Hardware sampling seemed to be on the decline over the past few decades. In the golden age of the late 80’s early 90’s, most every electronic musician relied heavily on hardware sample tech. Virtually every synth manufacturer released some sort of sampling hardware like the infamous EMU Emaxx series or the “still killing it” Akai team with their long lasting, iconic MPC series.
However, as computers today have seeped in and taken over every aspect of our lives, it has been no different in the world of music production where the cost of a computer and some high quality software still runs less than hardware equivalents. I myself happily sold my Boss SP303 to fund my first Macbook and a copy of Ableton.
Migrating from complicated hardware with it’s small screens, funky button combos and often vexing workflows (why is this sample not triggering now?) to a laptop was a wonderful thing. Software DAWs were far friendlier to arranging full, complex songs. Software plugins like Kontakt, ESX and Sampler made turning a homecooked sample into a full blown instrument a total breeze. And finally, mass storage and RAM were a plenty. The computer was King!
The Computer is still King
Virtually no musician can turn away from possessing one (or it possessing you) if they want to be heard in today’s digital landscape. However, many rogue nations, populated with unique, wildly varying versions of hardware sampler minions are, at the very least, challenging the dominant role computers have played for the last decade plus. These brave soldiers are reminding us of the precision of firm, fluid knobs, the tactile quickness of high quality buttons and faders, and the pure joy of a well tuned, focused workflow. In short, the return of the hardware sampler is fully upon us.
Of all the hordes of samplers on the market today, my current favourite fares from the realm of Elektron.
As their own marketing proudly claims, this box truly makes sampling an art form. Hands-down, this is the most sophisticated, live performance-friendly, and thoroughly rewarding sampler I have ever used. To be completely honest, this box has changed me as a Musician. With it’s combination of sequencer tricks (parameter locks, sound locks, trig conditions, recording triggers) all available per step, it’s innovative use of “Parts” and “Scenes” (effectively complex performance macros controlled by a DJ-style crossfader) and complicated but very rewarding workflow, the Octatrack is truly an instrument like there has never been before. If this all sounds like the rant of a fanboy to you, well… it is! This sampler has honestly changed the course of my musical ambitions as it’s opened up a whole new way of engaging the music I write in both studio and live (especially live) settings.
To be fair, it’s not perfect. I luckily jumped on the Octatrack band wagon with the upgraded version (MK2) of an 8 year old product. I missed several years of debilitating bugs and, essentially, beta-testing that Elektron and most other manufacturers put their customers through (that’s a whole other blog to come). A few of those bugs still remain today.
The OT (as it’s known) also has a limited amount of inputs, a fairly small amount of RAM, and a copious amount of button combos that take awhile to memorize. Basically many of the original gripes hardware samplers were burdened with before. But again, as their marketing suggests, these are not weaknesses but rather strengths.
The concept is one at the heart of the Elektron ethos: limitations breed more creativity. As a music maker myself, I did not agree with that notion…at first. I very much enjoyed having access to hundreds of soft synths, hundreds of effects, ridiculously precise automation, channel routing, mixing…the list goes on. However, after spending time in both Computerland and Elektronia, I absolutely see the benefits of limitations. In fact, the concept has been steadily seeping over into my DAW workflow. The end result is I am creating and finishing more tracks than ever before. What once before was “not quite right” or “a bit too forward or deep in the mix” is no “flawed but perfect!” In my opinion, my music has more “character” and subtlety now that perfection is less the concern.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Octatrack is not a simple machine. Just look online at the plethora of forum posts looking for and giving advice and tips as new (and even seasoned) users are wading their way through the OT’s complexities. Youtube alone is flooded with tutorials for this deep machine. This is where the Digitakt comes in.
Elektron has made quite a name for itself in the realm of electronic music-making, but, the complexity of their products can often deter newcomers. So, like any capitalistic enterprise, all barriers to new customers must be destroyed! The Digitakt represents Elektron’s attempt to bring it’s killer workflow, huge sound and overall joy of sample-based music making to those not wanting a degree in “manual reading.” The end result is a small, colorful box that may be simple in it’s overall nature but quite capable once you leanr all the fun tricks inside.
