MTRX01

Sleek and black, sporting a high-resolution jog wheel, the MTRX-8 is a futuristic sequencer the likes of which you probably haven’t seen in hardware before. Even though it’s the product of a boutique DIY maker – France’s Fyrd Instruments, aka designer Julien Fayard – it’s eschews the usual homebrewed, retro aesthetics. And it’s not expensive, either; the launch price has been lowered to 199€ based on early demand.

It’s a MIDI sequencer, it’s a drum sequencer, it’s a performance-geared machine with quick access to presets, and it’s covered with quick access controls rather than confusing menus.

At last, it’s sequencer hardware that promises to supplant your computer, at a price that’s within reach.

And that’s just how it works out of the box. It’s hackable, too, with open source code inside, and bi-directional control of every last light. That could allow the sort of patch community that has embraced devices like the monome.

So, we naturally wanted to know more. And Julien has given us access to additional high-resolution images, and a long set of thoughts about how this design process came about. It’s something to fill the time until the September 10 release.

First, let’s talk specs.

The hardware:

  • Fourteen buttons
  • 2 banks of 8 knobs
  • 128 super-bright LEDs, across LED rings (for feedback), with different display modes for the rings
  • One high-res optical encoder (curious about this, having had conversations with monome’s Brian Crabtree about how tough it is – see the exceptional encoders on the monome arc)
  • LCD display
  • MIDI DIN (in/out) connectivity, plus USB
  • Black acrylic, glossy like the finish of a piano, with wood

The sequencer:

  • Eight steps (Clarification: with four presets, you could essentially have 4×8 steps for 32 steps)
  • Layers for pitch, velocity, duration, and octave
  • Speed and loop control
  • Drum sequencer with “60k patterns” across five parts (kick, snare, hihats (open/close) and percussion)
  • Drum roll rotary for each part
  • Random, swing, hard/soft hit and velocity controls for drums

Oh, yes, and everything, including those LED rings, is MIDI mapped and configurable. There are preset mappings for several instruments: CDM’s own MeeBlip, the other current open source synth offering, the deep Mutable Instruments Shruthi, plus KORG’s new volca series (beats/bass/keys) and the Dave Smith Mopho. (That’s a nice selection of very affordable instruments – and you could put together a couple of synths and this sequencer for less than the price of a MacBook Air.)

And then there are the sophisticated presets and sync modes. You can save and recall presets between sessions, and store separate presets for the dedicated step sequencer, drum sequencer, and knobs controls, in four slots each. Then you can “launch presets like clips in Ableton Live,” for additional live performance options.

In the sync corner, Fyrd promises tight (<2 ms) timings and reliable signals - meaning you might want to lock your instance of Ableton to this - in addition to conventional master/slave modes. And you can address each individual LED and display, programming them with MIDI, thanks to custom firmware.

There's even a Max patch inspired by the work on monome arc. So, this promises to be a very open-ended box for those who like the hardware setup.

This isn't the first Fyrd creation we've seen; see our coverage of the MCP, which can be seen as spiritual successor to this sequencer in some sense:
MIDI Control Platform: One Open Box, Any Notes, Harmonies, and Rhythms [Gallery]

Julien explains in great detail the thinking behind the project and how the implementation works:

It started a long time ago, as we wanted to create a bank of encoders a la [the Behringer] BCR2000 [rotary controller]. Our goal was to have a lot of high-quality controls without having to raise the price too much. We thought we could achieve that by replacing the costly encoders with standard push buttons, putting just one very high-precision optical encoder and addding LED rings to each of our buttons. The idea was simple: a button acts as an encoder when you pushed it, and data from the encoder movement are integrated separately for each button.

After some experimentation came the brilliant idea that buttons can also be used as buttons! :D So we had encoders, buttons, and LED feedback, and making a “simple” bank of knobs with all this hardware was a little deceptive. I have a lot of friends who bought the Meeblip, the Shruthi and alike and almost never used them because:
1) they are not keyboardists
2) they can’t read or write music and don’t know what to play in front of a synth
3) they don’t want to buy a MIDI interface and work with a computer (because they hate computers, because they are more hardware people, because… don’t ask me, I just can’t understand!)

