Elektron have treated three of their flagship instruments to a major redesign. We see what’s new...
When Elektron released their Digitakt sampling drum machine last year they promised that a refresh of their three flagship instruments would follow soon after, bringing them the same slick look and feel. They didn’t disappoint. Alongside the physical upgrades are a few feature additions and a general clean up of panel operations facilitated by some extra controls. Notably absent from the ‘what’s new’ list is Octatrack MkII support for Overbridge, Elektron’s DAW integration software that provides streaming and control over USB. I initially thought this was a major misstep, but I’ve softened on this the more I’ve thought about it.
The MkII line‑up comprises the Analog Rytm, Analog Four, and Octatrack. The Rytm is an analogue drum synth with sampling. The Four is a four‑part analogue desktop synth. The Octatrack is the daddy of Elektron’s range, a sampling and sequencing hub that embodies the company’s ethos of real‑time performance and deep expert‑level workflow tools.
The MkIIs all have aluminium bodies, and a lighter grey finish than their predecessors, contrasting them with the darker paintwork of the Digitakt and Digitone. They all have the new style ‘trig’ buttons with internal red‑yellow‑green lighting. Legibility of the controls (something noted as problematic by Paul Nagle in his original reviews) is improved greatly as functions are now printed in bold white on the buttons themselves, with secondary functions below. As I said when reviewing the Digitakt, I love the old‑school feel of these chunky buttons, although their consistent, light action comes at the price of velocity sensitivity. The Rytm alone offers built‑in dynamic input via its 12 drum pads.
All knobs have been replaced with the new high‑resolutions encoders, checking another item off of Paul’s MkI wishlist. These have a glorious silky smooth response and a secondary push function. All the devices have inherited the same high‑contrast OLED screen as seen on the Digitakt. The displays use white graphics on an inky black background, which is much easier on the eyes than the previous grey on slightly‑less‑grey. On the Four and Rytm the screens are double the original height in terms of pixel lines. On the Octatrack the pixel count stays the same, but the display is smaller and denser.
The Octatrack MkII’s overall form remains much the same as the original, but the Rytm and Four have gorgeous new raked panels that are angled perfectly if you’re sitting in front of them. Despite missing out on this, the new Octatrack is still cute, and its flat aspect works in a live setting. The main front‑panel layout change is the addition of a few extra mode buttons to all three devices. These provide direct access to all the main views and operating modes, many of which were reached via secondary shifted functions on the MkI models.
All the MkIIs benefit from some form of upgraded connectivity on their rear panels. The Analog Four now has separate outputs for each of its voices as well as a main mix output, turning it into a fully fledged multi‑timbral sound module. The Rytm MkII has eight outputs available for individual sound outputs, compared to the original’s four. Half of these carry two channels, giving you discrete output of all 12 drum channels. The Ext Audio through is now via two ports, instead of the MkI’s single stereo jack, and more significantly there are two new audio inputs dedicated to sampling.
The A4’s four CV/gate outputs have been split out to individual jacks; they were previously shared among two TRS connectors. Both the A4 and the Rytm now have a pair of Expression/CV inputs for external modulation by foot controllers or modular synths. Slightly inconveniently, CV connections remain on quarter‑inch connectors, so I had to root out four mini‑jack adaptors to patch in other synths. As before, all the units have standard sized MIDI in, out and thru ports, which can also be used for old‑school Sync24/48 tempo control.
Again, the Octatrack is a little short‑changed here, with no additions to its I/O. As I’ll ponder in the Overbridge section, there’s a defensible argument for not having split track outputs on the Octa. But for those using it as a live hub and mixer, a separate input for every track would be amazing. And it would certainly be nice to get those CV/Expression ports. There’s one consolation in that the inputs have been upgraded to balanced connections.
Under its stunning new exterior, the Analog Four MkII is fundamentally the same beast: a four voice digitally controlled analogue synth with multiple tracks of Elektron sequencing. It’s a versatile synth: it can be a very high‑class groovebox, with each voice internally sequenced as an independent ‘track’, or it can be played from external MIDI as a lush‑sounding synth, again either as a multi‑timbral monophonic sound module, or a single synth with up to four‑note polyphony, or something in between. This poly functionality was not possible when the A4 was originally reviewed in these pages, but was added in a later update and is available in both MkI and MkII models.
The analogue synth circuitry has been tweaked in the MkII, with Elektron claiming deeper and more defined bass as a result. I never spent much time with the MkI so can’t report reliably on the sonic improvement, but it certainly sounds deep and defined to me. Elektron have also revisited the Analog Overdrive section, resulting in more “bite and growl”.
The factory patterns amply demonstrate the A4 MkII’s sonic talents, but at first glance on a blank canvas the synth architecture might look rather conventional. It’s a two oscillator‑plus‑sub sound engine running through a ladder filter, multi‑mode filter and overdrive in series, with multiple dedicated and assignable envelopes and LFOs. However, this summary misses an awful lot of details that add up to making the A4’s synthesis deeper and more interesting than it might seem.
