Not a company to do things by half, Elektron have combined their first analogue synth with an incredibly versatile sequencer.
Elektron, the cool Scandinavian minds behind the Machinedrum and Octatrack (reviewed SOS January 2002 and October 2011, respectively), are experts when it comes to marrying flexible sound engines to finely-honed step sequencers. But, with the exception of the SIDstation, it's been their virtual rather than their actual circuits we've been able to hear so far. That changed with the release of the Analog Four, or A4, a bundled quartet of analogue monophonic synthesizers with integral effects and the power to sequence external CV gear as well.
The Analog Four has a denser collection of buttons than most synths, analogue or otherwise. They're spread across the panel in black, white, red and various shades of grey. Compact but hefty, this 340 x 176 x 63mm steel box most closely resembles the previous Elektron product, the Octatrack, but in functionality it's closer to the Monomachine (reviewed SOS April 2004). Instead of the Monomachine's six digital voices, it has four that are analogue (where it counts), plus two extra tracks — one for sequencing external analogues, the other dedicated to effects.
The track buttons are positioned down the panel's right-hand side, with 16 step buttons along the bottom, in line with Elektron tradition. Of particular note is the miniature keyboard, ideally positioned for tapping in tunes without an external controller. If you prefer, you can play and record via MIDI instead.
Despite the apparent complexity, getting around isn't difficult. There is, however, extensive multi-functionality, with the Function button used to access features marked in dark red text. This text blends seamlessly into the background in low-light conditions, so let's hope for a switch to a brighter colour in future versions.
If the red text is hard to see, you'll be positively dazzled by the LCD. Smaller than the Octatrack's, this display is all about presenting vital information with no attempt to pretty it up. It's a surprisingly effective strategy. I know it bucks the trend for coloured graphical touchscreens and bitmapped backdrops, but it works, just. However, at 122 x 32 pixels, the screen's tiny characters aren't for the short-sighted!
The display works in conjunction with 11 grey 'push and turn' encoders. Once you adjust to their layout and can visualise the encoder corresponding to each on-screen field, you're away. It has to be said that the encoders aren't ideal for fine value adjustments but they do feel as good as on previous Elektrons — built to last.
Ordinarily, now's when I'd start blathering like an old woman over the lack of a printed manual. But with changes, fixes and OS enhancements appearing thick and fast, Elektron considered it wrong to print documentation that would be out of date before it arrived. Fortunately, you hardly need the manual at all, which is both a surprise and a relief to this Octatrack owner. Being an analogue synth, the A4 should be straightforward and inviting, and for the most part it is! That said, carefully pinching tightly-packed encoders will never cry 'analogue' as boldly as seizing the cutoff knob of a Minimoog or MS20!
Given that there are four synths on board, it's a pity there are only two balanced audio outputs, plus a headphone socket. This eliminates hopes of sending each for individual processing and puts heavier expectations on the internal effects. The two audio inputs may each be independently panned and routed through the effects, or they're available as oscillator waveform replacements.
However, audio outputs aside, connectivity is an Analog Four high point, comprising, as it does, four CV outputs via two quarter-inch stereo jacks. This opens up analogues old and new to Elektron-style sequencing. The MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets also offer a bonus: the latter two can be switched to act as DIN sync outputs. Both Roland's Sync 24 and Korg's Sync 48 protocols are supported, making the A4 a rare but wonderful way to bring a TB303 and a KPR77 (drum machine) together. Power is courtesy of a 12V external supply and there's a USB port, used not for sequencing but for backup and OS upgrades. As there's no card slot or other means of quickly replacing banks of patterns, I recommend grabbing Elektron's free C6 application for that nostalgic return to the '80s: SysEx back up and restore.
There are 128 patterns on tap, divided into eight banks (A-H). When viewing each bank prior to selection, half-lit step LEDs indicate patterns that contain data; the current pattern is shown as fully lit. It's worth mentioning that, for the A4, Elektron have, at last, devised a way to seamlessly copy patterns to new, empty locations without annoying silences.
Neither patterns nor tracks can be named but you can name the other components: sounds, kits and songs. Banks A and B contain examples of the A4 doing its synthy, sequency thing, and these feature far more synthetic percussion than you'd expect from just four tracks. The examples can be wiped but are enough to get you in the mood to locate a blank pattern and a new kit and get creative.
