Elektron Octatrack Review
Trying to review something like the Elektron Octatrack has turned out to be more challenging than I expected. Mainly because it can be used in so many ways, it’s not easy to try and cover it from all angles. Never the less, I’ll do my best, even if that means focusing more on the things that I personally use mine for at the moment.
At it’s most basic, the Octatrack (OT) is an 8 stereo track sampling machine, combined with a pattern and MIDI sequencer. What makes the OT standout from the other tabletop sampling devices currently available, is how well featured it is for studio and live performance use.
The hardware itself is rugged, and like all Elektron boxes it feels like it could stand up to a lot of abuse. The knobs are smooth turning, and come with a rubber coating to make them easier to twist when your fingers are sweaty (in a hot club for instance). The display is bright and easy to read, and Elektron have nice graphics implemented where appropriate in the OS. The buttons are the same hard plastic as on the Machinedrum and Monomachine, though in the case of the OT they are round or oval instead of square. I personally wish the Enter and No buttons were larger since they get so much use, but it’s a minor nitpick. Finally, the OT comes with an Infinium Optical Crossfader, which feels extremely smooth and precise in use.
In addition to the MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports, there’s also two stereo 1/4 inch outputs on balanced connectors, and two stereo 1/4 inch inputs (unbalanced) for sampling from external sources. The power supply is external, but it’s fairly small and works worldwide. There’s also a slot for the Compact Flash Card used to store your data, as well as a USB 2.0 port for transferring samples and user data to and from a computer. As mentioned, the OT uses a CF card for storing all your samples and user data, so the amount of samples you have access to is determined only by how large of a card you purchase. The OT ships with a 4GB card (containing 2GB of free samples), though most users seem to upgrade to at least an 8GB card in my experience. There’s also 80MB of onboard storage, which I’ll discuss in more detail shortly.
I was a little hesitant in getting the OT initially, since it seemed that a lot of users often complained that it was a pretty complex machine to learn how to use. While it certainly isn’t the simplest device to master, I found that it was logically laid out, and took me far less time to get up to speed on than I expected. Granted, I’ve also owned a Machinedrum for years, and spent some time with a Monomachine last year, in addition to reading the whole manual (available online) before it arrived.
But for the most part, after about a week of use I was comfortable enough to move around quickly on the OT and rarely needed to reference the manual. There are a few button combinations you need to remember in order to access certain functions, but the front panel labeling helps here, and these sort of combinations seem to be implemented in a way that makes sense no matter what you’re trying to do. For instance, Cut, Copy, and Paste are implemented the same way machine-wide, allowing you to copy patterns, tracks, samples, or effect pages consistently using the same buttons regardless of which screen you’re on.
One of the things that seems to give people the most trouble initially, is the overall file structure of the OT. It’s similar enough to the other Elektron devices to be sort of familiar, yet different enough that it might have you scratching your head at times trying to figure out how you want to organize your work. Here’s the simplest I can explain it:
- The highest level of the structure is a “Set”, which contains an “Audio Pool” where you store and assign all of your samples. In the the Audio Pool you can have 128 Static samples that stream from the CF Card, and 128 Flex samples that get loaded into memory. However, remember there is only 80MB of memory, so you have to make sure those 128 Flex samples will fit into that much memory.
Static Samples and Flex Samples can both be 16 or 24bit/44.1kHz if you want. The main difference between Flex and Static samples is that Flex samples can have their Start time and Slice Loop times modulated by LFO’s, and Static machines cannot. Also, some of the audio editing functions like normalize can only be done on Flex samples. So for the most part, Static machines can be used for just about everything you need.
- Within a Set, you can have as many “Projects” as you want, though they will all access the same samples stored in the Audio Pool of the Set.
- Within a single Project, you have 16 “Banks”, and each Bank contains 16 Patterns and 4 “Parts”. A Part is basically all of the synthesis, effect, and sample playback parameters for each of the 8 tracks in the OT. You can think of it as a single preset you can save for all 8 tracks at once. When you change Patterns in the OT, it will automatically recall the last Part you used with that Pattern.
