iOS, MacOS Beat Hardware Sequencers For Tight MIDI Sequencing

Is iOS the new sequencing king?

Dedicated MIDI sequencing hardware has historically had a reputation for tighter MIDI sequencing than computers, with the exception being ancient computers like the legendary Atari STe.

The supremacy of hardware sequencers has been attributed to the fact that hardware sequencers are optimized for one purpose, while home computers are constantly doing hundreds of things. In a nutshell, while you’re trying to use your computer to sequence your synths, your computer may be juggling its attention between your sick grooves and doing bunch of other background tasks.

Recent tests by A. P. Matthews, though, suggest that your Mac – and even your iPhone – are now powerful enough to beat many hardware sequencers.

Matthews tested 10 different setups to see how accurately they sequenced a steady beat. He used 16th notes at 120 bpm, which means that the resulting notes should be consistently spaced 125ms apart.

He compared the devices in two main ways:

  • The accuracy of the devices’ sequencing (standard deviation from the expected timing); and
  • Jitter (the range of ‘slop’ from the expected timing).

What he found may surprise you.

When comparing the standard deviation of the devices’ sequencing (above, lower is better), an iPhone running Cubasis was tighter than a BeatStep Pro, Akai MPC 2500 and Roland MC 50. A DOS machine running Voyetra Sequencer Plus Gold also did surprisingly well.

Of the hardware sequencers, the Yamaha QY100 performed the best.

When comparing the jitter – the range of deviation from the expected timing – macOS performed the best, followed closely by iOS.

Again, the Yamaha QY100 had the best performance of hardware solutions:

Here’s another way to visualize the ‘tightness’ of the devices that were tested.

The following chart shows the range of timing between notes sequenced by a Roland MC-50mk2:

Note that most of the sequenced notes were close to the expected 125ms apart. The center cluster is fairly wide, though, and there are also lots of notes that are timed earlier or later than what you’d expect.

The second chart, below, shows the range of timing for notes sequenced by the iPhone/Cubasis combination:

Note that most of the notes are very close to the expected 125ms timing, resulting in a tall, narrow distribution.

Details on each configuration are available with the test reports.

Is The iPhone The New Atari STe?

There are notable caveats to Matthews’ testing:

  • It was limited to ten systems, so there may be other hardware sequencers that offer tighter sequencing than the devices that were tested.
  • The test was done with a simple, steady beat. Devices may perform differently when sequencing real-world arrangements.

The testing also raises a lot of questions. How would a state-of-the-art Windows machine perform in the same test? How do different OS/software sequencer combinations compare? And would an Atari STe still beat them all?

While these tests don’t answer all of our questions, they demonstrate that modern macOS and iOS devices can sequence MIDI tighter than some popular hardware sequencers. And, based on these tests, it looks like MIDI performance is much less of a driver than it once was for choosing a hardware sequencer of a computer/software sequencer combo.

And, as always, if it meets your needs, it’s good.

Is the iPhone the new Atari STe? Let us know what you think of these tests and their results in the comments!

57 thoughts on “iOS, MacOS Beat Hardware Sequencers For Tight MIDI Sequencing

  1. This is an interesting one, because despite being better at playing back a tight sequence of midi notes, computers still suffer when it comes to producing a very tight midi clock… which is a slightly different thing than playing back an arbitrary sequence of note on, pitch and velocity data… the MIDI clock itself simply needs to create a very steady 24ppq but computers are still not very good at this because as you say, your cpu has a bunch of other tasks expected of it.

  2. “How would a modern Windows machine perform in the same test?” – I thought that was what the Reaper running on a Surface option was showing? He used a Surface Pro 6 – that’s pretty modern.

  3. And thus a new star was born among the technical discussions about the good and the better.

    This is gonna be next-level analog vs. digital.

  4. And then you connect your massive audio interfaces to the MAC and the whole thing falls apart again. I need a new MAC but now this ARM transition happens damn it! Hope the MPC One i ordered can run my MIDI while that blow over.

