Elektron maintain their reputation for producing unusual, innovative instruments with the bizarrely shaped Monomachine; it features six types of synthesis engine, a versatile sequencer, and effects. Is it refreshingly original, or a step too far?
Quirky, slender, interestingly constructed... when we hear these terms, we think of many things. Kate Moss, for example. However, they also apply to the Elektron Monomachine and, as luck would have it, it is this shiny new chunk of technology — not Kate — that I find beneath my eager fingers today.
The name Elektron may be familiar already — they're the Swedish company responsible for the SIDstation and the Machinedrum, both of which earned enthusiastic SOS reviews. The Monomachine builds on these earlier products, incorporating a DSP-modelled version of the SID and a "percussive toolbox... in the traditions of the Machinedrum" (as Elektron put it) amongst its varied synthesis types. It boasts simultaneous playback of up to six monophonic synthesizers, has a six-track internal sequencer and a six-track external sequencer plus a choice of effects. I'm sure this recurrent numerical theme has no Satanic significance; however let's see how those devilishly clever Swedes have used them to tempt us...
The Monomachine is available in two versions — the SFX6 (reviewed here) with its keyboard and joystick, and the SFX60 module. This latter may (optionally) be racked and, unlike the keyboard model, has an external power supply. Both units feature six unbalanced audio outputs and two audio inputs plus a headphone socket and the standard MIDI trio. My impression was of an instrument built like a tank (it weighs a reassuringly solid seven kilos) and bearing physical similarities to the Machinedrum.
I opened this review with the word quirky — a description earned partly by an unconventional layout. Although slimline, the Monomachine occupies as much space lengthways as a typical keyboard-based synth (it measures 975x176x55mm). All the controls are shunted to the far left-hand side beyond the joystick (more about the stick later) with the remaining space taken up by a three-octave (37-note) keyboard. This is well suited to the control of monophonic synths — although several keys on the review model stuck down intermittently. It also lacks aftertouch, and I'll deviate from my usual moans on this score only because interactive sequencing — not keyboard performance — appears to be the prime directive.
One glance over the sleek, almost retro panel will identify the Monomachine as both a sequencer and a synthesizer. I hesitate to mention the word 'Groovebox', yet the similarities in concept are difficult to ignore. With its continuous encoders and wealth of buttons, here is a user interface that, other than a few operational idiosyncrasies, proved to be fast and intuitive. A vital button — Function — is positioned at the far left for ease of regular access and is used in conjunction with others to double up their duties.
After power-on, I was greeted by a graphical display that was bright and informative, although lacking any control over contrast. A long-time devotee of flashing lights, I enjoyed seeing the impressive array of LEDs, many of which are capable of changing from red to green to yellow according to need. A row of red LEDs (one for each note) positioned above the keyboard won my special admiration; these light either as the keyboard is played or to reflect notes played by the sequencer. Some of these LEDs were raised; others almost flush with the aluminium panel. Apparently they are hand-fitted, hence the variations.
I noticed at once a physical humming noise emanating from the internal power supply. Having taken great pains to achieve a quiet studio — even going as far as replacing the power supplies of some of my older synthesizers — the Monomachine stood out like a sore thumb. According to a couple of Monomachine owners I spoke to, this appears to be atypical. So, like the sticking keyboard action, it may be attributable to the jet-setting life of the review model.
At the simplest level of arpeggiation, you can select a track with no notes playing, hold down some keys and arpeggiate manually in sync with the current pattern. Or you can program chords into a series of steps (even if the track is monophonic), activate the arpeggiator and listen to the results. I found this to be a means to get around the limitation of all tracks using the same clock resolution. The arpeggio speeds on offer start at one 16th of a note, so choosing the fastest setting outputs flurries of notes at six times the current tempo.
There is an arpeggiator available for all of the internal and external tracks, making 12 in all, and all the options you'd typically expect are included, along with a few deviations from the norm. For example, five directions are available, plus octave shifts and three playback modes — including one taken from the SIDstation that I especially liked. In this mode, when only one key is pressed there is no arpeggiation at all. With the addition of subsequent notes, the arpeggiation starts but when the notes are released, they continue to play. Only when a single note is played does the arpeggiator stop. It's a simple, neat idea that does away with the need for a latch switch and can add surprising variations to sequences that alternate between chords and single notes.
