In some musical styles, the classic step sequencer is a key tool. Lots of synths (real and virtual) feature one and many desktop DAW have step sequencers built in. However, if you want to go one step further (ouch!) and get the ultimate step sequencer experience, then you need something like Sugar Bytes’ Thesys. This has been available as a desktop plugin but now the company have release a full-featured iOS version. And if it’s as good as Sugar Bytes other recent iOS release – the brilliant Turnado – then it will be very good indeed.
Time to put our best foot forward and see what Thesys has on offer…..
To label Thesys as a ‘step sequencer’ really doesn’t do it justice. The step sequencer itself offers 32 steps and is absolutely stuffed with features. On screen, your get five ‘lanes’ of data displayed. The first three of these contain the pitch, velocity and gate time – fairly standard parameters in a step sequencer – but being able to see then all at the same time in separate lanes (rather than toggling through them in a single lane display) is very helpful. That said, the Pitch lane includes a well-designed scale feature that allows you to easily manipulate your pitch sequences to match different musical scales or modes.
The lower two lanes – labelled Performance and Modulation – are where the more interesting functions are. Both of these are actually multiple sequencers where you can control a number of different parameters. For example, in the performance sequencer, you can add octave shifts, pitch bends, chords (this is very clever), rolls (also very neat) and a randomise function that can be applied to a number of other parameters to humanise (or just trash!) your beautifully crafted sequence. The Modulation lane provides eight different sub-lanes to toggle between and you can choose from various targets or MIDI CC numbers.
Up to 16 full patterns can be created and saved with a single Thesys project. Patterns can be sequenced within the Pattern Sequencer (located bottom right) or triggered via the Keyboard Control Section (located underneath the sequencer lanes). If you have an external MIDI keyboard connected then you can also use this to control this app. Given the rather small keys in the on-screen keyboard, this is obviously what Sugar Bytes expect most users to do and it would be pretty much a necessity if you wanted to use Thesys in a live context.
This isn’t all you get though. Thesys includes its own internal synthesiser engine. The controls for this are located top-right and, while it would not compete with a Thor or Nave in terms of sonic capabilities, it is a perfectly capable sound source and supplied with a range of very useful presets. You can, of course, toggle the internal synth off and transmit MIDI data from Thesys to another synth app. I had absolutely no problems doing this with the aforementioned Thor and Nave (either individually or both at the same time to create a mega-layered sound).
Just beneath the synth controls is what Sugar Bytes call the Action Section. This really is a lot of fun. It contains a series of buttons that cause the step sequencer playback to be adjusted in some way. So, for example, you can mute the playback (the sequencer keeps moving through the steps but you just don’t hear anything) or you can slow down the playback (playback gets slower the longer you hold the button and there is a knob to adjust the rate of the slow down effect). Other ‘actions’ include a looper, velocity gate, gate time, retrigger, half speed and manual step. As a means of adding variety to your pre-programmed sequences, this is all very creative.
The Keyboard Control Section can be switched between two modes (via the tiny arrow icon located just above the keyboard itself); in ‘pitch’ mode, holding a key down transposes the pitch of the sequence. Toggling to the other keyboard mode splits the keyboard into three zones with a smaller pitch section but key zones to trigger different patterns or the action section buttons. Again, this mode would be very useful with an external MIDI keyboard in a performance context.
There are all sorts of other detailed features and functions built into Thesys – too many to go into full detail here – but including some neat features for quickly editing patterns (these make use of the buttons located bottom-left), MIDI learn capability, the ability to make different lanes in the step sequencer loop over different lengths (allowing you to create some fabulous evolving sequences) and changing the direction of travel in the individual lanes.
Thesys in use
As commented above, the synth engine built into Thesys is pretty decent and it does mean you can use the app on its own while working on sequences and chaining them together. However, Thesys is, primarily, a step sequencer and the real fun starts when you send its MIDI data out to your favourite synths.
The app can transmit MIDI data to other iOS apps running on the same iDevice and, as mentioned above, I had no problems send Thesys MIDI data to Nave, Thor and a number of other iOS synths including Sunrizer, Addictive Synth and iMS-20.
Equally, I had no problems recording the MIDI output from Thesys onto a MIDI track in Cubasis and then sending that data to either one of the Cubasis internal sound sources or to an external synth. As a way of adding a top-notch step sequencing environment into your Cubasis recording workflow, Thesys is an excellent tool.
A more interesting experiment was using Thesys with the recently released v.1.10 update to Auria. While Auria doesn’t currently have MIDI instrument tracks, it does support MIDI Clock and so can, in principle, be used to start, stop and generally sync with other MIDI-based applications. Thesys, in turn, is able to act as either a slave or master to MIDI Clock Sync. And while it did involve a certain amount of initial trial and error with different settings in the MIDI settings sections of both apps, I was, in the end, able to get Thesys to sync – and playback in time with – Auria via Auria’s transport controls.
With Thesys in the Audiobus ‘input’ slot, I could record the output of the Thesys synth directly to Auria; essentially, syncing the step sequencer to Auria and recording the synth to an Auria audio track. By placing Thor into an additional Audiobus input slot and switching off the Thesys synth, I was then able to send the Thesys step sequencer data to Thor and Thor’s audio output into Auria, all controlled by Auria’s transport controls and sync’ed to Auria’s playback.
The only real quirk was that I had to stop playback by hitting Auria’s ‘start playback button’ for a second time, and while this might be a minor bug somewhere in the MIDI food chain between the two apps, it might also be that I didn’t quite have the settings configured correctly. Either way, it was kind of cool to integrate a sequenced MIDI part or two into an Auria recording.
Like Sugar Bytes other flagship iOS offering Turnado, Thesys is a top-notch app stuffed full of excellent features. The creative options on offer here are excellent and, if you like a bit of old-fashioned step sequencing – admittedly bought right up to date with some innovative additions – then Thesys is well worth getting to know.
That comprehensive feature list does come with a modest learning curve (although experienced step sequence fans will soon find their way around) and, like Turnado, Thesys packs a lot of controls into the fairly modest iPad screen space (there is a useful ‘zoom’ function that helps here). However, these are very minor – and easily overcome – issues; dig in for a little while and Thesys will offer plenty of rewards for your efforts.
I could imagine those that really learn the app could get a lot of use out of it, both live and in the studio. The ability to bed it into your recording workflow via apps such as Cubasis – or even with Auria – is also a real plus as is the ease with which Thesys seems to communicate with the cream of the iOS synth crop.
In short, providing you are prepared to get stuck in and find your way around Thesys (and Sugar Bytes have a very useful PDF manual available to help with that), then this is a brilliant step sequencing tool with lots of creative possibilities. Like Turnado, Thesys packs a big punch and, if you take the time to get the best out of it, is well worth the £10.49 (or $/€ equivalent) asking price. Highly recommended.
And if you want to see Thesys in action, then check out the videos below.