Out of the minds of a few college graduates came a grungy little synthesizer built around the Commodore 64’s own MOS Technology SID mixed-mode synthesizer chip known simply as the SidStation. It was the very first of several unique instruments to come out of the doors of a little obscure Swedish manufacturer known as Elektron. From these humble beginnings, Elektron has risen to become a house hold name in the electronic music world. This success was carried on the backs of a handful of ingenious little boxes that took classic ideas of synthesis, sampling, and sequencing and combined them into packages the likes of which no one had seen before.
To myself and many others, the pinnacle of Elektron’s achievements is a collection of three of their boxes affectionately known as “the Dark Trinity.” It consists of
the Analog RYTM, an 8-voice, 12 track drum machine,
the Analog Four, a 4 voice mono (or single poly depending on your configuration) synthesizer and last but certainly not least,
the Octatrack, an 8 track audio sampler and 8 track MIDI sequencer machine that turns the act of sampling into an instrument in a field of it’s own.
I’ll be reviewing these individually down the road but for know, let’s talk about the good, the bad and the fugly of the Elektron Dark Trinity.
1. Elektron sequencing – if you are unfamiliar with it, get familiar with it. The Elektron workflow, though a bit of study to really understand, is actually my favourite workflow in regards to writing electronic music. The 4 page/16 step interface becomes second nature and allows quick copy/paste actions to hammer out that sequence just right. The various extras like trig conditions, retrig, micro timing, sound locks and pattern scale/pattern length turn the somewhat limited nature of sequencer based music into a virtually unlimited landscape of creativity. Really, once you are cooking on this sequencer, you’ll be missing it (our at least certain aspects) in all your other workflows.
2. The Holy Trinity – Though I referred to this setup as the “Dark Trinity,” this is in reference to the three main components of electronic music; Synthesis, Sampling and Effects. The Dark Trinity has all three covered spectacularly! The Analog Four gives you all the standard synthesis options you’d expect and anyone familiar with the four components of a standard synth (Oscillators, Filter, Modulation and Amplifier) with feel right at home. The Analog RYTM is also a synthesizer but functions in a slightly limited, more focused manner thanks to Elektrons proprietary “Machines” format. Drum/percussion synthesis can be a little tricky in a standard synth (though I particularly like the Analog Four for percussion sounds) so Elektron gathered the most important parameters specific to various kinds of synthesis and distilled them into easily manipulated packages to allow the user quick access and control. These effectively replace the Oscillator section and you still have all the rest of the components to tweak. On top of all that, each track (of which the RYTM has 12) can also house a sample that can be the mixed with the synthesis allowing the user to use their favourite samples too.
Though you can squeeze a lot of functionality out of the RYTM’s sample engine, this is where the Octatrack rules with an iron fist. I’ll reserve my undying worship of the Octatrack’s capabilities for the solo review down the road. For now, check out this video of Mr. Dataline using a single sample, twisted beyond recognition across several tracks to create an entire, sonically rich song. It’s truly amazing what the OT is capable of and it deserves the praise as a totally unique sampler that is really an instrument like no other.
Lastly, the effects. Each unit offers a unique reverb and delay while the Analog Four also includes Chorus and the Octatrack offers a whole suite of tasty effects. The OT can also function as a simple mixer allowing live sampling and live effect manipulation to give you plenty of DJ style remix capabilities (freeze echo/stutter and massive reverb swells are probably my favourite). Each box alone offers a ridiculous amount of sonic territory but combining all three covers the entire spectrum for me and now I can’t bare to separate them.
3. Performance Macros – Elektron boxes are excellent for electronic music composition but the real beauty lies in there ability to let you perform electronic music. Each unit of the trinity offers its own unique style of performance macros from six bipolar encoders on the Analog 4, 12 velocity sensitive/after touch pads as well as 12 scenes per kit on the RYTM and a DJ style crossfader with 16 scenes per each part (4 parts per bank). All of these are capable of controlling several parameters at once including the ability to invert whichever ones you wish. Combined with scenes (instant static changes to parameters) it’s entirely possible to create a solid jam with lots of variation and flare while never moving away from your first pattern.
4. Instant changes – Whether its a patch change, song change, sound lock, or parameter lock, Elektron’s engineers have created a platform that can completely change everything in a blink of an eye without so much as a blip in the timing. That may not sound like a big deal to some, but when you are rocking a tight, energetic set, you don’t have to worry about any gaps or any other timing issues that might cause the dance floor to spasm in ways you don’t actually want.
I feel like I could go on for awhile about the things I love about this setup. It’s powerful, expressive and very unique. However, I’ll cover those things and more in my individual reviews . Let’s move on.
1. Arbitrary Limitations – to be fair, I’m not an engineer and at best a novice coder so I am not entirely sure the reasons for each boxes peculiar restrictions but they are frustrating nonetheless. My personal gripes include the lack of MIDI sequencing on the RYTM despite all the other “drum machines ” from Elektron being capable, the single pair of outputs on the Analog 4 despite the motherboard having the ability to do so (a DIY hack exists to remedy this) and lastly, the Octatrack’s lack of “parameter slide” in the MIDI sequencer. Elektron is notoriously tight lipped about these issues and has never really given a satisfactory response as to why they exist. Speculation has of course run rampant with some accusing them of limiting each box in a way that entices customers to buy another unit to fill the gap. Regardless of why, it’s a PITA at times and I truly hope if they can be addressed, Elektron eventually will.
2. Quality Control – First off, these devices are not cheap. Though Elektron has been churning out lower cost boxes over the past few years, the flagship units cost well over $1000 USD. With that said, it is always sad to hear of quality control issues even though they appear to be fairly rare. These range from slight cosmetic issues to serious flaws like crashing and over heating. Personally, the only issue I’ve had was some buttons’ lettering being askew, making it look like the buttons themselves were crooked even though they function fine. Obviously this is not a huge deal but aesthetics are a big part of appreciation of anything so hopefully Elektron will strive to improve as they continue to create unique, amazing machines.
There’s really only one major complaint here: BUGS!!!!! Elektron has proven over the years that they continue to improve their software with continuous updates to add features and squash bugs but the fight is real and it is clearly a struggle as the 8 year old Octatrack still suffers issues that have yet to be remedied. Head over to elektronauts.com, the official Elektron forum, to find the specifics. I’ve only experienced a few but they can be devastating to work flow. For example, when altering track scales on one box, it can cause pattern sync issues on others creating unwanted shifts in song-part alignments (ie the RYTM has moved to the chorus of the song while the Analog 4 is playing an extra, unwanted bar of the verse). I’ve also had issues with trig conditions while using the Octatrack’s Arranger (song sequencer). Though Elektron has always responded and verified these issues quickly, they usually offer the same response that the engineers have been notified but cannot offer an eta or whether it will even be addressed at all.
In summation, though not without their faults, these unique instruments are an extremely powerful way to create electronic music and quite capable of leaping into other genres that may not seem obvious. They are also quite capable of improvisation/variation for live performance which can allow the performer to escape from playing their songs the same way over and over. Even though they are not the most expensive pieces of gear in my studio, I can honestly say that if my sanctuary ever caught fire, they would be the first thing I’d grab if I was able.
I’ll close with a collection of videos that I believe embody the power of these machines and if you have a video of your own, please send it my way.