I think this is where most people have trouble understanding the OT’s file structure, especially those of us who have used other Elektron gear before. In their other machines, each pattern was automatically linked to a separate, single Kit (which is the same thing as a Part in the OT). So you could have a different Kit for each of your Patterns. In the OT however, the 16 Patterns in a Bank can now only access 4 different Parts (Kits). I’m honestly not sure why Elektron did this, and it seems to be common feature request that they bring back an option to have the 1 to 1 Part and Pattern relationship.
- Finally each Part also contains up to 16 “Scenes”, which are collections of modified track and effect parameters assigned to each side of the crossfader. This lets you control multiple parameters on each track with a single control, the crossfader, much like Macros work in software instruments.. For instance, you could have Scene A (left side of the crossfader) be your original Part, and Scene B (right side of the crossfader) could have all of the high pass filters on each track set to their maximum value. That way, as you slide the crossfader from the left to right side, you would be effectively high-passing all of the tracks in the OT at once.
But that’s really only a simple example, because you can assign any parameter on any track to a Scene, leading to some very complex sound manipulation on the OT. All with a silky smooth crossfader too. It’s one of the main draws of the OT, you could literally spend months coming up with different combinations of parameters to assign to your scenes.
I’m sure all of this sounds very complex, but once you spend a little bit of time experimenting on the OT, it all makes sense and you can see how flexible it really is. The manual has nice diagrams illustrating the structure of the OT as well, in case you need further explanation of how everything is organized and relates to each other.
SAMPLING & SEQUENCING
Samples can be loaded onto the OT from your computer via the USB connection on back. Basically you enter Disk Mode on the OT, and the OT will show up as a Mass Storage Device on your computer desktop. So it’s a simple matter to drag the samples you want into the Audio Pool of the appropriate Set on the CF Card, and you can even set up nested folders in the Pool if you like to organize your samples better. Doing the reverse and dragging the the Set folder to your hard drive is how you back up the OT, nice and easy, and transfers are fast too. Once you eject the card, the OT will reload the last Project and you can keep on working.
Of course the OT can also sample other sound sources (including it’s internal tracks) without needing the computer at all. Each track on the OT has a dedicated record buffer/playback device, allowing you to sample and playback audio immediately if needed. You can trigger the sampling manually from either input, or set up a trigger in the sequencer to start sampling at a specific point in your pattern playback.
However, there is one huge catch on this front, each record buffer can only record for a maximum of 16 seconds. This quite honestly is my biggest complaint with the Octatrack. For the slower tempos I typically write my songs in, this gives me only about 5-6 measures of audio that I capture each time I want to sample something. I would love to see an option to sample directly to the card for at least a couple of minutes, so that I could record myself jamming with external synths over the patterns I have in the OT as I look for ideas. Then I could go back and cut out the parts I wanted to keep in the song.
Anyway, once you have captured the sample you want, it can be played back immediately by triggering it manually or with the sequencer. If you want to save that sample for future use (the record buffers are not saved automatically), you need to enter the sample editor and do so manually. This is also where you specify the start and end times of the sample, change it’s tempo, normalize it, or set it to loop (among many other things).
Also within the sample editor you can slice your samples based on beat divisions, with the slices either set perfectly on beat (say 1/16th notes, 1/4 notes, etc) or shifted to land on zero crossings for click free playback. You can also manually set the slice locations if you prefer, though I find that process a little tedious in the OT. Doable though for those that want to.
Finally, you can then have the slices automatically mapped linearly to any triggers you’ve placed on that track, or have them randomly assigned to triggers. This alone is a great source of coming up with new variations on any existing loops you have, especially since you can have more or less triggers than you have slices if you want.
Speaking of triggers, I guess it’s time to talk about the sequencer.
