Elektron Boxes, Are They Worth It or Just Gimmicks?

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

With so many options for creating beats and experimenting with sliced samples, you might find yourself wondering: Do we really need physical hardware when our computers are so incredibly powerful?

It kind of reminds us all of the ongoing Analog versus Digital debate, doesn’t it? Why would we need more than a high-powered laptop, an audio interface, a microphone, and a controller? It seems like the trend is leaning towards a simpler setup with just the essentials.

But here’s the thing, despite this trend, we’re constantly bombarded with shiny ads for new hardware on platforms like Sweetwater and Sound On Sound Magazine. It’s quite surprising really, considering these companies are not only churning out new products but also pricing them pretty steeply, often over US$1000.

And all of this is happening at a time when it seems like musicians’ earnings are taking a hit due to streaming services and stiff industry competition. But it just goes to show, despite the push towards digital, there’s a real resurgence in interest for physical hardware.

Take for example the Swedish company, Elektron. Now, I have a few of their devices in my own collection, and while I have mixed feelings about some of their other products, it really makes you wonder: Are these expensive little boxes truly worth the investment, or are they just nostalgic gimmicks for those of us missing the 80s hardware?

What are Elektron Groove Boxes and Why are They So Popular?

I first came across Elektron way back in 2000 when they launched the Machinedrum, a drum machine with an 808 vibe.

I was really into dance music at that time, and the AKAI MPC was a hot item.

Even big-shot producers like Egyptian Lover and Carl Cox were all about the Roland-808 or Roland-909 drum machines.

But Elektron? They smartly blended the 808’s step sequencing style with the MPC’s knack for samples and digital drums, creating a niche all their own. The Machinedrum was a smash hit, and even today, you’ll need to shell out over $2000 for a used one.

Riding the wave of Machinedrum’s success, Elektron gave us the MonoMachine, a synthesizer that was less about drums and more about arpeggiators and chords. It had a unique programming style, and if you hooked it up to a controller, you could play it polyphonically!

After 2002, Elektron mostly focused on improving these two machines until 2011 when they unveiled the Octatrack sampler. This release caused quite a buzz at the NAMM show and kicked off a phase of bi-yearly releases and significant expansion.

From my chats with other Elektronauts (that’s what we call Elektron’s fan base), Elektron groove boxes are a breed apart and wonderfully counterintuitive. They’re often called “happy accident boxes” because they take you to surprising musical destinations.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, oh boy, it’s magic! This adventurous spirit is a big part of Elektron’s appeal.

Elektron boxes are a dream come true for sound designers and programmers who love the hands-on feel of hardware and get a kick out of playing with drums and synthesizer sounds. The programming and automation capabilities of these boxes are truly next-level, far surpassing anything else out there, including computer software.

So, let’s dive in and explore what makes these boxes so special, how they can help producers and artists, and let’s also shed light on their quirks and potential downsides. Ready to join me on this adventure? Let’s jump right in!

The Best Elektron Boxes for Producers

From my personal experience, I would say the top picks for music producers from Elektron’s range are the Machinedrum, the MonoMachine, and the Syntakt. Now, you might take a glance at the specifications and wonder, “Why these three?”

Well, I won’t deny, I do have a bit of a soft spot for them. After all, out of the whole Elektron catalog, these are the ones that I find myself reaching for the most!

Machinedrum UW

The Machinedrum is undoubtedly the punchiest drum machine I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. The surprising thing is that it’s not even analog, it’s completely digital but sounds more analog than Elektron’s own analog drum machine, the Rytm!

The version named the UW (short for User Waves), even allows you to import your very own samples. This means you can upload one-shot samples from your personal library, Splice, or anywhere else you fancy getting samples from.

This drum machine converts all samples to 12-Bit resolution, just like the iconic MPC 60, and AKAI S950 samplers. From my personal experience, any sample that comes out of the Machinedrum after you’ve uploaded it just sounds punchier, thicker, and simply more ‘in your face’ than whatever you initially loaded.

That’s just one of the reasons why this now “vintage” drum machine has won the hearts of producers everywhere.

Another cool feature is that it includes mini drum machines within one box. This means you can create amazing metallic percussion, lo-fi retro video game sounds, and pretty much anything else your creative mind can dream up percussion-wise.

Plus, it also has a very intuitive sequencer with a wonderfully pleasing swing.

Monomachine

The MonoMachine is an absolutely spectacular synth! It boasts the superb Elektron swing sequencer and is home to numerous machines, each producing a plethora of sounds.

What sets it apart from the Machinedrum is its emphasis on melody and harmony. The best part? It’s got a beautiful emulation of Elektron’s very first instrument, the Sidstation.