Turning first to the Monomachine's sequencer, we find a pattern-based design ideal for creation of looping riffs and basslines. A Pattern defaults to 16 steps in length but may be set freely between two and 64 steps. Patterns may be 'tempo multiplied' by a factor of one or two, the latter setting offering 1/32 note resolution. There are no triplets on offer, which I found a curious omission, and all tracks share a common length and resolution — so there are no opportunities to perform complex Quasimidi Polymorph-style tricks such as looping a sequence of notes against a MIDI controller loop of a different length.
The internal memory provides eight banks of 16 Patterns, labelled A-H. All may be overwritten and, as shipped, banks A, B and C contain factory Patterns.
Selection of a Pattern for playback involves pushing the button for the bank you want in conjunction with one of the 16 'Trigger' buttons. Usefully, these have associated LEDs that are red if they contain Pattern data and inactive when empty. The currently selected Pattern is represented by a yellow LED and is also named in the display. In common with some Grooveboxes (that word again!), if you select a new Pattern during playback, the display indicates the one cued up and ready to go, using flashing characters.
Each Pattern has six internal and six external MIDI Tracks (more on these later). A Track is 'selected' by pushing its dedicated button, at which point its LED goes red — meaning its parameters are now live on the keyboard, controls and in the display. Green track LEDs denote active but unselected tracks.
Prior to exploring Patterns, it's important to note that they are always in edit mode. When you make a change — even if it's just adding or deleting a note — the Pattern is saved automatically. If you wish to try out radical tweaks, it is therefore vital to copy the Pattern first. Fortunately, the Monomachine provides extensive copy and paste operations, making this as painless as possible.
Pattern creation and editing is done in Grid or Live Recording mode — the former based on the tried-and-tested method seen in classic drum machines. You enter Grid mode by hitting the Record button, whereupon its red LED will light. The 16 Trigger buttons are then used to set the position of note events, and holding down each button and playing on the keyboard sets the pitches. In this way, looping phrases are speedily assembled.
The other recording mode, Live Recording, is quicker still. Again, you hit Record, but before you release the key, you also hit Play. To show that Live Recording is underway, the red Record LED flashes. Recording is always quantised (to the current resolution) so you simply play in the notes, adjusting the keyboard range as required using the octave selector. The two record methods can be toggled during playback.
A Swing function is provided as a means of breaking up the robotic rhythm of your loops. This has a range of between 50 (no swing) and 80 percent (maximum swing) and for added control is enhanced by a 'Swing Track' in which you can specify the steps to be time-shifted.
Even in Live Recording mode, the sequencer does not record note velocity. Every note is sent with a default velocity of 100 — and if that doesn't sound very dynamic, now's the perfect time to unveil the Monomachine's most cunning sequencer accessory.
Once upon a time sequencers were identified by a row (or rows) of between eight and 16 potentiometers. Because the loops they produced were relatively short, the sequencer was often directed to control tonal changes and dynamics too, in an effort to ward off monotony. I'm pleased to see that Elektron have implemented something functionally similar, in the form of the so-called Parameter Locks. These serve as an important link between the Monomachine's sequencer and internal synthesizers so, before we go any further, we need to briefly consider the group of eight rotary encoders positioned to the right of the display (beneath the Track Level encoder). These encoders are used to program the synthesizer and effects via a series of Edit pages, but they are also the means by which you may add expression to patterns, by storing or 'locking' parameter values into steps.
During Grid Record, holding down one of the Trigger buttons and simultaneously pushing an encoder locks its value into that step. And it works during Live Record too — simply turn the knob! For ease of identification, the LEDs of any step with locks present flash — and if you wish to see the value of locked parameters afterwards, hold down the Trigger button and they are displayed in reverse video. A total of 62 different parameters may be locked — in multiple steps throughout the Pattern.
And there's more! For smooth transitions between Parameter Locks, a special 'Slide Track' is provided. You can then select the steps for which you want the slide to operate, and a 'slope' of new parameter values is generated automatically between the locks. As an example of how this works, take an old favourite, the filter. If you set a low cutoff frequency value on the first step, and a high cutoff on the last, and activate the two steps in the Slide Track, the result is a smoothly opening filter as the pattern progresses. This is great stuff, and I'll return to Parameter Locks when I look at Monomachine's synths.
