With Sequel, Steinberg presents its take on beginner-friendly music production software. At first sight, Sequel has much in common with Apple's GarageBand. But there are notable differences: one of the most obvious is that Sequel is available for both Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows.
Sequel is a complete music creation studio: it supports recording, editing, and arranging audio and MIDI tracks, has a range of built-in effects, and comes with a large library of software instruments and loops. That library makes Sequel valuable not only to beginners (who don't even have to play an instrument to start making their own music), but to seasoned musicians as well. Both groups should find lots of inspiration amongst the thousands of loops, which cover a wide range of styles. And users of Steinberg's high-end Cubase 4 can open Sequel song files and continue to develop them, making it a handy sketchpad.
The program costs just $99.
Installing Sequel on your computer requires about 6GB of free hard disk space and should take no more than 30 minutes. After the installer is done, you need to activate the application via the Internet: no USB dongle is required.
Besides the installation DVD, the box contains a very well-written printed (!) manual. It covers the whole application (with just a few minor omissions), features a useful setup guide, and includes five hands-on tutorials that actually deserve that name. Demo files for the tutorials are included with the installation, and there's also a short introductory video on the DVD. Kudos to Steinberg for putting so much effort into beginner-friendly documentation.
When launching Sequel for the first time, you're asked to register the software with Steinberg. Take a moment to do this, as registration is a prerequisite in case you ever need another license code. Steinberg also rewards you for sharing your contact details with them by unlocking another 500 loops. (These loops are included in the standard installation from the DVD, but are not accessible until you register.)
With the registration reminder out of the way, here's what you see:
Sequel's three-panel main window, showing the Pilot, Arrange, and Multi Zones. (Click to enlarge.)
Sequel employs a single-window interface that is divided into three areas dubbed "Zones." The Pilot Zone at the top of the window holds the transport controls, the song cursor "LCD," and a number of buttons for core functions like creating a new song, toggling automation and the metronome on and off, and adding a new track.
The Arrange Zone at the center is where you record, edit, and arrange a song's audio and instrument clips.
At the bottom, you'll find the aptly named Multi Zone, which holds just about everything else: six overlay pages (select them by clicking on the respective icon in the column on the left) reveal the Mixer, Track Inspector, Media Bay, Editor, Arranger, and Program Settings. Here's a short video (1.4MB QuickTime) that shows the various pages, along with the sub-pages in the Track Inspector:
Just like the six icons for selecting the Multi Zone's pages, many elements of Sequel's user interface seem a bit overstylized. Instead of sticking with more intuitive symbols, Sequel's designers have mostly opted for (presumably) cooler-looking, but rather abstract graphics. They even came up with new buttons for muting and soloing tracks. I found that confusing at first, but tooltips abound, and it doesn't take as long to learn where to find stuff as I originally feared.
Once you get used to Sequel's graphical language, you will appreciate the application's one-window philosophy: the few times that additional dialog boxes pop up is when you perform file operations or add your own content to the Media Bay library. Everything else is accessed via the Multi Zone, and, as we'll see, the Multi Zone is very well-structured, making this approach much more pleasant than GarageBand's, which relies on a number of pop-up windows for adjusting sound settings. If you want to concentrate fully on arranging your song, you can hide the Multi Zone with a single click. Excellent!
Some of Sequel's parameter names are cut off by the rigid grid layout—and no tooltip in sight.
There is, however, one gripe I have with Sequel's UI beyond its looks: due to the rigid grid layout, parameter names are sometimes cut off in a way that makes them almost meaningless. There's ample screen real estate, so please, Steinberg, give those tags a bit more space, or at least offer tooltips displaying the full parameter names.
So far, we've only had a look at Sequel. It's about time we had a listen, too, so let's make some music.
Sequel ships with tons of musical content: about 4,500 loops (and 500 more if you register the software with Steinberg) and 600 software instruments. Steinberg has made navigating your way through this huge library easier by sorting all loops and instruments by five criteria: instrument Category and Sub-Category, musical Style and Sub-Style, and sound Character. These are listed in corresponding columns in the Media Bay.
Select the kind of loop or instrument you want by clicking one or more items in each column, and Sequel will filter the content list—shown on the right side in the Media Bay—accordingly. Click on an item in the resulting list to listen to it. Once you're happy with what you've found, drag the loop from the Media Bay to the Arrange Zone's grid to make Sequel create a new track for the loop, or drag the loop into an existing track:
The Media Bay is your gateway to Sequel's huge sound library. (Click to enlarge.)
My favorite feature in the Media Bay is the Show Family Items button. Steinberg has compiled sets of loops into "loop families," most of which make for inspiring starting points for new songs. Clicking on the Show Family Items icon toggles between showing the five criteria columns or a single list of these loop families:
The Media Bay's "loop families" view. (Click to enlarge.)
