The Three Types Of Sequencers
Sequencers are music playback machines which can create a fun, often completely novel and real world environment for music students. A very common type of sequencer can be found in consumer level keyboards, like the ones in department stores that automatically play MIDI files for well-known songs. A sequencer does not play sound recording or an audio file, it essentially plays on-board or external synthesizers(s) to re-create the song anew with each press of the play button.
- Sequencing Keyboards
In the old days of sequencers I brought pro level synthesizers which always had some sequencer on board and usually loaded with lots of loops and drum tracks. This setup enables someone to record a bass line or rudimentary set of chord changes with a good solid grove and use these recordings (MIDI files) for purposes of practice, instruction or performance. The big problems were the user interface – the cryptic little screens on the devices and a steep learning curve. In retrospect, it really wasn’t very much capability, and didn’t really sound good by today’s standards, but at the time it was a home run.
- Dedicated Sequencing Machines
Later, companies began to make small boxes that combined a sequencer, drum machine, synthesizer and all kinds of pre-made, pre-loaded songs that could be sequenced (played anew by an internal computer) and played back through an amplifier or PA system. Again, for purposes of practice, instruction or performance it was as if a new day had dawned because every year these things began to sound better and better. Unfortunately however, the cryptic little user interface screens and difficulties in learning the machines were still there or getting worse and even more confusing.
- Sequencing Software
Software makers also created options for using a separate synthesizer, synthesizer module or small internal synthesizer found in your computer to enable you to use that computer and its speakers as a sequencer. For my money, the only choice in this area is a program called Band in a Box published by PG music.
In my studio, my computer is hooked up to a nice little PA system that I use to simulate real-world playing situations for my students using Band in a Box. Having a realistic and convincing virtual band to practice improvising, rhythm guitar and even songwriting and theory with makes teaching music very experiential and more meaningful and memorable.
The great thing about Band in a Box is that you can type a set of chord changes into a virtual lead sheet and the software will play those chord changes back with the sound of a full band in just about any style you could think of. If the parts generated or a little busy, funny, or too MIDI file sounding, strip a few of them away like the strings, or the fake guitar and you will almost always get a convincing accompaniment track.
The virtual lead sheet you created has a cursor that moves in real time across the chords as they are being sounded. This is great for jazz guitar students who are trying to learn not get lost in the changes and to play to play with the chord, playing more meaningful solos instead of simply buzzing one scale.
Finally when writing songs with band in a box you can explore different options, new keys, different cadences, different harmonic rhythms and a variety of other options simply with a mouse click. All of these changes are reflected on your computer screen in a form of virtual lead sheet. To me this means I can get more involved in the act of, in the art of instruction and encourage good musical thinking as opposed to having to play everything on the keyboard or piano and provide instruction over that very same playing. Using sequencers modernizes and streamlines my workflow by creating a real world and convincing musical environment whenever I need one. Below is a Band in a Box file i made and turned into a YouTube video (for home study, after the lesson), the animated play along screen is not the normal Band in a Box environment, but a special one used in the video.