So far, I've covered creation of monophonic Patterns — but the Monomachine does also have a polyphonic mode. Once activated, the synth voice on the currently selected Track can be played with up to six notes of polyphony — the remaining Tracks are disabled. Recording polyphonically in Grid Mode is as simple as holding down a number of notes whilst holding the relevant Trigger button. Polyphonic mode is either all or nothing — you cannot divide up the six available notes over several tracks.
The MIDI Sequencer enables the Monomachine to control six MIDI channels of an external synthesizer in parallel with the internal synths. In this mode, the eight encoders serve to control the external synth's note length and velocity, plus pitch bend, patch change and four MIDI controllers of your choice. Simply set those controllers to correspond to important parameters on your synth (assuming it responds to MIDI CCs, of course) and away you go. Parameter Locks may be used too, as can Slide Tracks — sweet dreams are made of this kind of facility!
If you find you need to sequence more external tracks, the internal ones can be muted and their output directed to MIDI, thus allowing you to control 12 external tracks in all. Although I have described this function briefly, in use I found it very powerful indeed.
To mute a Track, you hold down the Function and Track buttons together, and the Track LED goes out. When a Track LED is yellow, it means the Track is selected but also muted — you might do this in order to perform on the Track via the keyboard.
A second, slicker method of muting exists, one that is especially handy when using both internal and external sequencer tracks. This is activated by holding Function and then pressing the Bank button. At this point, the Trigger buttons change purpose, serving as mute controls for all 12 available tracks (internal and external). Pressing the relevant button may then be used to toggle track muting or, if you press several Trigger keys while continuing to hold Function, the mute changes are held until Function is released.
Track Mute status is global — so whenever a new Pattern is selected, the current mutes are maintained. This is not always what I would prefer, but it does at least make operation uncomplicated.
In order to understand why Trigger Tracks are useful, we need to peer, once again, back into the mists of time. Before MIDI was invented, a synthesizer note required two components — a voltage denoting pitch and a second voltage (or 'gate') that triggered the envelopes for the duration of the note.
With the advent of the MIDI protocol, these components were no longer separate; a MIDI note on message also contains its pitch. Thus were we robbed of many cool tricks that sequencers, in particular, could perform.
Usefully, the internal synthesizer engine of the Monomachine permits the separation of a note's pitch and its triggering. So, although the default behaviour of the sequencer is to trigger the amplifier and filter envelopes (and the LFOs) on every Trigger step, this doesn't have to be the case. Monomachine notes can be played for which no envelope Trigger is defined. Careful manipulation of long envelope release times lets us, for example, build dynamic patterns where some notes are heard to fade away during the release phase. I found plenty of scope for nostalgic experimentation here.
During performance, Patterns may be chained, that is, played in an order you specify. The chain cannot be stored but setting it up is a doddle. After selecting a Pattern as usual, you don't release the button, but instead select up to 15 other Patterns in the order you want to hear them. It's as simple as that! The only restrictions are that the Patterns must be in the same Bank and you can select each of them only once.
Working with Patterns is good, clean fun, but at some point, you will probably yearn for something longer and more complex, and this is accomplished by creating a Song. A Song consists of up to 200 'rows' where rows are references to a Pattern location, along with a repeat count, a transpose amount (for the whole Pattern or individual Tracks), an Offset value, Pattern Length and some so-called 'Xtra' settings. These 'Xtras' allow for programmed changes of Track muting and tempo — if a Song contains none of the latter, it plays back at the current tempo. Up to 24 Songs can be stored in memory at once.
Ordinarily, when a Song has played through to the end it stops. If this is not what you require, sections of it (or the entire Song) can be set to loop. The Monomachine provides a Loop command to achieve this — and loops may even be nested, providing considerable flexibility. The Loop command specifies the row from which looping should commence along with how many times it should repeat — with 'infinite' an option too. Two further commands — Halt and Jump — are used for automated stops, or branches to different rows within the Song structure.
