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Elektron Analog Keys

Analogue Synthesizer
Published May 2014
By Paul Nagle

Despite its new, keyboardy surroundings, the Analog Keys interface will be familiar to anyone who's used a previous Elektron product.

Elektron have followed up their Analog Four with a fully fledged analogue keyboard.

Apparently, Ragnarök is fast approaching, and even if we survive it, strange powers are stirring in Norse lands as Scandinavians extend their icy grip across the world. Building on last year's impressive Analog Four module, Elektron's first keyboard-based analogue synthesizer is a sight fit for Valhalla.

The Analog Keys has four voices, effects, an integral sequencer and a keyboard long enough to actually play. It's been tweaked internally for extra bass, and offers an individual output for every voice. Did Elektron just produce the 'all sequences from one source' machine that some of us have been dreaming of for years? Or decades, even? Let's take a look...

Analog Evolution

LED and button fetishists will be drawn to the Analog Keys like paparazzi to a celebrity gusset. Although there's plenty of panel space, the encoders are packed close together, and adjusting them requires the same precision pinching gesture consistent across Elektron's range. The encoders feel as trustworthy as ever and the usual push-and-turn action is employed to speed up their otherwise ponderous progress.

As usual, alternative modes are just a Function key away, their titles etched into the panel, sometimes in near-camouflage. Despite the multi-functionality, I'm pretty familiar with the Elektron way, and therefore only got stumped on a couple of occasions. When trying to locate a particular option, the first port of call should always be the slender Getting Started manual, usually followed by the more comprehensive Reference Guide. The full manual is not supplied as a printed copy, which feels a bit tight considering that the Analog Keys is neither an immature nor a budget instrument.

Recasting the Analog Four as a performance-oriented synth hasn't worked perfectly in every respect. Firstly, the display is too small. While it was adequate on a compact module, fitting the same screen here seems as penny-pinching as it is squint-worthy, especially if you play the keyboard at arm's length (as is traditional). There's an omission, too: there's no input for a sustain pedal. This is a shame because, despite its size, the Analog Keys isRound the back of the Analog Keys we find a power switch and input for the internal PSU, a USB port, MIDI In, Out and Thru and — all on quarter-inch jack sockets — CV and Gate outputs, left and right inputs, four individual outputs, stereo outputs and a headphone output. not without its charms as a MIDI controller. The joystick is pleasantly springy and, even more pleasantly, it's programmable for a variety of tasks. It's so useful I couldn't help noticing there's ample room at the opposite end of the keyboard for another!

Since there aren't enough LEDs to represent the keyboard's full range of transposition, those at either extremity become progressively duller to indicate they're slipping off the +/- scale. I'm sure a couple of tri-colour LEDs at the extremities would have been clearer.

My last concern relates to the keyboard design. It's not the length that bothers me: I find three octaves perfect for the job in hand. Nor is it the velocity response or aftertouch action, both of which are fine. However, between the solid square arms of the otherwise impregnable metal frame, the plastic keyboard protrudes unprotected about 4cm from the base. Memories of broken ARP Odyssey keys are still vivid in my mind, and this seems an accident waiting to happen for anyone planning to take the Analog Keys on the road. That worry aside, the keyboard is blessed in one supremely important respect: it has an LED above every note that lights when you (or the sequencer) play it.

After accepting the need for care in transit, you can relax and wallow in quality hardware. The audio connections exceed those of the Analog Four, the main bonus being that four assignable outputs join the main stereo pair. The power supply is internal, something we can't always take for granted these days, and the dual CV and Gate outputs function exactly as on its predecessor. This means you can sequence a pair of analogue synths alongside the internal tracks and bring them inside through the audio inputs to be processed in parallel. The trio of MIDI sockets have extra flexibility, too: the Out and Thru can be configured to clock DIN Sync gear. Finally, USB is present for OS updates, regular MIDI duties, and System Exclusive dumps of your growing patch and pattern collections.

