By Brandon Ivers
XOR Electronics’ NerdSeq is a tracker-based sequencer for Eurorack that looks far more intimidating than it actually is. Putting aside for a moment that the NerdSeq is a “tracker”, it’s one of the most competent sequencers I’ve used in hardware, and the community and developer behind it are fantastic. Whatever predisposition you might have about the NerdSeq or trackers or weird things with screens, I invite you to ignore them for a moment, because not only is the NerdSeq incredibly powerful, but it’s actually really fast to use once you get used to it.
If you’re not familiar with trackers, they are sort of like the first DAW for computers: at their simplest, they give you sampling and sequencing in a single, ultra-lightweight application. A staggering amount of great music was made on trackers in the late 80s and early 90s, particularly in genres like New Beat and Breakbeat Hardcore, and they have continued to be used in niche genres as trackers have progressed in complexity and features over time. The main characteristic of trackers, and perhaps the reason they tend to be so polarizing, is the sequencer. It kind of looks like a spreadsheet, with a series of columns and rows that represent a linear timeline that runs from top to bottom. The other thing that trips people up is that trackers often represent numbers or values in hexadecimal format, which can look a bit alien if you’re not used to it.
I last used a tracker when I was just starting to make music in the early 2000s, specifically with a Gameboy tool called LSDJ. So while I did have some experience with trackers, it was pretty rudimentary, and from a very long time ago. Even I was worried the NerdSeq was going to destroy my brain. However, after about 15 minutes, I was making patterns just fine. The workflow is really straightforward, and I would venture that if you’re used to modulars in general, nothing about the NerdSeq is going to be too difficult to understand.
Without any expanders, the NerdSeq gives you six channels of CV, trigger, and modulation outputs per channel, and a myriad of pattern, sequence, table, and FX tracks that can be used to modulate each other, create probability events, modulate internal LFOs, and all sorts of other arcane tricks. I couldn’t possibly get into all of these features in this review, but I will say that the tracker workflow maps onto modular very well as both approaches tend to focus on monophonic, heavily-modulated sequences.
There are two main views in the NerdSeq: the sequencer page and the pattern page. Think of the sequencer page like the clip launcher in Ableton Live: you can start, stop, and chain patterns together to create full songs or construct new arrangements by starting and stopping patterns manually. The pattern page is a more microscopic view into individual patterns you can create per channel. Patterns are where you input actual note data, pitch glides, note lengths, etc.
As an example, let’s say you want a three note arpeggio in Cm played repeatedly as sixteenth notes. In the sequencer page, move the cursor to a blank box and press ‘OK’ to create a new pattern. Then hit the pattern button, and on the left column, enter in C3, D#, and F in descending rows. On the final row, move the cursor over to the ‘FX 1’ track and enter the value “BRK 000.” Done.
So what did we just do? We created a simple pattern that told the sequencer to play three notes that we selected, with the ‘BRK 000’ command signaling the sequence to start over. Armed with even this small amount of knowledge, you can do quite a lot. And it’s really only scratching the surface. FX tracks, where you entered the BRK command, can do all sorts of amazing things like glide pitch across notes with specific values per step, create probability for just about any event that the NerdSeq can do [want to vary the pattern length 40% of the time? No problem], and output precise CV values [with a resolution of 4096 different values to represent 0 to 10 volts]. People often rave about the precision that sequencers like the Orthogonal Device’s Er-101 have, but you have a similar amount of control here as well, and with an easier to use interface.
The NerdSeq currently has two expanders that are pretty essential. One is a gamepad / MIDI interface, which lets you input and output notes per step via a MIDI controller or with a Sega Genesis gamepad [yes, really]. The NerdSeq has a live recording mode, too, so you can create a pattern and play notes in realtime and it will ‘record’ them for later editing or playback. There’s also a trigger expander that adds sixteen additional trigger outs and an additional drum editing page in the sequencer. I didn’t really play with that expander too much, but if you find you really don’t like the NerdSeq’s main pattern editor, the drum editing screen, is reminiscent of the WMD Metron or older DAWs’ drum editors.
Although you can use the NerdSeq in a simple and somewhat naive way, there’s a lot to explore here. In fact, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the NerdSeq in the few weeks I’ve had it—I haven’t even tried the two sample tracks yet [which have a whole other set of FX operations similar to old school sample-based trackers], nor have I been able to fully dive into the ‘automation’ section, which lets you create LFOs that can modulate just about everything in a pattern. In other words, this is a sequencer that I suspect I’ll be learning about for years to come, yet that exploration so far has not felt like a chore. As someone that has gone through many sequencers, Eurorack and otherwise, the NerdSeq is definitely a keeper for me.
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