ELEKTRON ANALOG 4 MKII DESKTOP ANALOGUE SYNTH
Elektron combines the best bits of analogue and digital in its desktop beast, and gets a bit freaky under all those layers.
Review: Mark Davie
I’ve been toying with an Arduino board lately. Not building anything, mind you, just picking it up occasionally and turning it over in my hands, pondering what analogue interfaces I can digitally wrangle with the tweeny-priced processor.
These days, digitally controlling analogue is a common combination that makes a lot of sense; you get precise, repeatable control without introducing conversion into your signal flow. It’s everywhere, from audio interface and console makers implementing digitally-controlled head amp gain, to boutique guitar pedal manufacturers like Chase Bliss Audio layering digital control over analogue circuits to draw all manner of sound combinations out of a tiny die cast box. Sounds that would barely be achievable in the analogue domain alone, even with a console’s-worth of knobs and switches.
Elektron has taken a similar approach with the Analog 4, digitally controlling a four-part multitimbral analogue synth underbelly. There’s a fine line between enabling layers of control and introducing too much complexity, a line the Analog 4 flirts with in every instance. It’s an instrument that requires investment, not a desktop ornament you can treat as a hobby.
If you’re not already familiar with Elektron’s instruments, you will be diving through menus, you’ll have to decode its nomenclature (like Scale referring to sequence length parameters, not musical scales, and Kits having little to do with drums), and you’ll have to internalise layers of function buttons and how they apply to different states so you don’t accidentally erase a track preset when you mean to clear 16 beats of a 64 beat sequence. When you do, you’ll be so deep, it’ll be an extension of your creativity. Shortchange the process and you’ll be hobbled by menu browsing and manual trawling.
I reviewed Elektron’s second iteration of this device, the Analog 4 MkII, which has a more refined shape and space grey colour scheme and enhanced internal electronics that are supposed to result in better low end than its predecessor. A major addition are the separate mono outputs for each of the four onboard synths, alongside the main left and right outputs. Only having a main stereo out was a major knock on its predecessor. The new version also adds two expression/CV inputs to go along with the four CV/gate outputs, better integrating the Mk II into existing analogue synth environments.
The Analog 4’s entire front panel has been overhauled. It’s laid out similar to the Mk I, but all the buttons are larger and backlit, instead of having separate LEDs. There’s also more buttons on the surface to unearth things like Global Settings, Tap Tempo, Octave Shift, and the Track, Kit and Sound menus.
The division of analogue and digital is relatively straightforward. Anything you’d want to sound analogue is: oscillators, amplitude modulation, filters (ladder and multimode), overdrive, and the amplifier section. While everything controlling those circuits is digital: envelopes, LFOs and sync. The only sections you could argue have ‘missed out’ on the analogue treatment are the noise generator (which benefits from a sliding mix of noise types, rather than a selection between two or three), and the effects; ‘wide shift’ chorus, ‘saturator’ delay, and ‘supervoid’ reverb.
CHAIN GANG WORKS THE TRACKS
There are a few layers to the Analog Four MkII’s way of working. On the sound side of things; you have Sounds, Tracks and Kits. Sounds are presets or user-defined sounds, like a ‘bass sound’ or ‘lead sound’, that can be assigned to a Track. There are four Tracks corresponding to the four onboard synths, which can each play a separate Sound. Kits are a collection of Track Sounds, along with FX and CV parameters.
On the arrangement side, you have Patterns, which are individual sequences up to 64 steps; Chains, which are multiple Patterns linked in a row; and Songs, formed by a combination of Patterns and Chains over the four tracks.
By separating the sounds from the arrangements, Elektron allows you to not only audition the effect of different Sounds on particular Patterns, but you can also switch out Kits to see what an entirely new set of Sounds will do for your arrangement. You must remember to save any changes as a new Kit, otherwise it will alter your original Kit and the sound of its corresponding Song.
At the top of the tree are Projects. There are 128 of those, which can contain 16 Songs, 128 Patterns, 128 Kits, and a pool of 128 Sounds selectable from a Sound Library of 4096 Sounds. Multiply those numbers out and you’ll only have to start thinking about clearing memory when you’ve made 2000 songs.
PLUS SIDES OF SUBTRACTIVE SYNTHESIS
Well, let’s dive into those sounds. All four synth Tracks have the same architecture. Each subtractive synth is a dual-oscillator design, with sub oscillators on each (though the level isn’t adjustable). All the main waveforms are present; saw, triangle, pulse or transistor pulse (which adds a bit of saw angle to one half of the pulse waveform, which introduces more even harmonics — in raw form it sounds a little Chip Tune-like). While the oscillators are DCOs, and therefore have no inherent drift, you can globally apply Oscillator Drift in the Sound menu if you want a perceived ‘analogue-ness’.
