Elektron's FM powerhouse gains a keyboard and a lot more besides.
The Digitone was easily my favourite bit of new hardware of 2018. It's a four-part FM synth workstation built around Elektron's distinctive sequencing environment. The Digitone Keys takes the desktop module and turns it into an expressive instrument with the addition of a 37-key keyboard, dedicated performance controls and a few surprise extras.
The Digitone Keys is an unusual–looking synth. Elektron have not followed the convention of putting a keyboard in front of a panel of synth controls. As with their 2003 Monomachine keyboard, they've kept the original desktop unit more or less intact and grafted the keyboard onto the side. Unlike the Monomachine the DTK has a raked synth panel, making for a better viewing angle. Overall, this narrow footprint is rather practical, leaving room at the rear for more gear, or space in front for a computer keyboard.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this layout, though. With the desktop machine in front of you, your right hand operates the main encoders while the display shows you what they're doing. On the keyboard version, you're offset to the right. It's now your left hand on the encoders, and the display gets obscured.
A year on from my original review, the Digitone continues to be my go-to place for captivating sounds and song ideas.
The second compromise is that for the width of the instrument you get a comparatively short keyboard range. Three octaves of keys puts the DTK in the same 'semi-compact' synth class as, say, the Moog Subsequent 37 or Access Virus Polar/Darkstar, which may feel restrictive to 'proper' players . The keys are full-sized and unweighted, with a springy 'synth' action. The keyboard features aftertouch, although not polyphonic.
It's not just keys that have been added. To the left of the original section you get lovely weighted Pitch and Mod wheels with assign buttons, and keyboard octave shifters. Above the keyboard you have eight performance encoders that can be toggled between a default control set and a user bank. Five new buttons engage the various keyboard features such as Multi-Map and MIDI Controller mode. All the controls have that silky smooth feel, and it all adds up to the DTK feeling like a top-quality instrument.
The main volume knob has been moved across into a prominent position above the wheels. The space it leaves behind has been put to excellent use with the addition of a dedicated Sound Browser button. On the desktop machine access to the patch list is a Shifted function.
The original collection of glorious sounds is still intact, but has been bumped down the list by a new bank of presets that are somewhat more keyboard focused. This means that some of the more traditional FM-associated sounds that I was happy to see omitted in the original make a return here. Yes there's a flute, and lots of electric pianos, but they do sound gorgeous coming from the Digitone's pristine synth engine and smooth effects. Compared to the velocity-insensitive input buttons, the Digitone Keys is bristling with expressive possibilities and the sounds are set up to take advantage.
The original review covers the details of the Digitone's FM synthesis, but to recap, Elektron have taken the heart of the classic Yamaha DX concept and re-imagined how you can interact with the sound generators and shape their output.
Four oscillators (operators) are employed in eight routing schemes (algorithms), offering different FM mappings, feedback loops and audio output points. One of the design decisions I discussed in the original review was the limiting of frequency ratios to quarter-integer steps, which steers your programming toward more harmonic outcomes. The original firmware did have a detune option which offset two operators and helped you reach harsher terrain. But in the latest iteration you'll now find ratio offsets for all the operators, opening up more sonic potential.
Moving away from DX territory, the Digitones use filters to shape the raw FM source sounds. They have the filter design common to several Elektron devices, teaming a simple high-/low-pass band limiting stage with a more creative resonant filter.
A total of eight voices are available, shared by the four tracks. As before, the tracks all have their own sequencer and arpeggiator which you can use to create multi-part patterns, or now you could use tracks to create split zones on the keyboard.
The Digitone Keys has all the Elektron sequencer goodness. On the synth tracks you can do motion sequencing, parameter locks, sound locks, conditional events, etc. And like the Digitakt and Octatrack you get eight MIDI tracks for sequencing external gear. One of my favourite things to do with the Digitone is hook up another synth via the external audio inputs and include it in my patterns.
A major part of the ingenuity in the Digitone design was making all the key sound parameters accessible from a small number of controls. The DT Keys takes this to another level, by cherry-picking these controls from their various pages and placing them along the top of the keyboard.
In my original review I said I wished that the FM Ratio and Level controls were in the same place; after all, the ratios have no effect if you don't actually apply some frequency modulation. On the Keys model my wish is granted. The new performance encoders give you Ratios A and B, waveform harmonics, FM levels for A and B, and the Mix control that blends between the two audio tap points in each algorithm. Knobs 7 and 8 default to Filter Cutoff and Resonance. Thus the core of the Digitone's sound is laid out for you on just eight encoders.
A long press of the User Assign button flips the encoders to a second page of controls that can be mapped to any of the synth's parameters. Surprisingly, these allocations are saved as part of the current Pattern rather than the sound patch, and are shared by all four sounds in the pattern. This could be useful, with different variations of a pattern having different controls, but I'd like to have different controls for each sound, and maybe a master macro page which could collect controls from different sounds in one place.