A pattern can be up to 64 steps long and, unlike step sequencers of old, its tracks run in only one direction and at the same speed. Every step holds note triggers (trigs) or 'trigless locks', the latter containing one or more parameter locks or 'p-locks'. These are Elektron's legendary means of transforming multiple components of a source patch at any point in the sequence. Pushing the boundaries still further, there's a special kind of parameter lock called a Sound Lock. With this, you can place a different sound on every step of the pattern, which is how the inventive preset drum tracks are achieved.
Notes are recorded in one of two modes. In the first, Grid Record, you activate each step while pressing the desired notes on the keyboard. It's slick enough, but the other method, Live Record, is faster still. You record directly, either from the A4's own keyboard or from an external MIDI source, turning encoders too, if you like. The recording resolution is accurate to 1/384th of a step, which is smooth enough for the dubbiest of bass lines. The Analog Four's micro-timing implementation is elegantly spot-on: any event is shiftable by 1/384th of a note, regardless of how it was recorded. To tighten up loose playing, there's a variable quantise operation available at either pattern or track level.
There are a number of rules governing how fresh pattern selections are handled during playback. In most cases, you'd let each finish before another began. If you prefer, you can jump immediately, either to the same relative position or to the new pattern's beginning. This technique has a slight flaw at the moment, though. It's related to Elektron's idiosyncratic handling of tracks with different lengths — never a comfortable area for the straight-grooving Swedes. In this case, the A4 can only play polyrhythms if it's fooled into believing that the pattern is infinitely long. This has a knock-on effect for switching patterns, because infinity can take a while! Hopefully, a workaround will be available by the time you read this.
After a few bouts of jamming, the next logical progression will probably be to organise your patterns into longer, more finished structures. There are two closely related methods for achieving this. In the first, Chains, you define a range of patterns to play in sequence. Slick performers will doubtless seize the opportunity to build chains in advance of activating Chain Mode. Alternatively, chain building is an interactive process in which you populate a maximum of 64 chains with up to 256 pattern entries, divided up any way you please. It's an effective implementation mainly due to its simplicity, and Songs are an extension of the same idea.
There are 16 Songs on board, loaded into memory one at a time. They're built from individual patterns, chains or a mixture of the two. Each song row can be repeated up to 99 times and can include track mutes and transposes. The only omission is any form of tempo storage; tempo changing is very much a manual process.
The A4's sequencing is familiar Elektron territory: the really new ground is covered by its sound engine. This consists of a 'kit' of four sounds, one per synth, and there are 128 kits to choose from. A quick reckoning reveals that every pattern can therefore have its own kit.
There's some scope for confusion. If you tweak a kit used in other patterns, it's your responsibility to save it as a new kit. In the current OS (1.04), there's an extra step you should follow too. Having saved a kit to a new location, I'd advise returning to the original kit and reloading it. If you don't, existing patterns will play with the edited version of the kit, in spite of your save. Elektron plan to alter this behaviour in the future, but as far as I'm concerned, being able to save kits, patterns and individual sounds addresses the main priority.
The term 'kit' is, perhaps, misleading but drums, as well as synth patches, are bound to be popular programming objectives. As raw material, there are 128 individual sound memories and I quickly realised I could fill the lot with kicks, snares and hi-hats, even before programming a 'starting point' collection of basses, leads and sound effects. Remembering that Sound Locks can place a different sound on every step of a pattern, 128 memories doesn't seem very many, especially as when you modify a sound, any pattern using Sound Locks to point to it will be affected. This is another aspect of the Analog Four that's scheduled for improvement.
It's fair to say that the Analog Four looks nothing like a classic analogue of yore, but on closer inspection it's quite familiar. There's nothing enigmatic about buttons labelled Osc1, Osc2, Filters, Amp, Env and LFO, and each page is but a keypress away. When the parameters overflow to a second page, a broken line above the page's name brings it to your attention.
So what kind of analogue synth have Elektron built? For a start, they've included two analogue oscillators, each with a sub-oscillator. These are digitally controlled (DCOs rather than VCOs), and this means stability. The A4 ran fairly warm — a fact I noticed after spending several evenings with one in my lap — but it was never anything but impeccably in tune. I suppose this could conceivably upset analogue die-hards if it weren't for the many ways of screwing with the pitch — and everything else besides!