So we decided to use all these controls we had to make a hardware sequencer. By this time, the MTRX-8 was a kind of hardware sequencer with a knobs bank. We thought this was great because you can control your synth sounds with knobs and use the sequencer to “play” them, a kind of “all-in-one” solution to use your synth and all its features. To push a little further the idea of an “all-in-one” solution to make music, we decided to add a second sequencer for drums: with drums, sequencer and some knobs, you have everything you need to start making music right away.

MTRX04

MTRX05

MTRX02

After that, we’ve just worked on the code and on the design of the device. At first we used 3mm through-hole LEDs but it looked ugly, so we decided to use SMD LEDs. Add some acrylic magic and, as you can see, the result is pretty awesome for an affordable boutique controller!

Working on the code, I had so many ideas, I needed to do some tests first. We first tried to program a kind of MIDI looper, but it takes a lot of space in the code and wasn’t so fun to use. After that, I designed a kind of bass+chord generator à la [Fyrd's own] Harmonic MIDI Generator, but with this kind of things you have to choose between narrowing the possibilities to keep it fun to use or create a wide range of possibilities and let the user tweak it a lot before it sounds good. Making a “classic” step-sequencer was the best idea for instant fun, so we kept that one.

For the drum sequencer, the basic ideas were there rapidly, but we kept refining the controls over and over again. Add randomization, add swing, add velocity controls, differentiate between hard and soft hits on our patterns, add more velocity controls (for soft and hard hits), add rolls buttons to create fills or tension in the drum track, add a different swing for each drum instruments…

We also put an innovative preset system with 3 slot types: sequencer, drum, and knobs. You can save your melodies, your drum patterns, and your knob positions separately. More importantly, you can recall them separately and create new combinations. Really fun to use!

One last thing we had to face during the development of the MTRX-8 was the inaccuracy of MIDI sync with DAWs, at least some of them (hum hum… Ableton Live for instance ;D) When we put some sync test on our device using [Windows utility] MIDI-OX for example, everything went good, with an accuracy of 1-2ms and almost no drift or jitter. On the contrary, we tested things in Ableton Live and results were awful, with Live acting as a Master or a Slave. I just couldn’t say to myself: “I’ve done a good job, that’s not my problem,” because users would try to sync the MTRX-8 with their DAW and they wouldn’t have great results. It would ruin all the ease of use we tried to put in the MTRX-8.

So I worked on a solution and came out with something I call the Fyrd Instruments Lock System. It works a bit like old tape sync. You have a clip in Ableton Live (the same thing applies to other DAW) that plays an ascending sequence of notes on 1 bar. You send this sequence of notes to MIDI channel 16 on the MTRX-8 and they’re interpreted as some sort of MIDI clock signal. There are two mains advantage with this method:

1) as each note in the sequence is different, the MTRX-8 can miss some notes without creating any drift. It’s like the better of MTC and MIDI clock worlds.
2) as Live seems to send out MIDI notes better than MIDI clock messages, the sync is rock solid and tight.
Problem solved! :D Ed.: Correction: This really doesn’t make any sense. Julien reports that he’s using 24 ppqn – that’s 24 messages for each quarter note – just as with MIDI clock. The note data is 3 bytes versus 1 byte for clock, so the density is greater. It’s a mystery. -PK

The last thing I want to tell you about the making of the MTRX-8 concerns its openness. Of course, the code of the MTRX-8 will be published and open-source. But we wanted more.

The LED rings around the buttons, the high-res optical encoder … this kind of combination of hardware is rather new and we take a real pleasure to create an interface for it. We would love to see what people can make with this, as we just can’t have all the good ideas about an interface or adapt an interface to each specific need. So we made a “special” firmware for the MTRX-8 (easily loadable via USB, like modules for the MCP) that gives user a total control on the hardware. You can read each button press, each encoder movement; you can set each LED, each character on the LCD screen, and all that just by sending or receiving MIDI messages. You receive Notes On when a button is pushed, CC messages when the encoder is moved. By sending CC messages you can access each LED individually or easily use some pre-configured LED ring mode (something like “fill the LED ring” mapping for values between 0-127). The same goes on for each LCD character.

