The SQ-1 is a simple step sequencer, released by Korg in 2015. As you can see, this is a simple black box. The most prominent feature on this device is what I call the MAIN KNOB, which is this big black knob on the left-hand side. Then, on the top you have the power button and a row of inputs and outputs which we’ll discuss shortly. Also on the left hand side you have a three control buttons (MODE, PLAY and FUNCTION), and two knobs (SPEED and DUTY). The SPEED knob is essentially your TEMPO knob and I’ll refer to it as the TEMPO knob from time to time, just for convenience. Finally, on the right side (and taking most of the surface area, we have two rows of knobs and two rows of knobs intercalated. This is were you “draw” your sequences. There is also an USB-B socket on the back for power and also to use this sequencer as a class-compliant MIDI device on your computer.
So, what is a step sequencer? Well, basically, a step sequencer is a device that reads the information displayed on a series of faders or knobs and sends it to a synth (or DAW). This is all that this little fellow does: it does not play a sound, it has no memory, it just sends the information you dial in using the sequencer knobs, one at a time (sometimes two at a time), at a given pace set by the SPEED knob.
About Sequencers & Connections
Sequencers started their way with the synthesizers, as a way to automate rhythmic components of a piece of music. Some sequencers had 8 steps, others 16, and more rarely you can see sequencers with 24, 32 steps. The advantage of 16 steps is that a four beat bar can be easily divided into 16th notes, which is perhaps the shortest note length among the common ones.
Originally, synths would output to types of signal: a Control Voltage (CV) and a Gate Voltage (Gate). The Gate tells the synthesizer that a note is being played, and thus triggers the envelopes and opens the amplifier. On the other hand CV tells the synthesizer which note (which pitch) is being played. As you can see on the top of the SQ-1, there are two pairs of CV/Gate ports on 3.5mm sockets, and we can use them to control some analogue gear, like Arturia’s MicroBrute (which I’ll be using in this series), or the MiniBrute, or almost any of the Moog synths, or an eurorack module, etc, etc…
In the 1980’s, communication between music hardware changed from analogue CV and Gate to MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. There are some advantages of MIDI over CV and GATE: you can send more information, it is a standardized protocol that everyone follows, and most important from a technical point of view: the different equipments are electrically isolated from each other, which avoids ground loops. MIDI is usually sent using 5-pin DIN cables, and to have MIDI out from the SQ-1, you have to plug an adapter that comes included into the second 3.5mm socket on the top.
Since many synths from the 1980’s onward already come with builtin sequencers and Arpegiators, sometimes, all you want is to have all your gear play at the same tempo, but not necessarily send sequencer data from one device to the other. Again, the SQ-1 has you covered: not only will it send MIDI clock information, it will also send a pulse at each step from the SYNC OUT port. By default, this SYNC port is compliant with the same standard Korg uses on the Electribes, the Monotribe, and the Volcas. Additionally, the SQ-1 can accept sync information from its SYNC IN port, which is nice, because, unlike most Volcas, the SQ-1 lacks a digital display that shows the exact tempo it is playing at.
Finally, the SQ-1 provides you with an output for the Little Bits modular synthesizer. This is essentially a CV and GATE output with a reduced voltage range that makes it compatible with the small modules that were released by Korg and Little Bits. Unfortunately, it needs a prototyping element that is not easy to find, and also, Korg now provides Little Bits elements that will accept standard CV/GATE or MIDI, making this port almost redundant. Last but not least, you can connect the SQ-1 to your computer via USB and use it as a class compliant MIDI device. This is great for recording your live performances, as the SQ-1 does not have any way to memorize and recall your sequences.
This takes us to the limitations on this device. And I think you should really pay attention here, because this device will not suit many musicians. The first limitation is, of course, the fact that it can only play a 16-step sequence, or alternatively two 8-step sequences at the same time. There is no save or recall function. Also, this device, like most sequencers from the 1970’s, is not buils as a precision instrument: it has some basic scale functionality, but ultimately you cannot know (except by ear) which notes are being played or at which tempo you’re playing. There is also no octave shift functionality. If you want any of that (and something more even), I’d recommend you to buy a Beatstep Pro. Having said that, the SQ-1 is fun to play with and capable of very interesting tricks we’ll discover in the curse of this tutorial series.
Basic out-of-the-box usage
The SQ-1 takes power either from 2 AA batteries stored in its insides, or via USB. You don’t need a computer to start using the SQ-1, so a simple USB charger will suffice for now. Connect a USB Type B jack into the back of the SQ-1 and the other end of the cable to your charger. Insert the charger into the mains socket. You can now turn the SQ-1 on.
Now, for the most basic usage, let’s have the SQ-1 control the Volca Bass via MIDI. To do this, you have to use the 3.5mm to 5-pin DIN adapter that comes with the SQ-1 and also a standard DIN MIDI cable. Just connect the adapter to the 5 PIN OUT socket, then use the MIDI cable to connect the SQ-1 to the Volca. If everything is using factory settings, the SQ-1 should be able to send a 16 step sequence to MIDI channel 1, and the Volca Bass will be listening on that same channel.
For an easy start, I’ll put all the knobs on the sequence all the way to the right. The Tempo and DUTY knobs will be at the noon position. With the MAIN KNOB all the way to the left, the sequencer will play in a zig-zag fashion alternating between the top and bottom row. Change the MAIN KNOB to the second position. In this mode, the SQ-1 will go though the top row first and then send the bottom row. I find this mode easier to deal with. Now let’s change the tempo to something more to our liking and play a little bit with the sequencer knobs.
This is it for now. In the next tutorials I’ll show the SQ-1’s functionalities more in depth, starting by it’s ability to play different Ranges and Scales.