What Does that Sequencer Actually Do? By Phil Huston
Ever been in that situation where the bass player has gone missing, or on vacation? Or maybe you're in a church that has a shortage of musically inclined volunteers? In the past I've made a big deal of playing well with others, whether as an accompanying musician, a member of an ensemble or even getting along with the sound system committee. In this piece I'd like to expose you to how much you can do by yourself with your keyboard, by choice or by necessity. I'm talking about the sequencer found on most keyboards here, and what you can do with it, and what it can do for you. In simple terms. So if you already fully comprehend your sequencer, you can skip this article, it's for the rest of us.
I know a pastor from a town so small it would have to get bigger just to get on the map. He has a great voice. He also has some friends of his congregation that drive 45 miles into the middle of nowhere from a college town to be his praise group on Sunday morning. The trouble is, his friends are gone in the summer. And, as it always happens, he got tapped to be the entertainment at a giant gospel picnic in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of summer, with no musicians. The rest of this article is about how the pastor, or you, or me can make a more joyful noise by ourselves than most of us deem possible.
The sequencer that is a feature on almost every keyboard manufactured is often overlooked. Mostly because if you are unfamiliar with the concept and try to read about it in the owner's manual, you'll bail. Immediately. It almost reads like a foreign language. There is either too much information, or too little. They assume we have a dictionary handy or already “get it”. So let's de-mystify the sequencer and put it to work for us.
First of all, a sequencer is simply device that will record a performance played on the keyboard. Not like an audio recorder, but as data. Think of it as a word processor for music. We play something. The sequencer records what we played just like a computer captures typing. Simple enough. The power of this simple concept is mighty, though. Consider that a sequencer is capable of recording multiple performances, with different sounds, and then playing them all back at once. In simple terms again, a sequencer is a series of “tracks”. Depending on your instrument you can have from 1 or 2 to 32 tracks. And here's the kicker: every one of those tracks is another musician. Think about it. You need to be a praise band at a gospel picnic by yourself in the middle of nowhere. Your keyboard has 5 tracks. You are now a five piece (or more) band. If you sing, that's 5 pieces with vocals! If you have 16 or 32 tracks, you're a full-blown revival looking for a place to happen!
Let's look at how to accomplish this with our sequencer. Our first example will be REALTIME RECORDING, where we play every track like we knew what we were doing until we get it right. Every track can have a sound assigned to it, so for the sake of simplicity, let's put a quartet together with bass, drums, piano and flute. We call up a sequencer track and select a sound for each track we want to record. Again, for simplicity, let's do this as we go along. Generally we'll push the sequencer button to activate the sequencer menu, select a track and a sound. Start with piano on track 1. Press record. We'll hear the metronome. If the tempo is fine, play. If not, adjust the tempo as desired and then start recording track 1 again. Play. When we're done, we hit stop. Select track2, and a bass sound. Record track 2. The same with drums and flute.
I realize that was simple in the extreme. Unless you are a seasoned professional, your timing may be off, there may be a few wrong notes. The easy thing to do is try to play the part as accurately as possible, note content getting top priority, unless you want to read deep into your sequencer’s editor, and that's for another time. For the sake of moving along, we're going to believe that the parts are in there, after an almost acceptable fashion. Now we get to discover and understand some basic sequencer tools and vocabulary.
Sequencers allow us to manipulate the data we recorded in a number of ways. The two most basic are QUANTIZE (fix my timing), and TRANSPOSE (put me in the right key). Quantize will allow us to shove notes into order based on musical math. For example 16th note quantize will take every note we played and shove it to the nearest 16th note. Notice I said “nearest”, and not” best”. If a note was way late it will get shoved further ahead than it should be. Too early and it will go backwards. Quantize is a handy tool, but like a wise man once said, “it needs to be in the ballpark to be playable.” Quantize will make a tight drummer out of a loose piano player (trying to be a drummer), get the bass part in sync with the drums and put a nice pocket together for playing more freewheeling parts over. You may not consider yourself a drummer. But you can be. Just don't try to play it all at once. Kick and snare. Then go back and add percussion, fills, whatever to flesh out the part. You may not be a bass player, either, but if you can read the chart, you can lay it in. Even by ear, keep it simple and straight ahead, it will work. TRANSPOSE is just what it says. It will allow us to transpose any track, or part of a track, by any musical interval we tell it to. In one case an organist I know had to supplement his trumpet voluntary on Easter because everyone had the flu. Rather than transposing all the charts, he simply read and played the trumpet parts into the sequencer as written (in their native Bb) and transposed them up a whole step to be in tune with the rest of the tracks and live musicians.
If that is all too confusing, if you can read sheet music, most sequencers will allow you to STEP RECORD. Step recording allows us to choose a note value, play a note, and the sequence will advance by the value of that note. Time consuming on the one hand, pretty much bullet proof results on the other. We can still edit as needed after the fact.
If you have a keyboard with built in accompaniment, you can have the drums record themselves, as well as any other accompaniment features along with chord changes. This is what the picnic pastor did, then went back and added an organ or piano track and some horn parts. Then he prayed and sang his tail off and ate more casserole and BBQ in one afternoon than is good for a Christian man on a hot Sunday afternoon.
Now, the real issue. Why learn to do all of this? Well, the two given examples, absolute necessity (no band, no flu shots). The other advantages to learning to sequence is that you can fill out a small ensemble, give yourself a backing group if you're always a soloist, pump it up for small churches who want a full blown sound, record the choir rehearsal parts when you know you're getting your wisdom teeth out on Wednesday. Store an entire service worth of material that someone can start and sing along with when no one is available to play. E-mail the file to a soloist called out of town on business until Friday so they can rehearse in Boise when everyone else is in the basement in Tulsa. Most of all, the sequencer will allow us to expand our musical horizons beyond being simply the piano player, or the organist. It will allow us to make a louder, bigger and ultimately more joyful noise. And that's the whole idea!
Phil Huston is a Christian musician and industry keyboard guru. If you'd like more in-depth information regarding understanding sequencers and making music with sequencers, you can e-mail him at: email@example.com
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