Review: Makenoise René Mk.2

Last, year Makenoise had released the second version of their famous René sequencer, a step sequencer they called “cartesian” (for reasons we’re going to discuss), and which had in its second incarnation received a bunch of interesting additional features.

As you may or may not know, sequencing in my Spielsachen setup means the Hermod and a pair of Korg SQ-1. The Hermod is pretty nice for things where you record, edit and assemble a project and then launch the things from there. The SQ-1 is great for some interactive knob-twiddling. I wanted something to retire the Korgs (also because they don’t fit into the Eurorack), and for that, the René appeared, after careful consideration, to best fit the bill.

A Difficult One

This is a pretty difficult review thing. I’ve been using this thing for about a month and have used it in different contexts, from minimal techno to stochastic ambient, and explored a lot of its possibilities. Typically after such an amount of time I know if I like something, or don’t like it, or if it’s something in between. Here, it’s all of the above.

So let’s just dive into a brief description (where I’ll already try to set some things right that the manual/product brief gets completely wrong), then have an angry rant, and then an ode of praise – before I try to somehow arrive at some sort of conclusion.

PICT_20190707_002100.jpg
A perfect companion: René and 0-Coast go well together – not only visually and also by day.

In a Nutshell

The René comes as a 34TE wide Eurorack module with 24mm installation depth (great for those skinny cases), and goes for around 550 bucks. Following what we know from the 0-Coast, the faceplate is dark charcoal, the writing is very light grey, and the font used for lettering is next to unreadable. This is compensated for somewhat by their logic in marking outs, cv and gate ins with specific icons.

For UI elements we have a 4×4 grid of knobs with LEDs on top, a 4×4 grid of touch sensors (also with LEDs), and a row another five touch sensors on top.

Everything is lit in red, green or orange, as are the gate out LEDs, and that is usually linked to the three channels called X (red), Y (green) and C (orange).

Channels X and Y have gate, mod and CV inputs (the latter with a normalled attenuator – really small, flimsy knob), and there’s also mod and CV ins for the Z coordinate (more on that later). Channels X, Y and C then each have gate and CV output. Sounds pretty normal so far.

Our 4×4 knobs are always used for setting CV for the currently active channel (X, Y and C). The 4×4 sensors then work on, depending on the so-called page (through which you switch with two arrow buttons) access (if the step is active), gate, glide, snake patterns for the channel, configuration options or quantisation.

If you enter the so-called state mode, you can switch between a total of 64 different configurations (here called “states”), including copying them, editing them en bloc, set general settings, and store all states to NVM (in which case the sequencer stops).

You can also switch between states by using the Z mod and Z cv inputs (“mod” is a trigger/gate kind of input always).

Now the X channel gets clocked (and moves along its movement path) with the X clock, and the same is true for the Y channel. The C channel moves to the right if it receives a X clock and upwards if it receives a Y clock – that’s the Cartesian channel.

The Downsides

Following a recent rant on twitter:

 

I’ll go through each item in order:

Lack of Step Jump

On the SQ-1, I really liked the feature that you could jump to a specific step by setting the mode to “step jump” and then pressing that button. That’s not possible here. The closest to this is “Latch”, but this does not ignore muted steps, and also by pressing it locks the thing on that one step – meaning you need two presses to do a step jump, and good luck doing them fast enough.

Limited Possibility to hold CV for muted steps

Let me explain this: if I disable gate on a specific step, I usually want the thing to keep quiet here. It does in so far as it doesn’t trigger a new gate. However, it will still run through the CV sequence, meaning that if you’re playing a sound with some release, your pitch changes will continue through the release.

There’s a workaround, namely setting “Access” to a mode called “Sleep”. The downside is that if you set it that way (it’s a per channel/state setting), you can no longer skip steps – always 16 steps, and that’s boring.

No Snake on Cartesian channel

There is no snake feature on the Cartesian channel. Why? Because! This is something I consider a huge missed opportunity, simply because moving around the snake patterns on the X and Y channel is one of the most fun ways to embellish your performance.

Different to the first two items, which I consider lack of an essential feature or function, I rather consider this a missed opportunity.

No built-in Clock

Says it all. My SQ-1 has one. My Hermod has one. Most others I know have one. I can perfectly understand why it is that way, namely because Makenoise are aiming for some upselling, forcing you to get a TEMPI, which takes another 10TE and close to 300 bucks on top of the 550 you’ve already spent on a 16-step sequencer. Sucks.

Moving along Z-axis does not trigger gates

I already mentioned the Z-axis: by using the Z mod or CV in, you can move through the stored states, in that way giving each channel a way to move to another dimension.

There’s only one problem: doing that does not trigger gates. Which means that different to what the manual claims, you’re not moving in a tesseract, but just set your vectors differently. And so, you also can’t play 64-step patterns easily.¹

Again, another huge missed opportunity.

No way to adjust Output Gate Length

The output gates either take their gate length from the input clock or send a short trigger (configurable per channel/state). You can’t set it to produce another gate length, like when being clocked by triggers to be able to have somewhat sustained notes, which you’d most probably want if you drive a 303-style voice with it.

I consider this lack of a non-critical feature.

The Manual

It sucks. In times of old, manuals were written by competent tech writers. Some of them went on to become one of the greatest authors of their time, if not of history. Some did a great job in writing manuals.

I’ll take a shot in the dark and assume that among the dev team at Makenoise, the engineers who didn’t get their job done properly were penalized by writing a manual. There were about three of them, and they weren’t allowed to read the others’ contribution, much less talk to each other (or the actual developers for that matter).

I’m disappointed.

Great Things

It’s fun and even intuitive to play

The header says it all. Quickly changing the gate pattern while changing snake pattern with a knob, adjusting scales easily, playing with the Rene invites evolutionary creation, and that while being enjoyable. The fact that (at least with moisture levels here being what they are) the touch sensors work really well helps a lot, as does a well thought-through workflow and feature set.

Lots of Punch in a small Package

Yes, there’s sequencers which take up less TE and have more tracks and longer patterns. But among the sequencers with 16 knobs, 16 buttons and three channels, this is the most compact one, while never feeling too cramped. If you put that and a 0-Coast into a skiff case, there’s still enough space for a second synth voice, a few effects and a mixer. Combine that with a Volca Beats or Kick and you’re set.

20190713_142834_Roßtalerweg.jpg
All you need for hours of techno fun: René, Volca Beats, 0-Coast and Nanozwerg. Ah, and a clock divider as well.

Summary

So I’ve been complaining for seven sub-chapters, and did only find two great things, so this should be clear, right?

I’m afraid it isn’t that simple.

If you’re living in a 16-step world, the René delivers results by providing you with an intuitive and powerful workflow.

Outside of the 16-step world, it can also become a powerful companion for another sequencer that sends at least two channels of gates – like a Hermod. In fact, I believe that’s the best scenario for the René to live in.

I mentioned a lot of missed opportunities, but then again, some of those are features the competition doesn’t have, either.

If a compact, integrated solution isn’t your prime concern, you’re bound to find more affordable alternatives: such as two Korg SQ-1 and a Tiptop Z8000 (yes, all of them together).

So: am I going to keep it? Would I buy it again? Yes, leaving all that bickering aside.


1: Although this isn’t mentioned in the manual (see above on what I think about the manual), you can actually play patterns with up to 1024 steps by adding a clock divider, although working that way gets rather counter-intuitive.

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