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In earlier days of sequencing there was a great debate among those who thought that a sequencer should come on a floppy disk which you inserted into your computer, probably your Atari ST, and those who sang the praises of so-called hardware sequencers which were entirely dedicated to that task. Whichever you preferred, you would also have a drum machine on which you would probably compose your rhythm track and synchronise via MIDI clocks with the sequencer.
But as we know, hardware sequencers went out of fashion and we all acquired and upgraded our sequencing software to the latest version of Cubase or Notator, graduated from Ataris to Macs and forgot that there could ever have been an alternative. But all that was in the days when we believed in 'progress’ for its own sake. Now that music technology is reaching the latter years of its adolescence we realise that there is no one standard method of approaching a particular task. Some people will do it one way, some another, and some will adopt whatever technique they feel they need depending on the mood of the day.
I don’t think it hurts to emphasise the point that hardware sequencers are still valid. In fact they always were but many of us were seduced by large, bright and informative computer displays, and we thought that more information, more clearly presented, would necessarily lead to better music. This is a tempting assumption, but next time you are in a studio with a computer sequenced track playing, take a furtive look at the people around you. They will all have their eyes glued to the screen watching the cursor creeping across, giving that their full attention rather than simply listening to the music.
The computer screen is like a magnet, drawing your concentration away from what is really important. A piece of advice given sometimes given to aspiring orchestral conductors is 'the score in your head, not your head in the score’, meaning that you shouldn’t rely on looking at the printed music but you should have absorbed it and know it by heart. Hardware sequencers actually encourage this because you will only look at the display when you are actively doing something. As the music plays you will just sit back and listen. Another advantage of hardware sequencers is of course that they are portable.
Carrying a computer around with you from gig to gig or studio to studio is no fun, and there is always the risk of losing the dongle along the way. A third advantage is that when a piece of equipment is dedicated to a task, after you become sufficiently experienced in its operation your fingers will seem to know their way around the control panel without your conscious intervention. Once again, this allows you to pay more attention to the music, and that is what will make the difference between a good production and a merely adequate one.