The advent of computer-based DAWs very nearly put an end to the market for hardware sequencers. For years, manufacturers stubbornly refused to put out anything even remotely resembling a hardware sequencer, setting their sights on the growing number of computer-savvy musicians and producers instead.
But hardware sequencers have since come back in a big way, and they are now more popular than ever.
Check out this rundown of some of the best hardware sequencers currently available, along with some noteworthy “blasts from the past”.
The Best Hardware Sequencers are…
It’s difficult to say which hardware sequencer is the best, because a) there are so many different models and features sets to consider, and b) everyone’s needs are different.
What it all boils down to is that the best sequencer is the one that works the way YOU want to work and provides you with the features and capabilities you need to get the job done.
That being said, we’ve narrowed it down to three sequencers that offer near-unbridled power and versatility. They are all fun to use as well, which goes a long way in inspiring creativity.
First up is the Akai Professional MPC X (Sweetwater/Amazon), which is the Big Daddy of Akai’s hugely popular MPC line of standalone sampler-sequencers. Bringing together many of the elements that have made MPCs studio and live mainstays all over the world, the MPC X also packs in a wealth of modern features that bring the familiar MPC workflow to the future.
Like the best of the MPCs, the X lets you do almost any sequencing task you could want to do without a computer in sight. It does interface very well with computers, allowing you to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do with say, the classic MPC2000. But if you want to take the computer out of the equation, the X lets you come up with full tracks better than any other sequencer out there. And with the included MPC 2.0 software’s audio track recording and time warp features, this is undoubtedly the most powerful MPC ever.
Up next is Squarp Instruments’ Pyramid, which is a somewhat minimalistic 64-track sequencer that is ideally suited for crafting polyrhythms. The Pyramid combines a unique sequencing engine with the cutting-edge features of modern DAW environments. Although available only direct from the manufacturer and a few select dealers, the Pyramid packs so many unique and interesting features that it deserves a place in anyone’s wishlist.
In terms of sequencing capabilities, the Pyramid has a lot more in common with a software DAW than a typical hardware sequencer. Instead of the row of knobs commonly seen in analog sequencers, you get an interface that is better suited to live and step recording.
The 64 polyphonic tracks are impressive, but what’s even more so is the Euclidean sequencer engine that lets you cook up a bewildering array of polyrhythms and polymeters. If you’re interested in going beyond the limitations of traditional grid-based sequencing, the Pyramid is pretty hard to beat.
Our third pick for best hardware sequencer around is the Elektron Octatrack MKII (Sweetwater/Amazon). Elektron is known for some of the most jaw-droppingly advanced electronic instruments on the market, and the Octatrack MKII is arguably the best of the lot. An eight-track sampling workstation/sequencer that combines powerful real-time pitch shifting and time stretching capabilities, it stands alone as far as hardware sampling workstations go.
This spot could just as easily be occupied by other Elektron boxes such as the Digitone and the Digitakt (which we review below). All of them boast of outstanding sequencing and sound shaping features, but the Octatrack is something else entirely. It could create otherworldly textures from any sample material, and its deep features could make you lose days and days in a rabbit hole of sound design. If you are looking for a sequencer that isn’t quite like anything else on the market, the Octatrack should satisfy your deepest creative urges.
The Top 10 Best Hardware Sequencers
Akai Professional MPC X Standalone Sampler and Sequencer
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The Akai MPC X is quite possibly the biggest and baddest MPC ever. Anyone familiar with the MPC’s formidable history knows that any new addition to the line will have to be pretty special to impress hardcore users. By all accounts, it seems the MPC X lives up to the legacy, bringing an array of features that even the most die-hard MPC fanatic wouldn’t have dreamed of only a few years ago.
Like the best of the MPC line, the X has 16 of the best velocity-sensitive pads you could ever use. These pads are crucial to the MPC experience, allowing for a uniquely intuitive workflow that has driven countless hip-hop, house, and techno tracks.
But the X is more than just a classic MPC in a flashy new exterior. It also boasts of a 10.1” multi-touch screen, practically every type of analog I/O you could possibly want, serious MIDI capabilities, and even eight assignable CV/Gate outs.
The MPC X is a standalone DAW in the truest sense of the word, allowing you to perform complex operations while being untethered from your computer. With the MPC 2.0 software, the X provides a world-class sequencing experience that will rival the best DAWs.
Squarp Instruments Pyramid
Squarp’s Pyramid lets you break out of the tired, old 4/4 rhythms that are the bane of creative musicians everywhere. A surprisingly powerful and versatile sequencer, it has an impressive 64-track count, which means it could handle even the most intricate and complex productions.
