So we have had this excellent Conductive Labs NDLR sequencer, or how we like to call it: the midi “brain” for quite some time now. And boy what a brain this is.
We have been comparing it a lot to the Torso T-1 sequencer (review coming very soon). It is different but not quite that different. As loopop said in it’s video, the NDLR is quite unique. Traditional sequencers allow you to input notes fast on a grid type structure. In turn, they allow you to listed to the idea that you have laid down pretty fast, and judge A. it’s own musical qualities and specifics and B. how it sits along with the rest of your tracks. Thus, sequencers are a very powerful creative tool, most of us techno and minimal heads consider them the centre of our creative process (mostly because we can’t be bother to take the proper time to learn to play keys properly).
Traditional sequencers vary in complexity and flexibility, from the very primitive ones that can be found in groove-boxes (like the old Roland drum machines and Korg volca line) to very sophisticated ones that can allow you to program velocity, note length, probability and all the other parameters that can be tweaked on that specific piece of gear (think Elektron with it’s parameter locks). At the top of the line of traditional, note-input sequencers is the Cirklon, which is a dedicated step sequencer that can do all kinds of fast, creative tweaks and has a great workflow that most producers swear by. Let’s not forget software, basically all DAWs have a sequencer, be it direct like fruity loops or a piano roll (which is a two-dimensional sequencer, with time and pitch in the same screen). Also, pad-style instruments like the Ableton Push and Novation Launchpad can be configred so that the pads work as a sequencer.
Conductive Labs NDLR: a non-traditional midi sequencer
Now, let’s move it up a bit. We talked about the traditional sequencer, what they all have in common is that they always start with a blank slate, a noteless sequence of 16 steps (usually). You place notes there in the order and pitch that you desire and you can instantly hear how that ‘sequence’ sounds. You can ajust the notes and hear changes, so you immediately get a feel for where you want to take the melody of drum tracks of your music.
Non-traditional sequencers differ because you usually input the ideas and the midi hardware takes care of the notes. For the NDLR, you input the key, the degree and if we are talking about chords, the type of chord that you want and it spits the notes on it’s own. There is swing of course (called “Humanization”) and there is velocity. For monophonic melodies, there are two aspects that contribute the most to your notes: the patter and the rhythm.
Conductive Labs NDLR: Motifs
So the way sequencers work is that they create a rhythmic pattern for your sound generators. With the NDLR midi sequencer you get two dimensions to control this: pattern and rhythm. The pattern controls the notes, or pitch of each step in the sequence. There are three types of patterns: scale, chord and chromatic. The values that each pattern step takes indicates the note in an imaginary piano roll: chromatic is in absolute terms, not keeping any scale, scale limits the values to notes in the selected scale and chord is like scale, functioning with limited note choices but also makes the notes relative to the degree of the chord that you choose from the main panel.
Rhythm is similar to pattern but the value per step actually indicates velocity. You can create ties and rests here. For both rhythm and pattern you can select clock division and total length, separately from each other to get extremely interesting sequences.
The way that NDLR presents the sequence pattern and rhythm that you chose this is truly unique. Instead of providing you with a blank slate for rhythm and pattern settings, it always provides you with a filled sequence. This is so you can get grooving A.S.A.P. There are 20 presets and 20 user generated rhythms and patterns. To mark the departure from traditional sequencers (which present the sequence is a straight line), NDLR shows the pattern and rhythm as a circle, going clockwise.
This is just a slight scratch on the surface for what NDLR can do. The way described above is called Motif in NDLR, and represents the monophonic sequence way. Other than Motifs (which NDLR has two independent ones), this midi sequencer can output two more midi sequences, which are polyphonic and independent.
The way it works is very simple, you just select the rhythm, pattern, the way you want it to be played (left to right, right to left, random 1, random 2), clock division, etc and just press play. The sequencer takes care of all the note placements, so you can start tweaking in real time.
Conductive Labs NDLR: Drone and Pad
While Motifs are the core aspect of the NDLR Midi sequencer and the most flexible parts that this tool has to offer, they are monophonic. We like monophonic sequences but there is much more composition possible than this. NDLR has two poly modes as well: Drone and Pad.
Drone is a very basic form of note generation. It can be polyphonic but also in mono. What it does is play the root note of the scale that you selected, and if you want, you can add a 5th interval, and then you can add an octave on top. It has a simpler rhythm section than Motifs, but it is there in case you want to go a bit deeper.
Pad mode is for chords. You have a bit more flexibility than Drone and also you can select which chord you want NDLR to play. You do this with the circle of buttons that is close to the centre screen. With the same buttons you select the degree of chord in that scale as well as the type of chord you want to play. This is especially useful for producers that do not know music theory. You can instantly listen to any chord progression that you want, with pushing a minimal number of buttons. You can have the option to strum the chord, playing each note with a small delay so that they individually stand out.
We said Pad mode is a bit more complicated than Drone. This is in part because you can set up the voicing by using some presets that in NDLR talk are called “spread”. There are a lot of spread types, and we fully encourage you to explore them as they can lead to extremely interesting harmony. You can also select the number of notes in the chord, which goes pretty high if your synth has the proper polyphony.
NOTE: There is no rhythm section for Pad mode, The Conductive Labs NDLR midi sequencer sustains the chord for as long as you don’t press the chord type/degree button. If you want to trigger the same chord again, press the same degree button.
For an in-depth feature and usability review, we recommend this excellent loopop video. It is from an earlier firmware version, but still pretty much on-spot:
Extra modulations and MIDI I/O
This Midi sequencer has a lot of modulation options, you can use a multitude of sources to modify any parameter that you want. There are LFOs and Randomisers as sources, and they can be synced to time as beat divisions or actual seconds. There are four modulation busses, so the possibilities are virtually endless.
As far as Midi I/O goes, the offering is diverse. You have four channels on midi USB mode. Then you have two midi ins and two midi outs. You can configure each NDLR output to your preference. There is no power connection and on-off switch, NDLR gets power from the USB.
Overall, this little piece of gear has become the centre of my midi synths, the ones that don’t have a sequencer. It is flexible and it is fast, with extreme ideas flowing extremely fast. There is always a melodical touch to what it outputs and I really can’t part ways with it, nor can I see myself doing this in the foreseeable future.