Seven Great Sequencer Moments

 

That fairly unassuming collection of knobs and circuits above is an analogue sequencer. A device created to allow a musician to…well, basically sit back and generally not do an awful lot. Simply put, each row of switches above is designated to one note generated by a synthesizer with the possibility to then build up longer sequencers of notes if needed that can be set to loop ad infinitum. Certainly, once sequencers developed in the ’80’s they brought with them a whole host of musical problems and woefully poor music. But, for a while in the ’70’s, they were COOL AS HELL!!! In a way, the sequencer fulfilled the roll of the fiqured bass in Baroque music, or perhaps more closely, the drone of the Shruti box in Indian classical music. In other words, it established a bed over which something else could happen. But, initially, the synth sequencer could also be the main attraction, so unique was this pulsating modulating sound. As with any great new discovery, it could also quickly become a musical cul-de-sac, but these examples below show the sequencer at its most inventive:

1. Pink Floyd – On the Run (1973)

Done using the rather cute little EMS Synthi AKS synth (pictured above), On the Run features a sped up 8 note sequencer pattern appropriately enough symbolising the pressures of modern life. I’m not sure what the earliest recorded use of a sequencer is, but you can bet that for many people this was the first time that they had heard, what was literally to become the future.

2. ELP – Karn Evil 9 3rd Impression (1973)

It has to be said that using a Moog Sequencer to illustrate the fear that technology could potentially one day get out of control was a stroke of genius on the part of Keith Emerson. Once the slightly low budget sci-fi song lyrics come to an end with a computer, in 2001 style, gaining the upper hand against humanity, the instruments fade out to reveal a very metallic and out of tune sounding pattern that slowly starts to increase speed to a point where the musical phrase is lost in a swirl of noise before finally cutting off abruptly as the record ends. The live version took this to even further extremes with the Modular Moog belching out smoke as the sequencer runs amok.

 

3. Todd Rundgren – A Wizard! A True Star! (1973) Todd (1974) Initiation (1975)

Whereas the German contingent (see below) would use the sequencer for steady, trance inducing pulse based music, Todd on these albums as well as with Utopia figured out that fast sequences could be used to spray psychedelic bursts of sound into the mix. The results are chaotic and disorientating, and must have taken hours of work to set up. Listen for example to the final moments of An Elpee’s Worth of Toons from Todd.

4. Tangerine Dream – Phaedra (1974)

After four albums of deeply experimental electro-acoustic music, Tangerine Dream got a bit of cash from Virgin Records and decided that a career in synth porn was the future for them (see picture). Phaedra is where it all begins with the very tried and tested formula of –  a few mins atmospheric noises/a few mysterious eerie mellotron chords….and then fade in the sequencer!! – which perhaps would get a little overdone after Rubycon and Richochet, but here still sounds wonderfully on the edge. The synth sounds a little like they’ve only just managed to get it to make those sounds too and it could break at any moment, which I like.

5. Klaus Schulze – Timewind (1975) through to Live (1980) 

A ridiculous amount of classic Sequencer patterns can be found on all of Klaus’s mid to late ’70’s albums, which work in a very similar territory to Tangerine Dream. My personal favorite is the opening pattern of Bellistique from Live,and on this and all the others Klaus uses a delay effect to create a greater rhythmic complexity from what were only relatively simple melodic shapes.

6. John Surman – Upon Reflection (1979)

Surprisingly, for a label that prides itself on its standards of acoustic recording clarity, ECM has many magical examples of early sequencer usage, made all the more thrilling for their being re-contextualised within the framework of non-electric improvisation. Surman’s first few records for the label see him developing an interest in synth loops as a backdrop for soloing or layering – an idea that he had been working on for sometime since before joining ECM.

7. Azimuth – first album (1977)

John Surman is to be thanked for my all time favourite sequencer moment, as he was the one who suggested the idea to John Taylor of using the Synthi AKS in conjunction with piano and the voice of Norma Winstone. Manfred Eicher made the additional suggestion of bringing on board Kenny Wheeler and thus the classic chamber jazz group Azimuth was born. There are two tracks featuring synth and both are equally worthy, with perhaps the ultimate moment coming around 2 mins into the Tunnel as swirling sequencer drifts in beneath the improvising piano.

Here at TFS the influence of these recordings can be felt particularly in the work of our ambient project Nunbient. For those interested, check out the latest download EP Pagans, which is full of strange drifting electronics of the kind that first appeared in the above recordings.

 


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Welcome to the Troopers For Sound blog, a place for our general thoughts on music and its related industries. Here you will find our monthly playlists and information on records which are expanding our musical minds. Essays on musicians and composers such as Frank Zappa and musings on what we have come to call Stomach Ulcer Music!

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