Open Source, Hackable Hardware Sequencer

We’ve been a bit spoiled by computers. Even as dedicated hardware sequencers have the appeal of tactile controls, they now have to compete with software capable of controlling a variety of parameters.

The MTRX-8, a boutique controller designed by French musician and engineer Julien Fayard, aims to squeeze that kind of editing control into a single piece of standalone hardware. Using interchangeable, open source firmware, you can adapt it to sequencing different instruments. The included Jam Machine firmware happily controls gear from drum machines to synths.

by Peter Kirn in De:Bug 179

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The form factor itself is beautiful. A sleek black acrylic panel and elegant LED rings and LCD make the machine look handsomely futuristic. Wooden side panels tilt up the unit, though they do make it harder to transport; it’s tempting to remove them. The open source ethos extends even to the case: while there may be advantages to custom housings, because these are laser-cut, you can download diagrams and print your own cases.

The MTRX-8 also provides flexible connectivity, with both class-compliant USB MIDI and MIDI DIN in and out, which can be used simultaneously. (A second MIDI out port would have been welcome, however.)

The one feature of the MTRX-8 that requires some adaptation is the jog wheel. On first glance, you might assume that the 4×2 matrix of controls ringed by LEDs are encoders. Instead, they’re buttons. To adjust parameters like pitch, you depress a button for each step and then spin the jog wheel. The wheel is high-precision and feels nice enough, but the arrangement does mean you need two hands to adjust each step.

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You’ll also be doing a lot of menu navigation in order to dig into the MTRX-8‘s sequencing powers. Four buttons along the top toggle between pages of steps, for 4 x 8 = 32 steps in total. The ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons on the left-hand side toggle between menu pages. In the step sequencer, for instance, they’ll page from settings like pitch and velocity. Holding down the fourth button on the top allows you to select control parameters from ‘Config’ pages. With seven pages on the step sequencer alone, it can become a bit easy to get lost.

Once you get your bearings, though, the MTRX-8 has an impressive set of sequencing tools. The default firmware for the MTRX-8, dubbed ‘Jam Machine,’ actually combines four different applications. There’s a general-purpose step sequencer, a drum sequencer, and two pages of controller features.

The step sequencer creates 8-step, monophonic note patterns. You can chain those together into longer patterns of up to 64 steps, with controls over direction (forward, backward, ping-pong), and store those patterns into 16 preset slots. Unfortunately, you can’t control multiple layers at once or add polyphony, making this best-suited to generating bass lines.

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The drum sequencer does add additional layers. It allows up to five voices, and with a fixed resolution of a 1/16 note, allows 16 steps to one bar. Chain up to eight sequences together for patterns of up to eight bars. You can quickly create roll patterns, on the quarter note, eighth note, or sixteenth note, and apply 16th-note swing.

The “Knobs” page turns the MTRX-8 into a control surface, with 4 banks of knobs each. You can also manipulate more than one knob at a time, holding down multiple buttons and turning the jog wheel.

For organizing all your presets, a fourth Presets app saves your work and lets you combine different patterns and knob positions across the three modes.

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The MTRX-8 isn’t a perfect step sequencer for every job, but when it comes to quick basslines and drum patterns, it excels. The Knobs even come with some useful presets, including the KORG volca series, Dave Smith Tetra and Mopho, and two other open source hardware products – the MeeBlip and Shruthi synths.

And it’s worth noting that the MTRX-8 combines nicely with both a computer and hardware. It can be a USB MIDI interface for a computer, or a standalone sequencer without one. Sync with a computer is aided by the use of a MIDI pattern, which you can load into software like Ableton Live.

The only real issue with the MTRX-8 is that you may find the button-and-jog wheel scheme limiting, and wish that you had more controls – and less paging through menus. But if your primary application for a step sequencer is fine-tuned control of dance patterns and bass lines, the MTRX-8 is a bargain.

Price: 249,- Euro

Fyrd Instruments

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