You can adjust and modulate the pulse width of each oscillator for harmonic variation and movement. The sub oscillators come in four varieties: either a square wave (50% pulse) at one or two octaves below the root note, a 25% pulse two octaves below the root note, or a 33% pulse a perfect fifth (seven semitones) below the root note. With careful planning and a lot of patience, it’s possible to build chords with the sub oscillator’s 5th setting and tuning functions. For example, a Gmin7 (G, Bb, D, F) can be achieved by tuning the oscillators up +7 and +10 semitones (for D and F), and letting the sub oscillators handle the G and Bb. You can’t quite get to augmented and diminished chords, or sixths, with a single Track, but it does let you maximise your voice count.
From there your sound goes into two onboard filters, applied in series. The first in the chain is a four-pole (up to 24dB/octave) lowpass ladder filter. It’s a fully analogue, transistor-based design, just like the one Bob Moog designed all those years ago. You have control over the cutoff frequency and resonance, but the cutoff frequency only shows MIDI values of 0-127 (with .01 divisions), not the actual frequency. It also can’t be turned off, so for the flattest frequency response, wind it right up, and set the resonance to around 25 (0 is a scooped filter setting).
The two-pole multi-mode filter has two low-pass and hi-pass slopes, a 6dB/octave band pass filter, a band-stop filter to notch out frequencies in the sound, and a peak filter for boosting certain frequencies. You can either use the multi-mode for cleaner versions of the ladder filter’s lowpass or stack them together for some crazy 36dB/octave slopes.
There’s also a built-in overdrive, which can travel in positive and negative directions. In the positive realm, it’s a clipping distortion that can add brightness to your sound, turned back past zero, it gets muddier and sounds more like a soft distortion or fuzz. It makes sense putting the control in the filter section, because it’s heavily responsive to how the notes react to the filter cutoff and resonance.
MAIL IT HOME
There are three envelopes to control all these parameters; the amplitude envelope, and two assignable envelopes. The first of the assignable envelopes can modulate two user-selectable destinations, but is also hardwired to the cutoff parameters of the two filters. The second isn’t hardwired to anything, but also gives you two user-selectable destinations for a total of four.
Similarly, there are two LFOs, each with two user-selectable destinations. There’s a host of waveforms available, from simple sine to exponential saw, ramping and random waveforms. You can also multiply the speed parameter up to 2000 times by a factor of the current tempo, 120bpm, or by syncing it to the second oscillator. You can also set its fade style, starting phase, and trigger mode.
The FX are laid out in a serial arrangement. The chorus can be sent into the delay and reverb, and the delay can be sent to the reverb. The effects are well-chosen, with useful features like an overdrive on the delay to saturate the tails, a feedback on the chorus, which at its extreme can add a cockpit warning warble to your track. All of them also have high and low pass filters, and the reverb additionally has an adjustable high-shelf for either taming or enhancing the top end. The FX section also has two assignable LFOs.
ANALOGUE MOUSE TRAP
At a basic level, there has to be a reason to get out of the box. For many, that will simply be because they want to engage with an instrument, for others, it’s the sound of analogue. For the second lot, while the digital control does result in impeccable tuning, there’s enough analogue girth here to get you away from your mouse.
By comparison, I fired up Ableton’s bog standard Analog synth, (which has a similar subtractive architecture) and played the same sequence through both. The base sound of the Analog 4 Mk II’s saw and pulse waveforms already carried a richer tonality, partly because it’s impossible to take the filters out of the chain, so you’re always running through multiple analogue stages. Once you get into the filter section, it’s yards apart. The resonance on the low pass filter produced a much more throaty and vocal sound, less harsh than the bird tweet ring you get at mid- to high frequencies on Ableton’s synth. It’s worth the price of admission alone. While the inability to turn filters and oscillators on and off is all part of the Mk II’s ‘analogue’ charm, it can make it difficult to decode their contribution to a sound when building a patch.
With bass lines, it was quite easy to build growling patches with some heavy low pass filtering, a bit of overdrive, and the chorus added simple depth, without clouding the sound.
There’s a huge range of sounds available from tight synced basses, to huge saws, subtly evolving pads, computer glitch effects, hardcore analogue percussion, and searing leads. Every synth has its idiosyncrasies, and while you’d assume a purely digital synth would have enhanced flexibility, the Analog 4 greatly outstrips Ableton’s synth in that regard. As far as subtractive synthesis goes, there’s really not much you can’t do. On top of the standard oscillators and functions, you can also choose from other inputs, including external signals, feed the ladder filter output back into oscillator one’s input, or route the output from the preceding track’s multi-mode filter into the input of oscillator two, setting up a chain of events over all of your four tracks.