  5. these tests don’t specify what midi interface is being used for mac/windows/ios. isn’t that a significant factor?

      1. Seems He used the keystep midi out has a usb to midi interface.Nothing mentioned about testing different interfaces or the audio buffer sized used in the DAW (will effect Max midi jitter output of the DAW)

        Noticeable MIDI jitter is about the sum of the instruments. Especially noticeable with bass content and fast attacks of say a mix of kick and a bass

        I would recommend to have some short of sample accurate midi generator (like USAMO) to test the midi board and the Arduino code.

  6. You should also note that anything below 3ms is not perceivable, and since the graph is in micro seconds, anything below 3,000 will not have any real world difference.

    Sure, some have a higher degree of exactitude, but the precision needed is 3ms or less so this means that Ubuntu/REAPER is the last one acceptable and that you really should rely on a beat step pro for precision

    1. > anything below 3ms is not perceivable

      Wrong.

      “With the first Synclavier, we tried to sequence the bass drum playing fours on a four-on-the-floor. It sounded dreadful. We phoned them [NED] up and said ‘Is your sequencer accurate?’ They said ‘Oh yes, absolutely accurate.’ ‘Is it really accurate?’ ‘It’s absolutely accurate.’ ‘How accurate is it?’ ‘Well it’s accurate, give or take 200 milliseconds.’ ‘What the..! You think that’s accurate? I know people that can hear a millisecond!’ And they were saying ‘That’s impossible, nobody can hear a millisecond.’ I said ‘I know somebody that can hear a millisecond — Chris Squire [Yes] can hear a millisecond.'”
      ————Trevor Horn, March 2005
      https://www.soundonsound.com/people/trevor-horn

  7. super interesting. coming from a hip hop DJ background (1990s) it’s interesting the drift of the MPC. when beat matching with vinyl records on Tech 1200s there must have been some drift from the MPC, the tape machine used to record the song (though may have already been Pro Tools then) and drift from the Tech 1200s, this is exactly why you needed to ride your traditions pushing and pulling a bit to keep the tracks together while cross fading. fun info here.

  8. The human interface is much more exacting than 3 ms. Our perceptions are guided by using that interface. Experience, being active, listening, these also matter. Our machines should be better. Rub your thumb and index finger together near your ear. When machines can sound that good, when timing and jitter can be that accurate, then we’ve finally arrived.

  9. wonderimg what would be results on iPhone with Nanostudio 2. It has internal sequencer precision PPQN 4096 which is way much more than Cubasis …

  10. The only modern sequencer I see on the list is beatstep pro. I also don’t see comparisons against windows os.
    Is this truly a scientific study, or just meaningless apple propaganda?

  11. Looking in more detail, I disagree with the headline. The beatstep pro is clearly tighter than the computers if you look at the graph for it. But it has a bug in the timing of the very first note. This causes a skew in the range/sd, especially because the sd is only calculated over 255 notes. Still it’s nice to catch the bug and maybe it can now be fixed.

    1. Your question is addressed in the original report, linked to above:

      “The two metrics of Std. Deviation (Fig. 11) and Range (Fig. 12) offer different views of timing precision.

      For example, the BeatStep Pro appears to have an idiosyncrasy where the first note of the sequence plays early. The remaining 255 notes in the sequence did not have this behavior. The BeatStep Pro ranks in 5th place for Std. Deviation due to its tight timing on average, while it ranks in 9th place for Range due to this single off note.”

      1. Thanks, and thanks for bringing attention to this kind of study. I think in view of this apparent minor bug in the beatstep, it is not entirely appropriate to make a comparison based on stddev over just a small (256) number of samples or a comparison based on range, and beatstep should be ranked number 1 for tightness.

        I don’t personally own one, but would consider it in view of this.

  12. Total clickbait, which I’ve fallen for. Regarding the study, this is akin to concluding cars are faster than planes by comparing a 2020 Lamborghini (MacOS/Reaper) with the 1903 Wright Brothers airplane (MC50). It would have been nice to see a MPC3K or Cirklon in there, but I’d be called a cork-sniffer rather than a musician who cares about (and can hear) a blank timing slate upon which I can then screw with the timing (or not) as I please.