Four Play

I recommend reading the May 2013 Analog Four review (http://sosm.ag/analog4) if you're not familiar with its extensive synthesis features and powerful sequencer. This will leave us free to concentrate on the latest updates, and features that specifically relate to the keyboard model. For example, the large Sound Selection encoder is the first port of call for browsing patches. Turning it zips through the factory sounds (their names shown in larger text) so you can audition each on the keyboard prior to committing and loading your choice into the current track. This encoder is a nod towards the fact that the earlier quartet of segregated voices are now free to play together. The Analog Keys comfortably straddles the worlds of polyphonic synth and sequence machine: if you prefer, each track can be allocated a single voice, as before, but the option to play (and record) chords changes the landscape considerably.

It's hardly a surprise that the presence of a keyboard leads to more fluid interaction than the button-style note entry of the module. Even though four isn't a huge number of voices, they go further than you'd expect thanks to lightning-fast swaps and steals. By careful juggling, it's perfectly possible to have each of the internal tracks play polyphonically in the same pattern. There's a deluxe selection of voice-allocation modes, plus an easy opt-out clause so any track can hog a voice exclusively and prevent stealing.

Things have moved on since the previous review, and I'll mention the most pertinent OS enhancements as we go along, starting with the biggest: there's a hidden internal '+Drive'. This valuable resource has been unlocked in software for owners of both models, eliminating the pain of external management of projects via System Exclusive dump and restore.

Another improvement that arrived in OS 1.1 is a software switch to boost the resonance of the 24dB ladder filter. This translates to increased wibbly analogue wetness for everyone, yay! For the Analog Keys only, the ladder filter has been physically modified to improve its delivery of low frequencies. On my first afternoon exploring the demo patterns, I couldn't help questioning whether Elektronhad overdone it. Be aware: some of the subs lurking within could do damage if not treated with respect. This isn't a complaint — far from it — but I would recommend a little external EQ, now rendered practical thanks to those individual outputs.

I mentioned the +Drive just now, but without giving it the fanfare it deserves. Up to 4096 sounds can be stored comfortably, along with 128 projects — each project comprising 128 patterns, 128 kits, 16 songs and a pool of 128 unique patches. That lot might be enough for the instrument's entire working life, and it obliterates my previous misgivings about patch capacity. Previously, when you saved a tweaked kit as a new one, any patterns that referred to the original kit would play with the edited version, even though you had saved it as new. You had to manually go back and reload the kit to avoid disruption. This behaviour is now optional, though the onus remains on the player to monitor kits and how they're used.

Four global slots each comprise what is effectively a full Analog Keys identity. This is the sort of innovation you appreciate when managing the combined configuration of synth, sequencer, CV and MIDI. One new global slot component is the Multi Map. Inspired by the presence of a keyboard, it's a tool for specifying actions triggered by each note and we'll look at in more detail later. You can specify unique allocations of voices for every global slot, but override at kit level if necessary. Interestingly, when assigning voices to outputs, you aren't prevented from also sending them to the internal effects.

The effects are unchanged for this outing, which is no disappointment. It means the same chorus, delay and reverb are on tap to sweeten internal or external sources — or cast them into an apocalyptic abyss. Revising my opinion of the effects slightly, I sometimes found the reverb to be too epic, but there's sufficient control to make its presence always welcome.

Analog From Heaven

The analogue signal path is well served by the digital precision of LFOs, envelopes and a noise source. It's a fully stocked engine room for synthesis, yet the main components are rarely more than a button press away.

Some parameters are inexplicably buried, though. For example, the entrance to the velocity mod page isn't exactly prominent, placed as it is a couple of levels down in the Sound menu, past the switches to enable resonance boost, oscillator drift and so on. The page features velocity's five assignable destinations, and with a keyboard right in front of you, velocity naturally becomes integral to each pattern. A shortcut would therefore be most appreciated, joining the existing shortcuts for saving and reloading patterns, kits and sounds. Incidentally, in the case of the latter, there's a wide and eclectic choice of sound categories, so even when your creativity goes supernova and the +Drive is full of thousands of patches, a sensible filtering and sorting regime should quickly make your selections accessible, ready to join the current project pool.