Variable pulse‑width on all waveforms immediately pushes the synth out of ordinary territory, and goes quite a way to shaping the A4’s character. PWM has dedicated, independent LFOs on each oscillator, with depth and speed controls right up front on the main Osc pages. Both oscillators have full‑range tuning, fine‑tuning, and an unusual linear tuning control that adjusts in absolute Hertz rather than cents, giving variable detuning across the note range. This emulates certain analogue classics, as does the oscillator drift option.
The sub oscillators still have no level control, meaning I left them off more often than not. This is made up for by the goodies on page 2 of Osc 2’s parameters. Here you can switch in amplitude modulation between the oscillators, in either or both directions. This provides a ring mod type character thats tend towards usefully harmonic rather than harshly metallic. Sync is also available in either direction, and has an Amount control. As Paul highlighted in the MkI review, turning this down can provide a subtler effect, or you can have one oscillator skating around the other’s harmonics and go all Add N to (X). Slightly frustrating is that the sync controls are on a different page to the Osc tuning, so it’s hard to experiment with the results. However, there are dedicated pitch mod envelope controls (‘Bend Depth’ and ‘Note Slide Time’) on the same page, which are very handy for automating classic sync sweeps, as well as for creating kick drums and other percussion.
The A4 is a great synth, but what makes it really special is the integration with the Elektron sequencers and performance controls. As with the MkI, each Project saved on the device’s internal storage can have 128 patterns, each with four synth track sequences of up to 64 steps, plus an effects track and CV/gate track. All parameters can be motion sequenced using the standard Elektron p‑lock (per step automation) system of holding a trig button and making an adjustment, or by recording real‑time control movements. There’s also a Trig Mute mode that lets you temporarily silence pattern steps without deleting them: an incredibly useful trick.
Sound Locks are a special kind of per‑step automation available on many Elektron devices, where each step can recall a different patch within a single track. Holding any trig step in a sequence and turning the main Track Level/Sound Browser encoder lets you scroll through all the saved sounds in the project’s Sound Pool (which can hold 128 patches). This has a ton of interesting creative uses, such as building an interesting rhythm track with a single voice. It seems amazing to me that the synth can switch sounds gitch free within a 16th note. You also get Conditional Locks: note or parameter triggers that only fire in certain conditions. One of these conditions is whether Fill mode is active: triggering a Fill on Elektron instruments simply reveals these latent variations within the current pattern, rather than switching to a dedicated pattern. Conditional Locks can also be used to create random and semi‑random variations using degrees of chance, time cycles, or through interactions with other triggers.
Real‑time performance is central to most Elektron gear. This manifests on the A4 MkII in the Performance page with its 10 Macro controls, one for each rotary encoder. Each Macro can be configured to simultaneously adjust up to five controls from any track. This can be used in a similar way to Scenes on the Octatrack, except that Macros trim existing parameter settings, rather than store absolute values. For each assignment within a Macro you can set an amount and direction in which the target parameter will be adjusted. A new feature on the MkII is a Quick Performance knob and associated button. The button is used to assign any of the 10 Macros to the Quick Perf knob, giving you persistent access to the Macros in any mode. The button can also be used to instantly cancel the Macro modulations.
Of all the devices, the Octatrack has changed the least, gaining the excellent new buttons, encoders and screen, but keeping the same internals. On the positive side, this means that the new OS is the same across both generations, so MkI users continue to benefit from new features such as Conditional Locks.
To recap, the Octatrack is a performance sampler, offering eight audio and eight MIDI tracks. It’s far from the most intuitive bit of kit to master, but the more time you spend on it, the more you realise its unique potential. It can be used as a stand‑alone drum sampler/groovebox similar to the Digitakt with extended functionality (loop time‑strething and slicing), but it really comes alive when connected to other gear as a live sequencing, sampling and mixing hub for improvised performance.
Each Octatrack audio track can perform different roles: it can be a regular disk‑streaming sample‑playback voice, a RAM‑based sampler for super‑nimble live sample manipulation, a live looper, a slice sampler, a live input or a master channel. One of the Octatrack’s most powerful abilities is to live sample from its four inputs (or internal sources) either directly into tracks or to buffers freely available to all tracks. You can set triggers within sequences to start and end recording, either continuously or as single shots when you arm tracks. (The status of record trigs is much easier to see with the new self‑lit buttons). In this way the Octatrack can automatically sample neat, in‑time chunks from your external instrument that you can juggle and mangle without stopping. If you ever wondered why the Octatrack is so popular with synth heads it’s because it’s a great tool for turning the spew from your Eurorack into usable musical building blocks.
One of my favourite Octatrack features is Scenes. These are snapshots that can store multiple parameter values from within a project. Scenes are loaded into the A and B buttons at either end of the crossfader, and the crossfader morphs between all live parameters in these scenes. On the MkII the original crossfader design has been replaced with a contactless DJ‑mixer style module. This fader offers next to no resistance so can be slammed around very quickly. It makes an already awesome feature slightly awesomer.