The big differences
There are plenty of videos, blogs, charts etc… that define the differences between the Octatrack and the Digitakt on the web. Here is one that is quite detailed if you prefer a long, well thought out explanation. I’m just going to give you the skinny.
The main things in my workflow reside in three categories: sample manipulation, performance control and song mode.
#1 Sample Manipulation
Flat out, if you want to chop, twist, mangle, and effectively create entire new sounds out of your samples so that even you may forget what you started with, you need the Octatrack. The list of options and parameters you can use to do so is long. In short, the Octatrack eats samples and craps out gold.
The Digitakt however has a surprising lack of parameters when it comes to sample editing so if that’s why you bought it, prepare to be wholly disappointed. The Digitakt takes your sample and lets you pitch it and plock start positions giving you a rudimentary version of slicing up a sample and of course reverse it, filter it, and apply LFO/envelope modulation. In short, it’s simple. I love it for the fact that I can flush out an idea in minutes due to it’s limitations and snappy workflow. It’s basically all fun as once you use it a bit, everything gets insanely easy to operate.
#2 Performance Control
The Octatrack is a performance beast. You have 8 audio tracks that each have two effect slots and you can turn track 8 into a master that can have two effects that can sit over your whole mix. You also get 16 “scenes” that fall under 4 parts were each part can have entirely different samples, effects, settings…basically everything and everything is controlled via a DJ style crossfader that morphs between two of these scenes. The end result is massive amounts of variation, manipulation and down right madness. On top of that you also have controls for “stutter style” delay control and group muting. With this much control you can literally play a set with just a handful of patterns and if down right, pull of some great music. The only downside is how much work/programming you will need to do. “With great programmability comes great sacrifice.” That sacrifice is time.
The Digitakt has literally NONE OF THAT!
The only real performance control option on the Digitakt is “Control-All.” Simply put, you engage to Control-All key combo (Trk + any parameter) and twist the encoder of your chosen parameter and every instance of that parameter on every track will follow along. A great example is the Cutoff on your filter for each track. This can simulate having a filter on the master for example. On paper, I honestly thought this was simply not enough performance control for my tastes but after using it quite a bit, it really is effective (no pun intended…I think). Things get a bit deeper too. You can revert back (undo the control-all) by pressing “no” before releasing “Trk”, allowing for some serious mangling and then a return to normalcy. Altering several parameters increases the fun. Though far more limited than the Octatrack, it requires zero time setting up and is instant madness when needed (man I wish the Octatrack would get this someday).
#3 Song Mode
Short and sweet; the Octatrack has an excellent arrangement tool called…the “Arranger.” It allows you to build a full song, setup BPM, Scenes, and Mutes per row as well as “play conditions ” like loop, jump to row, etc… It’s a great tool to help build a song when you use lots of aspects of the Octatrack but don’t feel like memorising every single step.
The Digitakt offers nothing in this area. So people hate that, some people love it (me for example). For me, it’s less about arrangements and more about improve. I’ll have some videos up soon to demonstrate so check back.
If I had to sum both machines up in a quick sentence, it would be this: I compose with the Octatrack, I improve with the Digitakt. In other words, I’ve been working on complex epic songs for over a year on the OT and have yet to release anything yet. With the DT (and DN) I’m pushing tunes out weekly.
I’m fortunate enough to have both setups and very much love the opposite roles they play in my musical endeavours. They are entirely different beasts in my opinion, offering their own strengths and weaknesses despite both being samplers. If it’s possible, get both.
One final note, if I could only have one, it would be the Octatrack. It truly is one of the most unique instruments (yes instrument) I’ve ever played and it’s sonic possibilities border on limitless. It still has a few bugs but thanks to Elektron’s commitment to updates and the MK2 model released fairly recent (same OS as mk1) I have sincere hope of total bug extermination and the possibility of new features. Regardless of that, it’s a gem and I imagine it never leaving my arsenal…EVER!