Why the Elektron Digitakt is the Do-It-All Digital Music Machine You've Been Waiting For

For producers or musicians looking to ditch their laptops, the last few years have been a renaissance in hardware.

The Korg Electribe and Roland SP-404 (made famous by J Dilla and Animal Collective) are recording and performance samplers that include sequencing capabilities. The brand new Akai MPC Live is basically a DAW, sampler, and sequencer in one slick box. Elektron’s Octatrack (now in its second iteration) is a also a staple of creative sampling and music production in general.

These options represent two poles of the market. On one side: inexpensive, limited samplers. On the other: extensive full-production units that cost as much as a month's rent in New York City.

With the Digitakt, Elektron has effectively struck a middle path. Not surprisingly, Elektron fans and the curious alike are wondering if it’s the affordable workhorse recording and performance sampler they’ve been waiting for.

In short, yes.

Elektron sees the Digitakt as “digital drum machine and sampler,” but it’s definitely more than its description. A compact and versatile sampler, the Digitakt is also a sequencer, synthesis engine, effects unit, and a brain for live performance. While it might not be as powerful as its older siblings (the Octatrack, an 8-track sample mangler, and the Rytm, an analog/digital drum machine), the Digitakt shares many of their features, and has its own fun and stripped-down workflow, without sacrificing a great deal of complexity.

As with its more potent siblings, the Digitakt gives musicians and producers the tools for vast and even endless musical variations. Its lack of time-stretching and song mode (more on that below) might be a deal breaker for some people. But in music, as in other forms of arts, limitations can become a great weapon of creativity.

More Sampler Than “Digital Drum Machine”

Elektron marketed Digitakt as a “digital drum machine and sampler,” perhaps to distinguish it from the Octatrack performance sampler. But, really, if you’re using this as purely a drum machine, then you’re not fully utilizing the Digitakt’s power.

Users can assign any sample they wish to the Digitakt’s eight tracks. But unlike with the more flexible Octatrack, Elektron makes sampling—particularly the accessing and assigning of those samples—really intuitive and easy on the Digitakt.

With an Audio In, users can sample from a wide variety of sources—the Internet, vinyl, cassette recorders, guitars, synthesizers, and so on. (Note: sampling is mono, not stereo.) In that way, the Digitakt isn’t just designed for DJ and electronic music producers that sample old records. It’s designed for musicians.

Exploiting the Sequencing Power

Aside from being an awesome sampler, drum machine, and sound generation and warping device, the Digitakt is a great sequencer. Each of the eight tracks or trigs can be sequenced up to 64 steps. But Elektron gives users more sequencing capabilities via MIDI.

There are eight MIDI tracks, which users can hook up to drum machines, synthesizers, and so on. This effectively makes it a very powerful hub for live performances, with multiple pieces of kit. But it’s also great for the songwriting process, allowing users to hook up various types of electronic gear, thus adding their sounds to those already coming out of the the eight onboard tracks.

The Digitakt also features four-part polyphony, which means users can route, say, a Waldorf Blofeld into it and play up to four notes simultaneously. This may not fly for musicians and producers who play super complex polyphonic arrangements, but it’s much more than the monophonic sequencing that the Arturia BeatStep Pro has to offer.

Start Resampling

If you really want to warp a project’s sound, try resampling. Without getting into all of the technical details (like where to assign the resampled recording), this is a process that allows users to further evolve, demolish, and otherwise alter patterns.

The Digitakt’s resampling function essentially allows users to apply even more effects, filters, and LFOs to the sample, taking it in new directions. This could be done during the songwriting and sound-design process at a home studio, or in a live setting with real-time resampling. It’s the type of functionality that glitch and IDM artists (think Warp Records) could really get into and exploit in interesting ways.

It’s the type of functionality that glitch and IDM artists could really get into and exploit in interesting ways."

One could, for instance, combine four percussion sequences into a resample (in mono, not stereo), then assign it to a single trigger (a sequence of up to 64 steps), freeing up three other trigs for even more percussion sequences. Then, of course, a user could apply effects (reverb and delay), filters, amplitude envelope, and an LFO, as well as conditional trigs and parameter locks—both of which essentially determine how and when steps are played—to add more sonic color and complexity to the overall pattern.

Alternatively, one could combine four different ambient synthesizer sequences (to be clear, one assigned to its own dedicated trig), created in either the Grid Mode or Live Mode (played on Digitakt’s chromatic keyboard). Users could resample those four sequences, then assign them to a single trig and apply filters, effects, LFOs, and so on, creating a new variation on them. A user could do the same, for instance, with multiple guitar samples, getting results that replicate Kevin Shields’ work on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless.

A Work-Around for No Song Mode

Another deal breaker for some prospective Digitakt buyers will likely be its lack of a song mode. Chaining patterns together inside a bank is a good work-around, though some people have already griped that the chains cannot be saved. But, if one has built a song out of multiple chained patterns, then it’s not as if the order will be easily forgotten. Forgetful? Write the pattern chain order down with pen and paper as a quick reference.

The lack of a pattern chain save function really shouldn’t stop anyone, although it makes live setups a bit more complicated, if a player has to move from gear to gear. But, hey, if Vangelis was able to play multiple pieces of gear at once back in the late ‘70s, both in the studio and live, then you can too!

Not Just for Electronic Music Producers

Most immediately, the Digitakt will likely appeal to dance music (techno, house, etc.) and hip-hop producers. It’s all well and good to buy the Digitakt for these reasons, but why not push boundaries and experiment?

In the few months of music-making on the Digitakt, I’ve created shoegaze, ambient techno, R&B-inflected tunes, science fiction-esque compositions, psychedelic music (like The Beatles’ sample-heavy “Tomorrow Never Knows”), and a variety of other sounds and genre pastiches. The real pleasure of the Digitakt is to be found in sampling from a variety of sources, whether that’s an old movie, a TV show, or one’s own equipment, and seeing where all of the parameter tweaking and sequencing takes you.

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