In keeping with the spirit of the Monomachine, Songs may be modified during playback using the Up, Down and Enter keys to effectively reorder the Song non-destructively. Or, you can switch into Pattern mode and work at Pattern level for a while, before returning to the Song, whereupon it continues from its last position. Using the Offset and Length parameters, Pattern start and stop points can be overridden, which is useful for creating variations and breaks. In fact, Song mode is surprisingly flexible in general; however, it's time we stopped sequencing and considered some of the ways the Monomachine actually makes noises!
Effects, Signal Routing & Global Setups
The Effects machine offers the following types of processing.
- Thru — although not strictly an effect, this option can be used to process external signals, or other tracks. Remember, each machine also has a complete set of track effects (delay, distortion and so on), plus the filter.
- Gate Space reverb — a characteristic reverb taken from the Machinedrum. Parameters include decay time, damping, gate sensitivity and high- and low-pass filters.
- Chorus — a 2x3-tap stereo chorus
- Dynamix — a simple compressor/limiter. It's good for increasing (or decreasing) transient peaks, boosting loudness and generating 'pumping' effects.
The signal routing potential of the Monomachine is rather less than straightforward. I won't attempt to compete with the manual and its reams of diagrams and examples but here's a short taster.
The output of each track may be routed to any of three stereo pairs. These are known as AB, CD or EF. Things become interesting when Effects machines are involved, since these may be used to process the external audio inputs or the outputs of other tracks.
It's important to understand that when an Effects machine is assigned to a track, it still requires trigger events in order for output to be heard. You could make of use of this fact to rhythmically gate audio.
When Effects machines take their source from another track, using the so-called 'Neighbour' mode, whole chains of effects can be created, each taking its input from the previous track in turn. Naturally, the previous track can be sent directly to an audio output and mixed with the effect output simultaneously. Or it can be diverted into an unused stereo pair, which can then be designated as the source for another effect track — the effect in this case acting as an insert. A Global setting, '6xmono', allows each internal track to be mixed to mono and sent to an individual output, should you so desire.
Unusually, the Monomachine offers no less than eight Global setups, meaning you can save collections of drastically differing Global parameters, with separate ones for, say, live, studio, or experimental use. This is a great feature, and I wish it were universally adopted on all gear! Global parameters include Audio-routing options, MIDI Channel setup, MIDI control and sequencer configuration settings, transmission and reception of MIDI Clock and program change messages, along with the 'Multi Map Editor' — a highly tweakable keyboard map for triggering patterns.
The Monomachine contains six different monosynth choices; together with effects, these are referred to collectively as machines. Machines may be assigned to any Track as necessary, so you can use the same one multiple times with different settings. For convenience, collections of machines are grouped together in 'Kits' — an unusual term but the equivalent of Performances, Multis, and Combis on other manufacturers' gear. Kits occupy 128 user memory locations, each containing the machines selected for each Track, including their parameter settings, buss configurations, joystick assignments and Multi Trig and Multi Env parameters (see the 'Performance Tricks' box on the next page).
Once a Kit is loaded, you can begin to tweak its sounds, but you have to be extra careful about selecting any new Patterns if you have unsaved edits. Each Pattern remembers the Kit it needs, and if this differs from the one currently loaded, your changes are discarded without warning.
There are no storage locations for individual synthesizer patches, so this architecture forces you to either copy entire Kits then make changes, or copy in machines from other kits. As previously stated, the copy functions are extensive, but I'd have preferred to store and name patches separately.
Kits are constructed using the 'Kit Setup' sub-menu. Here all the available machines are listed, ready to be loaded into each Track, and then saved as a completed Kit. Once a machine is loaded, its parameters are found on the first of the Edit pages, 'Synthesis'. Since each page has a maximum of eight parameters, this means the synthesizers are relatively uncomplicated. Each parameter may be tweaked by one of the eight front-panel rotary encoders, and is represented on-screen via small, slightly blocky graphics.
The machines on offer are 'GND', 'Superwave', 'SID', 'Digipro', 'FM+', 'VO' and 'FX' (the last of these is the Effects machine, and is dealt with in the box on the previous page). Since GND is merely a sine-wave or noise generator (it gets only the briefest mention, even in the manual), I'll start with Superwave.
