by ellison wolf
I’ve had this idea in my head for a while of a performance based rig, where every possible module lends itself to being played in real time. For the most part, there’s plenty to fill that case, but when it comes to the right sequencer—one where you can easily change step lengths, ratcheting, pitch, octaves, direction, sequence length, have multiple sequences running at once [independent of other sequences], speed up, slow down, etc., all while performing live without the need to do deep menu dives or stare at a screen for more than a second—the field is slim. That’s why, when Frap Tool’s new sequencer USTA was released, I was more than intrigued.
With a look reminiscent of the Buchla 250e DARF, USTA is an attractive module with a solid build, and the usual Frap Tools look of elegance mixed with mystery and bits of color. The controls are well spaced throughout its 38HP, and the interface in general feels spacious. At first glance, I thought USTA looked almost a little too uncomplicated, that there would be a lack of features as USTA isn’t crammed with knobs, sliders, jacks, LEDs, and buttons in every available crevice the way I’m used to seeing from feature packed sequencers. But USTA has more than enough options in store, with most features that you’d come to expect from a modern day complex sequencer, and with a gracefulness, a subtle fluidity to the physical design, that really invites a hands on experience.
The USTA manual describes itself as a “4x4 tracks [4 tracks, 4 outputs [CV A/B, GATE A/B] per track], variable-stage-length sequencer for voltages and gates.” In terms of physical features, there is a small five row OLED screen in the middle of the unit that displays information such as track name, tempo, pattern info, looping information, etc. On the right side of the unit is where the outputs for its four tracks—each with two CV outputs per track [A and B], and two gate outputs per track [again, A and B]—reside. There is a main silver encoder for global parameter changes, both a CLOCK and RESET/PLAY input on the top left of the unit for controlling USTA with external devices, and 2 CV inputs allowing for control of numerous track parameters as well. A PLAY/PAUSE button, and a RESET button are found at the bottom right and left of USTA, respectively, and there are 16 digital encoders—USTA’s main focus—arranged in an oval formation. Each encoder is ringed by 16 small square LEDs which show parameter values such as pitch, stage length, ratcheting, probability, etc., and each encoder also has a multi-color LED nearby, which shows the current setting for that stage/encoder. There is FINE and COARSE adjustment which will allow you to easily edit each of the encoders for precise adjustments, and a STAGE LOOPING feature that lets you loop certain parts of a sequence [up to 16 times] within the sequence.
USTA organizes its sequencing as follows: 16 stages make up a pattern, 16 patterns make a track, 4 tracks form a project, and you can have up to 32 patterns per track, with the ability to chain patterns [up to 512 stages]. None of this is out of the ordinary for modern digital sequencers, but notice when I was talking about how USTA configured, I did not call them “steps”, but “stages”. This is a very important distinction within USTA, as most sequencers use steps, where a step is defined as a one-to-one beat, so that with each pulse from the clock you get one step. This is different from a stage, which is variable in its duration while still being relative to the clock. USTA is a stage sequencer, and we’ll get back to this topic a bit later as it’s a defining point in USTA and has its pros and cons.
Continuing on, towards the bottom of the unit there are four buttons to switch between each of the four tracks, and buttons for each track’s CV A, CV B, stage length, Gate A, and Gate B. The CV and Gate buttons have multi-colored LEDs to signify what mode you’re in, something we’ll talk more about this a little later as well. USTA also includes an MicroSD card for storing projects. It’s on the back of the module meaning that if you want to remove it for any reason, you’re going to have to remove the unit from your rack. Some might not like this, but I didn’t find it to be a big deal, and wound up not needing to remove the MicroSD card anyway.
So what can USTA do? An awful lot. You can glide, ratchet, add probability for gate or CV for each stage, legato, swing, modulate destinations, have each of the four tracks run on its own tempo [or all on the same], add rests, use it in EDIT or PERFORMANCE mode, change scales, create variable stage lengths, mute tracks, hold a CV value throughout multiple stages [very cool!], create custom scales, use western tuning as well as non-western for micro-tonal capabilities, have each track’s CV out be quantized or raw, clone and/or duplicate parts/patterns/stages, start/stop each of the four tracks individually or all at once, and on and on. Frap Tools provides an excellent and detailed manual available for download on their website at http://frap.tools/products/usta/, and suffice it to say there simply is not enough room in this review to go over everything that USTA can do, or its myriad options. As such, I want to detail how I use USTA, and how it fits into my performance oriented case.
