Choosing the best hardware sequencer for your style of music-making can prove more daunting than buying a synthesizer. If you’re not sure how it will fit into your workflow, it could end up as an expensive doorstop in your studio.
Fortunately, we’ll help you navigate the labyrinth of available options so you can select the perfect Hardware Sequencer for your needs. This requires digging a bit into the technical details of sequencers. If you’re an experienced musician who understands the technology and just wants to compare models, feel free to skip the next section.
Otherwise, read on…
Some Questions To Consider
Analog Or Digital?
There are two standard methods for controlling synthesizers and other gear. In the 1960s, Robert Moog developed a standard for his analog modular synthesizers, with a variable control voltage (CV) and a separate gate signal. It’s known generally as “CV/Gate.”
Most commonly, a one-volt change retunes an oscillator or filter by one octave (1 volt/octave). An alternate system used by some Korg and Yamaha synths is “Hertz per volt,” where a voltage change causes a linear frequency change.
A Gate is a constant voltage that turns an oscillator or amplifier or other module on. It’s sometimes called a “trigger,” although these are actually different functions in some cases.
CV/Gate sequencers work with classic, pre-MIDI synths and modern Eurorack modular systems.
And then everything changed…
MIDI was conceived in 1981 as a way for multiple synths and personal computers to communicate with each other. MIDI is a digital protocol that sends groups of numbers called “messages” to turn notes on and off or adjust Continuous Controller (CC) values.
One big advantage of MIDI is that it’s easy to make a polyphonic sequencer that can send multiple note messages in a row. By contrast, an analog output can only have one voltage at a time, so it’s necessarily monophonic.
Full-featured sequencers usually have both analog and MIDI outputs, but smaller ones may have only one or the other.
Is the Sequencer for Live Performance, or The Studio?
For studio use, it’s probably more efficient to invest in a larger sequencer with more features. On the other hand, for live gigs, portability and reliability are key considerations. If sequencers are crucial to how you make music, you’ll probably accumulate several hardware sequencers for different tasks.
How many Tracks and Outputs do you need?
If you plan to make a hardware sequencer the control hub for all your gear, then more tracks and outputs means you can control more devices and create more complex arrangements. But if you merely want to create rhythmic loops for a drum machine or melodic patterns for an external synth, a smaller sequencer takes up less space, costs less, and is easier to use.
Do you need Onboard Synthesis, Recording, And/or Sampling?
Many hardware sequencers include a sampler, multitrack recorder, and/or one or more synthesizer engines. This makes it easy to put together sequences with just one piece of equipment and to save everything offline for quick recall. Some even include a built-in microphone.
Also, sequencers with samplers usually include a library of free sounds, including drums, percussion, hits, and loops. More is better, of course.
How Playable is it, especially Live?
Older sequencers usually just played back pre-programmed patterns that you created before. But modern sequencers usually provide opportunities to interact in real time, changing patterns, playback modes, speed, stretching sounds, varying “swing,” and much more.
So it’s a good idea to look closely at the physical controls. Are drum pads pressure and velocity-sensitive? Are the knobs large and easy to use? How clear is the display, if any? Are all options available with one button press, or do you have to navigate a menu system to find what you want?
Now that we know what questions to ask, let’s look at some real sequencers.
Top 9 Best Sequencers in 2023
1 Korg CV Sequencer and Sync Box (SQ1) – Best Budget Hardware Sequencer
If you’re looking for a simple, inexpensive, but very usable sequencer, consider the Korg SQ1. Powered by USB or AA batteries, it’s mainly a CV/Gate sequencer with two output channels.
But it also includes MIDI Out to connect with modern gear. As a bonus, it also offers Korg’s proprietary sync in and out, enabling Volca owners to chain two units without using MIDI cables. And it functions as a MIDI to CV converter.
Choice of sequences and outputs…
With the SQ-1, you can send two 8-step sequences to different outputs, or combine them into a single 16-step sequence. So it’s great for executing simple ideas, but for most live performances, you’d probably want to own a few of them.
Features include reverse playback, Step Jump to any step, Active Step to turn steps on or off during playback, and Slide to change the voltage gradually between steps. Voltages are set with knobs, so they can assume any value within the specified range (1, 2, 5, or 8V).
Simple to use…
The SQ-1 is quite easy to learn. With a separate knob for each step, you can see at a glance what’s going on, and there are no menus to learn and navigate.
- Very inexpensive.
- Great for weird tunings.
- Easy to learn.
- Provides MIDI to CV conversion.
- Only 16 steps.
- No editing functions.
