Back in the original heyday of analog synthesizers, analog step sequencers were an integral part of pretty much any studio—the kind that allowed artists like Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk to move beyond the traditional keyboard and introduce a new level of rhythmic groove to their music. Once MIDI arrived, the step sequencer took a backseat to computers and MPCs, which had more advanced capabilities. But with the recent renaissance of analog gear, many producers are turning back toward the simplicity and immediacy of the hardware sequencer.
Until recently, this was a fairly expensive endeavor. Low-end units like the Doepfer Dark Time and MFB Urzwerg cost almost $500 a piece, and high-end gear like the genoQs Octopus will set you back about as much as a small car. Late last month, the French music gear and software maker Arturia offered up what could be a truly disruptive force to this resurgent market when it released the BeatStep, a $99 pad controller/step-sequencer combo with both MIDI and CV capabilities.
In a video on BeatStep's origins, Glen Darcey, one of its creators, explains that it was first designed primarily as a drum pad controller using hardware found on their Spark hybrid drum machine. The sequencer functionality was added after the fact, when they realized the hardware layout they'd developed would support it. Therefore, it makes sense to start by talking about the controller. The bulk of the layout is taken by 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads sitting below 16 endless notched encoders. By default, the pads output MIDI notes to both the hardware and USB outputs, and voltage to the CV/gate outputs. The encoders, on the other hand, transmit MIDI CCs to the MIDI outputs only. The BeatStep can also output CV for the notes received on its MIDI input, which means it can act as a MIDI-to-CV converter in addition to a controller/sequencer.
To make changes to the configuration of the controller, Arturia created the MIDI Control Center application, which lets you configure the BeatStep in pretty much any way you can imagine. The pads can be configured independently to transmit notes, MMC, switched CC and patch change commands, and the encoders can do CC and NRPN (used by all of the DSI synths). These settings can be saved in any of the 16 presets available on the BeatStep and are easily recalled on the controller itself. Unfortunately, making changes outside of the MCC application is a non-starter. When in standalone mode, there is no way to change the octave or scale of the notes transmitted from the pads. In essence, this limits the BeatStep controller mode to non-melodic (drum) use, which is a bit of a shame.
Moving on to the sequencer, here again the primary controls at hand are those pads and encoders. As you'd expect, the pads toggle the 16 available steps on and off, and the encoder sets the note associated with each step. Setting notes can be tricky since there's no visual indication on the controller itself, but Arturia provides a few useful tricks to help you along. When the sequence is not running, turning an encoder previews the note for that step, and in my tests that proved to be the best way to set a sequence with a specific melody in mind. You don't have the luxury of stopping transport when playing live, of course, so Arturia built in the ability to constrain notes to melodic scales. This includes the usual (major, minor, dorian, etc.) as well a user-designed scale, and switching between them is as easy as holding the shift button and pressing one of the first eight pads. Interestingly, scale changes are not retroactively applied, so you could in theory enter the first eight notes in major key and the last eight in minor. Patterns can be stored and recalled in the preset slots as well, which could be another useful tool when playing live.
Once a sequence is running, there are a number of ways you can transform it. Pads 9 through 12 control the direction of the sequence, enabling you to switch between forward, reverse, alternating (forward then reverse) and random. The last four pads set the step size from quarter notes to 32nds, and again these changes are applied immediately. It might be nice to be able to quantize both of these transformations, but with a little practice, getting the timing right isn't too difficult. Finally, the sequence can be sped up and slowed down (when not slaved to incoming MIDI clock) and transposed using the large encoder.
When you consider the price, it's hard to justify a discussion on the shortcomings of the sequencer. Still, there are some worth noting. There is no way to specify note velocity or legato/slide within a sequence from the controller, two things that would go a long way in adding life to BeatStep's sequences. Swing and gate time are also missing, though they can be set from within the MCC application. Sequence transpose via the big encoder is nice, but it would be even better to be able to set the transpose using the pads (rather than trying to count the notched turns of the encoder). And it would be really nice to be able to record incoming MIDI (or the output of the controller pads) into a sequence. That's perhaps moving beyond the paradigm of a step sequencer and more into a traditional MIDI sequencer, though.
Oliver Huntemann, who is featured both on Arturia's website and the BeatStep box artwork, sums things up rather succinctly: "I hate complicated technology, and the BeatStep is as simple as it gets." I couldn't agree more. If you're looking for some feature-laden advanced sequencer, you're probably going to have to pay more than $99. But if you're looking for something that can infuse some of the analog sequencer variability and groove to your productions, the BeatStep can get you there.
Ease of use: 4.5/5