Dec 7, 2007As the director of a Mac-based digital audio program for teens, I get asked often about software comparable to Garage Band, mainly for PC-based users. While some comparisons to Garage Band are inevitable in this review, it's clear that Sequel brings its own innovations and appeal to the world of entry-level music production software. With an easy-to-use and intuitive interface, a 6 gigabyte instrument and loop library, excellent on-board effects, and a top-notch MIDI editor, what more could a beginning musician need?
But Sequel also packs some surprises, most notably an arrange track and corresponding "Pad" - a great feature for quickly rearranging (and chaining together) sections of a song. Visually, Sequel has more breathing room than GB, where tracks in the "Arrange Zone" can be resized for more precise work. For looping and/or editing events quickly, Sequel uses a "Smart Tool" that interacts with an event, making any new user's experience extremely intuitive and just plain cool. And, users can also import their own loops into Sequel.
These are just a few of Sequel's features that make it a worthy contender in the beginning to moderately experienced music production domain. With a nod toward future enhancements, Sequel could easily be used as a great laptop sketch tool for more advanced users as well. Now let's take a closer look.
One thing that impressed me when first using Sequel's interface was the ability to resize the arrange zone and editors to fill the entire interface. This is a huge plus for Sequel's workflow, and clearly helpful for brand new users.
Sequel's main GUI is divided into three parts or "Zones" that resemble features found in other programs: At the top is the Pilot Zone, which in addition to hosting the project, automation, and edit buttons, shares space with the timing/tempo/tuning settings, and the transport. The bulk of Sequel is taken up by the main Arrange Zone, with the usual mute, solo, record, volume, and pan controls to the left of each track.
Similar to Garage Band, the lower part of Sequel, or the Multi Zone, houses multiple pages for access to Sequel's Media Bay (a browser for auditioning Sequel's instruments and loops), the track inspector page (with audio and MIDI effects and EQ), the mixer page, the before-mentioned arrange pad, and the hardware, file, and basic settings page.
Users can also change the overall color of Sequel as well.
|Getting To Work Quickly|
After setting up audio and MIDI hardware (see below), building an arrangement with Sequel's instruments is very easy, particularly for anyone unfamiliar with audio software. Tracks are created by clicking the new track button in the pilot, whereby a floating window appears with a list of instruments and/or audio settings. Sequel's included instruments offer an array of electronic and acoustic choices for almost any genre of music. Each instrument loads its own preset, but access to the sample settings is built right into Sequel (in the Media Zone) with easy to use controls.
Finding a specific audio or MIDI loop is also a breeze within Sequel's Media Bay. Here, a browser-like display allows the user to audition a loop before dragging and dropping it directly into the arrange zone. The bay itself packs a lot of useful features for sorting, filtering, and locating loops by genre, type, and beat. User media content can be located and assigned an attribute as well. Incidentally, a new project's tempo conforms to the "inherent" BPM of any first loop used on a track. Of course the tempo can be changed, and all audio and MIDI loops conform to the project's new tempo.
|Setting Up Sequel|
For anyone brand new to the world of digital audio - for whom Sequel was designed - the obvious should perhaps be stated that a compatible audio interface (with a mic and/or line for your voice or instrument) is a must. A MIDI keyboard is also required for playing Sequel's instruments.
For me, setting up that first recording session was simple, with the preference page recognizing all my connected devices and respective inputs and outputs (ASIO compatible audio required for PC - Core Audio supported in OS X). I recommend that new users take time to look over the manual's guidelines when setting up hardware, especially in determining the best configuration for optimizing their system. To that end, RAM is obviously important, as is disk speed, and the manual does a great job of walking the user through these various considerations.
When first recording an audio track, the same floating window with Sequel's instruments appears, displaying categories for audio track settings. In short, this window is where the user determines if the track is audio (for loops, recording and existing audio), or a Sequel (MIDI) instrument. While this list of categorized audio track presets is helpful (based on instrument, vocal types, and other sonic considerations), it's also possible to load a track without any presets at all (by holding down the control key).
Like most programs, the track controls are automatically listed to the left of each new track (record enable, solo, mute, volume, and pan). Because of their size, however, I found the wedge-shaped controls a bit fussy for precision (and I'm not fond of the monochromatic buttons used throughout Sequel either), though the scroll button on my mouse worked better than simply dragging. I also preferred using the larger channel slider in the track's inspector page.
Oddly, for recording with a click track, there is not a volume setting for Sequel's metronome, which is a bit piercing and harsh when counting in. I opted instead to use a drum loop. For increasing workflow, there are also key commands for just about everything in Sequel (the manual provides a helpful overview).
|Editing Made Simple|
Once an audio or MIDI track is recorded, arranging and editing is straightforward with Sequel's smart tool that interacts with the event itself. Essentially, the cursor changes when moving over a specific point in the event, displaying a snap line for cutting, a close symbol, a mute tool, or a loop indicator (for loop/repeating an event). Though not completely unique, I did fine this tool to behave more intuitively, than most I've used. I particularly like the way it detects logical points on an event for making splices (and of course any snap settings can be turned).
More detailed sample editing is as simple as double-clicking an audio or MIDI event (or clicking the button in the multi zone) which brings up a larger editing page. In this respect, Sequel has a lot more breathing room than Garage Band when resizing tracks, events, or an editor window, mainly because the arrange zone or editor can be raised to cover the entire interface. Moreover, individual elements can be resized vertically (compared to GB) as well as horizontally, and audio waveforms actually elongate for more precise visual reference. For those new to editing, being able to see the waveform is every bit as crucial as hearing it.