The OT has an 8 track sequencer that is composed of 4 bars of 16 steps each. Each track can have it’s own separate length for doing poly-rhythms, and you can also specify in the OT’s Personalize Menu that track 8 is a master track if you want to apply effects over all of the other tracks at the same time. The OT supports odd time signatures in addition to 4/4 through what they call a tempo divisor, and has a very nice sounding Swing setting that can be applied on a global or track by track basis as well. You can even offset certain triggers with micro-timing, so you’re not limited to your sequences being stuck on a fixed grid.
A Trigger is a command that is placed at a particular step in the sequencer grid, and there are a few different kinds of Triggers in the OT:
- Machine Trigger: Probably the most common trigger you’ll use, basically for triggering the Static and Flex machines and thus your samples.
- Triggerless Trigs: Let you alter track parameters without restarting the sample from the beginning.
- One-shot Trigs: These will start a sample and then remain off until you turn them on again, either on track by track basis, or globally. Great for triggering longer samples you don’t want to restart every 4 bars when the patterns loop.
- Parameter Locks (p-locks): Lets you alter track parameters (i.e. filter cut off) for a particular step only. You hold down the trigger step you want to assign the control to, then tweak the corresponding knob of the control to the desired value. The best thing is that you can lock multiple parameters per step, which really lets you alter your patterns in exciting ways.
- Sample-Locks: These are a great way to get around having only one sample assigned to a track at a time as is normal on the OT. You can hold down a trigger position, and then select another sample from the Audio Pool to play when triggered at that position. So you could have a bass drum sample triggered on step 1, then trigger a snare sample on Step 5, all within one track.
The 16 Trigger Buttons are also a way to record a performance in real-time, and the OT has different modes allowing them to function as a chromatic keyboard, triggering the individual slices in a sample, individual samples in the pool (creating sample-locks for you as you record), or even controlling the delay times of all tracks.
And there’s an 8 track MIDI sequencer that can be used to sequence external MIDI gear, running the same time as the normal 8 sample tracks. Along with an arpeggiator. I don’t use the MIDI-side of the OT personally, but it seems to be very similar to the sequencer in the Monomachine from what I’ve seen. Very powerful, check out the manual for the specifics.
Finally, the OT has what is called an Arranger, which lets you take your patterns and assemble them into songs. But of course, it’s much deeper than simply specifying which order the patterns will play in. You can change the length of each pattern, set up loops and chains of patterns, change which tracks will be muted in the pattern too, as well as a whole lot more. Maybe not as easy as working in a DAW, but very powerful none the less.
All in all, there’s a ton of things you can do here, and I’ve only barely touched on the options to try and keep this at least somewhat brief. I can only say that the Elektron sequencers and their ability to P-lock are probably my favorite hardware sequencers of all time. They turn the sequencer into an integral part of sound design, and the new trigger types introduced in the OT just take this to a whole new level.
TRACK PARAMETERS and EFFECTS.
I’ve mentioned them a few times now, but Track Parameters are where the bulk of the sound-design comes in on the OT. It’s how you’ll alter the sound of your samples, either in real-time by tweaking the knobs or crossfader, or via p-locks with the sequencer. Each track in the OT has 5 different pages of Track Parameters, and each of those pages has a further setup page for it’s particular parameters:
- Playback: Controls the pitch, time-stretching, sample start time, and retriggering (think stutter edits). The setup page controls the time-stretch quality, whether the sample will loop or not, and how the stretching reacts to transients. By abusing these controls you can get some really wild and unique sounds, you don’t have to use them to keep your samples clean sounding.
- Amp: Controls the overall volume and panning on the sample, as well as the Attack, Hold, Release parameters of the Amp Envelope. The setup page specifies how the envelope reacts (linear, logarithmic), if the envelope is tempo-synced, etc.
- LFO: The OT has three freely assignable LFOs per part, each with multiple shapes to chose from. The LFO’s can be tempo-sync, and go from extremely slow to incredibly fast if you want. In addition, there’s the LFO Designer, which lets you create your own LFO shapes. Some people assign their user created LFO’s to pitch, making them function almost like a mini step-sequencer.