Placing two analogue filters in series makes a major contribution to the sonic palette, which is assisted by a tasty selection of envelope shapes. Not everything is so gush-worthy, though. Each of the two DCOs can be beefed up by a sub-oscillator, but this is only available at a fixed (and rather high) level. The sub-oscillator is therefore a blunt instrument, its lack of subtlety highlighted by the Analog Keys' enhanced bass. In its favour, the sub now features a '5th' mode, which sets it at a fifth interval down from the chosen oscillator. The one-finger chords you can achieve with this work wonders when conserving voices and even more mileage is gained from parameter-locking the pitch of both DCOs in the sequencer.

Anyone who previously doubted Elektron's analogue credentials should take a trawl through the updated factory patches. With over 500 contemporary sounds you've got a smorgasbord of deep, squelchy, uncompromising and occasionally mental analogue noises primed for launch. Some of the drum patches are so morbidly obese, loud and punchy they could have a bright future on the Jerry Springer Show. I couldn't help idly wondering how the forthcoming Elektron drum machine is going to top them. Using the familiar Sound Lock functionality, where different patches can be triggered from each step of a sequence, it's no stretch to coax an entire drum part from one track, and as it happens there's a neat technique for doing just that: Multi Map!

Multi Map

Three innocent-looking buttons above the twangy grey joystick alter the behaviour of the keyboard. Of these, Multi Map offers far more laughs than a pile of Ordinance Surveys. For each of the four global setups there's a map defining functions for the 128 notes MIDI can address. The functions include triggering of patterns or patches, with scope for a different one on every key if you spend the time setting it all up. Having already marvelled at the spread of drum patches in the default map, I saw no reason not to extend this and program a few dozen related but subtly varied synth patches to spread strategically across the keys. It's easy to lose yourself in this stuff!

A Multi Map is restricted to the 128 sounds of the current project pool rather than from the thousands you might have on the +Drive, but this is a small price to pay for the combination of detailed mapping and superior voice-stealing algorithms.

Triggering specific patches from zones of the keyboard is only part of what Multi Maps can do. With transposition, the Analog Keys straddles a full 10 octaves, leaving plenty of notes free to fire off patterns. When doing so, you can prepare the switching mode of your choice. Thus, the next pattern can either wait for the current one to end, take over on the next step (at the same relative position), or take over and restart from the beginning. Armed with this handful of tools, Multi Map becomes a fresh front end for real-time sequence switching, beating the standard button-based method hands down.

Additional interactive pleasures are discovered by triggering the same patterns on adjacent octaves but — crucially — giving each octave a unique switching mode. If that isn't enough, you can set aside a range of keys to play external MIDI instruments or whatever sound is loaded into the currently selected track. Even on a three-octave keyboard, Multi Maps proved far more versatile than mere programmable splits.

I mentioned at the start that there's no sustain pedal input, but in the event the hold button turned out to be a pretty fair swap — better in many ways. It doesn't behave like a standard hold pedal, but facilitates the holding of up to four notes on the keyboard, spread across multiple tracks if you wish. This is ideal for building immense drones, latching a cool arpeggio or performing tricks once the province of lead weights and similar. Here, those LEDs above each key serve as welcome reminders of the notes that are held, so you can avoid hitting (and consequently releasing) them until you want to.

Activate 'MIDI Ext', and the Analog Keys' keyboard, joystick and 10 encoders are divorced from the on-board synth and sequencer and delegated to a selected MIDI device. Having assigned the MIDI CCs as appropriate, you're free to tweak and play external gear without affecting the sequencer or track behaviour. Strangely, given how gob-smackingly useful this functionality is, there's just a single set of definitions per project.

The Sequencer

A project's available patterns are divided into eight banks (A through H) of 16. Each may be up to four bars long and is subject to the same switching modes described earlier. Elektron's grid record mechanism for building sequences works as logically as ever. Its step-based parameter locks are the key to bringing patterns to life by introducing multiple changes and fine-tuning every step to an obsessive degree — just because you can.

