Controllers: On a budget

You’ve got a case and power. You’ve picked out a few modules. But how will you interface with your system. Obviously, you interact with it via knobs and sliders and a cornucopia of patch points. But you want more. The two most basic options are sequencer or keyboard. One problem, cash is low, you just shelled out for all that hardware just to dip your toes in the sweet waters of modular synthesis.

There are two really great options:
1. The Korg SQ-1
2. The Arturia Keystep

What’s so great about these? You don’t have to burn money or space on a midi to CV converter. Each comes equipped with CV outs, Gate outs, and sync ins which can take a clock from modular sources. Furthermore, you don’t have to break the bank in order to get either. The SQ-1 will only set you back $100 and the Keystep $120. Either way, for a small price you get a controller that is ready to rock and roll with your new eurorack system. But, which to choose? Well, any Muffwiggler worth his salt would say both, and a Beatstep Pro. But no matter how die-hard the wiggler, we all have moments when we submit to (or are subdued by) fiscal responsibility. So, now we have to talk about choices.

The Korg SQ-1:
1) Caters to an exploratory, West-coast approach to sound design.
2) The built in quantizer makes it easier to dial in musical sounds. (Major, Minor, and Chromatic scales are available at the touch of a button, in addition to a linear (un-quantized) output.
3) There are a number of pattern options for both eight and sixteen step patterns. Including random. This allows you to create a set of musically related notes and moves through them in different ways. Musicality and variety, tied nicely together.
4) Almost all the functions are readily accessible on the front panel, via the mode and function buttons. Global parameters need to be changed using a special start-up process, but are not hard to change, and you shouldn’t need to access them constantly.
5) It takes USB power, or a pair of AA’s. It’s not only easy to power, but capable of getting out and about.
6) Downsides, the range is a little shy on the knobs, though you can work around this changing to 2v or 5v/oct. It only takes/creates one clock. If you run it as a dual eight-step sequencer, both channels move according to the same clock.

The Arturia Keystep
1) If you know your way around a keyboard the Keystep is a pretty obvious choice. Even if you’re incompetent like me, it’s not hard to learn some simple tools and tricks to help you along your way.
2) The Keystep comes equipped with an on on-board sequencer. It’s quick and intuitive to play a sequence and set it off to bring your patch to life.
3) Sequences can be transposed at the touch of a key, keeping things lively.
The Arpeggiator is another wonderful way to make a beautiful sound. Just activate the arpeggiator and hold down a group of keys (an arpeggio is just a chord played note by note). The hold function will keep the arpeggio playing while you go about other things.
5) Two capacitive strips give control over pitch and mod. Pitch can bring some sweet slide or vibrato. Meanwhile the mod output can be connected to any CV controlled parameter of your patch. It’s an awesome little feature.
6) USB power makes it easy to power up and play.

I’ve been using both of these for quite a while. The SQ-1 does provide that means to explore your way through a sequence. Beyond that, there’s a lot of little things you can find to do with it along the way, like blasting it with an audio-rate clock. While it’s fun to dig out the hidden treasures of the SQ-1, the Keystep lays it all bare for you you. Everything you could want is right there on the surface, and yours for the taking. If you can’t make a cool sound with keystep, you simply are not trying (or your patch has failed in some other way.)

So which one is right for you? You have to decide that. If you want to follow the path of discovery in your patch, the SQ-1 is absolutely the way to go. The versatility of the Keystep is hard to argue with, between keyboard, sequencer and arpeggiator. The keyboard experience is much more immediate and controlled. Whichever of those two speaks to you most, that’s where you’ll find your beginning. As always, if you have a chance to try them out, do so. Experience is an excellent informant when making decisions. Over time, I’ve wound up with both, and I’m not parting with either any time soon!


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