First, let’s go back to the “step vs. stage” difference. Unlike in a step sequencer, where the step length is fixed, if you double the length of stage 2 in a four stage sequence, it adds time to that stage, making the sequence length longer in terms of time as well. This is expected and normal, but it’s a bit uncanny if you’re trying to keep a beat/feel going. At the same time it’s an interesting and flexible option, one that opens up a lot of unconventional possibilities, both rhythmically and melodically, and really sets USTA apart from most sequencers. USTA deals with this time length issue via its COARSE button. When held down in conjunction with changing the length of any step [by turning its encoder], COARSE compensates for the length change by increasing or decreasing one or more of the other subsequent steps so that the integrity of the original sequence length [in terms of time] is intact. You can, of course, not do this and that’s fine, but this option provides a nice, easy way to keep your timing in check. Just don’t forget to hit and hold COARSE first! Using this COARSE function brings up a few issues too, and here’s my first wish for USTA if at all possible: an undo button. If you hit COARSE and on say, stage 4 [with all 16 stages in the sequence pattern being active] and turn the encoder to its maximum, so that all 16 LED squares are lit up for that encoder, all of the following stages will decrease in length in order to compensate and keep the initial sequence length intact. Where this becomes problematic is if you wanted to go back to the settings you had previous to changing stage 4. To revert and change 12 stages—that could all be different lengths—is a bit unnerving and time consuming [a real issue if performing] since you have to go to each of the stages one by one and adjust them [provided you can even remember what was what]. But how to do this while still maintaining that desired sequence length? Having an undo function—with various levels of undo—would help this drastically. It would also allow a for bit more freedom. If you really screw things up [on purpose or accident] you could be confident that you would be able to bring the original back safely. Even if the sequence was out of order, you could manually hit the reset button and you’d be in the clear. The way USTA is set up, you can quickly and easily clone patterns, stages, layers, which is helpful for creating variations of a pattern while maintaining the safety net of the original—just in case you get too far out to go back—as every edit in USTA is destructive, but still, an undo function would be great. Another thing, as it stands now, when you do hit the COARSE button, only the stages that follow the one you are changing are altered. It’d be nice to have the ability to choose whether you want the subsequent or preceding stages to be the ones that are compensating for the new stage length. Which brings me to wish #2.
USTA only goes in one direction in terms of its linear movement; forward. No reverse, no forward/reverse. There is a way to randomize a sequence [and have it go in reverse as well, but only randomly] by inputting a control voltage into one of the external CV ins, and scrolling through the main menu [via the main silver encoder] and selecting the correct input under STAGE SHIFT. It’s easy enough, and I’m glad USTA can randomize its sequences, but I wish it could be done in a quicker/easier manner and that USTA could reverse a sequence in a linear fashion, as I would like the ability to change things up and reverse a sequence, randomize it, twist it sideways [whatever that means, but I’d like to try it!], and then bring it back home. Another wish that I have is that as it is, it’s pretty cumbersome to change the number of active stages. To do this now, you need to go to a track’s stage length screen in EDIT mode, and manually get rid of each of the stage you want out of the sequence by turning the encoder counter clockwise, thereby making it so that each stage has a length of 0. Another way to do it is to go to one stage after the one you want the sequence to stop on, and in length mode hit SHIFT while turning that encoder so there are no LEDs lit around it, ensuring that all of the following stages will also have a stage length of zero. But what if I’m running a 16 stage sequence, and want to switch it just stages 4-9 [timing be damned!]? I...well, I probably won’t do it. Especially since I can’t easily go back [another vote for the undo function!]. Now, if I’m not thinking in terms of live performance, this can easily be done, but if I wanted to do this on the fly, not so much. It would be ideal if I could press down the encoders of stages 4 and 9, and that would tell USTA to only run that particular track from stage 4-9, and if I wanted all 16 stages back, I could hold down stage 1 and 16. Another thing that would/could be cool is if you could have assignable button combos to change parameters or functions. It would be a nice way to customize your workflow and make your go-to changes [like randomizing a sequence!], easier to do.
