1992 Kawai Q55 Hardware Sequencer

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 24 November 2011 |

This is a pretty obscure piece of gear these days. The Kawai Q55 was an example of that once popular old device, the hardware MIDI sequencer, which thrived in the days before computers were so widely used. This unit provided a way for musicians (most often keyboardists) to record and multi-track MIDI information, which would play back their MIDI-equipped instruments in the fashion of up to 16 separate virtual piano rolls. 

Hailing from March 1992, the Q55 used a single 3.5 inch floppy disk to store or access its MIDI information. Specifically, the device was limited to the 2DD variety of floppy. That’s a double-sided, double-density disk, with a ceiling of 720 kilobytes. For anyone who’s never discussed storage capacity in anything other than gigabytes, a kilobyte is about one millionth of a gigabyte. Even 720 of them is less than a single megabyte. As you might imagine, it wasn’t possible to fit many songs on the said disk. In fact, a high density (2HD) version of the same floppy was readily available, giving a whole 1.44 megabytes of storage, but the Q55 couldn’t use it. No idea why.


There may at this point be some people newer to computing wondering: “How the hell can you store multiple songs on less than a megabyte of disk space?” Well, unlike audio information, which takes up huge chunks of space, MIDI data is actually very, very compact. Indeed, it’s not really musical data at all – only a mathematical instruction set. Admittedly it takes a lot of instructions to play a whole, multi-tracked MIDI song, but then, it takes a lot of letters to convey a story in a text file, and that doesn't take up much space on a disk either. In fact, the difference between audio data and MIDI data is very similar to the difference between storing a digital photo and storing a verbal description of it. The full, hi-res version of the photo above as it came off my camera takes up about 2.5 megabytes. A one-thousand-word text description of the photo takes up only around 5 kilobytes. In other words, the photo takes up 500 times more space than the text description of it. Audio data is like the digital photo. MIDI data is like the description. But with MIDI, of course, a real musical instrument is used to interpret the description of the sound, and turn it back into actual sound.

BAD NEWS FOR EDIT FREAKS… 

So how d’you record MIDI, then, on a device which has nothing but a small LED tab for visual communication? Answer: you sit at your keyboard, engage the metronome, and you play the passage in real time. If you get it wrong, you do it again. Obviously, you can’t subsequently open up a visual representation of what you’ve played on a big VDU screen and start dragging, dropping, cutting, pasting or whatever. So, that’s what you can’t do. What can you do?…

There is a Quantize function, but it can’t be applied selectively. You have to apply it to the whole bar. A typical array of Quantize values is available. You can also copy individual bars to new locations in the song, but it’s a laborious and slow process. Remember, though, we’re talking about 1992 here. Musicians and home recordists were used to slow and laborious processes.

WHY DIDN’T PEOPLE JUST USE COMPUTERS? 

Some did use computers, of course. But for a machine that had the power to run a sequencer within a graphic user interface, you’d be paying a lot of money. Plus, you’d then have to buy the sequencing software, which, despite its basic nature, was expensive too. A hardware sequencer was a much cheaper option than the PC or Mac route, and it was more portable. In truth, regardless of how slow and lethargic it was in loading up songs, etc, it was also probably more reliable. It didn’t crash, or decide to have an inexplicable five minute break in the middle of a song. Well, mine didn’t anyway. These were among a number of very real problems in the world of computer sequencing back in the early 1990s, so reliability in a hardware device was a big selling point. But perhaps most importantly of all, the Q55 was giggable. In 1992, musicians couldn’t go out and get a laptop which could be placed atop a couple of beer mats on a pub table to serve as a handy music control centre. Equally, taking a personal computer, with its cumbersome CRT monitor and fragile components, out to a pub or club, really wasn’t a sensible idea. So there were lots of situations back in the early ‘90s, in which a durable hardware sequencer was the best solution.

I would hate to have to go back to using one of these today. But there was a time when I felt I had no choice but to employ a hardware sequencer. Computer-based setups were fraught with problems, and unlike the way things are today, a PC owner needed a fair level of technical knowledge to successfully use the machine. I freely admit that a lot of the problems I experienced on the PCs I'd been using in the workplace since 1989 were down to my lack of expertise. But that was the whole point. To set up a PC for glitch-free music sequencing in 1992, you had to be an expert. Conversely, with a hardware sequencer like the Kawai Q55, you read a short instruction manual, and you understood everything there was to understand. No device conflicts, no system hangs, no scouring through 600-page DOS tutorials for answers to issues which eventually turned out to have nothing to do with DOS. The Q55 was a product for the musician, in a world where computers were still, essentially, the preserve of boffins.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt

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