Standalone sequencers are something of a luxury in the modern music-making landscape. These days, even the cheapest synths and samplers have at least rudimentary sequencing capabilities. And while many MIDI controllers have on-board sequencers, they’re usually meant to back up live performance rather than replace it. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule (Arturia’s BeatStep Pro remains incredibly popular even eight years after it was introduced), but you have to start looking into the complex and often intimidating world of Eurorack and modular synths to regularly come across devices whose sole purpose is playing back strings of notes for you.
Eventide, best known for its high-end effects units like the and TimeFactor, is not an obvious candidate to delve into the world of Eurorack. But that’s exactly what it decided to do with , its first sequencer. Now, nobody would have blamed the company for playing it safe with its first foray into the space. Instead, it decided to chuck the usual conventions out the window and make something unique that is equal parts fun and confounding, especially if you’re deeply entrenched in traditional music theory and keyboard-based composition.
I am not an adept pianist. Nor do I have a particularly deep knowledge of Western music theory. And even still I initially struggled to wrap my head around Misha. That’s because the buttons on its face don’t play specific notes. Instead they play intervals related to the last note played within a scale.
The easiest way to explain this is through an example. Let’s say we’ve set the Misha to play a C Major scale. Below the screen, which shows you the key and scale, are nine colored buttons labeled -4 through +4. If you press 0, you get a C right off the bat, because that is the root note and it is zero intervals away from the start of the scale. If you press the +1, instead of getting a C#, you’ll get a D, the next note in the scale.
So far, so good, right? But if you press the +1 again, you won’t get a second D, and instead you’ll get an E, one interval higher in the scale. To get a second D note, you’d have to press 0. And if you wanted to go back to C, you’d have to press -1. It’s not complicated necessarily, but it breaks a basic expectation that any musician would understandably have – that if you do the same thing, you should get the same note. If I play the fifth fret on the low E of a guitar, I expect to get an A every time. If the notes continued to climb by five steps, without moving my hands, I would have a much harder time playing anything.
But this is the core concept of the Misha. It’s not built around absolute pitch and instead forces you to compose based purely on the relationships between notes in a scale. If that idea sends you running for the hills, then this probably isn’t the sequencer for you. If, however, you’re like me and intrigued by Misha’s unique approach, hang around and let’s dig a little deeper.
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole of scales, modes and sequencing, let’s take a step back and look at the hardware. While my unit came with a dedicated pod for housing the Misha, it’s ostensibly designed to live in a Eurorack setup. At 28hp wide, it’s a relatively large module, but it’s quite shallow at just 19mm deep, meaning it should fit in even the most portable skiffs. That width is kind of necessary, though. The 17 buttons, two knobs, microUSB port, microSD slot and and 16 ¼” jacks for MIDI, audio and control voltage would feel impossibly cramped on anything smaller.
The layout feels just spacious enough to be viable as a performance tool, without completely dominating a smaller Eurorack setup. The nine interval buttons are well-spaced, the screen is large enough to deliver all the necessary information and the knobs are sturdy. My only issue hardware-wise is that the shift buttons have a hollow spring to them that feels a bit cheap and they make an audible popping sound.
The 12 CV (control voltage) jacks are split across three tracks, with three pairs of gate and CV outputs as well as two inputs each. This gives you a decent amount of options for controlling multiple synth voices or modulating the Misha’s sequencer. There’s also MIDI in and out jacks, as well as stereo out and a clock in. The microUSB port can also be connected to a computer keyboard for use with custom keymappings. You’re not gonna be wanting for connectivity options here.
The screen in the dead center gives you all the info you need about navigating Misha’s interface, though it can take a bit to figure out how it all works. I highly recommend reading the manual. It’s not long and can save you lots of time and frustration. Once you come to grips with how the Misha works, it’s almost deceptively simple. In fact, I frequently felt like I had to be missing something. That, for sure, this module, with all its buttons and knobs and 1-inch screen, was hiding features from me.
Definitely take time to customize those four user buttons, though. While the default functions of up and down one octave (button one and two), and up and down one chromatic step (three and four) are useful enough, they can offer a lot of performance power when mapped to meet your specific needs. Personally I like swapping in “move pitch” for the chromatic steps, and setting it to a fifth. That adds a bit more spice than a simple octave, but generally still works well musically with whatever else is going on.
One last thing worth noting is that Misha has a built-in oscillator that you can turn on in the settings. But, beyond providing a simple sound source for auditioning melodies and generally getting a feel for the sequencer, it’s practically useless. In fact, it’s not even mentioned in the manual.
Misha ships with ranging from basic (Melodic Minor), to exotic (Enigmatic), to microtonal insanity (48 note equal-tempered). And, if somehow that’s not enough for you, there are 100 user slots for loading your own scala files. Between the various scales, modes and keys, the musical options baked into Misha are seemingly endless.
The most immediate way to start exploring them is to select a scale and then start pressing the interval buttons. This is actually a pretty satisfying way of playing an instrument, too. I don’t have a big rig to stick this in, but I paired it with , as well as the and Elektron Digitone all to wonderful effect.
This is not the sort of process you go to when you want to translate a melody you hear in your head to the real world. Perhaps someone could train themselves to think in intervals to use Misha that way, but it would take a lot of work. Instead this can create happy accidents. You just have to pay especially close attention to what you play to make sure you can recreate anything that catches your ear.
Now, yes, there are ways to lock a controller to a specific scale, similar to the Misha – basically making it impossible to play out of tune. But there’s something about playing intervals instead of notes that feels both intuitive and surprising, in a way a keyboard never could. Crafting melodies becomes a rewarding exploration where I’m basically forced to cede control, rather than a frustrating attempt to use my limited theory knowledge to turn ideas into reality.
One of the few things I have to decide beforehand is how many octaves I want to play around in. Setting the note range to two octaves, for instance, means, once I climb beyond that cap, the intervals will swing back around to two octaves below my root note. It’s probably best to try and avoid going all the way around, though. Jumping down two octaves can sound a tad harsh.
The octave limits also apply when using Misha as a sequencer, so you can play a melody line spread out over four octaves worth of a scale before starting over. The sequencer, though, is where things get a little dicey. It’s built around the idea of a “,” a device used in serial composition where all twelve notes in the chromatic scale are played, without repetition, to create a motif. The innovation here is that this concept of a tone row can be applied to any scale, not just a twelve-note, Western chromatic one.
This method of composition definitely falls on the experimental end of the spectrum and with certain scales it can come off a little awkward. This also means that the number of steps in a sequence is dependent on which scale you’re using. A single octave sequence in a minor pentatonic scale will only have five steps, while two octaves of the quarter tone scale will have 48 steps. While I appreciate the novel approach, part of me really wishes that the tone row was a mode you could turn on and off. I’d love to see Eventide add a more traditional sequencer through a firmware update where notes can be repeated.
There is also a chord mode that allows you to send three-notes out over MIDI or divided between the three CV outs. If you have a Eurorack setup with multiple synth voices, this is a great way to create some complexity and variation, especially if you have other utilities that can further modulate what the Misha puts out. For example, you can send the root note through a simple arpeggiator for the bass while using the other notes to play leads or pads. Unfortunately, there is no onboard way to sequence chord voicings. You can manually change it while performing, but it’s kind of a pain. Alternatively, you could use another sequencer to send MIDI CCs to Misha and change chord voicings, which seems like overkill.
Easily the best way to use the Misha is as a performance tool paired with an external MIDI controller. Here, the white keys give you an even broader range of interval jumps (nine in either direct) as well as quick access to the root note, while the black keys can repeat a note, play a random scale note or move chromatically up and down one step at a time. And, of course, you can still hit the four user programmable buttons on the front of the module or even map other notes on the keyboard to put more variables at your fingertips.
At $599, is not cheap. And that jumps to $699 if you need a Eurorack pod and power adapter. But it’s also truly unique. If the allure of interval based performance or tone row sequencing is what you’re after, well, this is the only game in town (at least that I’m aware of). I’m sure that there are ways of getting a similar effect using software, but when it comes to hardware, this is it.
I do wish that Eventide made a few more concessions to traditional composition, though. I want to be able to repeat notes or program passages that are an arbitrary length, rather than be limited to the number of notes in a scale. Maybe those will be added in a future firmware update, at which point it might be harder to come up with reasons not to buy one. For now, Misha is a pricey, niche tool that’s also undeniably playful and creative.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/eventide-misha-review-a-playful-sequencer-that-says-to-hell-with-tradition-170058588.html?src=rss
Source: Reviews – https://www.engadget.com/rss.xml