When you make a selection in the loop family list on the left, the list on the right will show all loops that belong to the selected family (or families if you have selected more than one). Some of the families contain a number of drum loops, complete with intro, fills, verse, and chorus patterns; some have sets of melody phrases played by one instrument, e.g., guitar; and many even present a complete song construction kit, consisting of drums and percussion, rhythm and solo instrument loops, and special effects.
Here are some audio examples of loop families. Apart from arranging the loops and adding a fadeout to the Song Construction Kit demo, I did no additional sound processing—this is how the loops sound right out of the box.
While compiling loops into such families is a cool idea and can result in inspiring finds, Sequel's current implementation has a few problems: all loop families are shown in a single, far-too-long list that cannot be filtered, there is no consistent naming scheme for the loop families, and too many family names are stupendously cryptic (as you can see from the previous examples). I almost expected to find "411 Huh? What the...?!" in the list.
The family feature would also be a lot more useful if you could filter the list by at least Category/Sub-Category: "Hey, Sequel, I feel like creating a Latin jazz song. Show me all the loop families in that category."
Once you've created a few tracks with loops in the Arrange Zone, it's time to lay out the loops and arrange them into a song. For this task, Steinberg offers the Magic Mouse Tool.
Based on the location of the mouse pointer, you can move, resize, copy, cut, mute, and rename a loop with a single mouse operation. I'm especially fond of the Cut function: like GarageBand, Sequel has a menu command to split a loop into two segments at the current playback position, but positioning Sequel's dedicated scissors cursor directly with your mouse feels much more intuitive. And it's faster, too. Oddly though, Sequel does not have a complementary "join" or "glue" command that would let you join several loop clips into one larger clip.
Here's a short video showing how the Magic Mouse Tool works:
For editing the finer details of the loops, Sequel sports both an instrument "piano roll" and an audio editor, which are activated by double-clicking on a loop, or clip, in the Arrange Zone:
The piano roll editor: no music creation software would be complete without it! (Click to enlarge.)
In Sequel, quantization (timing correction) is not just in the piano roll editor; this feature is also built into the audio editor. After recording an audio track or adding your own loops, you can mark the intended downbeats and have Sequel time-stretch the original to better fit the rhythmic pattern of the song:
The Audio Editor, complete with automated quantization. (Click to enlarge.)
With the Track Inspector, which is divided into six subpages, Steinberg introduces an ingenious way to represent the settings for a track. The Track Effects page sports two slots for effects including delay, reverb, chorus, flanger, and a simple amp simulation. There's a third slot, but it is permanently assigned to a compressor. The Track Effects are followed by the track's three-band Equalizer. For polishing the entire stereo mix, there's a two-slot Global Effects page (which includes the same effects as the Track Effects), and a page with a Stereo Enhancer and Maximizer:
The Track Inspector, with its "chain of events" page structure. (Click to enlarge.)
This "chain of events" representation, visualizing the audio flow from pressing a key on an external MIDI keyboard; to modifying the MIDI signal; to turning the MIDI signal into a sound that is run through track effects and an EQ; to further enhancing it with global effects; to mixing it down to a stereo master signal that is finalized with the Enhancer and Maximizer and, finally, sent to the speakers; is the most intuitive design I have ever seen for a channel strip.
To give you an idea of the quality of the effects that Steinberg packed into Sequel, here's an audio file with three before-and-after examples:
Thanks to the vast number of loops that ship with Sequel, you can have lots of musical fun just exploring the Media Bay and arranging music clips on your computer's screen. Eventually, though, you will probably want to record your own tunes as well. Sequel records both audio and MIDI if you have the necessary outboard equipment connected to your computer.
The program supports both kinds of instruments in a special way: for guitarists, brass players, drummers, and others who record their instruments as an audio track, Sequel has numerous "track presets" with settings for all the effects found in the Track Inspector. And if you're playing an external MIDI keyboard, there are 600 software synths to check out.
Tracks for recording external instruments must be added manually via the Edit Menu or the Add Track button in the Pilot Zone. In the dialog box that pops up, you can choose between Audio and Instrument (i.e., MIDI) as the type of track and select a track preset or instrument sound, respectively.
If you decide later that you'd rather apply a different track preset, or would like your MIDI tune to be played with another sound, just drag-and-drop an instrument or track preset from the Media Bay onto the target track's name in the Arrange Zone. Just don't be confused when you do so, because during the drag-and-drop operation, Sequel provides no visual clue that you're actually dragging anything, and there is no direct confirmation that the instrument or track preset has been successfully applied to the track.
To verify that your changes took place, you can check the instrument name in an instrument track or, say, the equalizer settings in an audio track. (Beware that, even for MIDI tracks, this will change all the settings in the Track Inspector, not just the instrument itself. To change just the instrument, use the selector on the Track Inspector's Instrument subpage.)