The oscillators are stocked with our favourite analogue waveforms: triangle, saw, and so on, and unusually, the pulse width is variable on them all. Add a dedicated PWM LFO for each oscillator and the A4 outguns even Roland's Alpha Junos. This isn't to say that there are no areas for improvement. The sub-oscillator's level is fixed and the digital noise generator is rather brutal, but these are minor niggles. Both ring and amplitude modulation widen the sonic palette extensively, but for me it's the sync implementation that shines brightest. Sync is continuously variable from conventional hard sync down to none. I've always relished the imperfections of soft sync, and here it becomes fascinatingly unstable as you back off the strength, the slaved oscillator clutching at different harmonics to lock on to until, approaching a value of zero, it finally gives up the ghost. Either oscillator can be sync master or, in the 'metal' mode, both take a stab at the role, with discordant, metallic results.
Next, the oscillators pass into the dual filter system, wired as a four-pole ladder followed by a two-pole multimode filter. I'm informed that the audio path is fixed, so there's no mileage in wishing for parallel operation or an option to route oscillators through independent filters. Fortunately, it's not a big issue, because the filters each have worthwhile qualities. Having a choice is simply a bonus!
The four-pole filter is the one you'll employ for beefy bass lines. Its overdrive slips in before or after the filter, and just a few increments are enough to make a major fatness contribution. The gain structure appears carefully thought-through. For example, oscillator level has a marked effect on resonance — a resonance capable of yowling like a lovesick tomcat. When pushed, the two-pole filter has its own shrill whistle, plus an impressive list of modes: low pass, band pass, band stop, high pass and peaking, with both one-pole and two-pole variants to choose from. This filter is the finishing touch to every patch and useful whether you require extra presence or the extremes of biting EQ. Thanks to a dedicated filter envelope and a second free envelope, the filters can be modulated separately for greater versatility.
The Analog Four's signal path is analogue from oscillators through to amplifier, but there's plenty of digital in the wings. Foremost amongst the ones and zeroes, the envelopes are fast, responsive and tailorable. For those of us anal enough to care, every envelope can mimic real circuitry, starting not from zero but from the envelope's existing level. Equally digital, equally effective, there are plenty of LFOs. Joining those dedicated to PWM, there's one for vibrato and two more that are assignable to anything you like, whether it's beat-sync'ed sweeps and gates or audio-level modulation.
Suffice it to say that there's more than enough proper synthesis going on to let you build complex and evolving sounds even before you start p-locking the heck out of them. Whether your preference is for snappy or floppy basses, buzzing, hoovery leads or a searing sync to loosen the earwax, the A4 is well-equipped and rich-sounding. Given time and familiarity, it'll deliver a wide range of old-school synth classics, as well as in-your-face contemporary timbres.
Kits don't just contain synth patches. The Analog Four provides 10 performance macros in each kit, one per encoder. These have many potential uses, so it's fortunate that macros can be named. Choices like Wobble, Dirtier and Wetter give you a fair indication of what to expect, and even the abbreviated versions shown on the Performance display are hugely valuable.
A macro can drive up to five underlying parameters. These are carefully-programmed offsets ready to be applied to any track when the mood strikes. A macro may be bipolar if it suits the chosen parameter(s), and it's not only the onboard synths, but the CV and effects tracks (of which more later) that can be totally reshaped. The only limitation, if it counts as a limitation, is that the performance encoders can't be parameter-locked.
Typical applications include mixing, effects or filter tweaking, plus as many strange twists and turns as you can dream up (for example, shuffling the source tracks for the CV and Gate outputs while simultaneously cranking up the modulation on track one and fading track two into an ocean of reverb). As macros are intended for performance, you can tweak without fear of permanently altering the kit.
A second press of the Performance button opens a basic level mixer for the internal and effects tracks. This is much faster than selecting each in turn and grabbing the Level encoder, but it made me think that some kind of track activity display would be handy too. It isn't always instantly clear what each track is doing.
Still on the subject of performance, Trig Mutes deserve a mention. They're used to mask any step trigger, whether it contains notes, parameter locks or both. Masking is invaluable if you wish to prepare intricate changes to be revealed during performance. Alternatively, you can simplify a pattern gradually with Trig Mutes, temporarily masking triggers without wiping them.
To add extra movement, there's a swing function, plus note and parameter slides to add the dimensions of slip and squelch. By pressing each step key, you can introduce smooth transitions between values. Having engaged a note slide or two, I couldn't help thinking 'TB303'! Along those lines, the sequencer includes a direct, interactive accent implementation. The sequencer records incoming note velocities but sometimes accent is just faster and clearer. Using a dedicated button and the mini-keyboard, you can also transpose any active track, assuming that it hasn't been excluded from transposition. I even detected the first tender shoots of scale correction. Currently only major and minor scales are included, but hopefully lots of exotic scales will follow.