Moving on! USTA has a stage looping feature that I really like wherein you can loop part of your sequence [say, stages 3-6] multiple times before the sequence continues on, and this feature is easy to turn on and off. Switching patterns is also easy to do, and USTA switches—either permanently or temporarily—instantly or when the current sequence finishes. When changing patterns, you push on the encoder for the pattern you'd like to switch to, and this is a momentary change—it reverts back to the previous pattern after the newly selected one has finished its sequence. It'd be nice if you could press the desired pattern's encoder for more than a second, and that would make that pattern the default, because as it is now, to change to a new pattern permanently you need to do so by hitting SHIFT and SET and using the main encoder to make that change—not super hard, but a quicker, easier, more effieienct way to do so would be nice.
Adjusting the voltage for each stage on the fly is pretty easy, as well as the variation index, and variation range, gate length, ratcheting, and probability. Adding glide to a stage is as simple as pushing down that stage’s encoder so the LED is green [in EDIT mode with CV A or CV B lit up] and you can turn that off just as easily, by doing the opposite. A little trick I came up with was that by adjusting parameters for only one stage to have a large variable for value, variation index, and variation range, and having a value of one unit for the stage length, I created a Sample & Hold pattern. I’ve saved this one stage sequence in Track 4/CV B/Stage 1 for permanent use as a S&H, as I find myself using it pretty often.
When you consider all of the parameters that you can easily manipulate in real time, USTA is pretty amazing, and a sequencer you can really play. You just have to put in the time to get a good flow going so you don’t have to constantly refer to the cheat sheet, manual, or screen. One thing I haven’t mentioned is how easy USTA is to use in a non-performance setting. If you don’t want to do all of this parameter changing in real time, at a fast pace [I like to think], you don’t have to. USTA is absolutely great as a set and forget sequencer, and I found changing parameters for each stage via encoder waaay nicer than on other sequencers I’ve used where in order to change the same parameter on a few different steps [not stages!] it’s more of a process. USTA also has a COMPOSITION mode that you can enter when USTA’s not playing that enables you to configure longer edits, polyphonic sequences, and things you normally wouldn’t do in a performance setting.
Now, let’s get to the two things that I feel people might be apprehensive about concerning USTA: the color coding system and the implementation of button combinations. USTA utilizes a tricolor LED system, both for each encoder, and for the CV/Gate parameter buttons. For example, if I’m in EDIT mode on Track 1 and messing around with CV A, CV A will light up red for value [pitch/CV out], blue [variation index], and green [variation range]. Easy enough to remember, but since the same colors are used at each encoder to relay the mode that that’s in, depending on where you’re at, it can get confusing. My reference sheet helped with this aspect of the learning curve, and though I got the hang of it pretty quickly and was able to commit to memory which color means what and for what mode for the most part, I’m not ready to let go of my little cheat sheet quite yet.
The other thing folks might not like is the reliance on button combos. I still don’t have this down that well, and my sheet, again, helps out here. I don’t mind the combos—it’s nice that with a couple of buttons [COARSE + SET + SHIFT] you can change a whole pattern’s octave easily, or switch patterns [either instantly or at the end of the currently playing pattern]. I do find myself reaching for my sheet less and less the more I play with USTA. However, the thing about the multi-color LEDs and the button combos is this: If you leave USTA—even for a hot minute—you might [like me] forget stuff and have to reference the manual to refresh your memory. I’d love it—since USTA already has a screen—if when changing a parameter those changes would be shown on the screen in real time. If this were possible, remembering the color coding and button combos wouldn’t be as big a deal, and would make using USTA a lot easier.
If it seems like I’m being a little nit picky, it’s not because I don’t like USTA. On the contrary, I really like it ...I almost LOVE it. Almost. The layout, the encoders, the simplicity of the visuals, the fluidity...I think the architecture—all the [Frap] tools—is there to REALLY love it. Learning a deep sequencer is never a quick task—I spent many many hours playing with and thinking about USTA—and can be daunting, but once I put USTA in my performance case I never, ever, ever looked back. It really brings the performability that I wanted into my rig and is a pleasure to play. One of the things I’m excited about most is the day when USTA and I become one and I enter a Zen-like state where I no longer have to think and can just perform. It’ll happen. With something like USTA you just need to commit to spending the time with it, learn how it operates, and memorize it as best as you can; integrate it into your being. And if it’s possible that my USTA wishes [undo, sequence direction, screen help] can be implemented, it would absolutely make USTA my unicorn, holy grail, one-in-a-million, true love, desert island performance sequencer, but even so, I still adore USTA as it is.
36 HP +12V: 250mA -12V: 70mA