    Also not taken into account: advantages and disadvantages to USB MIDI compared to serial MIDI, including USB’s necessity to poll the host (meaning MIDI data can get some very slight jitter based on whether or not it is determined if there is data to be sent in a packet).

    For anyone who cares about precise timing, MIDI’s serial nature inherently sucks unless it’s one event at a time, including pure clocking. The best solution I’ve discovered after lots of testing and listening is audio-based stuff converted to MIDI. Of course, you then have the receiving device’s jitter and response times to worry about. Rock-solid notes (or clocking) to one device may sound precise, with the same data stream sounding sloppy going to another.

  13. > the Yamaha QY100 had the best
    > performance of hardware solutions

    Hardware? What hardware? LOL, insufficient analysis, to put it mildly. Look what Aussie David Lackey of Innerclock Systems has done. He is the creator of the famous Sync Gen II Pro used by Martin Gore and the Chemical Brothers (among others).

    Sequentix Cirklon v1.11
    Sync Master
    MIDI TX Jitter > 3 samples / 0.06ms
    Gate TX Jitter > 3 samples / 0.06ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    MIDI TX Jitter > 3 samples / 0.06
    Gate TX Jitter > 3 samples /0.06
    Start Latency > 40 samples / 0.83ms

    Akai MPC-60
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 18 samples / 0.37ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 1 sample / 0.02ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 48 samples / 1.00ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 16 samples / 0.33ms

    Akai MPC-3000 Vailixi v3.51
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 5 samples / 0.10ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 1 sample / 0.02ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 12 samples / 0.25ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 26 samples / 0.54ms

    Akai MPC-4000 v1.71
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 1 sample / 0.02ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 3 samples / 0.06ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 29 samples / 0.60ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 29 samples / 0.60ms

    Akai MPC 5000 v2
    Pattern Mode/Cycle – Internal Sync
    Maximum variation between any two consecutive Sixteenth Note intervals: 138 Samples [2.87ms]
    Song Mode – Internal Sync
    Maximum variation between any two consecutive Sixteenth Note intervals: 138 Samples [2.87ms]
    Pattern Mode/Cycle – External
    Sample Accurate Midi Clock
    Maximum variation between any two consecutive Sixteenth Note intervals: 138 Samples [2.87ms]
    Song Mode – External
    Sample Accurate Midi Clock
    Maximum variation between any two consecutive Sixteenth Note intervals: 69 Samples [1.44ms]

    EMU SP-1200
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 44 samples / 0.92ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 65 samples / 1.35ms
    Sync Slave – 96PPQ Voltage Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 44 samples / 0.92ms

    Elektron Digitakt v1.1
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 32 samples / 0.67ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 32 samples / 0.67ms
    Start Latency > 94 samples / 1.96ms

    Elektron – Analog RYTM MK1 v1.45B
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 32 samples / 0.67ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 32 samples / 0.67ms
    Start Latency > 152 samples / 3.17ms
    Source Event – MIDI Note
    Audio Out Jitter > 20 samples / 0.42ms

    Elektron Machine Drum SPS-1MKIIUW
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 104 samples / 2.17ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 77 samples / 1.60ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 104 samples / 2.17ms
    MIDI TX Jitter > 66 samples / 1.37ms

    Roland MC-4B
    Sync Master
    Gate TX Jitter > 25 samples / 0.52ms
    Sync Slave – Din Sync
    Gate TX Jitter > 34 samples / 0.71ms
    Start Latency > 38 samples / 0.79ms

    Roland SH-01A v1.06
    Sequencer – Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 65 samples / 1.35ms
    Start Latency > 215 samples / 4.48ms
    Sequencer – Sync Slave – 4PPQ Voltage Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 53 samples / 1.10ms
    Start Latency > 159 samples / 3.32ms
    Source Event – MIDI Note
    Audio Out Jitter > 15 samples / 0.32ms

