FIG. 1: Atomic combines a 16-step sequencer, an arpeggiator, an analog-modeled synth, and three effects.
Before MIDI and digital audio, there was the mighty analog step sequencer. These were most often found on large modular systems, and they provided the backbone of the electronic-music movement. Although it might be easy to draw a few notes in the piano-roll editor on your favorite DAW, better step-sequencing tools are now available as VST plug-ins. They're fun to use, and their retro approach leads to more-authentic results.
I recently collaborated with Boris K of BK SynthLab on the virtual step sequencer Atomic (algomusic.net). It has 16 steps arranged in a circular design reminiscent of the hardware sequencers Buchla Arbitrary Function Generator and Future Retro Revolution (see Fig. 1). Atomic has a built-in synth, and it offers MIDI output, which you can route within your DAW or a modular host, such as Plogue Bidule or Energy XT, to drive other virtual or hardware instruments.
Step on It
The first thing I do after opening Atomic is to set the number of steps to 3 by clicking in the outer-circle grid. Less is more to start. Next, I put Atomic in Latch mode by playing and holding a note and then clicking the Key LED off. Then I set the rate to 2 or 3 and start the sequencer. (The rate is set in steps per beat.) I keep the first step set to 00, which corresponds to the pitch of the incoming trigger note. I adjust the second and third steps by ear; settings of plus or minus 05 and 07 (musical intervals of a fourth and a fifth) work well. Once I have a 3-step sequence, I add steps one at a time until I've set the full 16 steps (see “Step-by-Step Instructions” and Web Clip 1).
After I've composed the sequence, I work on the sequencer itself by trying different play modes, such as forward, backward, backward-forward, and random. Atomic has a built-in arpeggiator that, when used in conjunction with the step sequencer, repeats individual step notes. To create unusual and interesting rhythms, turn it on and adjust its rate along with the sequencer rate and individual step gate lengths. Also experiment with the arpeggiator's mode (direction) and octave settings.
When I have a sequence I like, I tweak the sound using the synth section of Atomic. I make sure that the ADSR is modulating the filter with sharp attacks. I like to simultaneously modulate the filter with a slow LFO to make a churning effect.
Turn on the delay in Atomic's effect section and adjust its left- and right-tap rates relative to the rate of the sequencer. For example, rates of 1/2 for the left and 1/4 for the right sound good. Adjust the feedback to work with the sequence without making things too cluttered.
What made those analog sequences of the past so mesmerizing was that their creators didn't just push the play button and walk away. They changed the sequence and the sound continuously over time.
Changing sequence parameters during playback lets you introduce rhythmic variations. Options include changing the playback order and the number of steps, muting steps, and tweaking a step's pitch, Velocity, and duration. A knob box comes in handy for this type of thing.
Changing synth parameters introduces timbral variation. Good targets include filter cutoff, portamento, and oscillator settings. Very percussive filter and amplitude envelopes combined with reverb and delay effects add rhythmic character, and tweaking the delay settings can yield some surprising results (see Web Clip 2).
Create an ascending scale, then speed up the rate to get a very fast arpeggio (see Web Clip 3). Set all the step transposes to 00, and use the step Velocities to affect the filter and other synth parameters to create effects such as filter gating. Try using two or three instances of Atomic and routing the MIDI outs and ins to each other. You might also set up your favorite hardware or software synths and have Atomic control them to produce a layered sound (see Web Clip 4). To save CPU, you can turn Atomic's synth off by setting its level Velo knob (on the left) fully counterclockwise.
Don't fall asleep at the switch. Step sequencing is at its best when it's interactive, like performing on an instrument. Most of all, it's fun.
Tim Conrardy is a sound designer for many popular soft synths, works for Camel Audio, and designs sounds for his company, Algomusic.
STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS ON NEXT PAGE
Step 1: Create a sequence a few steps at a time, adjusting each step as you go.
Step 2: Try different play modes, adjusting the rate and other controls to taste.
Step 3: Get a good sound that goes with the sequence by tweaking Atomic''s synth parameters.
Step 4: Use the built-in delay effect with different tempo-synced rate settings to give a syncopated feel to the sequence.
Step 5: Make rhythm and timbral changes while the sequencer is playing to add the all-important performance factor.
Step 6: Control your favorite virtual instruments and hardware synths with Atomic for a layered sound.