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Elektron Digitakt

Digital Drum Computer & Sampler
Published September 2017
By Simon Sherbourne

Elektron Digitakt

Elektron’s new sampling drum machine is much more than just a cut-price Octatrack.

Elektron have built a loyal fanbase with hardware that lends itself to dynamic performance, and gels with those moving away from a laptop-centric worldview toward a more DIY, modular aesthetic. The Digitakt packs some of the Elektron magic into a significantly more compact and affordable sampling drum machine. There was some confusion about whether it was a replacement for the flagship Octatrack, but Elektron have since announced MkII versions of their high-end instruments: Octatrack, Analog Rytm and Analog Four.

Compakt

Those Swedish music tech companies sure know a thing or two about making stuff desirable. The Digitakt ships in a box that forgoes the usual cacophony of photos and specs in favour of stylish Helvetica and line drawings on flat Tiffany’s blue. A cute pop-open compartment holds the power adaptor and one of those nice braided USB cables. The Digitakt itself is a thing of much loveliness, having the solid industrial (almost militaristic) feel of old-school ‘proper’ electronic devices while still feeling modern.

I love the feel of the big clacky buttons, with their stylish backlit legending. They are distractingly noisy at times, especially if you’re on headphones and trying not to wake up the rest of the house! However, there’s no need to hit them hard as, unfortunately, they’re not pressure-sensitive. The subtly rubberised, endless encoders have a noticeably higher resolution than those on previous devices, and work alongside the screen which, although a crisp OLED, is low-res by today’s standards.

Audio connectivity is on quarter-inch jacks: there are two for the main output, a headphone out which mirrors the same, and two sampling inputs. Although these analogue connections only provide a stereo mix, discrete digital feeds of the eight internal tracks are available via USB with the optional Overbridge Premium software. The USB connection can also carry MIDI, and there are also dedicated full-size MIDI In, Out and Thru ports which can be repurposed for DIN24 or 48 sync.

The Digitakt’s back panel features a  power switch, a 12V power supply input, a USB B port, MIDI In, Out and Thru ports, quarter-inch stereo inputs and outputs, and a quarter-inch headphone socket.The Digitakt’s back panel features a power switch, a 12V power supply input, a USB B port, MIDI In, Out and Thru ports, quarter-inch stereo inputs and outputs, and a quarter-inch headphone socket.

Out Of The Box

The Digitakt boots up into your most recent Project, which stores eight banks of eight patterns (each with its own sounds, settings and sequences) and a working pool of up to 128 samples that load into the 64MB of RAM. The main 16 buttons act as real-time trigger pads, bank/pattern selectors, step-sequence triggers, and even chromatic note keys depending on the mode. When stopped or in regular playback, the buttons trigger their sound and focus the corresponding track. The first eight tracks are samplers, and these are followed by eight MIDI tracks for triggering external gear or software.

Tapping the Record button arms the current pattern for Grid Recording, using the 16 main buttons in the familiar XOX gate sequencing fashion. The Digitakt shows the playback position by flashing its buttons bright red sequentially, while the buttons flash white to show triggers as they happen. Active trigger steps for the currently focused track are shown in dim red; tapping buttons adds or removes trigger steps, or ‘Trigs’ as Elektron call them. Patterns can be up to 64 steps long, with the 16-step window you’re working with moved and indicated via a dedicated button and LED strip.

Pressing Rec and Play together drops you into Live Recording mode, where you can capture patterns via real-time performance. This is where you feel the lack of velocity sensitivity, although you can add velocity variation in real time from an encoder, albeit one track at a time. Live Recording captures the timing subtleties (intended or otherwise) of your performance. Quantisation can be applied by degrees globally or per track. Swing can also be set per pattern.

The Digitakt allows you to adjust your groove with ‘micro timing’, by holding down a step then tapping the left or right nudge buttons. In fact, while holding a trig step in Grid Record you can adjust any sound parameter at all, and the result will be captured as a single step-automation snapshot for that track. Elektron call this a ‘parameter lock’ like their fellow Swedes Teenage Engineering.

