Using a MIDI sequencer from the 80’s today

One of the good things about the ongoing hype for 70’s and 80’s music recording gear is – apart from the fact that a lot of old stuff is being rescued from attics and basements (and – shudder – the electronic recycling center!) – is that manufacturers of electronic instruments and other gear have understood that there were some good things about the old stuff that was forgotten in the steamroll of product development. Such as hands-on control, dedicated knobs, and so on.

This means that we now have the opportunity to get equipment that is up to new standards when it comes to displays, controls and usability, storage mediums, online capabilities and so on – but with the focused and direct approach of gear of yesteryear.

So, for the most part, there’s not much to gain anymore from using old gear unless it actually makes sounds! One exception is of course if you want to try out MIDI sequencing the old school way – there’s still not that many good options around. Most software sequencers have problems with lag and irregular timing when syncing up external gear, and you often have to resort to buying really expensive outboard gear such as the Innerclock stuff. Personally, I never try to control MIDI gear from my DAW, I just record them as audio tracks and sync them up afterwards, and if I want to free myself from the constraints of the piano roll and mouse, I just switch to Maschine which in my opinion is the perfect marriage of software and hardware for cranking out ideas and tracks.

Still, even Maschine doesn’t always work flawlessly with old MIDI gear. And this is one of the situations where it may make sense to try upgrading an old workhorse to more modern standards.

The operating system

Interestingly enough, the ASQ-10 has been allowed an extended life, due not in small part to the beatmaking community love for the older MPC’s. Thus, it made sense to Roger Linn (who was instrumental in the design of the original MPC’s, and indeed the concept of drum machines as we know it today) to launch an updated version of the internal OS of the MPC60 more than 10 years after its original manufacturing run. In fact, it can still be ordered here, and upgrading is as simple as opening the hood of your ASQ/MPC and swapping four IC chips. But should you?

If you’re serious about using your ASQ, considering the current price of $195 + shipping (as of 2015) my answer would be: Yes. Although the features upgraded are mainly focused on the MPC, why not take advantage of having the last (ever?) version and be done with it (it won’t hurt the resale value either). My refurbished ASQ had 3.10 already installed, which initially led to some confusion, as my original ASQ was running 2.xx, and there are some key differences.

Key differences between 2.xx and 3.10

OK, so the important thing to understand about 3.10 is that it was written for the MPC60, and works on the ASQ10 as a bonus. This means (unfortunately) that the MPC side of things (drums, sampling) has encroached on the sequencing. Thus, some things will not be of any use to us, and in a few cases things have become a little less accessible.

Syncing

Sync buttonThe [SYNC] button has been made useless. It now brings up the drum mixer button which we of course have no use for on the ASQ. Instead, all synchronization options are now found under the [TEMPO] button.

Tempo button [SOFT KEY 1] takes us to the familiar synchronization options.
Tempo button

This was initially infuriating to say the least. I lost count of how many times I accidentally hit [SYNC] to change settings, and I was always dumbfounded at first when trying to remember where the synchronization options were hidden. All sync options are present though, except Pulse96 which was removed in the upgrade. If this is important to you, you may not want to upgrade. We can still sync the ASQ via 1/4 clicks through the input jack, which is always useful – sadly it can’t output 1/4 clicks, so if we would like to for instance sync Korg Volcas, I guess you could use the METRO output? Hm, I have to test that.

Editing

Step editing has been improved – we now have CUT and PASTE! When you have stopped smirking, I tell you it’s actually very useful (and hard to imagine that this unit was actually created before cut, copy, paste became industry standard concepts!)

It is also now possible to move from event to event when in STEP EDIT mode, instead of just fixed increments. Be warned though: It’s SLOW! So slow in fact, that you will try it for novelty, and then promptly never use it again. Waiting for it to scan through unrelated events if you have even the slightest amount of modulation/controller data for each click will make you shrivel up into a plectrum.

Also, drum hits are now referenced by the infinitely more useful MIDI note numbers instead of MPC pads. This means that it’s actually useful to record MIDI drums as a drum track rather than a regular track. It can still be output to MIDI as usual. To supplement this, more extensive copy and edit event functions for drum notes have also been added as well as easier reassignment of MIDI note numbers.

Playback and recording

2ND SEQ ButtonThe [2ND SEQ] key now actually does something. I remember it as a mystery from the original software, not yet implemented to do anything useful. In 3.10 it allows you to select a sequence that has been loaded into memory to be played simultaneously with the current one. This actually creates a useful workaround; one of the things that makes the ASQ feel old at times is its inability to play back tracks of different lengths. But by using the 2ND SEQ function, you can actually create a looping short bassline or beat to work against while building up your song, something that wasn’t really possible before.

Other small tweaks include the possibility to have the metronome count in only when recording (the crowd goes ironically wild- but I used to get really annoyed by this omission, so thank you!) and of course you can now “just” punch in – or out.

But seriously, who uses punch in or out these days? I know this is a legacy from how multitrack recorders used to work back when we had to use tape (these days only hipsters use it for small studio recordings, and it makes for wonderful reddit fun to read questions regarding “surprising hiss” or “the pitch started to wobble during the take”. But I digress). The best option these days is to take advantage of the pedal inputs of the ASQ.

Foot Tapper

Metronome and Pedals

The foot pedal inputs are a stroke of genius. I just bought two really cheap and small sustain pedals, that I use to control Overdub on/off to allow me to practice any number of times before dropping into record – without dropping the beat. Having the Overdub switch on a pedal is a no-brainer, but the other pedal is less obvious. I have it control playback start (from the beginning) and stop, but that’s just me being a bit wary from remembering the [PLAY START] button failing on my original ASQ after years of wear. Sometimes it makes sense to bind it to TIMING CORRECT instead, giving you a way to enter stuttered notes through note repeat, or possibly ERASE, to be able to quickly remove offending notes on the fly.

This screen is accessed through the [OTHER] button by the way. There, I just saved you some frustration.

Some things had to go

HELP button

It sure was nifty back in the 80’s, having a sequencer so complicated that it incorporated a [HELP] button that explained parameters and concepts of each page as it was pressed. But to be fair, most of the things that had to be explained to users back then are common knowledge today, so it really was the right choice by Linn to reclaim the help text space for additional code instead. Sadly, I think an opportunity was missed out in not letting the [HELP] button act as MIDI panic – sending ALL NOTES OFF on all channels. But that can of course be achieved by hitting [MIDI] [4].

Just to emphasize how precious ROM space was, the little LED next to the [DISK] button that used to light up whenever the data was “dirty” – modified and in need of saving – has been brought out of service. What a shame.

Data transfer

Another aspect of the ASQ has been updated to modern standards – finally there’s a way to exchange sequences with a DAW. But I’ll save that to the next article!

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