Arturia has managed to bring back sequencing in a way that will appeal to the masses, not least because it looks, feels and operates like a pad controller.
Review: Mark Davie
Beatstep is yet another sign Arturia is right on the money with its product development… literally. The low end of the controller market is full of useful devices, but most aren’t very smart. Their buttons, knobs and flashing lights don’t advocate for your creativity, and often are made as cheaply as possible.
Beatstep reuses the hardware developed for Spark, and its metal construction, quality pads and detented encoders are well out of character for a controller in this price range. And importantly, it’s more than just a good-looking dumb surface, there’s some real smarts behind the looks.
IN THE RIGHT SEQUENCE
Sequencers have existed in modular synthesiser communities since the ’70s, but outside of drum machines, haven’t really made a dent in mass market hardware. Beatstep exists because Arturia’s VP of Product Management, Glen Darcey, wanted to bring step sequencing back in a big way. And the only way to do that was by making it small, accessible, and disguised in a form factor users had become more familiar with — pad controllers. The Beatstep, as its name suggests, is intentionally a hybrid device — half a pad controller, and half a step sequencer.
Darcey’s original drawings were more aligned with a traditional step sequencer — a pitch control knob directly above each pad. Thankfully the cost of PC board layering prevented the design. Because, although the 2 x 8 pad layout isn’t the more standardised 4 x 4 configuration, at least having them bunched together lets you have the best of both worlds — playing pads, and step sequencing.
Darcey obviously had a mind to keep the resurgent modular synth community happy too, with not only USB/MIDI in and MIDI out, but also CV and Gate outs on the side of the unit. It uses 1V/octave, so will happily interface with standard Eurorack fare.
LIGHT UP YOUR MODE
Beatstep flips between its two states using the CNTRL/SEQ button. Lit up red in CNTRL mode, the pads work as normal velocity-sensitive drum pads, and the 16 encoders can be set up to control any collection of MIDI parameters. I’ll dig deeper into how later. By holding shift and turning the large encoder, you can transpose the pads up or down in ±24 half steps.
In SEQ (Sequencer) mode, the button and pads light up blue, with blue representing the ‘on’ state of steps in the sequence pattern, and the corresponding encoders now adjust the pitch of each step. By flipping back to CNTRL mode while the sequence is playing, you can adjust filters, etc, with the encoders and play the individual pads.
The start/pause and stop buttons control the sequence, but while the pattern is stopped you can grab any encoder and adjust its pitch. As long as you’re turning the encoder, the note continues to play. You can also transpose the whole sequence up or down in ±24 half steps by holding SHIFT and turning the large encoder. Turning the encoder without holding SHIFT adjusts the rate of the sequence.
While the encoders offer a range of control possibilities, with a few button pushes, the pads have some unique onboard features too. Users can store and recall up to 16 presets/patterns, which are assigned to each of the pads; there are eight selectable scale settings, including a user-defined scale, which limit the range of notes a step can be pitched at; you can change the playback orientation of the sequence between forward, reverse, alternating and random; and adjust the step size between 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 and 1/32. You can also readjust the sequence length by hitting SHIFT+CHAN and selecting an end pad, but every time you adjust a pattern length or the step size, the sequence restarts. It would be nice for this to change after each pattern ends.
While you don’t have to use it, Arturia’s MIDI Control Center software gives the user full control over every parameter, scale note, pattern pitch, global pad velocity, knob acceleration and MIDI setting with a really simple GUI. You can also recall and store those settings in the 16 memory locations on the device. Beatstep also syncs backwards with Control Center, so any creations you generate on the fly can be stored as templates in the software too. You can store unlimited templates, which means you’re not limited to 16 patterns.
I say you don’t have to use the software because Arturia has already been updating the Beatstep’s firmware to include control over some of the global parameters from the unit itself; specifically gate, swing and legato modes. Now you just hold SHIFT while in SEQ mode and turn the first three knobs to edit those parameters.
There are a few limitations to the Beatstep, as you’d expect. One is that it’s only a 16-step sequencer — no flicking between A and B sections; there’s also no current way to adjust the velocity of the notes in a sequence; and there’s no tap tempo or initial BPM setting for different patterns if you’re not hooked up to a computer.
At the moment, for live use, if you don’t sync it up to an external MIDI clock or DAW, the potential for your whole song to go AWOL is pretty high. And it’s easy to miss a detent while tuning up between steps, or miss a pattern start if you’re changing step size.
Some might also be confused by the name and assume Beatstep would make for a great rhythm sequencer. But for drum machine sequencing you’re going to have to go for something more tailor made like Arturia’s Spark controller. You can’t simultaneously run multiple sequences assigned to different pads, the sequencing is more suited to melodic instruments.
While there are a few limitations to Beatstep, they’re mostly harsh criticisms for an extremely flexible controller. And Arturia has already shown a willingness to continually expand the controller’s horizons with firmware updates. Most people’s issues with the unit can be solved this way, the only omission in the hardware that would have been really useful is some visual reference of the pitch — even if it’s just the number of half steps you’ve deviated from the original pitch.
Overall, Beatstep is a great controller, at a great price. It’s a no brainer for any Eurorack owners looking for a cheap, capable sequencer. And if you’re on the lookout for a pad controller, adding a sequencer for the same price might just up your creative ante.