There are two pages in the Track Inspector that apply only to MIDI instrument tracks: Event Effects and Instruments. Both have some neat goodies for MIDI instrument players.
The Instruments page provides access to eight parameters with which you can further modify a sound. Some of these resemble settings found on classical synthesizer modules for filter, LFO, envelope, etc., and some are for adjusting additional effects like chorus or reverb. Sequel won't replace full-featured soft synths anytime soon, but letting users fool around with these parameters is a first step towards learning the concepts of subtractive synthesis and sound design.
Then there's the Effects tab, which brings up two inspiring musical toys: the Chorder and Arpeggiator. While the former will transmogrify a single note played on the keyboard into a full chord (as selected from an extensive pop-up menu), the Arpeggiator will break a chord down into single notes and play them in sequence. Thanks to a transpose parameter, the result can be "wackified" even further. (Listen to O’Reilly's "Better Arpeggiate Than Never" podcast for more examples of arpeggiators.)
The Chorder and Arpeggiator wackify MIDI notes. (Click to enlarge.)
Playing full chords on the keyboard while both the Chorder and Arpeggiator are active can produce some seriously cool musical phrases. Too bad Sequel records the notes you play before feeding them into the Event Effects. It would be really neat if you could also record the MIDI output of the Chorder/Arpeggiator combo. That would allow you to edit the phrases and possibly use them as the basis for your own loops.
Here are some examples of Sequel's Event Effects. Note that all I did was play an Fmin7 chord; Sequel did all the musical grunt work.
Speaking of custom phrases, adding your own audio or MIDI instrument loops to Sequel's library is, yet again, just a drag-and-drop away. Drag the clip from the Arrange Zone to the Media Bay, and up pops a dialog box for categorizing your new loops. Once categorized, your loops become an integral part of Sequel's library and can be searched and used just like the content that ships with Sequel.
But that brings me to two more items for the "unfortunately" list. First, playing MIDI into Sequel is a one-way street, as the software does not support MIDI output. In other words, you cannot play back your tunes via an external sound module. Even worse, the same holds true for Standard MIDI Files: importing them works just fine, but, alas, you cannot export MIDI instrument tracks recorded in Sequel to a file.
Second, recording a MIDI instrument track in Sequel does require that an external MIDI keyboard be connected to your computer, because, unlike GarageBand, Sequel does not offer any alternative ways to play notes on your computer. (Well, sure, there's the piano roll editor, but I said "playing" notes, not "helplessly scribbling notes.") This, to me, is the only major disappointment with this software, because with so much content to play with, Sequel is the perfect creative toy for long plane or train rides. The lack of a way to quickly record your own tunes when inspiration strike (unless you dare sing into your laptop's mic in a crowded plane cabin and make many new "friends" in the process) seriously limits what you can do with Sequel while away from your trusty ivories.
I hope that Steinberg will put "virtual keyboard" high up on the list of things to add in the next release. But Sequel does offer another standout performance control: Arrange mode.
Following in the footsteps of Ableton Live, this mode lets your arrange your own songs in real time. First, separate your song into segments by drawing in the special Arranger Track with the mouse. Clicking the "pad" in the Multi Zone's Arranger page (or typing the assigned letter) will then queue the corresponding song segment for playback at the next rhythmic division—bar, beat, or instantaneous transition. You can also input a sequence of segments (verse 1, verse 2, chorus, solo, etc.) and queue up a whole song:
The "trigger pads" on the Arranger page call up musical phrases. (Click to enlarge.)
I have to admit that I never expected this kind of "playing" a song to be so much fun, and I'm sure that the clean UI of the Arranger window plays a big role in that.
With its cornucopia of excellently produced loops and software instruments, high-quality effects, live arrange mode, beginner-friendly user interface, solid performance, and shockingly low price, there isn't much not to like about Sequel.
Of course, it's a closed system (although you can use Sequel's media content and song files in Steinberg Cubase) and in serious need of an on-screen keyboard. Also, this being a 1.x release, it still has a few bugs. For example, when I loaded a project that had master volume automation, the automation failed. And when I hid and un-hid the automation tracks, there suddenly were two volume automation tracks, but only one of them actually worked.
These minor limitations aside, Sequel is an enticing option if you're looking for an affordable, easy, fun, and chock-full-of-music production tool, regardless of how much experience you have with computer music production. To illustrate, here's a short song that materialized out of thin air when I stumbled upon a Sequel loop family that mimicked the laid-back, groovy feel of the Emotions' "Best of My Love." With the exception of the synth solo and the corny synth hook in the chorus, which I played with the "Fusion Oddy" and "Jaipur Accent" instruments, respectively, everything you hear is loops from Sequel's stock library with no additional sound processing.
If you have Sequel, you can download my original song file (120KB) and see how I did it. For more on Sequel, including audio demos, video tutorials, and a users' forum, visit www.sequel-music.net.
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