2 Arturia Keystep Controller & Sequencer – Best Value for the Money Hardware Sequencer
The KeyStep combines a full-function velocity-sensitive keyboard controller with a polyphonic step sequencer. With both CV/Gate and MIDI output, it can control both analog and digital instruments. The Slimkey keyboard has 32 mini keys and senses both velocity and aftertouch. A versatile built-in arpeggiator operates in multiple modes, including up, down, last played, and random.
Eight sequences can be recorded and recalled, and each step can include up to eight notes per step. Sequence length can be arbitrarily set from 1 to 64 steps. Tie lets you hold a note through succeeding steps, while Legato creates steps with voltage changes but no triggers between notes. Another useful feature is Real-time Record/Replace to edit sequences you’ve already created.
Practical and versatile…
In addition to MIDI Note output, KeyStep translates notes into CV/Gate signals, either Volts/octave or Hertz/volt, available at back panel connectors. Gate on/off can be set as a standard gate or a 5V or 12V trigger.
A third connector, Mod, can output MIDI velocity or aftertouch, or the value of the onboard Mod strip controller. Because CV outputs are monophonic, but the KeyStep sequencer can be polyphonic, a note priority setting lets you choose whether the lowest, highest or last note is output.
- MIDI and multiple CV outputs.
- Eight polyphonic sequences can be stored.
- Includes a full-featured keyboard and arpeggiator.
- Monophonic CV outputs.
3 Arturia BeatStep Pro Controller and Sequencer
Arturia’s Beatstep Pro is a three-track version of their original BeatStep. At its heart are two monophonic sequencers, each with up to 64 steps, with note, gate time, and velocity. There are also 16 assignable encoders for note or MIDI CCs. There are variable, probability, and random functions, and also a roller slider for stutter and rhythm changes.
Additionally, there’s a 16-track drum sequencer (one track per pad). The three sequencers plus the encoder assignments are saved as a Project that can then be saved and recalled immediately.
Great for live use…
You record sequences in real-time with the velocity-sensitive pads, or with the step buttons. Other performance effects include a touch strip-controlled looper, a randomizer, and swing settings. Projects can include up to 16 sequences, and 16 projects can be stored internally.
BeatStep Pro also provides MIDI In and Out via 1/4-inch connectors and USB. In addition, there are two sets of analog outputs for pitch and velocity CV and gate, one for each melodic sequencer, and individual gate outputs for pads 1-8 when the drum sequencer is active. The Pro can sync to external MIDI or analog clocks.
- Very intuitive layout.
- Three independent sequencers.
- Individual drum gate outputs.
- Sequencers are monophonic.
4 Novation LaunchPad Pro Mk III – Best Hardware Sequencer for Ableton Live
The first thing you notice about Launchpad Pro is its striking interface. With each column of large velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads on the 8 x 8 grid lights up with a different color. The new MkIII is the latest version of the Pro series; the Novation LaunchPad Pro 64 is also available at a reduced price.
Optimized for Ableton Live, Launchpad Pro can be quickly configured as a custom controller for any MIDI-compatible software or hardware. Eight custom layouts can be saved and immediately recalled. MIDI In and two MIDI Out ports are provided, as well as USB 2.0.
It features a four-track, 32-step standalone sequencer. Each track can have up to eight-note MIDI polyphony. Sequences can be chained and assigned to Scenes to build complete songs. Users can modify patterns on the fly with features such as Probability, Mutate, Sync Rate, and Play Order.
All this functionality comes in a very compact package that takes up very little desktop space, just 10.5 x 10.5 x 7.1 inches (268 x 268 x 18mm). All Novation products come with a generous 3-year warranty.
What’s in the box?
Launchpad Pro ships with a complete production bundle, this includes Ableton Live Lite, and a selection of plug-ins from Softube, AAS, Klevgrand, and XLN, plus a free two-month subscription to Splice Sounds, as well as a membership to Novation’s Sound Collective plug-in sharing program.
- 8-note sequencer polyphony.
- Large color-coded pressure- and velocity-sensitive pads.
- Two MIDI Out ports.
- Extensive software bundle.
- MIDI output only.
- No music keyboard.
5 M-Audio Controller with Step Sequencer – Best All In One Hardware Sequencer
M-Audio’s Trigger Finger Pro is a full-featured pad controller that’s sold as an all-in-one beat-making tool with its own Maschine-style software. But it also provides a standalone mode with a 64-step monophonic MIDI sequencer.
Sixteen pressure and velocity-sensitive pads trigger internal drum hits or samples, or external MIDI gear. Other controls include sixteen step switches, four assignable faders, and a set of transport controls for a digital audio workstation. Mackie Control and HUI protocols are also supported.
And all the sounds you’ll need!