For fine-tuning the timing of an audio event, Sequel's sample editor page provides tools that determine whether an audio event should "stretch" to match a newly designated tempo, or retain its "original" mode. Beats can be quantized, and a more "human" swing feel can be applied. More advanced settings allow the user to manually adjust beats (by looking at the visual transients), though, as I discovered, this is relegated to the user's own loops since Sequel loops already conform. I found all of these time stretching options to be an incredibly versatile feature for an "entry-level" program.
I was totally impressed with Sequel's MIDI or "key" editing page that resembles a more expensive program (Cubase, for example), with color-coded bars that show both velocity and note value, a cc assignment lane, and the ability to display up to seven octaves at one time (on my monitor, when zoomed out and the window fully resized). Impressive.
It took me a minute to find the drawing tool (the alt/option key) as I'm used to a toolbox. Quantize settings, nudging, and legato and/or swing settings are applied by lassoing, then selecting buttons to the left of the editor window Alternatlely, key commands can be used for many editing tasks, and the manual provides an overview of these (as well as all of Sequel's key commands). Finally, the cc lane affects any selected notes using the pencil tool, and for beginners, this is also great way to learn the relationship of cc values to recorded data.
|Arranging As It Should Be|
Once I had laid down several audio and MIDI tracks, Sequel's arrange track – similar to that found in Cubase - really wowed me. Basically, this is linked directly to an arrange page, where individual sections of a song can be labeled, and then "located" into a pad-like grid for experimenting with different combinations. In short, sections can be rearranged without having to copy or move events, and multiple arrange scenarios can be created using the pad, with the color-coded squares working in relation to an alphabetized list that "chains" together various combinations. Try that in Garage Band!
|Effects, Automation, And Export|
Sequel includes a 3-band EQ, and a host of effects that can be applied to individual tracks, or globally (two sends per project), or as output effects on the master channel. When applying track effects, EQ, or MIDI parameters, Sequel keeps things really clean - and newbie friendly - with simple tabs displayed in the inspector page. These tabs respond by highlighting as the mouse moves over them, and once selected, bring up all the necessary controls relative to that selection.
Automation in Sequel involves engaging the automation parameter, and then selecting a knob or fader. This can either be drawn in with a pencil tool, or recorded in real time, though the one caveat is that you still have to use the mouse; Sequel does not have MIDI assignable functionality (hey, it's an entry-level program). Sequel does, however, provide a menu of options for "smoothing" out the intended automation, and this is really helpful in getting more precise curves from point to point.
For exporting the finished project, songs can be bounced to disk as audio files, or exported as an AAC file directly into i-Tunes. At this point, any notion that Sequel is going after the Garage Band crowd should be obvious, though clearly there are a lot of great features that GB should be taking notes on as well.
|Sequel's Sequel (A Wish List)|
While I'm impressed with Sequel overall, and would heartily recommend it to those starting out in music production, there were a few things I found myself wanting, including some features I've come to expect while working with students using Garage Band: ReWire support is currently lacking, so forget about slaving with Ableton Live or Reason.
There is no video support, and though arguably not an entry-level feature, it is standard in Garage Band, nevertheless - an especially important point for YOU-Tube driven teenagers whom I observe putting soundtracks to video all the time. As for virtual instruments, third-party VSTs (and AUs) are not currently supported. While Sequel's library is great for a lot of work, and packs some serious production tools when compared to comparable programs, it would be nice to use other virtual instruments, including Steinberg's own. It would also be nice to relocate Sequel's 6 gig library to another drive.
For advanced users pondering Sequel for sketching out ideas quickly, and then opening them in Cubase (similar to Logic users importing GB files), Sequel support indicates that plans are in the works for importing directly into Cubase Studio and Cubase 4.1. While bouncing out audio is currently an option, importing Sequel project files directly into Cubase would (presumably) retain all the automation, effects, and other settings as well.
|Installation And Other Considerations|
Installation involves an eLicense that works in conjunction with the License Control Center. If you own another Steinberg product, it's already installed, but may need to be updated. Sequel does not require a dongle, but is activated online via a code. There was confusion when trying to authorize, as the LCC wizard did not behave as indicated in the manual (though I knew how to solve this). An absolute newcomer to the quirky world of registration and authorization might be totally stumped on these small, but significant details. Incidentally, authorization is limited to one machine.
Sequel's manual is excellent. It doubles as a primer for anyone new to music production, with helpful hints, screen captures, and practical advice for things like audio levels, mixing, arranging, and applying EQ. In this respect, Sequel clearly recognizes its target audience, and does not assume the user has prior knowledge. In addition to setup scenarios, the Sequel manual also includes a reference chapter that functions as a great tutorial on effects in general.
Steinberg's Sequel is a welcome choice for those entering the world of digital music production. Though not necessarily a substitute for die-hard Garage Band fans, Sequel offers a feature-rich program for anyone getting started - on both a PC and a Mac. The instrument library provides a versatile palette of sounds, well-suited for new users. The loop library and editing capabilities are more than impressive. Other features, like the useful and clever arrange pad, make Sequel anything but "entry level." For the price, it's well worth taking a look at.
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