Elektron Octatrack Mk1


After much to-ing and fro-ing and watching of videos I’ve gone and bought an old Octatrack Mk1, even though I decided against it as my live stage tool. Very glad I did - the MPC is great on tour. But I was intrigued by this one’s workflow which seems akin to tape loop editing. There’s a new Octatrack Mk2 on sale, prettier than this 8-year-old model – who cares, I saved a thousand dollars. It sounds the same.


Let’s first address a bevy of videos that ask, “which is better? The MPC or the Octatrack?” I’m looking forward to their follow up videos, “which is better? A Hammer or Bees?” “Which is my left foot?” “How is string?” Anyone who puts this question is really asking, “which device can I best constrict with my utter lack of imagination?”


They have nothing in common, the question is inane. If you must contrast then here’s the decider – when you play the piano, do you use more than one finger at a time? If so the MPC is the only choice, the Octatrack has no polyphony, or concept of it.


The Octatrack is, for all its fancy pants, just a rhythm box.


A very heavy but little box, all metal, straight lines and circles.


Being a rhythm box, descendent of the TR808, it has 16 little buttons along the bottom and lights that strobe along them. Push the buttons and place kicks and snares and high hats – all very familiar drum machine stuff. This is the conceptual base on which all else is built – with implications, good and bad. These trigger points are called trigs which combine with locks, timed adjustments of the sound. A lock can be a wide set of parameters including the playback speed, pitch shift, mix, sample region … and so on.


A simple use – to set the lock for each drum trig so they are pitched and panned and reverbed individually. More complex – to trig a longer sample that spills over the duration of the phrase, and apply these locks to sections of it, perhaps scrubbing sections of it forward and reverse in time with the beat. More complex again – to have other band member’s sound input into the pattern, for captured live sounds to intersect with the sampled sounds.


I started to use it the way I’ve used multitrack tape loops – punching in radio sounds and snippets of noise in real time. The ‘bowing’ of the sound is very much like tape, although the pitch shifting is obviously digital. But you are never too far away from the underlying grain of the thing – the 16 events per bar of the drum machine. If you automate the pitch gradually up over a phrase – it will noticeably step on each underlying lock.


It’s a fair price to pay given that this is an instrument for performance. You are able to see where the locks are set, add and remove them, change their settings, all in real time as the pattern is playing. It’s as if you cut and splice tape as it loops through the recorder. At any point you can save the overall result as a scene. There is a crossfader at the right which swipes between any two scenes, so it’s a simple thing to get something nice, scene it, swipe over to another scene, set that and so on, and then sweep back and forward between all the ‘cool moments’ you’ve managed to discover. The first time you sweep between the ‘tape’ running forward and backward and it sounds just like a tape being bowed across the heads, you’ll respect what the Octatrack is all about.


Garbage in Garbage Out


You’ll see me using a tape metaphor that’s familiar to me. But each operator is going to use their own – playing vinyl, live jamming – whatever. If you put simple drum machine sounds into this you will not get much, and so the real decider is what source material you can find. For the MPC I’m putting in textures and melodic elements I can play with a keyboard. That won’t work here. Instead I’m trying choir loops (not so great) and odd rhythmic elements (works better) and I’ll have to keep going through my collection of odd sounds to see what it likes to eat.


Do you like loops? Good. Do you like melodic progressions? Not so good. Even the clever bald dude that demos the unit on line tends to get a groove and just fuss that around. It is a rhythm machine and you will need other toys to provide the music.










It was either this or a red car and I think I chose wisely.