Sound Design

Track/sound parameters are accessed via the five buttons below the encoders. TRIG lets you edit sequencer note parameters, SRC is where you select and edit samples and their playback properties, FLTR is for all things filter-related, AMP contains your amplitude envelope and FX levels, and LFO accesses all modulation settings. Secondary views give access to things like the track level mixer and detailed effects settings.

Obviously, the defining factor on the main eight tracks is the sample. Sample selection is a parameter on the TRG page, giving quick access to the 128 sample slots in the current project. Like everything else, this parameter is automatable, so you could have a different sample for each step. This could be used creatively for subtle variation, or randomly for glitchy chaos. The SRC page also lets you set Start, Length and Loop positions, as well as playback direction and loop modes.

The sample playback engine is super-fast and smooth, so you can loop very short sections of a sample to create new tones. The position can then be moved, automated or modulated, giving you scanning wavetable or granular-synth-like sounds. These sounds can be then be played melodically using the Chromatic button mode, radically enhancing the sonic possibilities beyond that of a typical drum machine.

Further sound shaping is more than adequately taken care of by the filters, effects and modulation. The multi-mode filter has its own envelope. Reverb and Delay are send effects shared by the pattern and sound great. Each track also has Bit Reduction and Overdrive at the source sample stage, which add bite and warmth. These in particular are great and give the Digitakt its own sound. Modulation is simple but powerful: each track has a single variable-shape LFO that can be routed to multiple parameters. It can be triggered to double as another envelope, and has a Fade envelope to ramp the depth in or out.

Sampling

The Digitakt’s internal storage comes pre-loaded with a few electronic and acoustic drum sample sets, some synth sounds and a ‘toolbox’ with effects and short waveform cycles to use as raw materials. The Sound Browser, which stores sound patches comprising a sample and all associated track settings, arrives empty. But in any case the Digitakt is all about sampling your own sounds. This is done MPC-style in a dedicated mode, where you can record manually or set an auto-start threshold. Shift-tapping the Sampling button gives you Direct Sampling, which starts recording immediately regardless of what you were doing before. The Digitakt can sample from either or both of its inputs, or from its internal mix bus. When you stop, the sample is normalised and you’re presented with a waveform editor. The clever split-view UI lets you zoom and adjust the start and end points independently, enabling very fine trimming. When you’re done you can save your edited section to the project or assign it directly to a track.

The Digitakt is more compact than its larger siblings, measuring just 215 x 176 x 63 mm.The Digitakt is more compact than its larger siblings, measuring just 215 x 176 x 63 mm.One of the ways the Digitakt is kept simpler than Octatrack is that all audio tracks are the same, with a single mode. The Octatrack has a Slice mode, allowing you to sample a series of drum hits (for example) into a single long file, chop it into regions, and play back the sounds from different notes on a single track. On the Digitakt you can still capture a bunch of sounds in one pass, but you need to manually define each region and assign each to a different track. I had lots of fun doing this with sounds sampled from a Pocket Operator, a modular synth and even my phone.

So what about loading your own pre-existing samples on to the Digitakt? Currently, the only way to do this is using a basic Mac or Windows application called Transfer that connects via USB. Audio files can be dropped onto the Transfer app, which converts them to a friendly format and dumps them onto the Digitakt’s 1GB solid-state storage, which Elektron call the +Drive. By default, copied files go to an ‘Incoming Files’ directory, but you can pre-allocate a new folder ahead of time. However there’s no way to manage files on the device from the Transfer app, and no way to move files off of the Digitakt, and therefore back anything up.

In fact file management was something I found persistently painful about working with the Digitakt. It took me half the review period to figure out the different places you interact with files. When I finally did grasp the differences between the project sample pool, the +Drive library and the Sound Browser I still had to get used to the DOS-like navigation. The Sound Browser, which has a direct link on the front panel, is what one might assume to be the primary place for, you know, browsing sounds, but is only useful if it’s been populated by the user with exported track settings.