    Roland R-8
    Internal Sync
    Audio Out
    Max. Jitter between 16ths: 123 samples (2.56ms)
    External Sync
    Source MIDI Clock
    Max. Jitter between 16ths: 417 samples (8.69ms)

    Roland JD-Xi
    Sequencer – Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 4 samples / 0.08ms
    Sequencer – Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 3 samples / 0.06ms

    Roland JD-Xa
    Sequencer – Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 29 samples / 0.60ms
    Sequencer – Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 26 samples / 0.53ms
    Source Event – MIDI Note
    Audio Out Jitter > 9 samples / 0.18ms

    Roland TR-8S v1.1
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 8 samples / 0.17ms
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 8 samples / 0.17ms
    Start Latency > 110 samples / 2.51ms

    Linn Electronics LM-1
    Sync Master
    Audio Out Jitter > 9 samples / 0.12ms
    Sync Slave – 48PPQ Voltage Clock
    Audio Out Jitter > 9 samples / 0.12ms
    Start Latency > 15 samples / 0.31ms

    XAOC Moskwa Bipolar Rotosequencer
    Sync Slave – 4PPQ Voltage Clock
    Gate TX Jitter > Zero samples /0.00ms
    Start Latency > Zero samples / 0.00ms

    Korg KMS-30
    Sync Slave – MIDI Clock
    MIDI Clock RX to TX Jitter > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    Start Latency > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    Din-Sync TX Jitter > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    Start Latency > 19 samples / 0.40ms
    Sync Slave – Din Sync
    Din-Sync RX to TX Jitter > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    Start Latency > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    MIDI Clock TX Jitter > Zero samples / 0.00ms
    Start Latency > 19 samples / 0.40ms

    Source: https://www.innerclocksystems.com/litmus

    1. +1 for Innerclock.

      I’ve been using their SyncGen Pro for a few years and it’s excellent… the litmus test page is definitely worth a read.

      1. +2 for Innerclock

        Was unlucky enough to only discover it after it was discontinued. But I bought a E-RM Multiclock on their recommendation. Just as good

  14. Well you need a stable baseline to “humanize” from.. if you dont have tight timing beats sound horrible and dont have impact.. they just sound flabby. There is a crisis on Windows systems.. mostly Dell where the timing has just gone to absolute shite’.. even on the latest XPS systems its abysmal and not appropriate for music makers. They’re running something in the background which is causing huge spikes and you can see this on notebookcheckreview dot com.. MSI, Sager, etc.. largely avoid these DPC problems

  15. It would be interesting and useful (for some perspective) to see how tight the timing is for a few seasoned and skilled drummers playing 16ths with and/or without a metronome.

    I’d imagine those kinds of studies are already out there.

    Of course, sequencers are meant to have the ability to play with super-human precision. And people can add swing and humanize, etc. But the idea is to have the sequencer work consistently– for a myriad of valid reasons.

  16. na , sold the beatstep just 2 days after purchase, have an ipad sitting arround idle and
    happy chap use my ensoniq sequencer . 12 channels, 1 click to quantize, 1 click to record, and fully polyphonic and aftertouch…they knew how to build things back then

  17. No surprise if true, though this study isn’t complete, it seems. I tried a demo of Ableton Live and using AUM on my iPhone via Link resulted in tighter timing of the MIDI clock than Ableton itself on the PC. Even straight MIDI clock over wifi from the iPhone resulted in my OB-6 (MIDI connection not USB) reporting a more steady tempo reading.

    iOS is a fantastic music platform, seemingly looked down on by many that don’t know better as a “toy”. You could make an entire album on an iPhone now and it’s doubtful people would know the difference. I’m often recommending people use their own iPhone or iPad (or pick up a cheap used one) for anything MIDI, especially: sequencing, generative, tools/analysis, cc controls, etc.

  18. Looking at the graphs my first thought was:
    “Yamaha ought to bring out a successor to their QY-series…”

    Am I the only one thinking this?

  19. So Apple finally caught up with Atari? About time. There are heaps of pc/software setups that should be tested as well. But kudos for the effort.