I don’t know if it’s the Octatrack’s older generation hardware that prohibited Overbridge support, or if Elektron simply decided not to implement it, but its absence is notable. When the MkII devices were announced I was perplexed about this, thinking this made for a half‑hearted upgrade, or at least suggested this was a short‑lived placeholder product waiting for a true Octatrack 2. But the more I played with the MkII Octatrack and thought about it, the more I came to think that Overbridge has less relevance here. Octatrack is not an instrument that needs integrating or controlling from a DAW. And it doesn’t even make much sense to have multiple output streams from it: it’s all about juggling and mixing sources within the device and using the internal effects and Scenes. However, what would have been incredible would have been USB audio ports going the other way, allowing you to route audio streams from your computer into the Octatrack.
The Analog Rytm is a 12‑track, eight‑voice analogue drum machine that can also play back samples. The headline new feature on the MkII is the ability to sample directly from the audio inputs, as well as use imported samples like the original. In addition to the many physical enhancements already noted, the Rytm has much improved pads, with a more consistent response. You have to hit them pretty hard to get to maximum velocity, but if you want loud you can just play with fixed velocity using the step trig buttons instead. One thing I love about the backlights on the pads is that they don’t simply flash to show triggers, they also fade at the same rate as the sound’s decay.
The new on‑board sampling can be done via an MPC‑style dedicated page, with recording either started manually or threshold triggered. Available sources are the individual hardware inputs, both inputs as stereo, any of the individual drum tracks, or the internal mix. There’s also a Direct Sampling option, allowing you to record immediately without going into the sampling page. This is armed with a button combo, after which recording starts automatically when the selected sampling source exceeds your level threshold. This is particularly useful for resampling a performance. A Direct Sampling recording goes into the sampling buffer, so you need to go into the Sampling page to save and assign it. It would be nice if you could have it auto save, or assign the buffer to a pad so you can use it immediately Octatrack style.
Any track can be used for sample playback, either on its own or layered with the track’s analogue synth engine. Sample triggering remains quite simple, with no slicing or tempo matching for loops, etc. You can of course adjust the pitch/speed of samples, and you can apply a bit‑reduction effect. You can adjust start and end times, and cross these over to get reversed playback. Engaging Loop for the sample and cranking these controls rewards you with some glitchy and interesting results. The Rytm has a chromatic play mode which switches the pads from multi‑track trigs to single track note playbck, pitching the synth, the sample or both depending on track settings. You can also play any track chromatically via MIDI. Like Paul said in his MkI review, this is great for instrument sampling as well as drums, especially as the voices goes through their analogue filters.
The project, pattern and sound structure are much the same as the other instruments, as is the sequencer functionality. While it can be a learning curve getting used to the way Elektron go about things, once the curve has plateaued out the skills are transferable between instruments. All the usual fun is available: p‑locks, conditional locks, real‑time and step‑by‑step data entry. Sound Locks are just as powerful here as on the Analog Four, letting you greatly extend a pattern’s sonic ingredients by changing sounds between steps in a track.
While the Analog Four has Performance Macros and Octatrack has Scenes, the Rytm MkII has both! Scene snapshots are recalled from the pads in Scene mode, and are always a hard recall of fixed parameter values. Just like the Octatrack, Scenes are generated by holding one of the Scene pads down while adjusting parameters in the regular way from the main encoders. A Scene can store parameters from any combination of tracks, with a maximum total of 48 parameter assignments possible across all Scenes. The Rytm’s Performance mode is much like the Analog Four’s, consisting of Macros that can each adjust multiple parameters, using deltas rather than absolute values. The Rytm’s implementation has some differences: Macros are not limited to five assignments each; like Scenes there are 48 patch points available that can be shared out between your Macros. You can have 12 Macros instead of 10 (one for each pad), and control of the Macros is via pressure on the pads rather than knobs. However, the Rytm has the same Quick Perf knob and button combo as the A4, allowing any single Macro to be controlled in any mode. Assigning the modulation from the new CV/Expression inputs is exactly like using Performance Macros (and the mod inputs) on the Analog Four. In other words up to five parameters can be controlled per mod input, using exactly the same edit screen.
Other than all this, the most notable feature of the Rytm is its fantastic fat sound. This is aided by the analogue compressor, although the make‑up gain on this tends to give the Rytm a high noise floor. The Rytm also has a Direct Jump pattern change mode for instant pattern triggering without losing relative beat position — always at the top of my check list for a drum machine.
The MkII Elektron range is a huge leap forward in design. The Analog Rytm and Analog Four have transformed from utilitarian boxes into ultra sleek‑looking instruments. The direct links to all main pages and backlit buttons with integral legending make for much more accessible panels compared with the rather cluttered MkIs. All the controls are mechanically superior and much nicer to work with. The new screens are oddly compelling, with old‑school chunky graphics presented in crisp modern high contrast. Extended I/O is also very welcome, especially on the Analog Four which can now be used standalone as four separate monosynths.
For MkI owners wondering about trading up, I’d say that with the price of these instruments, and iterative improvements in core functionality, it probably doesn’t make much sense. But then again if one of these is absolutely central to your studio or live rig... maybe.
As far as the Octrack goes, even with the lack of Overbridge, additional I/O or any update to the internal spec, it does benefit hugely from the reworked front panel, and there’s still nothing that does what it does. I’m sorely tempted to stump up and stop this one from shipping back to Gothenberg.