Sequencer vs Arpeggiator – Which Is Better? (ANSWERED)

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Photo by M. Johnson / CC BY

Both arpeggiators and sequencers have been key effects for synth players since the ’70s, and the effects seem quite similar to a casual ear. These effects both let you play established patterns of notes without manually pressing every key. Popularized in genres like disco and prog rock, they’re especially prevalent today in dance and electronic music.

As technology has improved, arpeggiators and sequencers have both become more versatile. You can now often program these effects through DAW software, allowing a level of complexity that wasn’t possible with the synthesizers of the ’70s.

But what’s the difference between a sequencer and an arpeggiator, and what function do they each serve? If you’re an aspiring synth player or DJ, you’re probably wondering whether you need both effects or if one will do—and if so, which one. Let’s take a look at each of these effects in more depth so you will finally have the answer to who’ll win in a Battle of Sequencer vs Arpeggiator:

Sequencer vs Arpeggiator: Sequencers

A sequencer, or step sequencer, lets you program a full melodic sequence into your synth, which you then trigger by pressing a single key. These melodic sequences are usually fairly short, somewhere between 16 and 32 notes. You can also program a specific tempo or rhythmic pattern.

How much freedom you get to manipulate your programmed sequences depends on your hardware. Most allow you to modulate pitches, change the tempo, or alter the rhythm. Modern digital sequencers have a wealth of other options that can be a lot of fun to play around with, and can be linked or stacked to create very complex patterns.

Korg SQ-1 Sequencer

Many players choose to go with standalone sequencers, rather than relying on the sequencer that came with their synth or DAW. The Korg SQ-1 is arguably the best step sequencer on the market, and at its price range, it’s a great value for the features.

The Korg SQ-1 has a simple, intuitive interface that even beginners will be able to figure out without a problem. It’s also delightfully compact, which is good news for DJs and electronic artists who already schlep around a lot of gear.

In terms of features, the Korg SQ-1 has two independent channels. The pitch is stable and it allows programming of relatively complex rhythms, up to 16 steps per sequence. You’ll find sequencers designed for live performance that offer more complexity, but it’s a powerful and reliable tool in a convenient, affordable package.

Korg SQ-1 Sequencer: Active Step Demo

Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Polyphonic Analog Synth with Sequencer

Korg also makes excellent full synthesizers with built-in sequencers. While many synths with sequencers are on the higher end of the price spectrum, the Korg Minilogue 4-Voice Polyphonic Analog Synth is still fairly affordable.

The 16-step polyphonic sequencer on the Korg Minilogue is pretty powerful in its programming options. There are robust adjustable parameters that go beyond the basic pitch shifting and tempo changes most synth sequencers allow. It’s relatively easy to program and save sequences, and there are 100 user program slots to play with.

And you’ll get a lot more than a sequencer with the Korg Minilogue. It gives you a wide range of analog effects, including a tape-style delay. There are also 100 included sounds and a powerful Voice Mode for configuring multiple voices. All of this in a relatively portable, 10-pound unit.

Minilogue Demo - Sequencer and Voice Modes, by Earmonkey

Sequencer vs Arpeggiator: Arpeggiators

An arpeggiator produces melodic patterns based on notes provided by the player. As an example, if you hold down G, C, and D on your keyboard, the arpeggiator will repeat those 3 notes based on the settings you’ve programmed.

Classic arpeggiators stuck to basic patterns, mostly ascending or descending arpeggios (hence the name). Even early synths sometimes offered randomized playback, though, and modern instruments greatly expand the options.

Compared to sequencers, you’re more likely to find arpeggiators built into affordable synths. It’s not as common to find them stand-alone in hardware, though many people like using arpeggiator plug-ins for their digital work stations (Cthulhu is one popular option).

Moog Grandmother with Arpeggiator & Sequencer

This compact little synth packs both a solid arpeggiator and a decent sequencer. The Moog Grandmother is a user-friendly keyboard-based synth with true analog effects. While it works well as an analog processor for other equipment, it doesn’t need any patching, and does just as well as a stand-alone unit.

The arpeggiator (see full specs) on the Moog Grandmother has a dedicated control strip. There are switches for easily changing arpeggiation styles, as well as a knob for altering the speed. While you can’t customize the effect as much as on other synthesizers, it gets high marks for both sound quality and ease of use.

Making a song using only the Moog Grandmother synth

Yamaha MODX6 61-key Synthesizer with Arpeggiator

The built-in arpeggiator on the Yamaha MODX6 is one of the best you’ll find in hardware form. It has over 10,000 pre-programmed arpeggios and can play up to 8 simultaneously. This lets you customize and layer the effect to your heart’s content.

The Yamaha MODX6 (see full specs) is an excellent option for synth players who are also pianists. The 61 keys let you play more musical lines than more compact models and it has 128-note stereo polyphony. Its robust effects and sound manipulation features are intuitive to use for any musician, not just sound engineers. It’s also great for live performance, with an innovative Super Knob for controlling up to 128 parameters at once.

Yamaha MODX Revealed! First Look & Sounds

Sequencer vs. Arpeggiator: What’s the Verdict?

The big difference between a sequencer and an arpeggiator is that a sequencer repeats full melodic sequences, while arpeggiators play patterns based on a provided tonality. In many ways, you can think of sequencers as similar to a loop effect, where the repeated melody is programmed rather than played and recorded.

Many synthesizers offer both sequencer and arpeggiation functions, so it’s not an either/or proposition. Most people will want to have access to both tools. While you could program a sequencer to give you basic arpeggios, the main advantage of an arpeggiator is its ability to give you randomized and pattern-based playback. This is especially useful in establishing ostinatos and adding layers to electronic compositions.

If you’re a DAW user, don’t forget you can find VST plug-ins for both of these functions. Some of them are even more robust than hardware version—and, even better, many of them are free. Whichever way you go, hopefully the tips in this article help you make your decision! Good luck!

  • Micah Johnson started playing music in high school, when he taught himself the bass to join his friend’s band. He added guitar and drums during his twenties playing in local clubs, and along the way, he picked up unique, hands-on experience from hand drums to studio mixers. On Song Simian, he aims to share this knowledge from 20+ years playing and recording music. When not in gearhead mode, he enjoys photography and travel.

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