Picture the Sidstation: a one-of-a-kind synth crafted with the Commodore 64 8-bit chip engine from the retro 80s era. The MonoMachine takes this concept and pushes it even further, making it ideal for crafting Synthwave-style arpeggios and robust analog-like basses.

So, if you’re a fan of the captivating soundtracks of shows like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and are keen on a sonic time travel, the MonoMachine is your golden ticket. It’s a treasure chest of these synths, conveniently packaged into a compact box.

The MonoMachine does have its quirks, like any instrument. Its limitation to 6 voices is sometimes viewed as a drawback for modern workflows, especially when using a MIDI controller. It can be a bit tricky to not max it out.

However, it’s important to remember that the MonoMachine was never intended to mirror a Roland synth. It’s more akin to a complete modular system in a box, and that’s what makes it so unique!

Syntakt

From 2012 to 2019, Elektron sprinkled a little magic into the music industry with their collection of devices, bringing everything from the nostalgic Yamaha DX seven FM vibe to real analog synthesis and drum machines. They even stirred things up with a guitar-style effects processor known as the Analog Heat.

Fast forward to the exciting year of 2022, and Elektron unveiled their latest masterpiece – the Syntakt. The name is a wonderful blend of two of their crowd favorites – the Digitakt drum machine and the Analog Four Synth.

In many ways, the Syntakt is like a beautiful medley of Elektron’s greatest hits from seven years of production. All these exceptional features are harmoniously combined into this amazing little drum machine/synthesizer.

Honestly, if you’re thinking of getting an Elektron device, the Syntakt might just be the one for you! It’s like a compact treasure chest that holds everything Elektron is renowned for.

It combines their unique analog filters with the effects from their Analog Heat, the sequencer from the Machinedrum, and the engine of their Digitone and Digitakt digital units.

 

It’s a small but mighty synthesizer that packs a punch, and it’s quite a marvel considering how much it offers.

The Elektron Octatrack, Way More than Meets The Eye

So, we’ve finally arrived at the Elektron Octatrack – a device that manages to be both much-loved and a bit of a headache. I was having a chat with my Sweetwater engineer and supplier of all things gear-related one day, and he told me the Octatrack was the most returned item from Elektron. Go figure!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have one, I adore it, and there’s no way I’m parting with it. But I’ve got to be honest, even for tech-heads like myself, the learning curve on this baby is bonkers.

It’s got to be the most counterintuitive instrument I’ve ever tangled with, but that’s part of its quirky appeal.

Working through the menus and diving into different sections can feel like trying to solve a puzzle, especially if you’re used to more straightforward computer-style controllers like the Ableton Push or the AKAI MPC One.

But here’s the thing – the Octatrack can pull off tricks that no other instrument on the planet can match. For starters, the first thing that really grabs your attention is its physical crossfader, sliding smoothly from left to right.

Now, you might think it’s simply for crossfading between sounds, DJ-style, but oh, there’s so much more to it than that.

Imagine being able to assign a heap of parameters to that fader, move it in real-time, and watch as it performs an incredible symphony of modulation, sample wrangling, delay sends, reverb sends, all in one fluid motion. Mind-blowing, right?

That alone puts it in a league of its own. Then factor in that you can import your entire Splice library to the SD card, slice and manipulate your samples in real-time while you program them, and you’re looking at one of the most unique samplers I’ve ever come across.

Now, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who love to experiment, it’s like having an entire modular system and a groove box all rolled into one.

Are These Pricey Boxes Worth It?

With so many impressive controllers like the Novation Launchpad, AKAI MPC X, Native Instruments Maschine, and more, it’s easy to question what something like an Elektron box, which can be somewhat challenging to master and doesn’t have as many features, brings to the table.

Well, here’s what I think: experimentation.

You might say, “But I can experiment with all these controllers and even use software with just the knobs of a keyboard controller.” Technically speaking, you’re not wrong.

But here’s the thing – just like the popular modular system, the way you stumble upon happy accidents and create unique sounds with Elektron boxes gives you results that you might not achieve otherwise.

In many ways, Elektron boxes are like modular systems. You get to use them in quirky, unconventional ways, patching things up without knowing what you’ll end up with, and more often than not, you end up creating something really cool.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent recording the amazing things I’ve done with it because I know that if I tweak even the smallest part of the Crossfader, I’ll never be able to recreate that exact sound. It’s this unpredictability that I find so fun and inspiring!

The spark of inspiration and the sense of curiosity that an instrument like this ignites in me makes me want to play it more and more. And that, my friends, is the real reason why we do what we do as musicians.

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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