, split) without the menus.

Below that is your track view, but with two extra strips at the top: One for creating arrangements (more on this later), and a transpose track that works like Acid’s transpose markers. Tracks are pretty much like what you’re used to with DAWs: Drag in audio or MIDI, or record audio or MIDI into tracks.

The bottom part of the screen shows one of six pages, as selected by a vertical toolbar toward the left. Again, the icons look cool, but it takes a bit before parsing them becomes second nature. The pages are mixer, track inspector, Media Bay (for browsing the available content), edit, arrange, and program settings. The latter is easy to explain: It’s where you adjust audio settings, specify where content is stored, set the basic interface color, and choose from a few basic edit options.

LET’S CREATE A PROJECT

I’d just done a video for a website on all the cool lighting effects at the Frankfurt ProLight + Sound show, and wanted to create a club-oriented soundtrack for it. So this section is basically a diary of how I did it.

First up: the Media Bay page. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s a browser that “tags” all content with attributes, à la Kore. You can then narrow down the attributes to lead you to particular content. For example, in this case, I wanted to start with some drum loops. So I selected Drum&Perc, then “filtered” that to Beats (i.e., complete loops), Electronica/Dance, and Techno. I also selected Trance too, figuring they might work well together. A bunch of beats showed up on the right (Figure 2), ready to audition.

I found a useful loop with no kick — a good way to start, then found a couple good drum loops that would make a fine foundation. But I also wanted some breakbeat pauses; some FX-oriented loops worked well for that. Trimming loops to specific sizes, or repeating multiple times, is easy. It’s also easy to split and cut loops, so you can do tricks like cut a specific eighth- or sixteenth-note section and paste it multiple times to get a stuttering effect. Before long, I had 64 measures of a drum part churning along at 133.33 BPM.

Stretching is handled pretty much transparently; drag something in from the Media Bay, and it matches the project tempo. Dragging in non-Sequel files is a bit different, although most of the time, it figured out what to do with the various WAV and AIF files I brought in. In a few cases I needed to do a little manual warping, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, like Live, you have multiple stretch options: drums, plucked, pads, vocals, mix, and solo. It’s worth experimenting with these, as sometimes the “wrong” settings give a cool effect anyway.

Next I decided to add just a single kick for the last 16 measures, but it needed some distortion to stand out. By going to the Track Inspector page, you can choose two track effects (see Figure 3; there’s also a compressor for each track as well as MIDI effects for instrument tracks, the send amount to two global effects, and settings for two Output Effects — Stereo Enhancer and a Maximizer). The effects are actually fairly decent: ping pong and stereo delay, two distortion types, dynamics (gate or maximizer), filtering, seven modulation effects, reverb, and stereo enhancer.

It’s worth noting that you can mix and match different loops on the same track, but you can also break out sections to individual tracks, should you want to add effects to one particular set of sounds or loops. Furthermore, you can record your own audio tracks like vocals and guitar (there’s even a tuner), and if you have a low latency ASIO interface, you can record through the effects in real time. When you’re done, there are extensive automation options — including automation of various effects parameters — which is definitely unexpected, given the price.

GETTING MIDIFIED

I’m pretty picky about bass lines, so rather than look through loops, I figured I’d just load a bass instrument. It may seem like “instrument” is a bit much, as it feels more like you’re loading a preset; but even there, you can call up the “Instrument” tab in the track inspector and have access to filter cutoff and resonance, drive, DCA attack and release, LFO frequency and level, and FX mix . . . so you can get a fair amount of mileage out of one sound.

Sequel kind of takes you by the hand no matter what you do, so I used Media Bay to find an instrument and drag it into the track view. Record was already enabled (“You just dragged over a MIDI instrument, I suppose you want to record something with it . . . right?”) so I started recording. And shades of Sonar, you can do MIDI looping really easily.

Instrument tracks allow pretty extensive MIDI editing, not just quantization. There are two MIDI effects, Chorder and Arpeggiator. I fell in love with applying Chorder to some parts of the MIDI bass line, so I cut those parts, dragged them to another track, and applied Chorder just to those parts. Way, way cool. It’s fun to have an arpeggiator at your beck and call, as well.

ARRANGING

But we’re not done yet, as one of the best features is the Arranger Page. It has two ways of dealing with arranging your composition, live and programmed.

You create the elements you want to arrange using a separate Arranger Track by clicking and dragging over a range of the composition, which can be as little as an eighth note. This gets a letter from A to Z.

Now you have two options. One is to type a list (“chain”) of letters, and each segment plays back in the desired order (yes Opcode Vision fans, you are having a déjà vu!). You can even move the letters around while the piece is playing for on-the-fly changes.

The other option is live playback using 16 pads. Each pad can be assigned to any of the letters (or stop), so clicking on a pad triggers the equivalently-numbered segment. (If you’re averse to typing, you can also program the chain by clicking on the pads.) Furthermore, there are five start time quantization options: Now, 1/2/4 bars, 1 beat, or “end” (the next segment starts playing as soon as the current segment ends). You can also name each pad so it’s obvious what each letter stands for. The only real limitation here is that I wish you could assign the pads to MIDI note numbers — that would be great when using a pad controller to give more of an “MPC” kind of vibe, or for triggering from a keyboard.

TRANSPOSITION

And of course, you can transpose loops to match the project, either on an individual loop basis or with a project transpose “track” that affects everything playing at that point. If you use the loops included with Sequel, the program knows exactly what to do with them, doing a “smart transpose” (e.g., ignoring drums, although you can transpose drums manually if you want to change the timbre). Unfortunately, it won’t read key information in Acidized files but with whatever files you drag in (WAV or AIF), you can specify how much it should be transposed to match the project. At that point, it will follow along with any transpositions you specify in the transposition track.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve seen a lot of attempts to come up with programs that would appeal to “potential musicians,” but as I’m a bit past that stage, it’s hard for me to be completely objective as to whether a newbie could really just open this up and start creating music. But if that newbie had a bit of background in terms of sequencing and synthesis, it’s not out of the question at all. Yet that’s a different subject for a different time. What about EQ readers?

Honestly, I didn’t expect to get excited about Sequel; I figured it would be the kind of program I could appreciate from a technical standpoint, load on to my computer to evaluate it for the review, then remove it from my hard drive to save space — and go back to my “real” tools.

But no. After an initial few minutes of “What’s going on here?,” all of a sudden everything just clicked into place and I was making music on it as if I’d used it for months. Sequel is fast and efficient, didn’t crash once (despite torturing it with numerous pilot error faux pas while learning the program — pretty remarkable for a V1.0.1 program), and had a great time. A couple hours after working with the program for the first time, I had the soundtrack for my video. And if probably would have been done in under an hour if I hadn’t been learning the program as I went along.

Now, understand that my enthusiasm is in large part due to my affinity for this type of music, and how well Sequel handles it. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes rock fan, Sequel may not seem appropriate, but keep an open mind: There’s a lot of straight-ahead rock, hip-hop, and even country pop content; the program can do more than it may seem at first. But also, if you check it out, you might discover what’s so appealing about groove-oriented music: You might think of Sequel as a “gateway drug” to various addictive forms of music. So while I can’t recommend this to everyone without hesitation, if while reading this you’ve been going “Hey, sounds interesting,” then you probably will enjoy it as much as I do . . . which is a whole lot!