For this week’s patch, we’re introducing the concept (and practice) of generative sequencing. It’s a popular thing to do in the modular world, while being relatively unknown outside of that (at least until recently). So what is generative sequencing? In short, and generically as possible, it’s using random or semi-random tools to generate novel melodic sequences. (Of course, in modular it’s all just control voltage, so you can use the generated voltages in any way you like; pitch is simply the most common application.)
How does generative sequencing work, then? Without getting too deep into it (and this absolutely a rabbit hole), they’re generally based on a “shift register” which is like a series of sample and hold circuits on a clocked treadmill. At each clock pulse, a sample is taken and stuffed into the circuit; at the next pulse, that value gets moved into the next circuit and a new value is read into the first slot. This continues, and the value is read at the end point — that’s your output, a randomly generated melody. Here we have an example, sequencing our Fancy Monosynth patch from last week.
Now, what makes it semi random is that you can shape a lot of the elements of the process. For example, it doesn’t have to sample a value at every clock pulse. What if it flips a coin and only overwrites that slot if it’s heads? Or if you flip three heads in a row? Now you have a sequence that will only change intermittently, slowly evolving as new values get written to a register, each new value changing one note of the melody. Cool, right?
Now, if you like what’s playing, then what? Freeze it! All of these kind of generative sequencing tools (nearly all? it’s got to be all, it’s such a core feature, but modular is BIG, so who knows) have a way to freeze the sequence when you like what it’s doing. If you really like it, export it one way or another and write a whole song about it!
In addition to those core controls, various systems offer other options. You might be able to change what “random” values get sampled (or use non random values of some sort!), or transpose the sequence, or map it to different keys/scales/modes (and you can also add other modules to do some of those things, of course).
Here, in our example today, I have that little arcade button controller controlling the freeze (button 1) and an octave up (button 2) and octave down (button 3). With just those minimal controls I can “play” the sequence a bit. I can also reverse the sequence of gates that’s acting as a clock, and if I wanted to, I could turn some knobs on the 0-CTRL and tweak timing or add/remove rests. And the actual generative sequencer is the Ornament and Crime, running the Copiermaschine app, acting essentially as a clone of the classic Turing Machine module. (Getting into the nitty gritty is beyond the scope of this piece, but here’s a useful YouTube video tutorial, by someone else, for further study.)
Here’s an example where I let it evolve for a moment, then lock it in and play with it a bit by transposing parts of the sequence. (Still sequencing last week’s Fancy Monosynth patch.)
Ok, so why generative sequencing? I’m tempted to say it’s one of those “if you have to ask you’ll never get it” but that isn’t terribly helpful, or even necessarily true. I guess there’s a lot of reasons why a semi random but malleable series of voltages is useful in modular, and that will likely become apparent to you once you start tweaking knobs. It’s a great way to generate ideas, especially if you’re trying to break out of a rut. It can offer you a jam partner, whether you follow its changes, or let it run until you find a groove you like and then lock it in and play around it. Hell, it’s even used live by some brave souls, to generate techno melodies on the fly!
If you’re beginning to appreciate the beauty of generative sequencing, great! If you’re still not sure what the hell’s going on with it, it should become apparent over time. Simply watching it in use can resolve a lot of the mystery of what it does and why it’s useful; to get into the guts of how it works requires further study, but can be worthwhile if you like the technical stuff.
Video coming soon!