- Effect 1: The first effect block on a track, it usually contains the filter (this is treated as an effect in the OT). Other options are parametric EQ, a DJ-style EQ, Phaser, Flanger, Chorus, Compression effect, and a Lo-fi suite that lets you do things like sample-rate and bit-rate reduction among other things.
- Effect 2: Has all of the same effect options as Effect 1, as well as a stereo delay and reverb.
If that’s not enough effects for you, you can also assign a track to be what’s called a Neighbor track, using it’s effects to alter the previous track. I.E., Track 5 plays a sample, Track 6 is a neighbor track that affects the overall output of Track 5.
I’ll cut right to the chase and say that I absolutely love using the Octatrack. I’m not normally someone who really enjoys hardware samplers that much, but this thing is just FUN to use every single time I power it on. One of the first things I did when getting mine was convert my Ableton downtempo live pa to be OT ready, and then remix all of the samples once in the OT. I’ve been amazed at just how far I’ve been able to take the samples away from what they originally were. Here’s a short preview of the set:
Like the Machinedrum, the OT is a box that was designed not only for the studio, but the stage as well. There’s so many handy performance functions, that I could easily see it handling my live sets for the near (and far) future. Being able to tweak sounds to oblivion and then instantly recall the saved state, messing with multiple tracks at once with the crossfader, and smoothly blending from one song to the next using the built in sample buffers has been an amazing experience. I never thought I’d have this much power and flexibility in a hardware box.
And to top it off, it sounds amazing too. The filter is nice and smooth, the modulation effects are lush, the main outs are quiet, and what you sample sounds almost exactly like the original source material. There’s even a headphone jack with separate volume control so you can cue tracks if you want.
Is it all good news then?
No, there are a few areas that I hope get addressed in the future. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the OT can store and playback samples that are GB in size and yet only sample for 16 seconds seems almost cruel. Instead of freeing me from the computer as I’d hoped, I find that I’m still prepping my samples and loops in a DAW first.
Track muting functions more like an audio mixer than a midi groovebox, in that the mutes are applied post-effect. So if you have a nice long delay or reverb on a sound and mute the track, the delays get muted as well. I’d love to see any option for pre-effect muting.
The fact that sampling can be a little confusing to set up given how many options are available has caused some users frustration. As has the fact that anything you do sample is not automatically saved, leading to missing sounds if you forget to do this manually. There’s rumors of an update due any time now to address this, but I can neither confirm nor deny that as fact. Fingers crossed! I’ll be sure to update the review with any new features if an update does come, so check back.
Finally, if this is your first Elektron box, it’s probably going to be at least a little overwhelming. There’s a lot of options in how you use it, it’s really up to you to set it up and perform with it the way that best fits you. It didn’t take me nearly as long to get to grips with it as I thought it would, but the Elektron-Users.com forum is full of people who didn’t bond with it quite so quickly. I know people hate to do it, but reading the manual front to back before you even buy it will go a LONG way towards making sure you understand how it works and is organized. That alone will save most people a lot of initial frustration and make the first few days a lot more fun I’m sure.
However despite these downsides I can full recommend the Octatrack for anyone looking for a creative and unique workflow in the hardware realm. Laptop live performers might be surprised at how little they need their laptop afterwards, and even in the studio it offers ways of working unlike anything else I can think of. Here’s a recent tune I made using just the OT:
For years I’ve said that the Machinedrum would be my desert island piece of musical equipment, the one thing that I keep after selling everything else. Since getting the OT I’ve had many a moment where I seriously think the Octatrack would fit that role instead now. It sounds good, it’s incredibly flexible, solid as a tank, and it’s fun to use. Hard to beat that!
If you have any questions on something not addressed in the review, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll answer as soon as I can.
Also, be sure to check out the “commercial” Elektron made for the Octatrack before it was launched, it’s pretty cool: