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20 September 2010


Numbers affect human affairs more than we’d like. From overdraft to tax return, they serve to remind that we’re broke. We track the passage of time, counting away our allotted span; monitor the enervating effects of ageing with numerical data from medical check-ups; and when the end comes, gauge our popularity on the number of people who attend the funeral. Occultists study numbers, a practice called numerology, but all of the above have nothing to to with Numerology 3 Pro, the latest incarnation of Five12’s souped-up step sequencer and which is a damn sight more uplifting than the first three sentences of this review. Incidentally, if you’re using a Windows PC, look away now. We’re in OS X 10.4+ pasture from here on in. Right, putting morbid psychopathology aside, let us spruce up our sequencing smarts with a quick study on steppers.

Numerology is, in essence, a step sequencer, in that rather than presenting you with key or score dialogs by which to enter note data, it features a row of sliders that are used to, among other things, define the pitch of each note in a sequence. At a very, very basic level, you set the length of the sequence and, having defined tempo, shift the sliders up and down to alter the pitch of whichever Audio Unit sound source is to be triggered. Back in the mists of time, pre-MIDI (the 1970s), when T-Rex stalked the land and Mott the Hoople carried the news, Roland was king of the hill, beating off products from Moog and ARP with its System 700 modular monster, as used by such muzos as Vangelis, Vince Clarke, Aphex Twin, Nitzer Ebb and other sectionable candidates. Block 3, or unit 717A, of a System 700 hosts a 3x12-step sequencer by which to establish note patterns and induce voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs) to go plarp via a control voltage (CV) for pitch and a gate signal for note-on/off (hence the term CV/Gate).

Yes, like most synth-related stuff of the time, it’s a bastard to set up, but sure saves on repetitive strain injury when attempting to play an infinitely repetitive sequence. Numerology is acquainted with, but a far cry from, such a beast and leads me toward breaking a fundamental tenet in the reviewers’ guide bible by vomiting the phrase: “Get Numerology 3 Pro now.” There you go. Review over, please groove along... Why such a reaction? I declare not to say it in words. Actuate the video below to get the essential ‘how it works’ gen on predecessor Numerology 2...

OK, that’s Numerology 2.x in action and I trust, if you’ve a morsel of compositional adventure about you, you’re already sold on Five12’s approach. But we’re talking about N3 Pro. What’s significantly new? Prior to such discourse, it might be wise to look at how we interface with instruments. Take an oboe player, for example. He or she has a monophonic mindset. Said individual cannot resort to the flautist’s or single-reed player’s faux polyphonic trick of engaging the larynx (humming) while blowing because the result is blowing chunks, such is the sheer pressure of wind required to get twin reeds a-flapping. Bassoonists, English hornists and French bombardiers take note.

Staggering, hypoxically, to the string section, violinists and viola players have scores sometimes scored with two or, if slack of bow, three-note chords for limited polyphony. Alternatively, like many a jazz singer, we could collapse in a haze at the piano which, while mono-timbral, has a theoretical 10-note polyphony. One could use heel, buttocks or head-butt to increase that range, but it’s neither big nor clever. The point is that a simple step sequencer encourages a monophonic mindset. One finds a signature timbre, sets pitch values and runs it to eight, 12 or 16 steps. Job done. Numerology 3 Pro positively discourages this practice. It does, in fact, push you to-whim very strange areas indeed. Yes, there’s the MonoNote monophonic sequencer, but we’ve also got a PolyNote polyphonic sequencer, ChordSeq for triggering sequences of chords and a whole lot more, including DrumSeq, a dedicated percussion sequencer.

Each of the note sequencers can trigger any AU instrument you have on the system and there’s the means to import and trigger samples, messing with pitch as you do so. It’s merely a case of dragging and dropping the required AU instrument, plus an AU effect if required, from the Module Library column at left into the main window. A quick look at MonoNote reveals an eight-octave, 128-step per pattern sequencer with no less than 13 adjustable parameters for each step. Naturally, pitch can be pushed up and down, by +/- four octaves in fact, the length of each step defined by Gate Length. Also, if you like a step, it can be repeated up to 16 times. Steps can also be divided up to 16 times with Gate Divide and, if the sequence becomes too repetitive, Random Jump means you can hop around within it. We’ve even the means to add and remove steps with Step Skip and use Step Mute to silence individual steps.

Expression is to be had thanks to per-step velocity adjustment and channel pressure, while up to three CVs can be assigned to a host of sound-warping tweaks, including filter cutoff, resonance and more. Particularly interesting are FaderBox and TripleXY, by which it’s possible to slide and glide between CV and MIDI control code streams for truly organic, expressive sound and sequence warping. Their movement can be defined over specific beat ranges, thereby incorporating accurate glides into the project file. As for actually triggering sequences, you’ll find all the usual values, from whole notes, and multiples, halves and quarters, dotted values and a range that goes down to a 256th note. Or you could opt for integer ratios or even percentages of beats from 0.01% up to 999% - handy when assigned to non-note values. Left/right shift, step inversion and, when completely out of inspiration, randomization are all on hand, too.

PolyNote is more of the same but, of course, it outputs polyphonic note data, while MatrixSeq, a 12-note polyphonic sequencer, doubles as an arpeggiator. Add in multiple 8-track DrumSeqs, each perhaps set to different step numbers, and we’ve poly-rhythms a go-go. There are plenty of options for external control via MIDI, or ReWire using Apple Logic, MOTU Digital Performer or Ableton Live as host, as well as the means to output MIDI from Numerology itself, with support for both MIDI Clock and MIDI Time Code when syncing. This means that N3 Pro can act as adjunct to an existing set-up, rather than taking over the show. Intriguingly, Numerology also integrates seamlessly with Novation’s Launchpad hardware controller, as you can see right here with v2.3...

Now bear in mind that each configuration of the main editing window serves as a stack. You can set up an infinite number of stacks (dependent on system capacity) to run synchronously via what looks like a standard sequencer’s timeline, having your stack creations drop in and out as necessary in order to create entire compositions. By now, you may have realised that we’re leveraging a new paradigm in sequencing.

While devotees of Cubase, Logic, Live and more may revel in their facilities, Numerology does concern itself with different approaches toward composition and, as such, is well worthy of ReWiring into a Mac-based setup (it’s almost worth buying a Mac just to get on board, you Windows-only naughties). Thus far, I’ve been scoping out the functionality of Numerology 2.3, so what does N3 Pro bring to the party? Plenty, and you can read all about the product’s evolution, from builds 1 thru 11 in the release notes - far too extensive to publish here - as well as in Five12’s online Forum facility, where you’ll also find tips, tricks, project files, samples, stacks and an opportunity to show off your own Numerological creations.

I guess the biggest news is Evolve, a means of making semi-randomized changes to a sequence. Rather than wholesale mash-up, you’ve tight control over which parameters are affected and by how much. All the sequencer modules - MonoNote, PolyNote, Chord Seq, Drum Seq and Matrix Seq - can be subject to evolution in three dimensions, the defaults for most being Pitch on the X axis, Gate and Timing on Y and Velocity Transformation on the Z axis. But enough of words on webpage. Here’s what it looks like...

Numerology 3 Teaser: Evolve from Five12 on Vimeo.

Each Evolve dimension supports up to eight transformations, you get to pick the probability of an evolutionary event happening and the feature can be engaged manually, automatically and via parameter modulation for that extra frisson of flexibility. Evolve’s implications are obvious. While many go a bundle on organic, evolving timbres, this new feature extends the concept to melody itself, stepping beyond the repetitive nature of traditional step sequencing, or the truck-drivers gear change of crash-randomization. It’s the kind of vehicle that an experimentalist like Eno might fire up when characteristically careering off into the unheard-of, and could well transport you along intriguing new highways of musical composition. There are numerous other Numerology additions to be had, so existing owners of v1.x, 2.x would do well to cough up the £44.10 upgrade fee. And if you’ve already bought into the already available standard edition of Numerology 3, it’s only another £23.07 to go Pro.

If you’ve a Mac, want a novel way of triggering AU instruments and effects, or wish to supplement Logic, Live or Digital Performer with sophisticated step-sequencing stunts, acquiring Numerology 3 Pro certainly adds up. Even more so if you’ve access to a Launchpad. The application’s basics are none too tricky to nail, but there’s enough depth in this splendid stepper to keep you gainfully engaged for an age.

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