  20. A modern QY with USB, 5-pin DIN, and full MIDI 2.0, MPE, and MIDI 1.0 (backward compatible) would be pretty attractive.

    However, in more recent hardware, Yamaha hasn’t been very impressive with their sequencer design chops.

  21. Why’s Atari ST mentioned, but not included? There are many midi computers not included. Also check out MiST, C64, Amiga. M-audio uno is probably one of the most used and not included. Would any of these really come close to the ST?

  22. If Midi is a serial protocol, then surely this only reflects the first note of any chord, or stacked groove? How useful is this as a measure then? My old Emagic midi interfaces compensate for serial timing, and I am guessing that this is the tech that Apple is still using.

  23. I appreciate a little flab in my sequencing. If one has spent enough time in their setup this is really a non issue. Too tight and you lose any humanity to your sequences. Albeit for 4 on the floor electronic beats and modern Techno this is most relevant, but for the rest of us musicians that also play other instruments and styles – the human error factor is imperative to adding life and not sounding overproduced. The human ear and mind can easily get bored of timing that is ‘too perfect’. I sequenced exclusively on an MPC2500 for years and loved the timing. Currently my beatstep (which fared quite low on this test) is my go-to for creating interesting and complex drum parts. I never noticed any excessive flab or jitter and have found it almost indispensable for my workflow. If we as producers keep overthinking the tech on this, we’ll end up losing ourselves to the machine.

  24. Still use Atari 520 or 1040 ST with Cubase or Dr. T’s, MPC 2000XL and the newer Engine Sequencer with a CSQ-100. This test should have been looking at Midi Clock specifically. Note on/off priority on many modern systems means that the clock gets jittered around. While its great to test these things, this test is woefully incomplete and the title “IOS Macos Beat Hardware” has not, in even the vaguest way, been proven.

    If the note on/off latency and jitter were to be tested properly, it needs to be on an entire song. This is where a lot of the new Apple/Microsoft applications fall on their face. A hickup after 77 bars, a very late clock event, etc.

    Where one is mixing live down to a recording system, all of this really matters.

    This test should have been over 256 bars, included notes and MIDI clock, and silly events like MOD wheel. Then measure the clock jitter and latency, measure the notes with these other events. Many sequencers fall to pieces when things get complicated. They will be 99.9% wonderful and then, suddenly, a MIDI event falls far out of place.

    Nothing. This is what this test concludes. Nothing.

  25. Forget DAW´s… says none other than Trevor Horn!!!

    MUSIC RADAR: What tools do you use to write songs with?

    TREVOR HORN: I’m very fond of the Akai MPC Live because it’s really quick to use and idiots like me can operate it. Lots of people make records on Logic, but I’ve never been interested in that. I’m just an old muso who likes playing and programming.

    March 25, 2020
    https://www.musicradar.com/news/trevor-horn-im-just-an-old-muso-who-likes-playing-and-programming

  26. I got my start in music with my Atari St and it is still working. The midi software was excellent and I haven’t found any hardware sequencers as good. I’d try out this iPhone but back then I made the choice that Mac cost to much. I went from Atari to Amiga and finally to Microsoft windows. And today use Android for my phone though the prices for iPhones have been coming down.

  27. Yamaha’s old sequencers were the dog’s dangly bits. The best was the RM1X, which had note resolution going upto 480ppqn. I used it for years, and it never crashed or locked up. The realtime controls were a godsend, and only the sequencer on the motif range was as good.

    The older non midi hardware sequncers, such as the Roland c64, were tighter still. Trouble is, it was like programming in machine code, to get useful musical results.

    Nowadays there’s something for everyone. You can record huge slabs of audio AND Midi and get everything locked very well. USB has a larger bandwidth than MIDI, but as with all computing devices, you’re only as fast as your slowest component. Thankfully, the usb and midi to c/v device integration is much slicker now than it ever was.

    1. You have a good attitude. I need to remember that. If something is working for someone, then great. Thanks for the reminder.

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