This machine has three flavours — Saw, Pulse or Ensemble, and is designed to emulate analogue waveforms. Selecting Saw gives us a base sawtooth wave as the core of the sound. This is supplemented by two so-called Unison Oscillators pitched above and below the base, with variable detune (referred to as Unison Width) and level. Two further oscillators, the Unison Extended Oscillators, are on hand too, pitched at double the detune amount specified by Unison Width. It doesn't end there, either. There are three sub-oscillators — one of them a square wave an octave down from the main pitch, while the other two are sine waves, one and two octaves below the main oscillator respectively.
In contrast, the SuperWave Pulse machine boasts a mere (!) five oscillators, three of which have pulse-width modulation.
Finally, the SuperWave Ensemble machine has eight oscillators and a built-in chorus and, by programming intervals, is capable of creating chords of up to four notes using a single monophonic track. As with most aspects of the Monomachine, getting the best results requires a little lateral thinking. For example, using Parameter Locks, you can set different semitone offsets on each step of a pattern for stepped, changing chords.
Next up is a modelled version of the SID chip from the Commodore 64, previously seen in the SIDstation (reviewed SOS November 1999). The sounds available from this machine are bright and digital; it has several waveforms (triangle, sawtooth, pulse, mixed and noise) and variable pulse width. Modulation is available in the form of Ring Mod, Sync or 'R+S' (a combination of the two). These modulations have a wonderful twist in the form of a Modulation Source parameter which may be either a frequency set via the Modulation Frequency encoder, or 'PRCH', meaning 'Previous Channel'. In other words, with this setting selected, the modulation is sourced from notes on the previous Track, opening up many fascinating possibilities, especially where sync is concerned.
The Digipro machine offers two modes. The first is 'Wave', a selection of 32 raw, 12-bit digital waveforms, and the second is 'Beatbox'. The 32 waveforms cover a range from spiky and bright through to hollow and bell-like. Wave's hard sync borrows the previous-channel ('PRCH') parameter seen in the SID emulation and is capable of generating wildly deviant harmonics. Using the trusty Parameter Locks, wave sequencing-type effects are easily obtained by locking different waveforms to be played on each step. Wave Phase, a parameter that slowly transforms the current waveform into the adjacent wave in a morph-like fashion, can be modulated at a variable rate; this modulation can optionally be restarted with every note played. And crunchy, Waldorf-like wavetable sweeps can be generated by using the Parameter Locks.
Digipro's second mode, Beatbox, contains 24 12-bit percussion samples that are pre-mapped over two octaves. Over the Monowave's full playable range, these samples are replicated but transposed. Very few parameters are available: the overall pitch, the sample start point (which can be used to remove attack transients) and Retrig and Retrig Timing. These latter two functions were plucked from the Machinedrum and are used to set sample retrigger amount and rate — ideal for echo-type or trill effects.
As each Track is monophonic, it often takes at least a couple of them to create a drum pattern — but with careful use of Parameter Locks and effects, far more mileage can be extracted from these basic samples than first appears. Discovering that I could set a snare drum roll to gradually decrease in pitch as the filter opens and the envelope shortens was merely one of an assortment of examples that entertained me.
When using Beatbox, setting a Track's Transpose to 'Fix' will prevent unwanted shifts in the drums that are played by any transposition operation (for example in Song playback).
Moving to the FM+ machine, we find three different preset Yamaha DX-style FM algorithms: 'FM+Static', 'FM+Parallel', and 'FM+Dynamic'. Due to the limit of eight parameters for control of each machine, you're never in danger of encountering DX7-type FM complexity here. However, if you've never found FM very approachable, Elektron's cut-down implementation might be just what you've been waiting for. The manual hints at what is going on under the covers — it seems each FM flavour has a single carrier and either two or three modulators. In some cases, several parameters are combined into one control, for example mod volume and a (basic) envelope, but despite this, FM's trademark sounds are never too far away.
'FM+Static' features two modulators and offers control over their frequency, tone and feedback. This is described as being the most versatile of the FM+ machines, and certainly I found it the most predictable and controllable. 'FM+Parallel' includes three modulators, each with a combined volume and envelope control, but lacking feedback loops. Finally, 'FM+ Dynamic' has two modulators — linear and exponential — and includes feedback plus basic frequency envelopes; this machine is where the sizzling, out-of-control FM sounds lurk.