But where the Pyramid really shines is in its ability to crank out polyrhythms like a champ. It has a somewhat conventional sequencer that you will probably use for the bulk of your sequencing work. In addition, it has a unique Euclidean sequencer that lets you craft exotic polyrhythms and polymeters with minimal effort. This capability is usually seen only in the most specialized modular sequencers, so having it in a portable and relatively inexpensive box is pretty impressive.
Every one of these tracks could contain notes, chords, and Euclidian patterns, and also automation events. Hook up a couple of well-spec’d multi-timbral synths via the two MIDI outs and the CV/gate out, and your only limit is your imagination.
Admittedly, the Pyramid is quite a complex machine. The sparse interface and the small number of buttons may cause a bit of head-scratching as you try to plumb its depths. But your persistence will definitely be rewarded with some of the most unique-sounding sequences you’ve ever heard this side of a full modular system.
Akai MPC Live
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The MPC Live is another addition to the proud Akai MPC heritage. It shares many of the same features as the MPC X, but it is different enough to warrant inclusion in this roundup.
While the MPC X is more of a studio workhorse that could easily serve as the command center of your rig, the MPC Live is better suited for standalone use and live performance. It is similar to the previously-released MPC Touch in many ways, with its remarkable blend of touch and physical control elements.
Like the MPC X, the Live also works with the MPC 2.0 software, which gives you a complete DAW/loop creation environment that rivals the best dedicated programs. While the Live can be used as a very respectable controller for your DAW, it offers nearly identical workflow and performance capabilities in standalone mode.
Those who cut their teeth on the classic MPCs such as the 2000 and 3000 should feel right at home with the MPC Live. By all means, go with the MPC X if you need a command center for your MIDI production studio. But if you want 90% of the features of the MPC X in a more portable package at around half the price, the Live is the way to go.
Elektron Octatrack MKII 8-track Performance Sampler
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The original Octatrack took the electronic music world by storm when it was released in 2011. An eight-track sampler-sequencer with unique sound-mangling features, it was pretty much untouchable in its niche for many years. Even today, the Octatrack is considered the epitome of advanced sample twisting on the hardware front, eclipsed only by the MKII version.
The latest Octatrack still has eight audio tracks, eight MIDI tracks, and the best sample stretching and pitch shifting features you could find outside of a computer. The unique Elektron workflow has been augmented with performance-friendly features such as backlit buttons, high-resolution encoders, and additional function buttons, and arguably the smoothest crossfader in the business.
The Octatrack MKII also adds new balanced audio inputs that give you more headroom, and a better OLED screen.
In many ways, Elektron’s own Digitakt pushes many of the Octatrack’s concepts forward and adds some new enhancements of its own. The Digitakt is also considerably cheaper than the Octatrack MKII, which may encourage some users to go that route instead. But for unbridled creativity and the ability to mangle samples in unique and endlessly inventive ways, the Octatrack is still king.
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The Digitakt is marketed as a digital drum computer and sampler, but it really is so much more than that. One of several very capable boxes in the respected Elektron stable, it adds some serious sequencing capabilities to its sampling drum machine functions.
Even if you use the Digitakt solely as a drum box slaved to the rest of your MIDI rig, its price tag is easily justified. There are extensive programming, editing, and modulation features onboard, and you could even store up to 1 GB of your own samples.
But it doesn’t end there. In addition to the eight tracks driving the internal engine, the Digitakt also has eight additional sequencing tracks that can drive external MIDI equipment. This makes it a pretty respectable brain for your MIDI rig, with the added bonus of a powerful and versatile sampling engine.
Samples don’t have to be limited to drum and percussion sounds either. The editing features enable you to warp audio into unique and interesting-sounding melodic material. Although not quite in the realm of the Octatrack, the Digitakt’s sample editing capabilities make it way more than your average drum box.
If you like the Digitakt’s performance sequencer and workflow, but prefer to use synth voices instead of samples, look into the Elektron Digitone. Instead of the Digitakt’s sampling engine, the Digitone has a flexible and great-sounding FM synth engine with eight voices shared by four parts.
Korg Electribe 2
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The Korg Electribe 2 (E2) is part of the third generation of the celebrated Electribe line, which includes such classics as the ER-1 drum machine, the ES-1 groove sampler, and the second-generation Korg EMX-1 music production station. The E2 is descended from the EMX-1, with a multi-timbral polyphonic sound engine that includes an assortment of synth and drum sounds.
The E2 boasts of more than 400 analog modeling and PCM sounds, 16 filter types, 16 velocity-sensitive pads, and a comprehensive effects section. Each of the 16 parts can be routed to the internal sound engine or to external MIDI devices.