Trigger Finger Pro ships with M-Audio Arsenal software, an intelligent production hub, and advanced content library, which includes more than 5,000 production-ready samples. Also included are AIR Drums, a virtual drum module loaded with a world-class library of drum and percussion samples, and the AIR Hybrid 3 high-definition synthesizer.
Additionally, you get Toolroom Records artist launch packs with over 2,500 instrumental loops, drum kits, and one-shots, plus an expansive drum and percussion library by Prime Loops, with 2,000 kick, snare, claps, and percussion sounds.
- Sequencer is easy to use.
- Large sample library included.
- Monophonic sequencer.
- Minimal sequence editing tools.
6 Pioneer Toraiz Squid DJ Controller – Best Hardware Sequencer for Live Performance
The Toraiz Squid is the first standalone sequencer from Pioneer, better known for its DJ gear. Built with the same robust quality as their mixers and media players, it boasts a host of attractive performance features and an intuitive, non-destructive workflow.
The top panel is dominated by a 4 x 4 grid of velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads. Six Harmonizer buttons let you create chords from single notes.
Program or jam…
The 16-track sequencer can record and play polyphonic melodic sequences and chord progressions. Each track can create up to 64 patterns. A total of 128 16-track projects can be saved internally. Phrases can be built quickly using the Step parameter knobs, which work independently for each parameter. You can play along with pre-recorded sequences using the performance pads.
Alternately, tracks can contain MIDI CC data to control external equipment. Up to five MIDI CC’s can be assigned to each track.
Connect to modern or vintage synths…
Hardware connections include not only USB-B, MIDI In, and a pair of MIDI Outs, but two CV/Gate outputs Clock In and Out as well as two DIN Sync ports. So it’s easy to control any vintage analog synths.
Other notable features include Running Direction, Groove Bend, which adjusts trigger timing to create unusual rhythmic variations, and Speed Modulation, which alters the playback speed.
- Polyphonic sequences.
- Large memory for project storage.
- Tracks can contain MIDI CC data.
- Significant learning curve to master its features.
- More pads would be nice.
7 Teenage Engineering OP-Z Sequencer – Most Creative Hardware Sequencer
Teenage Engineering does things differently. The OP-Z combines a sequencer with eight onboard synths and a sampler, though it can also serve as a 3D graphics and lighting controller. It has one mini audio jack for line out or headphones, and a USB-C for playing external MIDI gear, charging and file transfers.
All this comes in a very compact package, just 2.26 x 8.36 x .39 inches (57 x 212 x 10mm) box.
Control just about anything…
The OP-Z sequencer has eight audio tracks assigned to different components, such as kick, snare, percussion, or bass. Additionally, there are eight control tracks for effects, the tape recorder, lighting, etc.
Each track can be independently set from 1 to 144 steps long, so they loop at different rates. Even more, each track can play at its own tempo. Individual tracks can jump-cut back and forth irregularly and randomly, so a short sequence can sound different every time it’s repeated.
Also, playback can be 100 percent quantized, not quantized at all, or anything in between. You can automatically transpose entire sequences through a range of six octaves, into different scales.
On the front is a pressure-sensitive thumb button for pitch bending. And an internal microphone is activated automatically by an accelerometer when you lift the unit to your mouth.
Loads of sounds…
OP-Z currently comes with 12 internal synthesis engines, including bowed strings, clustered oscillators, piano, bass, and a PCM sample player. More options are expected with future firmware upgrades. Also included are 16 sample packs, providing kicks, snares, miscellaneous percussion, and effects.
It connects wirelessly to your mobile device, which acts as the graphic interface, including multi-touch. You can even snap a series of photos to sync to a sequence, creating an instant music video.
Performance parameters are controlled using four color-coded endless dials that are flush with the top surface. A series of ten numbered buttons serves as a music keyboard for note entry, and another two dozen or so specialized buttons handle all the other editing tasks. There are no velocity-sensitive drum pads.
If you love Teenage Engineer products, you may well enjoy our in-depth Teenage Engineering OP1 review.
- Amazing flexibility to create unusual compositions.
- Multiple internal synth engines.
- Built-in virtual tape recorder.
- Tracks are pre-assigned to specific parts.
- Not the best solution for controlling external equipment.
- Tablet or other mobile device is required.
8 Elektron Octatrack MKII
The Octatrack MKII is the successor to Elektron’s successful Octatrack DPS-1. Workflow has been enhanced with backlit buttons, high-resolution encoders, additional function buttons, and a smooth crossfader. The MKII also adds balanced audio inputs for more headroom and an improved 128 x 64 OLED display.
The sequencer provides eight audio tracks plus eight MIDI tracks. Each track has its own length and time signature, so it’s easy to create complex, evolving textures. Each MIDI track can include up to 4 notes with adjustable velocity and length, plus pitch bend, aftertouch, and up to ten assignable CC’s.