If all that hasn't stimulated the sequencer follicles sufficiently, there's an arpeggiator on every track — even the effects track. This is no afterthought, but a spontaneous means of varying or totally subverting patterns. Naturally, it features the usual directions of up, down, alternate and random, but some digging in the setup menu gives you mastery over arpeggio length, plus offsets to each step.
The Analog Four has one last card to play — and it's an ace. I'm referring to the dedicated CV track: four output voltages that are configurable as notes, gates, trigger pulses or general control voltages. CV and Gate events aren't reserved to the CV track either; notes can be sourced from any track, even the FX track (which ordinarily has no use for them). The upshot of this is that it's possible to run two external analogues alongside the four internal synths.
Both Octave/Volt and Hz/Volt protocols are catered for. Similarly, gates can be V- or S-Trig — nobody's left out. The voltage output is user-configurable up to 10V (bipolar too), and for extra friendliness, you can specify the voltage for middle C. If that's not enough, the CV track has two fully assignable LFOs and envelopes. Interestingly, the sequencer doesn't send MIDI notes from any of its tracks, but in portable analogue setups, those CV outputs are going to be a godsend.
This is arguably Elektron's most jammable machine yet. Using its keyboard, you can start with a blank pattern and record something in no time at all. Tapping in sequences, then refining them, becomes an almost meditational exercise; those pliable synthesizers beg to be pushed and stretched. As an Octatrack owner, I adapted instantly to the A4's menu system — even with its small screen and snug encoders — but there's a lot packed in and Elektron newcomers might need to take it a step at a time.
The parameters are spread over a number of pages, but they're designed so that you never have to dig far. Nevertheless, if your priorities involve menu avoidance and one-knob-per-function the Analog Four starts at a disadvantage. It's obviously some distance from the classic analogue experience, but then it isn't trying to be a classic analogue.
Tonally, the A4 starts from a base somewhere around a Roland Juno 6 or DSI Prophet 08, so programming Moogy basses and slippery, fluid solos requires some effort, but the oscillators and filters are thoughtfully constructed; the overdrive, in particular, is very successful. I know that some users wailed and tore their beards on learning that the Analog Four doesn't have a polyphonic mode, but it didn't seem an omission to me, and I think it's refreshing to have a choice of gear that isn't compromised by being a jack of all trades. The most significant weakness is the lack of individual outputs.
As a self-contained step sequencer for your analogue needs, the A4 is without peer. The effects are just enough, and the ability to drive external analogues is a major bonus. Indeed, it was while sequencing a Korg MS20 alongside a Roland SH1 and feeding their output back through the effects that the obvious conclusion hit me: the Analog Four is very probably the ultimate analogue groovebox.
There are no obvious alternatives. Elektron's own Monomachine comes to mind, if the analogue part isn't important, and there are various 'X0X' boxes if you want to limit yourself in that way. From there, you progress to digital grooveboxes such as the Korg Electribes or your own combinations of sequencers and synths, for example the Doepfer Dark Time and DSI Tetra. Even the DSI Tempest offers some parallels, although its focus is different to that of the Analog 4.
The effects structure is basic, but it doesn't disappoint, thanks mainly to the quality of the effects included. These are: chorus, reverb and delay, or, to give them their proper titles: Wideshift Chorus, Supervoid Reverb and Saturator Delay. The reverb is probably the stand-out effect, its ringing spaciousness and infinite decay making it the perfect partner for ambient sequences and percussion.
Turning to the delay, the name gives it away really, the saturation component doing a fine job of distorting and generally fuzzifying the delay signal. Combined with feedback, the delay easily slips into overload, but after this happens a couple of times, you start treating it carefully, as you would its analogue forebears. Delay times are set in increments of 128th notes and the delay width is user definable, so you can rein in the extremes of its panning.
There's slightly less to say about the chorus. It's pleasantly swirly. Set to its shortest delay times, it can even hint at flanging, but it may be the effect most ripe for future enhancement.
Each track has individual effect sends. Therefore, when a track is muted, delays and reverberations die away gently and naturally. Finally, but not unexpectedly, two LFOs are supplied for effect mangling. Again, this invites the full gamut of possibilities, from rhythmically sweeping reverb time to randomly boosting delay saturation and feedback. The effects track is treated like all others in terms of parameter locking, performance macros and trig mutes. It's deeper than it looks.