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They were once called audio sequencers or music sequencers. Nowadays, the simple term “sequencer” describes a device or program that can record, edit, or playback audio. 

The days of humming that melody you thought of to remember are a thing of the past. Now you can record and build an electronic symphony one step at a time, layering sound textures and melodies over each other like making a cake. It is like creating a band from scratch.

When you open up an old music box and ‘London Bridge’ plays while a ballerina figurine spins around, that is a form of a sequencer. The metallic cylinder rotates with bumps in certain places that pluck another piece of metal to create a music note. The pattern of perforations on the rotating cylinder is the “program” for the song.


An historic “sequence” of events

Music sequencing gave birth to “Computer Music” in the 1950s, and computer music spawned Techno music many decades later. But the origin of automated music goes back centuries.  Punch tapes or perforated piano rolls, like in player pianos, served as instructions that could reproduce a prearranged sequence of notes on command. This was the way to hear your favorite tunes without having a pianist play them for you all the time. 

American bandleader Raymond Scott invented some of the first electronic sequencers in the 1940s. His devices were capable of automatically producing a series of electronic tones in sequence for the first time. That is why he is the self-proclaimed inventor of the polyphonic sequencer.

In 1957, RCA merged electronic sound regeneration with a music sequencer to create the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer. This was the follow up to the RCA’s first “synthesizer”, which was an attempt from the entertainment company to automate pop music as a whole by cutting expensive human orchestras out of the picture entirely.   “Victor,” as the Mark II was nicknamed, was the first programmable electronic synthesizer using punch tape. But to claim it was a performance based musical instrument would be an exaggeration. It had no piano keyboard and could not be played in real time. It was a monophonic synthesizer but created polyphonic recordings through multitracking. You had to program your complete composition into the studio sized machine using the punch tape and it would output the music later. It was basically a music robot and not the most user friendly, but hey, it was a sequencer. Unfortunately, this first series of synthesizers from RCA did not appeal to musicians at the time and the RCA Mark I and II faded into museums, opening the door for Moog and others in the 1960s to prosper in the synthesizer community. 

Along came the EMS Synthi 100 in 1971. You could now program and save a melody with 1s and 0s, which was beyond revolutionary for music production. No more bulky tape or piano rolls, although the EMS Synthi 100 was itself a clunky piece of furniture that took up half the room.

This beast was one of the first devices that utilized the digital sequencer, which had three (duophonic) layers, 10,000 clock events and 256 duophonic note events. The Synthi 100 had 12 Voltage Controlled Oscillators (VCOs) to generate a waveform whose pitch can be adjusted by a voltage determined by two monophonic keyboards. But with a machine this complicated, it took a genius like Stevie Wonder to truly make sense of it all.

The 1980s brought the dawn of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which led to the sequencer’s transition from hardware to software that could record and playback notes with the ease of a few keystrokes on a computer keyboard. The technology paved the way for the musical art form known as “beat making” that would eventually take over the world. 

Today, aspiring producers tend to take the notion of a music sequencer for granted. A sequencer basically comes included with everything from Renoise to Logic, FL Studio, to the junky casino keyboard you find at the second-hand store. The robust Adobe Audition, for instance, makes it easier to record, rearrange, repair and restore with its smooth multitrack sequencing functions and workflows. Ableton live provides the musicians with one of the best sequencing capabilities that allows you to create and remix music live on stage. Even drum machines and groove boxes have their own step sequencers, which are the most basic, rigid patterns of one note drum loops to create the backbone of our favorite Techno music of today. Sequencers are everywhere! 

Nevertheless, the importance of the sequencer can’t be understated. The music sequencer made it easier for music professionals to compose larger pieces and made it possible for DIY musicians to truly become professionals. 


Author: Techno 24/7

Pic: ask.audio

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