Like the EMX-1, the E2 is a self-contained unit that could easily handle entire songs. It could also serve as a very decent MIDI sequencer for any other hardware synths that you care to use.
You can record parts into the E2 in real-time via the pads or an external MIDI controller. You could also enter notes in step-time in a similar manner as Roland’s X0X boxes. This is a quick and intuitive way of working, allowing you to come up with slamming grooves with minimal effort.
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Novation entered the groovebox market in a big way with the release of the Novation Circuit. A compact and deceptively simple-looking box, it bears a striking resemblance to Novation’s Launchpads and Launch controllers. But underneath its exterior are a four-part drum sampler and two synth engines based on the company’s groundbreaking Nova analog modeling synthesizer.
The Circuit also has a versatile and surprisingly powerful sequencing engine. It has six tracks that are assigned to the two synth parts and the four-part drum section, each of which could be routed to external MIDI devices as well.
The synth and sampler engines in the Circuit are quite capable, if a bit unremarkable. The synths do sound very decent, which should come as no surprise to fans of Novation’s hardware synth offerings.
But the real surprise here is the sequencer. It allows you to go in and out of recording and playback modes on the fly, which is an especially handy feature for live performance. It also has eight switchable patterns for each of the six tracks, allowing you to create a good number of variations for every part.
Arturia Beatstep Pro
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Arturia’s Beatstep Pro is a three-track version of the Beatstep, which is a simple monophonic sequencer that brought CV/gate step sequencing to the masses. The Pro offers a similar workflow and adds a whole lot of sequencing and connectivity options besides.
One of the most notable enhancements to the Pro is the ability to sync to external MIDI or analog clock sources. As cool as the original Beatstep was, it was severely hamstrung by being limited only to MIDI clock sync via the USB port. With new MIDI and analog clock I/O, the Beatstep Pro could sync up or clock most any piece of equipment in your studio.
Doubling the number of melodic sequencing tracks is also widely seen as a good move on the part of Arturia, as is the addition of a dedicated drum track. Furthermore, all tracks now go up to 64 steps, which is a far cry from the meager 16 steps provided by the Beatstep O.G.
You can use all three tracks to send data to any MIDI-equipped device you wish. But what makes the Pro so appealing is its analog triggering capabilities. Apart from analog clock sync, it also sends CV/gate from the two melodic tracks, and six gate signals out of the drum track. For users of analog gear and modular systems, the Beatstep Pro is a welcome addition that doesn’t come with a steep price tag.
Pioneer DJ Toraiz Squid
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Pioneer is much better known for its DJ gear than its musical instrument offerings, but the Toraiz Squid might just change that. A multitrack sequencer that has a host of excellent performance features, it has a look and feel to it that makes it seem primed and ready to blow up stages and dancefloors.
For a sequencer that seemingly came up out of nowhere, the Toraiz Squid boasts of some pretty savvy connectivity options. It can control a roomful of external gear via USB and MIDI, and even CV/gate and DIN sync.
The Toraiz Squid also impresses in the sequencing department, with 16 tracks that can record and play back melodic sequences and chord progressions. No strictly monophonic lines here unless you want them; the Toraiz Squid is just as capable of producing fully-fleshed out songs as any dedicated sequencer.
The live setting is where the Toraiz Squid really shines. You can play along to your prerecorded sequences on the 16 performance pads and create numerous variations from your basic patterns on the fly.
Other notable features include the Groove Bend, which adjusts trigger timing for interesting variations to the rhythm. There is also a Speed Modulation feature that alters the playback speed of your sequences to create unique grooves that you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
Teenage Engineering OP-Z
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Teenage Engineering is a bit of an oddball in the music production world. Among its most popular offerings is the OP-1, which combined sequencing, sampling, and even an FM radio in a portable box. As small as the OP-1 was, the OP-Z is even smaller, coming in at around half the size. Even with its compact dimensions, the OP-Z manages to pack even more amazing features and DSP processing capability than its predecessor.
Like the OP-1, the OP-Z combines a sequencer with eight onboard synths and a sampling engine. But it could also be used as a controller for 3D graphics and lighting systems, making it so much more than your average synth-and-sampler groovebox.
The OP-Z has 16 tracks, each of which can be assigned to audio or control functions. Each of these tracks could be set to different speeds and different lengths, so the potential to come up with unique variations and outlandish polyrhythms is virtually endless.
The sampling engine means that you don’t have to be limited to the onboard sounds. You can grab bits and phrases from the synth tracks or use the four-track virtual tape machine, which is one of the most appealing features of the OP-1.