Once you’ve dialled in your sound, you’ll need to start building a Pattern (which is really a sequence). A Pattern is made up of up to 64 ‘Trigs’. There are two modes of inputting Trigs; Grid and Live Recording mode. Grid Recording is a classic sequencer mode, pressing a combination of a Trig and a keyboard button to manually inlay them. Live Recording involves holding Record while you press Play, the Pattern will start playing (you can set up metronome pre-roll) then you simply play in your Pattern of Trigs using the keyboard.
Both are simple enough to use, however, if you’ve laid down a Pattern in Live Recording mode and hit a bung note, you can’t simply switch to Grid Recording mode, deselect it and select the right one. This will reset the note length to its default value. You’re better off playing the entire Pattern again, or editing any issues in the Note menu, which gives you control over Note Value, Velocity, Length and other things like Micro Timing offset to adjust groove. You can also adjust quantization globally or on a per-Track basis.
At the front end of every Track, there’s also a fully-featured arpeggiator, which can be controlled via preset configurations or programmed by step.
Once your Pattern is there in raw form, the fun really begins when you start messing around with parameter locks. These allow you to set individual parameter settings for each Trig. You can set your cutoff resonance to go crazy on one note, then completely wind it out on the next. Every Pattern allows you to manipulate 128 Parameter Locks. You can change that Parameter Lock on every Trig in your Pattern and it still only counts as one of your available 128. You can input parameter locks on the fly in Live Recording mode or manually fine-tune each Trig in Grid Recording mode.
The editing functionality doesn’t stop there, you can also set up Conditional Locks, to only play Trigs when they meet certain conditions. This allows you to inject randomness or unpredictability into your Songs and Patterns. They can be conditional on things like what’s occurring on neighbouring Tracks or a general probability percentage that it will trigger.
Once you have your Patterns all dialled in, you can further manipulate them live using the 10 Macro performance controls. Each Macro can control up to five parameters from any of the six tracks (including the FX and CV tracks). You can rename the Macros to reflect their function, and use the 10 main knobs to adjust them in realtime when in Performance Mode.
IT’S A STEAL
There are a total of four voices, which you can either set to be monophonic — one voice for each track — or polyphonic, through a variety of dynamic methods. You can choose to either reset, rotate or reassign the consecutive voices as notes are triggered. Alternatively, you can set the polyphony to Unison. All of these modes will use voice stealing, so as soon as you run out of voices, the next note will steal the least recently used voice.
It’s not the most usable polyphony, given the unpredictability of the results, especially when trying to implement a unison mode in a busy track. Because it’s trying to share four voices between four tracks, there’s inevitably going to be a lot of overlap between notes, and hence, voice stealing going on. If you want to use a unison mode, then you’re probably better off just having one track active. Of course, unpredictability isn’t always bad. You can also force the selected voices to use the sounds of the four tracks instead of letting it dynamically switch to the played sound for some weird results.
In a way, this is the main sacrifice of the Analog Four Mk II’s multi-track approach. Polyphony is more of a limited extra feature, you’re best to think of this device as a four-track, monophonic synth.
IN FOR THE DEEP DIVE
It’s a tough job reviewing something as fully-featured as the Analog 4 Mk II, it just does so much. There’s just not much it can’t do. As well as all the sonic tweaks, the Mk II is layered with thoughtful features like being able to globally tune the synth, extensively programmable MIDI configuration that can even output old school DIN 24 and 48 if you have a TB303 lying around, as well as four fully customisable CV/gate outs and two CV inputs you can calibrate to interface with your external gear.
The Elektron does sound great, and you can appreciate it even more with the individual Track outputs on the Mk II. The design has improved leaps and bounds, while still maintaining a familiar layout. All the additional buttons only make it easier to navigate the interface, rather than cluttering up the panel.
The only letdown at the moment is the delay of Elektron’s integration with its Overbridge DAW plug-in. This will allow users to fully control the synth via USB, integrating it perfectly into a digital setup. While it’s a shame the integration hasn’t surfaced yet, there’s really no need to have a digital device connected to get the most out of Analog 4.
If you’re more of a keyboard masher, and don’t have the patience for proper sequencing and synth manipulation, then I’d at least wait for it to get connected to Overbridge before taking a good hard look at the sounds it can deliver. Nevertheless, if you’re after an analogue desktop synth that does more than one trick, can get wild if you dig deep, plays extremely well with existing synths, and has enough control you can actually perform with it, this is the synth for you.