At last, we reach the most unusual machine of all: VO, the voice-modeller. Its parameters are chosen to allow formulation of vowels and consonants with individual articulation of consonant length, volume, sibilance level, and vowel sounds, and words can be built up by selecting consonants from a list of 20 possibilities. A tutorial demonstrates the vocalisation of the word "Monomachine" rather nicely, although I then spent some time attempting to create the phrase "Sound On Sound", only to end up with something charming but actually closer to "So On Cider". Used in polyphonic mode, the vocal tones can be surprisingly successful, although they never quite lose their distinctive drawl. How often I'd use this feature, I'm not sure, but it would be handy for Kraftwerk emulations.
Having perused the Synthesis pages, the remaining Edit options are the same on all the Machines. Progressing downwards, the Amplifier section is fairly self-explanatory, although the envelope provided has no 'sustain' stage; instead a 'hold' parameter sustains a note for a specific time. Also in the Amplifier page are the volume and pan settings (the overall track level is not programmable via Parameter Locks), plus portamento and distortion. The latter produces a rasping overloaded effect that can be effective when used sparingly.
The next page is home to an interesting slant on filtering. Its dual low-/high-pass filters feature a variable base Cutoff frequency plus a width setting that determines the separation between low- and high-pass filters. Setting the width to zero makes the filter perform like a resonant 24dB low-pass filter. Resonance can be set independently for both filters and a simple Attack/Decay envelope provides control over base frequency and width. I thought the filter sounded pretty decent — and quite unlike anything else I've heard. I wouldn't describe it as overly warm, but it was capable of some convincing squelchiness. Generally, and like much of the Monomachine, it should be filed under the 'different' category, and is at its best when taming some of the harsher digital tones.
Next on our journey is the Effects page, which consists of a one-band equaliser, a single-tap delay, and a sample-rate reduction process. The EQ is more useful than it first appears, boosting or reducing the gain by up to 36dB. It is perfect for finding the sweet spot of a bass or percussion pattern and, of course, can be tweaked using those wondrous Parameter Locks. It is also possible to overload and distort it for creative effects. The sample-rate reduction processor makes any source become progressively more digital and alias-infested and is useful for those lo-fi moments. Finally, there is also a tempo-locked delay, adjustable in 1/256th-note increments, and with the usual complement of controls: feedback and delay send, plus a filter to progressively alter the timbre of the echoes.
The last series of pages are occupied by three versatile LFOs. Whilst three per track seems a generous number, they have but a single destination each. These destinations are taken from any of the parameter pages — including the LFOs — so you can design complex intermodulations. Each LFO has 11 waveforms and can run freely, be restarted at each note trigger, or act in one-shot mode like envelopes. The LFOs borrow the SIDstation's 'interlaced' facility; this can alternate between the waveform's normal output and zero, to create all manner of glissando-type stuttering effects. Naturally enough, LFOs sync to the current tempo over a wide range of rates.
The Multi Trig function is a link between the sequencer and built-in synthesizer. It is activated by a button at the right-hand side of the keyboard and has four possible functions depending on settings stored in the current Kit (see page 153 for an explanation of Kits).
Multi Trig's 'All Trk' option can be used to provide stacked playback of all current voices on all tracks at once — the joystick becomes live for all tracks also. In this mode, a Multi Envelope (accessed by holding the two Edit page keys) allows an overriding output envelope shape to be applied across all tracks.
Using the second function, 'Split Key', the keyboard may be divided into two zones with different tracks active on either side of the split.
Two sequencer-related options, 'Seq Start' and 'Seq Transpose, complete the picture. In the former, the sequencer may be restarted (or started) by hitting a key, while in the latter the sequence may be transposed but is not restarted each time you press a key. This keeps the loop smooth and unbroken.
The joystick is a performance tool that operates on the current track or, when Multi Trig is active, it affects all tracks at once. Any parameters from the Edit pages may be assigned to its up, down, left and right movements, placing considerable performance variation at your fingertips. The joystick is light and it springs back to its centre on release, but I felt an unsprung version might have been even better, given the potential for dramatic changes of mix, timbre, or effects.