Hands-on modulation can be accessed per Sound via the Mod and Pitch Wheels. Both have a dedicated edit button which opens up a familiar Elektron assign page where up to four parameters per wheel can be added with custom ranges. (The desktop DT uses this same system for Velocity assignments). It's unusual for a Pitch Wheel to do double-duty as a second Mod Wheel; it's a cool feature that provides a bi-polar mod control.
While adding the keyboard and performance controls, Elektron have taken the opportunity to make some other hardware upgrades round the back of the unit. In addition to the main stereo mix output, there are now four stereo pairs providing discrete outputs for each synth track. This is fantastic news for both live and studio work. I often want to record out an improvised arrangement from the sequencer into a DAW, without having to fiddle with Overbridge. You can set a global routing scheme, but can choose to store different routings on a per-pattern basis.
The desktop Digitone is missing footpedal inputs for external sustain or expression controllers. The Digitone Keys rights this wrong with two quarter-inch control inputs that can be used for footpedals or CV modulation. Expression pedals or CV inputs are set up in the same way as the wheels, with a config page that lets you assign up to four modulation targets.
The main missing feature when Digitone was launched was portamento. This has now been introduced for both desktop and keyboard versions. In fact you'd almost think Elektron are overcompensating as it's one of the most comprehensive porta implementations I've seen! Among many options you can choose between a smooth glide or stepped glissando and constant rate or constant time. You can also choose to glide between notes in tracks, or between notes using the same synth voice, which could have some interesting results when Patterns start voice stealing across tracks.
Unless told otherwise, the Digitone's keyboard plays whichever synth track is currently selected. For things like splits there's a Multi Map mode, with an Edit page that lets you divide the keyboard into zones or 'ranges'. You can assign each of the internal synth tracks to a different range, and offset the actual notes that each range plays. I was a bit surprised that you can't make overlapping zones. Digitone does have a dedicated track layering function as part of its voice options, but you won't be able to, say, layer with external sounds.
There's actually a lot more that you can do with keyboard ranges than simply mapping to the tracks. You can, for example, trigger playback of a pattern or a set of patterns across several keys. Keys can also be set to play a specific sound slot from your current project rather than the main patch selected in each track. This can be set to increment across a range. So, for example, you can create a drum kit within a key range, either by hard mapping a set of keys to specific slots, or storing the sounds in successive slots. If you then record a performance into the track, the different sounds will be written into the sequence using the Digitone's Sound Lock feature.
I was especially intrigued by the ability to make fluid assignments, such as setting a zone to play whichever track is currently selected, or trigger the current pattern. With some thought and practice you could set up a consistent live performance configuration into which your songs and sounds instantly load as you change banks. This is classic Elektron power-user design — the kind of deep feature that really repays an initial investment in learning time.
The Digitone Keys might look like a Digitone with a keyboard stuck on the side, and it is, but it's quite a lot more besides. Discrete track outputs, customisable control and modulation mappings, and deep multi-zone control and trigger functionality for the keyboard make this a real powerhouse on stage or in the studio. And a year on from my original review, the Digitone continues to be my go-to place for captivating sounds and song ideas.
At the time of the original review Overbridge for Digitone was still in development. It's now available as part of the public beta of Overbridge 2.0. Overbridge provides USB-connected features between the Digitone and your computer/DAW. A companion plug-in provides remote control of your hardware and multi-channel audio streaming into your DAW.
Even without the plug-in the Digitone appears as a Core Audio/ASIO Device, which is handy if, like me, you run a host that doesn't support VST/AU. Unless you actually use the Digitone as your main or only audio interface, this is generally going to require setting up an aggregate interface. This always makes me a little nervous in terms of what this is doing for your latency.
When sync'ing up with a DAW, Overbridge gives you 'plug-out' functionality: letting you use the DAW's regular automation system to control the hardware, storing/recalling patch information with your session file, and providing audio I/O in-line with your tracks. Really clever stuff!
The Digitone Keys offers MIDI keyboard control of external devices alongside its stand-alone synth capabilities. By default this is a discrete mode, toggled by the MIDI EXT button: in normal operation the keys and controls only route to the internal synth, while in External mode they only send MIDI. However, a collection of settings allow you to share various control sources across both MIDI and the synth.
The eight main encoders send CC data, with the parameter numbers user-definable in the settings. By default the eight encoders on the synth section always stay tied to the internal Digitone controls, but another preference can open these up as extra external CC sources. Likewise the transport buttons can be drafted in to send MIDI Start/Stop/Continue messages to the outside world. Up to eight different setups can be stored and recalled as MIDI EXT 'slots'.
- Sounds fantastic.
- 12-track Elektron sequencer.
- Versatile Multi Map and MIDI modes.
- Solid build.
- Separate track outputs.
- External control inputs.
- Screen gets obscured when using synth panel encoders.
- Three octaves might not be enough as a master keyboard.
- Eight voices is tight for splits/layers.
The Digitone Keys turns an already brilliant synth into a true instrument. It's also packed with features that would make it great in a live setting if you don't mind the short keyboard range.