The concept of kits kind of exists, in the sense that you can independently copy a pattern’s track settings and sequences, but there’s no kit data structure that can be stored or loaded from the browser. In fact the sound expansion packs you can buy from Elektron are simply collections of samples. To access the +Drive directly from a track’s Source page requires an arbitrary, and as far as I could tell undocumented, button combo that I stumbled upon. The good news is that I’m hopeful the upcoming Overbridge software (which was not available during the review) will provide a much better experience for managing media, sounds and projects.

Conditional Love

At this point in a typical drum machine or workstation review I’d probably be turning my attention to arrangement features, song modes and so on. The Digitakt takes a different tack, though, largely skipping in-the-box arrangement as a concept in favour of real-time variation, manipulation and performance. Patterns can, however, be sequenced from a DAW using MIDI notes or Program Changes. There’s also a basic pattern-chaining feature where you tap p,atterns in succession and it will loop through them, but this is flawed in several ways, and is itself more of an on-the-fly performance tool. Something I missed was the ability to instantly swap patterns while maintaining the beat position. Pattern changes on the Digitakt are always queued until the end of the current pattern.

So how does the Digitakt keep things interesting? For starters you can lengthen a pattern to up to 64 steps, and when you do so, the existing sections are copied forward as a starting point. You can also set the pattern length independently per track for polyrhythmic variation. Much more innovative are Conditional Locks. These are Trigger settings you add to any step of a track to set a logical rule for when the step will play. One option is to set a percentage chance of a step being triggered each cycle. Another is an interval, such as ‘play on the first cycle then every fourth cycle after that’.

There are conditional trigger rules are influenced by other steps, in particular the previous step or the same step on the adjacent track. For example, a step can be set to only trigger when that step on the previous track does, or only when it doesn’t. By setting a series of conditional rules you can seed partially self-generating patterns and repeats that have interesting internal interactions between their parts.

A more conventional use of Conditional Locks is to create fills. Any trigger can be set only to play during a fill (or inversely to mute during a fill). During playback you can trigger a full fill cycle or hold down the Fill button for momentary fills. While Fill is active you’ll hear any extra ‘hidden’ triggers that have assigned the Fill Condition. Again this could then interact with other dormant Conditions — it’s pretty far-out stuff.

Performance First

The Digitakt has several live-performance tricks that advance the pursuit of interesting beats. Real-time and per-step automation are essential parts of this. In Live Recording mode, any parameter changes will be captured and played back dynamically on the next cycle. As we’ve touched upon already, in Grid Record mode you can hold down any step and make changes to set up a snapshot that overrides existing settings or automation for the duration of that trigger.

A final trick is a ‘Do to All’ modifier that has been seen on some other Elektron devices and is an instant winner. Holding down the Track button mirrors any parameter changes you make across all tracks. This can be used for some really effective and crazy results that work well in a live setting or for transitions/breakdowns in a song. For example ,you can pitch everything up or down, slowly bit-crush everything, drown everything in reverb, or randomly change the samples on every track! No matter how crazy things get, you can instantly restore normality by tapping the Restore Pattern button combo, undoing all the changes you’ve made since you last saved. You might think this trick would get old after a few goes... I can assure you it does not!

Conclusion

I came to the Digitakt expecting a modernised but pared-down Octatrack, but discovered it has few pretensions towards workstation duties other than some surprisingly deep MIDI sequencing capabilities. It doesn’t hand you anything on a plate or come packed with pre-produced kits and templates. Instead it encourages you to start from scratch, capture sounds, mess them up, jam a performance, record it and move on. The sampler engine is amazing: you can push it to extremes and smoothly loop down to tiny slices, blurring the line between sampling and wavetable synthesis.

Professional tools with a potential for deep and fluent interaction often have a steep initial learning curve, and there’s a lot about the Digitakt that’s far from intuitive. Overbridge, when it becomes available, should help, bringing greatly enhanced file management, and providing complete control and recall of the device’s settings from a plug-in in your DAW. Multi-channel audio streaming over USB is also a huge advantage. The Digitakt packs an awful lot of potential into its small frame.