Real-time recording isn't totally free and unquantised, but it gets as fine as 1/384th of a note, which is overkill for most sequencing roles. The sequencer's biggest sin is that it completely ignores the new performance controls, the joystick and aftertouch! Encoder motion is recorded, suggesting this is not a technical issue, so fingers crossed this will change in the future. You can, at least, record polyphonically, leaping from track to track without ever dropping out of record, but polyphony raises an issue of its own. It is now an easy matter to consume all available voices in a single track. It therefore seems wasteful that the other tracks can't be reassigned to sequence external MIDI gear.

If you hold record and double-click the play button, recordings are automatically quantised. Alternatively, quantisation can be applied afterwards, either across the whole pattern, or per track. I sometimes fell foul of the visual reminders of the two recording modes, though. The key combinations of Function and play (clear) will erase either the selected track or the whole pattern, depending on whether you're in grid or real-time record. As indication of the current mode, the record LED is either lit or very slowly pulsing, a distinction I failed to make on several occasions, especially after a large caffeine intake when 'very slow' equates to 'forever'. Fortunately, these clear actions are easily undone by repeating them, although sadly not when the Analog Keys is externally sync'ed.

The otherwise slick and logical sequencer has a final spanner to throw in the works: all tracks are locked to the same speed. Unlike the Octatrack, for example, no track can play at 1/8th speed while another runs twice as fast. This is pretty limiting and hopefully can be addressed, even if it requires further evolution of the pattern change modes. Happily the infinite pattern repeat issue mentioned in the previous review is now fixed, thanks to an added parameter: change length.

Conclusion

Where the Analog Four was neat and portable, the still-compact Analog Keys crams in almost everything you could hope for, despite being confined to Elektron's usual interface of button-pushing and encoder pinching. With luck, the ongoing maturity will address the failure to record joystick and aftertouch data and the binding of all tracks to a single time division. Even if these improvements never happen, the sequencer remains fast and rewarding, especially in the new keyboard-based context.

Apart from the small display and protruding keys, I liked the Analog Keys a lot. It has numerous qualities, such as very flexible voice management and assignable outputs. The Multi Map function is a delight and the keyboard strikes the right balance between size and playability. The sound is excellent, the resonance-enhanced filter more alive than ever — and who can resist LEDs above every note? We shouldn't forget all the previous pluses either — internal effects, CV/Gate control and external inputs. It's quite a package, made even sweeter by Elektron's 2014 Musikmesse Overbridge announcement. Scheduled for the end of the year, Overbridge is a free update that will bring bi-directional USB audio streaming and VST/AU control to the three analogue products — the Analog Four, Analog Keys and Analog Rytm. We can expect customised plug-ins for editing and full recall of patch and pattern data. Sadly, older gear such as the Octatrack can't join the USB jamboree at present.

As you probably noticed, it's hard not to get carried away when an instrument you've dreamed of finally shows up. The Analog Keys is a sequencing powerhouse of epic proportions and if the end of all things really is nigh and kicks off before I've saved up for one, I'm going to be very cross indeed.  

Alternatives

Multitimbral analogue synths with tightly integrated sequencers, effects and CV/Gate outputs aren't exactly common. Apart from the CV support, probably the last serious alternative was the Nord Modular G2, a virtual analogue that required a computer to set up. Another contender that comes to mind is the DSI Tempest. Although known as an analogue drum machine, and has pads instead of keys, it's a synth with equally fast voice switching and its own slant on dynamic performance.

Chains & Songs

Pattern chaining is an ad hoc means of jamming out song structures as you go. The display's bottom left-hand corner is used for managing chains and becomes a good eye test after a few hours, although I'm grateful to have it. Equally welcome is the capacity to set up a chain in advance, ready to fire off at the right moment. Existing chains are easily ported into songs, although with the usual proviso that you have to handle tempo changes manually.

Published May 2014