A Brief History of the Computer Sequencer

Computer Sequencer - Reason 7

The Computer Sequencer or DAW has a history that is far longer than you’d think…

Using PCs or Macs for music, with a computer sequencer at the centre of operations, is so commonplace now, that it’s almost taken for granted. And, whilst it might seem that this technology is a product of our new, fangled world, it has a far longer history than you’d think…

Here’s a brief ‘gallop’ through some of its ancestry.

Computer Sequencer History -  The Barrel Organ

Barrel Organs (where’s the monkey?)

It might surprise some of you to find out that the modern DAW shares some of its genes with instruments from the 14th century. In this period, machines with barrels laden with pins that automatically played carillon were used. By the 15th century, the first barrel organs appeared in the Netherlands. These are the earliest recorded examples of automatic musical instruments.

Later barrel organs featured rolls of paper with holes punched into them, ‘telling’ the organ what to play. The piano roll was born. A visual representation of this is still the most common means of automating music on computer sequencers in the 21st century.

History of the Computer Sequencer - Raymond Scott's Electronium

Synth Sequencers

One of the, if not THE earliest example of an electronic sequencer was Raymond Scott’s astonishingly innovative Electronium.

Designed in 1948, and looking like a cross between something from The Forbidden Planet and ‘50s switchboard, the Electronium was way ahead of its time. Billed as an automatic composition machine, it combined a synth with tech that suggested musical ideas, counterpoints, and allowed the user to develop them further.

Raymond Scott also developed the ‘circle machine’ sequencer.

Amazing stuff. Crucially, Scott encouraged Bob Moog to look further than the Theremins he was currently creating…

Later analogue step sequencers offered the ability to sequence notes and play them via other analogue synths (Roland MC-8, for example). This was achieved by enter individual notes into (usually) sixteen steps, and saving them as patterns.

History of the Computer Sequencer - EMS Synthi

MIDI and Digital Sequencers

The development of MIDI was perhaps the watershed moment for the computer sequencer. This protocol, developed by Dave Smith and Roland, standardized the means by which musical equipment transmitted data, and talked to each other. Suddenly, the notes you played on one Roland synth, could be used to control any other MIDI-equipped synth.

This meant that digital ‘note’ data could be stored and played back via other means. One of the first digital sequencers predated this, however: the EMS Synthi, built in 1971.

 Fairlight Page R

Computer Sequencers

One of the first examples of a software sequencer appeared on the classic, and terrifyingly expensive, Fairlight CMI Series II synth in 1980. This was not only the first sampler, but also feature the onboard sequencer, Page R.

That hardware that truly brought the computer sequencer to the masses was the Atari ST computer. Why? It was the first (and I think, only) computer to feature standard 5-pin MIDI sockets.

Computer Seuqencers - Atari 1040STF

This coincided with the rise of two little known software developers: Steinberg, and E-Magic. Both produced sequencing software. Emagic’s Notator Logic became Logic, and Steinberg’s Pro-16 became Cubase. Both offered multi-MIDI channel interfaces, for true multi-part compositions , and control of racks of synths and other gear.

Computer Sequencer - Cubase VST 5

The modern DAW

It’s difficult to pin down when the computer sequencer of old became the modern DAW. Cubase Audio appeared in 1992, with a Logic equivalent arriving shortly afterwards. In 1996, Cubase VST appeared, offering virtual plug-in effects . this paved the way for what we hold as the modern DAW.

ReBirth RB-338

A special mention must go to Propellerhead’s Rebirth, however. Appearing in 1997, and providing accurate emulation of two TB-303 bass synths, and a TR-808 drum machine, this remarkable piece of coding gave a glimpse of what would was come, at a time when computer processing power was not yet able to deliver the full, virtual studio.

Propellerhead realised this dream later, with another landmark product: Reason.

Propellerhead Reason

If you look at this history, you quickly realise how spoilt we are, in this age of cheap software, weapons grade computing and free plug-ins. And in the modern computer sequencer, you have the ultimate compositional tool.

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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.