MIDI tracks function nearly the same as the audio tracks, including parameter locks, LFO modulation, and micro timing.
Effects and dynamics…
Parametric EQ, “kill EQ,” flanger, chorus, comb filter, and compressor can also be applied to tracks. And six LFOs are available – three each for audio and MIDI tracks – to further modify sounds. There’s also a MIDI arpeggiator.
Octatrack provides stereo main and cue audio outputs and a headphone out, with a S/N ratio of 104 dB and an output level of up to +17 dBu. MIDI In/Out/Thru and a USB 2.0 port are also provided, but no analog CV/Gate outputs.
Beats for a lifetime…
Two gigabytes of Loopmasters samples are provided on an included 16GB Compact Flash memory card. Additional sound packs are available from the manufacturer. Octatrack comes with a three-year warranty.
- 8 audio and 8 MIDI tracks.
- Two stereo outputs.
- Extensive MIDI control features.
- Three-year warranty.
- No CV/Gate support.
- Relatively expensive.
9 AKAI Professional MPC X – Best Premium Hardware Sequencer
The Professional MPC X is Akai’s top-of-the-line sampler/sequencers, and one of the most complete and full-featured sequencers available, with a price tag to match. Evolving from earlier Akai products, the MPC X includes a 10.1-inch 1270 x 800 multi touch screen and three USB 3.0 ports. It interfaces well with a computer but works well as a standalone unit.
MPC X has sixteen premium velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads that are RGB backlit. Knobs include a 360-degree encoder for value/data adjustments, sixteen 360-degree touch-sensitive Q-Link controllers for parameter adjustments, and seven traditional knobs for gain and mix levels.
Simple to navigate…
A sequence can contain up to 128 MIDI tracks and 8 audio tracks. The Step Sequencer, used to create MIDI tracks, utilizes the pads as step buttons to simulate the feel of a traditional step sequencer. The touch screen provides a graphic interface that makes it easy to adjust the velocity of each MIDI note.
Each track can be set to a different track length up to 999 bars. While all tracks play back at the same tempo, you can opt to set a sequencer tempo that’s different from the master. There’s also a Song Mode that lets you arrange different sections to build a complete song.
Tracks are connected to “programs” that route them to outputs. A CV Program converts MIDI track data to control voltages. Eight CV/Gate outputs make it possible to control several classic synths or other analog gear.
MPC X provides a comprehensive set of analog inputs and output connections. Inputs 1 – 2 are mic or line level with combination 1/4-inch/XLR jacks. Inputs 3 – 4 have both 1 /4-inch and RCA connectors and can accept a turntable or line signal. Analog outputs include a main stereo pair, six auxiliary outputs, and two headphone outs. Dynamic range is 114 dB.
The MIDI interface is similarly expansive, with two MIDI In and four Out ports. Two USB 3.0 ports are also provided.
MPC X comes with 10GB of world-class content installed, including CAPSUN ProAudio, MVP Loops, TOOLROOM, CR2 Records, Loopmasters and more.
- Extremely long MIDI sequences are possible.
- Hi-res display screen and 360-degree encoders.
- Multiple analog, C/Gate, and MIDI outputs.
Looking for more superb products to create some Fantastic Music?
If so, check out our reviews of the Best Vocal Mics, the Best Microphone Preamp, the Best DJ Mixers, the Best XLR Microphones, our Roland Juno review, and the Best Studio Headphones for Home Recording currently available.
But what is the Best Hardware Sequencer? Our Picks
We’ve already made it clear that the best hardware sequencer for you depends on many personal factors. Also, your best solution may be to own more than one, to get the best features from each.
With those caveats, here are our favorites…
Best Full-Featured Studio Hardware Sequencer
It’s hard to argue against the…
It can become the hub of your music production system, with no computer needed, or integrate seamlessly with your Macintosh or PC. It represents a significant financial investment but also performs the tasks of other gear you won’t have to buy.
Best Live Hardware Sequencer
Pioneer knows how to craft effective solutions for live performance, and the…
…is no exception. Packed with features, you should expect to take some time to learn it well and keep it in your arsenal for many years.
Best Cost-Effective Hardware Sequencer
Well, this has to be the…
…which gives you a real keyboard controller combined with a polyphonic step sequencer. With both MIDI and CV/Gate outputs, you can control analog and digital gear.
Finally, If you’re adding a hardware sequencer to an existing music setup, consider getting one full-featured multitrack sequencer for studio use and multiple smaller step sequencers primarily for live performance. This will give you a very flexible configuration, with maximum functionality at a minimal cost.
Happy music making.