A device which generates control signals telling a synth what notes to play and when to play them. The term is used to apply to three different entities. In order of invention:
(1) In the context of modular synthesizers, a sequencer generates a series of control voltages and gate signals, usually intended to cause the synth to play a repeating series of notes. (In this application, the control voltage is routed to a voltage controlled oscillator to control its frequency, and the gate signal is routed to an envelope generator to control the sounding and dynamics of the notes.) The typical sequencer in a modular synth is capable of 8 or 16 steps, whose outputs are all tied to a common output bus. Each step has a knob which determines the control voltage and the duration of the gate signal that it generates. A counter determines which step is in control of the output bus at a given time; the counter is advanced by an applied clock signal, which determines the tempo of the played notes. This type of sequencer first appeared in the 1960s; they were expensive and temperamental beasts, and not very flexible. The technology has improved, but the basic design remains the same. The use of this type of sequencer remains mostly confined to use with modular synths.
(2) Sequencers with digital memory first appeared in the 1970s (the canonical example was the EMS Synti-AKS with its microprocessor-controlled sequencer built into the case lid), and these quickly evolved to be able to store longer and more complex patterns as well as additional performance information.In the 1980s, synth manufacturers began including sequencers in some of their synth designs, and equipping them with MIDI outputs so that one sequencer could easily control multiple devices. Since they were so often used to control drum machines, models started to appear which incorporated both the drum machine and the sequencer in one device. Today, stand-alone digital sequencers are far less common then sequencers built into drum machines or workstation keyboards.
(3) MIDI interfaces started to appear on computers almost as soon as the initial standard was adopted in 1983. In 1985, the Voyetra company introduced the first sequencing software for the IBM PC, launching a third category of sequencer: those implemented purely in software running on a personal computer. From this point software sequencers evolved far beyond simple pattern-remembering. The first innovation was to record and playback MIDI data as if it were audio being recorded by a tape machine. Graphical display and editing capabilities soon appeared, using the well-known piano roll notation display paradigm. Soon, additional abilities such as SMPTE synchronizing with tape machines, hard disk recording and mixing, and ability to load patches and parameter settings into sequencers, were added. As of 2014, this use of the term "sequencer" is becoming obsolete, as software sequencer functions have largely been incorporated into DAW software pacxkages.
The early music sequencers were sound producing devices such as automatic musical instruments, music boxes, mechanical organs, player pianos, and Orchestrions. Player pianos, for example, had much in common with contemporary sequencers. Composers or arrangers transmitted music to piano rolls which were subsequently edited by technicians who prepared the rolls for mass duplication. Eventually consumers were able to purchase these rolls and play them back on their own player pianos.
The origin of automatic musical instruments seems considerably old. As early as the 9th century, Persian inventors Banū Mūsā brothers invented hydropowered organ using exchangeable cylinders with pins, and also automatic flute player using steam power, as described on their Book of Ingenious Devices.
The step sequencers played rigid patterns of notes using a grid of (usually) 16 buttons, or steps, each step being 1/16 of a measure. These patterns of notes were then chained together to form longer compositions. Sequencers of this kind are still in use, mostly built into drum machines and grooveboxes. They are monophonic by nature, although some are multitimbral, meaning that they can control several different sounds but only play one note on each of those sounds.
In Japan, experiments in computer music date back to 1962, when Keio University professor Sekine and Toshiba engineer Hayashi experimented with the TOSBAC computer. This resulted in a piece entitled TOSBAC Suite.
Yamaha's GS-1, the first FM digital synthesizer, was released in 1980. To program the synthesizer, Yamaha built a custom computer workstation designed to be used as a sequencer for the GS-1. It was only available at Yamaha's headquarters in Japan (Hamamatsu) and the United States (Buena Park).
Standalone CV/Gate sequencers
In 1977, Roland Corporation released the MC-8 Microcomposer, also called computer music composer by Roland. It was an early stand-alone, microprocessor-based, digital CV/Gate sequencer, and an early polyphonic sequencer. It equipped a keypad to enter notes as numeric codes, 16 KB of RAM for a maximum of 5200 notes (large for the time), and a polyphony function which allocated multiple pitch CVs to a single Gate. It was capable of eight-channel polyphony, allowing the creation of polyrhythmic sequences. Earlier sequencers were based on keyboard entry, and lacked the MC-8's CV/Gate capabilities and depth of control/synchronization facilities. The MC-8 had a significant impact on popular electronic music, with the MC-8 and its descendants (such as the Roland MC-4 Microcomposer) impacting popular electronic music production in the 1970s and 1980s more than any other family of sequencers. The MC-8's earliest known users were Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978.
In June 1981, Roland Corporation founder Ikutaro Kakehashi proposed the concept of standardization between different manufacturers' instruments as well as computers, to Oberheim Electronics founder Tom Oberheim and Sequential Circuits president Dave Smith. In October 1981, Kakehashi, Oberheim and Smith discussed the concept with representatives from Yamaha, Korg and Kawai. In 1983, the MIDI standard was unveiled by Kakehashi and Smith. The first MIDI sequencer was the Roland MSQ-700, released in 1983.
It was not until the advent of MIDI that general-purpose computers started to play a role as sequencers. Following the widespread adoption of MIDI, computer-based MIDI sequencers were developed. MIDI-to-CV/Gate converters were then used to enable analogue synthesizers to be controlled by a MIDI sequencer. Since its introduction, MIDI has remained the musical instrument industry standard interface through to the present day.
In 1978, Japanese personal computers such as the Sharp MZ and Hitachi Basic Master were capable of digital synthesis, which were sequenced using Music Macro Language (MML). This was used to produce chiptune video game music.
It was not until the advent of MIDI, introduced to the public in 1983, that general-purpose computers really started to play a role as software sequencers. NEC's personal computers, the PC-88 and PC-98, added support for MIDI sequencing with MML programming in 1982. In 1983, Yamaha modules for the MSX featured music production capabilities, real-time FM synthesis with sequencing, MIDI sequencing, and a graphical user interface for the software sequencer. Also in 1983, Roland Corporation's CMU-800 sound module introduced music synthesis and sequencing to the PC, Apple II, and Commodore 64.
The spread of MIDI on personal computers was facilitated by Roland's MPU-401, released in 1984. It was the first MIDI-equipped PC sound card, capable of MIDI sound processing and sequencing. After Roland sold MPU sound chips to other sound card manufacturers, it established a universal standard MIDI-to-PC interface. Following the widespread adoption of MIDI, computer-based Comparison of MIDI editors and sequencers|MIDI software sequencers were developed.
In 1987, software sequencers called trackers were developed. They became popular in the 1980s and 1990s as simple sequencers for creating computer game music, and remain popular in the demoscene and chiptune music.
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