Alternatives

Akai’s MPC Live and Korg’s Electribe Sampler are probably the Digitakt’s closest peers. The Electribe packs in a lot, with synthesis, slicing, expandable storage, and Ableton export. The MPC has it all but is also a lot pricier. Both devices are more like production workstations while the Digitakt is definitely more like an instrument.

This is also the way to think about the more common comparison, which is to the Octatrack. Although they’re obviously related there’s a lot that’s different, and in some ways the Digitakt is more comparable to Elektron’s ultra-luxury drum machine ,the Analog Rytm. The Octatrack can do most of what Digitakt can do and a lot more. (Exceptions are Overbridge and Conditional Locks.) It is at heart also a performance sampler, but where the Digitakt is a focused drum-machine instrument, the Octatrack is a centrepiece where you could set up and run a live performance. For example, it has cue monitoring, track mute status saved with patterns, and the awesome scene-morphing crossfader. It also has multiple track engine types, lots more effects and modulation, removeable storage, and so on. If this sounds like this is more for you, be prepared to pay a price, both literally and in terms of complexity and learning curve.

Overbridge

Overbridge allows control and recall of Elektron device settings and audio streaming into your DAW.Overbridge allows control and recall of Elektron device settings and audio streaming into your DAW.

While Elektron have a reputation for producing great stand-alone performance instruments, their Overbridge software makes their more recent devices integrate brilliantly with computers. Overbridge for Digitakt looks to be the most ambitious implementation yet. Unfortunately it wasn’t ready for testing during this review, but Elektron have revealed the features and it should be possible to extrapolate from Overbridge on the other boxes. Overbridge for Digitakt will come in two variants: a Basic version that’s free, and a €79 Premium version.

The free version will have a sample manager/librarian, which is essential given how awkward this side of the Digitakt is right now. Basic is also listed as providing MIDI over USB and DAW Sync, although I’m not sure what these refer to, as I was able to run MIDI and Clock in both directions over USB on my test unit already. Lastly, Basic offers streaming of the main audio outputs over USB. This, for me, is the killer feature. I absolutely love devices that can inject straight into my DAW without the hassle of audio connections, especially in a mobile situation without my main audio interface.

Overbridge Premium takes this to another level, letting you stream all eight discrete audio tracks, and optionally use the device as a stereo audio interface. During the review I often soloed tracks on the Digitakt and bounced them into Ableton Live: there’ll be no need for that soon. Premium also provides a VST/AU plug-in with a dedicated control interface for the Digitakt. Not only does this make for a major display upgrade compared to the built-in screen, it allows you to capture or control all Digitakt parameters using your DAW host’s automation system. It also delivers total recall of your Digitakt project with your DAW session.

MIDI

As the Digitakt is so heavily focused on sampling, it’s easy to overlook that it’s actually a pretty powerful MIDI sequencer as well. Each pattern has eight MIDI tracks that can be used to sequence external synths or plug-ins with up to four notes of polyphony per track. You can program triggers in Grid Recording mode if it’s simple external hits that you need, or you can record notes in real time using the Chromatic key layout. You also have two pages of encoder CC assignments, one of which is populated with pre-defined standards like Pitch-bend and Aftertouch while the other is user-definable.

One of the main reasons to use the built-in MIDI tracks is that they have all the cool features of the Digitakt sequencer. You can use Conditional Locks and variable track lengths, all the CC controls can be automated in real time or by per-step locks, and you even get a LFO per track for modulating controllers.

Handily, you can use an external MIDI keyboard (or other source) to record into the Digitakt’s MIDI tracks, giving you velocity sensitivity or even a way to transfer sequences from your DAW. If you set your keyboard to the Digitakt’s Auto Channel, input will be directed to whichever tracks is selected on the unit. The eight audio tracks can be targeted and played directly by specific MIDI channels. You can also set a channel to trigger pattern changes. I did wish I could plug in something like a Launchpad Pro to play all eight audio tracks at once with velocity, but this wasn’t possible with the tracks being on discrete channels. It would be doable with a fully programmable pad controller.

Published September 2017