Like Elektron’s Octatrack, the OP-Z occupies its own unique niche in the hardware sequencer world. There truly isn’t anything else like it (apart from the OP-1), but its sequencing, synthesis, and sampling capabilities make this a serious music production tool that deserves consideration.
Older Hardware Sequencers Still Worth Considering
Realistically, you could find nearly everything you are looking for in a hardware sequencer among the latest crop of offerings on Amazon, Sweetwater, and the like. But there are several discontinued boxes still worth considering, despite being available only on the secondhand market or NOS listings on eBay and Reverb.
If you are in the market for hardware sequencers that still pack serious punch and great value despite their slightly dated features and capabilities, you might want to keep an eye out for these:
Korg Electribe EMX1
From the second-wave of the massively popular Electribe series, the EMX1 and its sampling counterpart, the ESX1, are still considered some of the best grooveboxes around. They feature an onboard synthesis engine and a drum sampler respectively, so each essentially does the job a standalone music production station. They also have excellent sequencing capabilities, with the ability to drive a small army of MIDI modules and synthesizers.
Akai Professional MPC1000
You really can’t go wrong with almost any Akai MPC, but the MPC1000 is a fairly recent model that is still powerful enough to serve as the brain for a modern MIDI rig. It is also one of the smallest MPCs ever produced, so it will fit right into a more compact set up.
Of course, being an MPC, you also get onboard sampling capabilities that make it ideally suited for all your beatmaking needs.
Roland’s MC line is one of the earliest entrants into the groovebox arena, beginning with the MC-303 and the MC-505. The MC-909 and the MC-808 came out much later, but they both greatly expanded on the functionality of the earlier MC machines with an onboard sampling engine, more advanced programming and editing features, and even motorized faders!
In some circles, the MC-909 is still considered the pinnacle of groovebox technology.
Yamaha RS7000. The RS7000 built on the features and capabilities of the earlier RM1x, which was a pretty respectable hardware sequencer in its own right.
The RS7000 updated the RM1x’s somewhat bland and unimpressive sound engine with an improved sound set and groove sampling features similar to Yamaha’s underrated SU700 sampling groovebox. The result was a powerful standalone music production system that many hardcore sequencer users still regard highly to this day.
E-mu also threw its hat into the hardware sequencer arena in the 1990s, with a trio of boxes offering similar functionalities with different sound sets. The XL-7, MP-7, and PX-7 each focused on a different segment of the market: dance, hip-hop, and general/pop music, respectively. But the sequencing capabilities were second to none, even with so many hot new grooveboxes having come out at around the same time.
Unlike some other boxes of the era, the EMU line actually sounded pretty good. And the X-Mix feature, which allowed you to mix in a track from another song into the currently-playing one, is still a useful and fondly remembered feature to this day.
How to Choose the Right Hardware Sequencer
Choosing the right hardware sequencer can be a daunting task. There are so many different models, specs, and features that it can be challenging to pick one that is suited to your needs. But you can narrow your list considerably by knowing what particular features and capabilities do and how they can assist you in your music-making.
Number of tracks
Traditionally, the more tracks a sequencer had, the better. More tracks allowed you to control more devices, resulting in fuller and lusher productions. Many modern sequencers still provide control over a good number of tracks, but the advanced capabilities of today’s breed of sequencers enable you to do a lot even with a smaller track count.
Sequencers that combine sequencing and synthesis in a single box can make music-making a lot more fun and convenient. Many grooveboxes are essentially all-in-one music production systems, allowing you to create full tracks without any other piece of equipment.
The ability to sample or import external sounds can open up your sonic palette considerably. You can use your own custom drum samples, for instance, incorporate found sound and dialog, and sample real-world instruments. Even if your sequencer already has onboard sounds, being able to sample the outside world can supercharge your creativity.
Most older MIDI sequencers simply played back MIDI tracks that the user preprogrammed or recorded beforehand. But many sequencers now allow for a lot more interaction and live human input, with features such as pattern switching, different sequencer modes, and probability based and generative features. More than just MIDI playback systems, the best sequencers allow you to record and alter sequences on-the-fly, and play them almost like you would an instrument.
Ease of use
The most advanced features and capabilities won’t mean a whole lot if the sequencer isn’t easy to use. Step sequencers are generally the easiest to use, but most won’t let you sequence chords or multiple tracks. Of course, there are also multitrack sequencers that are very easy to use after you have familiarized yourself with the architecture and workflow.
Here’s one way to make sure all your bases are covered: get a multitrack sequencer and as many step sequencers as you need. Your multitrack sequencer could then handle the bulk of your sequencing duties, while the step sequencers let you program monophonic lines and drum patterns quickly and easily. With the right combination, you will have a powerful and versatile sequencing base to build on.