As an example/template and for testing purposes, we made a Max patch using these features. It allows you to control 4 MIDI wheels, with speed, velocity and duration controls. It’s largely inspired by the work of Stretta on the [monome] arc (Electric Dharma Wheels) and a little by the work of MengQi [also for monome] called Autoharp.

By pressing a button and turning the encoder, you start spinning a LED around this button. Each time the lighted LED hits the bottom of the button, it plays a notes (coming from a kind of harmonic sequencer on the Max patch). When the LED spins clockwise, the notes are played at high octaves, whereas when it spins anticlockwise, the notes are played at lower octaves. Pressing button 1 and a MIDI wheel resets its phase. Pressing button 2 and turning the encoder clockwise will accelerate all the MIDI wheels until they’ve reached the same speed as the faster one. Turning the encoder anticlockwise slows down the MIDI wheels until they’ve reached the same speed as the slowest one. Pressing the button 3 and a MIDI wheel stops instantly this MIDI wheel. This patch can’t make acid bass lines but it is very fun to use! I’ve planned to make a video of this in use this weekend…

Thanks, Julien.

CDM will have a test unit soon; we really look forward to sharing some hands-on impressions of this one.

www.fyrd-instruments.com

  • Justin Reed

    i’ve been waiting for this!

    • abluesky

      Me too.

  • brent

    wow. looks awesome. meeblip sounds incredible too!

  • rgb

    16 steps! I want 16 steps! Why is there not one what-I-consider-afforable 16 step sequencer on the market? I would love for Korg to make one in the Volca form with midi in/out.

    • brent

      Ha. Yeah, I was going to say 16 steps as well, but I figure this thing is pretty cool looking as it is. Maybe in a mkII?

    • Vayner

      I’m wondering how the pattern cue works.
      They mention clip launching like in Live, but to what degree? Just quantized loading? Or something similar to follow actions so you could easily make even 64 step patterns?

    • dope

      8×2=16

    • Karl

      Hmm, given that there are “2 banks of 8 knobs”, I guess that suggests that it would (at least in theory) be possible to handle 16 steps, i.e. through a SW update? Any thoughts? It’s open source too, so…

    • Julien Fayard

      The problem I have with 16 steps is that it will not be “hands-on”. It will increase the number of menus to control the sequencer, you will not be able to see the entire sequence at a time and I can’t figure out a way to create an interface for loop control on 16 steps… So maybe a solution is to use the preset system. Instead of randomization, we can put something like “play the presets in order”. You save multiple sequences of 8-steps (easily tweakable) and it mimics a 16-step sequencer if you have just 2 presets saved (or a 32-step sequencer if you have 4 presets saved). What do 16-steps people think of that solution?

    • ak

      Hello Julien, thanks for the intervention :) (I should have also said, that I’m 99% sure i’ll buy this one soon!)

      I agree, it will complicate manipulation a tiny bit. All I meant (and presumably the other 16ers) was that the 16 raw layout of some classic drum machines would have been cool. In that domain, Arturia’s Spark and Spark LE are almost there but they aren’t stand alone instruments like your sequencer of course.

      This ‘play presets in order’ or ‘song’ mode would be very helpful.

      Also, how about a two (or more) page sequence option so one can deal with a 16 step sequence in a more uniform way? Something like an indicator on the LCD screen that will let you know you’re on a two page sequence (and the current page, as well as page look) would help. I terms of work flow it’s better to work on one long sequence and not creating two separate 8 step sequences and combining them.

    • ak

      I meant page lock.. i.e one way for it work would toggle automatically between the pages as the sequence run and one that would lock it one the page you would like to edit. I think on the Elektron instruments it’s fixed and you have to move pages in order to edit them and that works pretty well.