For the SFX60 module, the joystick mapping is fixed at incoming controllers 1 and 2 (for joystick up and down) and pitch bend for left and right motions — as seen on synths such as the Korg Triton. I'd like to see this mapping made user-assignable for those people with Wavestations, Yamaha vector synths and so on.
Velocity assignments for keyboard performance are also made in the Assign menu, and keyboard tracking of the two filters can be switched on or off independently.
In preparation for the Monomachine's arrival, I had downloaded its manual from the www.monomachine.com web site, as well as listening to all of the excellent on-line demos. When I hit Play, I was therefore slightly taken aback by the rather cheesy looping tune — not an ideal introduction. However, I soon discovered that interaction was the key to hearing the Patterns at their best — especially when I learned to exploit the elaborately programmed joystick assignments. Using this simple performance tool, many of the Patterns sprang into life; the highlights being Kraftwerk-style romps, various Euro-beat excursions and a Yazoo impersonation that was rather too close for comfort — I wonder if Vince Clarke has heard it?
As many of the included Patterns reminded me of '80s electro-pop, I endeavoured to create more drastic examples of electronica. Often I turned to the Digipro machine; I found that stepping its waveforms whilst modulating their phase produced some of the most harmonically rich sounds I've encountered in a long time. And dirty, industrial noises positively flowed once I drafted in the sample-rate reduction and a dose of reverb. Another favourite, the SID emulation proved to be full of presence, its oscillator sync so razor sharp that I often used it on multiple Tracks to produce layered, screaming mayhem. SID was equally capable in the throbbing bass department — that simple equaliser on each track being just enough to add all the depth I needed. Many of the machines seem happiest squirting out dirt, setting the Monomachine apart from most smooth, polished contemporaries. But analogue fuzziness was also represented; I dutifully managed to coax some ripping TB303-style Patterns from a plain sawtooth wave by use of Parameter Locks to introduce portamento, distortion and filter squelches. I admit I never fully mastered the Voice Modelling machine, but obtained results I enjoyed all the same.
It's when you really push the boundaries that the most unusual and rewarding sounds begin to tear loose. Just how far it can be pushed by keen enthusiasts, I can't predict, but the Monomachine is definitely not recommended if you only require instantly familiar, conventional patches and grooves.
I found the sequencer enjoyable to use: effective and powerful in some areas, but slightly simplistic in others. With no means to record unquantised events, the Monomachine has a 'drum box' mentality: it is not designed to capture expressive solo performances. Even basslines and percussion require attention if they are not to feel robotic — but if that's what you're after, this won't be a problem. No reference to the sequencer is complete without yet another mention of Parameter Locks. These are the jewel in its crown and come into play time and again to breathe life into the SFX6's otherwise metronomic patterns.
The Monomachine is a difficult instrument to sum up neatly, perhaps because it refuses to conform to any expectation based on products from other companies; Elektron have taken an unconventional approach to almost every aspect of sound creation and sequencing. Ultimately, much depends on whether their choices of sequencer functionality and synthesis appeal to you. At the rather high asking price, many will be tempted to investigate other sequencer and sound module combinations, maybe seeking a more standard palette or greater polyphony. But then again, I welcome instruments that deviate from the norm, and the Monomachine certainly fits the bill in this respect. As a self-contained loop generator that encourages creative interaction, its unique attitude might be just the ticket to set you off in new directions.
- Tightly integrated pattern sequencer and synthesizer.
- Very quick once you know your way around.
- A wide variety of synthesis methods courtesy of different 'machines'.
- Six-track external sequencer a bonus.
- Only six notes can be generated at once.
- It could be too different to find a successful niche.
- Expensive — although unique products by small companies often are.
The Monomachine might be the result of a matter-transporter merging of a synthesizer and a drum machine. Certainly it sounds and operates in ways that pay scant heed to the rest of the crowd and as such, it requires effort to learn how best to exploit its feature set. I foresee it will attract fanatical devotees and bemused glances — whether in equal numbers remains to be seen.
SFX6/60 1950/1350 Euros including VAT (about £1300/£900 at time of going to press).
Elektron +46 31 743 744 9.
+46 31 743 744 9.
- Monomachine OS version reviewed: v1.02