    • rgb

      I completely agree that it isn’t as hands on. Definitely what I would like is a 16 knob unit but your idea and ak’s ideas are good ones. Being able to chain 2 8 steps together and have the option of the display changing or not would be great. Even better, assigning sequences to each button and being able to change or chain them on the fly would lead to some very creative results. But this product does look great and I should have started off with that and not jumped to a negative remark.

    • rgb

      Additionally, have a hands on w/feedback way to control the step sequence on the MoPho makes that unit way more useful to me.

    • Bjorn

      Hi Julien,

      I have a suggestion to visualize up to 64 Steps: Rings of lower brightness signify bank. High brightness shows the step as it does now. This way you know where you are in a bigger pattern.
      One mode that follows the sequence, meaning that you can control parameters of the current bank while playing. Visual indicator of which bank you’re on may not jump until a parameter isn’t being tweaked anymore.

      And a mode that lets you use the wheel to scroll to other banks where you can modify the pattern.
      In this mode the bank lights would fade away after a second, so the step parameters are clearly visible. Once you start scrolling again, the bank lights pop up.

      Chaining presets could be done on the display. 8 preset numbers which can be changed at any time. So you can load those 60K patterns into any of the 8 banks which may or may not be playing at the time.

      This looks like fun. It definitely has all the controls you’d need. We only have 2 hands after all. I believe it can control bigger sequences without needing extra hardware and still be hands-on.

    • ak

      Many instruments/controllers can do 16 steps.. if you think of the 8×2 thing, hell why not 4×4? RGB i’m with you! I guess you should have said 16 steps à la 909.. A ROW of 16. That’s what we want. :)

  • Ross Healy

    can it do fwd/ bwd (pendulum) step sequencing?

    • Julien Fayard

      Nope but I add it on my “to do” list now… Thanks for the tip! Just for you know, I think I will program forward, backward, forward-backward and random…

  • crz

    Well done!Simply and smart way to match buttons and optical encoders.Great chance to hack it and develope software .It would be really fantastic has 16 steps!

  • Luke

    This looks great! Meeblip sounds good too.

  • Yanakyl

    God I haven’t read everything of that, actually nothing at all…But still, I’d say that in the last 5 years I’ve learn so much from you and your blog that I couldn’t thank you enough. Yes, thank you my friend, I feel like I know you while you don’t even know I exist.

    I love sequencers and those stuff; I am trying to make instruments that are sensible to touch and weird stuff that I know(feel), I am only on my sunshine but I’ll make my way through…Be it by music or making instruments.
    In the meen time I’ll thank you for your inspiration and I’ll damn you for making me think that I should do like others, but nethertheless(god english is amazing!!!! and google is my friend for that..) Thank you for making me know people’s stuff.

  • http://www.camelaudio.com/ Chris Sciurba

    Looks like a fantastic design, both cosmetically and functionally.

  • Heinrich Zwahlen

    Great review Peter. Saw it on de bug and was impressed already. This is really the most ergonomic hardware sequencer i’ve seen so far…but why would i want to ‘supplant my computer’ for something like this ? I could see myself using it along with my computer no doubt, but having worked with hardware alone for many years, i don’t understand the now so popular contempt of computers for electronic music making.
    Ok, a bunch of inexpensive hardware pieces will cost less than an Air, but how will you mix your track then in the end ? For someone on a budget, a computer with software is still the best option to get started, but using hands-on stuff is certainly fun and can make your music even better. Too much obsession with hardware seems to not give good advice to beginners when you look at all steps involved with music production. Computers and hardware work best in a symbiotic relationship for music making and i would use Maschine as the prime example to show how this works.

    • Julien Fayard

      Amen to that! I think Peter wanted to say that you can have a cheap alternative to a computer rig, based on the MTRX-8 and some synths. But I fully agree with you: you can use computers, you can use hardware or you can use both, at the end of the day what matters is the music you make. I agree with you again on the “mix” argument (this can only be done with computers). It’s just that not everyone makes music to create tracks. Some of us just want to jam, play, improvise or whatever. Music could be a nice hobby too! ;D

    • rgb

      I get the ‘wanting to work without a computer’ thing to a large degree. I write and (sometimes) finish songs in Logic and would not want to go back to a hardware sequencer for my creative heavy lifting. But I’ve also been getting in to more improv material lately thanks to the excellent community at electro-music.com. (If you haven’t been there, go, it is a great and talented group of people) For my improv stuff or when I just feel like playing for fun I use a mix of Logic and hardware. Logic is mostly providing clock, drums, effects and acting as a midi looper. Given the not-quite-there aspect of working with an iPad synced to Logic I’ve been hungry for a hardware step sequencer. Hardware just has an immediacy and you-turn-it-on-and-it-just-works aspect that can be missing from software.

  • Matthew Battaglia

    Does this send multiple sequences out at the same time (multitimbral)? IE can I sequence say a Shruthi, a meeblip, and a midi drum synth at the same time with each playing back a different seq on a seperate midi channel?

    • Julien Fayard

      Hello Matthew,

      You can send multiple sequences out at the same time. But there are some limits: you can send the step-sequence and the drum sequence out at the same time on 2 separate MIDI channels (like on the video for instance) but you can’t send multiple (different) sequences from the step-sequencer. It’s basically one step-sequencer and one drum sequencer in the same box.
      Oh, and you can send CC messages on top of these two sequences (step + drum).

  • wind

    this seems really cool but I would say having a rotary encoder on each button would be hugely more effective than having the single jog wheel for each one and pressing the buttons. I dont see myself using this to “tweak knobs” inside the synth by sending MIDI CC messages.

    • Andrew Shive

      As I understand it in the review, having a rotary encoder on each button would have been more costly. For the same price you can have the BCR2000 with crappy knobs or the Dark Time with good knobs but it costs twice the price…

  • Kevin Reynolds

    This looks awesome. As a guy that used hardware for years upon years and recently switched over to using Ableton because of power conversion and weight issues when traveling overseas this seems like a great companion. Can’t wait to get my hands on it here in Detroit :)

  • Julien Fayard

    I’ve just upload 2 new videos of the MTRX-8. The first one takes a look at the Max patch explained in the article. Crappy video editing but you’ll get some ideas on what the MTRX-8 can do with Max/MSP, PureData etc. Here is the link:

    http://youtu.be/mkYUDV6qmk4

    The second one show you a workaround for working on more than 8 steps. I know it’s not an ideal workflow but don’t forget the MTRX-8 has not been created to be a hardware step-sequencer only but rather a complete jamming machine! Same crappy video editing by the way ;)

    http://youtu.be/Z2Tee_A8gd0

  • demetriusb

    I ordered one. This is the sexiest thing that I’ve seen in a long time. The interactivity in the video was what sold me. Just being able to create sketches quickly is fantastic.

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    • Salvatore Porcaro

      Best comment ever! :D

  • pockets

    this looks amazing – very inspiring. can patterns be chained together to form a song mode?

  • Hummel

    Most important question for me is: Has the sequencer swing? You always talk about swing on the drums, but the note-sequencer?

  • Thero

    Can I play the odd rhythms like 5/4, 3/4, 7/8 or 11/8 with it and play polyrhythms?

    And can I control a bar length in real time?

    For example, on Volca synths and electribe this possibility realized by functions named ‘last step’ on electribe and ‘active step’ on Volca series

    I would like to see a similar function in MTRX

    • Robin Parmar

      Yeah, this needs answering. Essential in order to consider this.

    • Fyrd Instruments

      Hey guys! I’ve stopped following this discussion, so sorry for being late to answer!

      The Jam Machine interface has 2 different kind of sequencer, one for the drum and one “classic” step-sequencer. The drum sequencer don’t have “active step” feature and thus can’t play off rhythms. The step-sequencer has a kind of “active step” feature that allows to play odd rhythms. It’s a loop length selector actually, but you can choose to play 7 steps or 5 steps…

      The new SEQ X4 interface (available for free) has an active step feature: you can enable/disable as many steps as you want in each 32-step sequence.