Thoughts on the OctaTrack (after a year)

 The OT’s place…within the larger evolution of the “live-groovebox” control

Swedish electronic music-instrument maker Elektron gets (and deserves) a reputation for having uniquely powerful groove-boxes with a unique workflow. Classic groove-boxes worked by layers, specifically “tracks,” where a track was not just a unique sound (made from some synthesis or sample playback source), but also a unique pattern of (re-)triggering that sound, and mixing it among available channels (and later effects, like reverb or echo busses, if available).

Ancestry, Context, Competition

Since the iconic 808 drum machine, once could “drive” the drum machine by dialing in sounds, tweaking them for variation, muting/un-muting the various tracks (for variation), and if possible, change the sequence triggers to adapt the pattern. Most improvisation-friendly “groove-boxes” refined these methods toward

  • more immediate control across available layers,
  • “total control” of one layer at a time.

In the late 90’s, Korg introduced the “Elecribe” grooveboxes, with a unique feature of “motion sequencing.” On an Elecribe box, one could not only live-record a pattern of a specific voice, but also record a Motion Sequence of (one) knob within each layer of its sound-architecture. This certainly bolstered emerging sounds of animated filter sweeps (“wah”), rapid fire sample stutters (“p-p-p-p-pow”), and  (most conspicuously) the sound of repeatedly-shifting beat-synced  modulations (“wub-wub-wub, wawawawa, waaaah,waaaah”).

I found the trick (and trouble) with using Korg’s Motion Sequence, however, is how the associated track would default to the setting reached at the end of making a live-recording of said Motion Sequence, and if you want them to be seamless, you had to make the knob end where you started. Tricky, but a fun way to get a LOT of variation out of layers.

For a (well-annotated) video demo that explains the facets of Motion-sequencing on a (2nd series) korg Elecribe, see the video below.


While this seems like a lot of luck working the (small) knobs, one could go into an Edit mode to fine-tune the Motion-ed values at each step, but this required jumping between pages of “Motion Destination” and “Motion Value,” dialed in by the Data wheel, which no use of the associated front panel knob. It began to feel a bit like “T9” texting on a phone with no proper keyboard. Tedious.


Elektron’s P-locks ?

Now that I have progressed from what-you-knob-is-what-you-get drum machines of the 80s to through Korg’s Electribes of the 90s, to now being an Elektron user… I can appreciate (and hope to explain) that a big part of understanding “the Elektron workflow” is thinking not just in layers, but in Steps.

Specifically, one of Elektron’s innovations were the Parameter-locks (“P-locks”), where allow you to set multiple parameters of the synth/mix/effects engine to deviate (from the default values) upon specific steps on the sequencer. These technically pre-date the Motion Sequences of Korg’s later/cheaper/more-popular Elecribe Motion Sequence. Moreover,

  • they’re more discreet; when you set specific parameters to a specific step, this only applies to the step, apart from the “default” settings.
  • they fast: touch the desired step, and tweak the knobs(s) you wish to lock, which give visual feedback (inverted colors) on the screen.
  • they’r not tied up to “playing out” a live-performance of that setting.
  • P-locks can be created, deleted, copied, pasted while the sequence runs, and the results will be heard when the sequencer gets to them.

See the following video for a quick overview of P-locks here…


After literal years of (casual, sporadic) study of the the (then-available) Elektron machines (the SDS-1 MachineDrum, and the SFX-6 MonoMachine), I came to appreciate that the P-locks were just the distinction of Elektron products. Specifically…

  • each box offered various “machines” (ways of creating or processing sound), and allowed you to assign, mix and mach the architecture to suit your needs.
  • tracks could be routed to interact with each other, either feeding audio or control (and it’s automation) between the others. This seemed almost intimidatingly open.

The OT’s place…within the Elektron mind(set)

Having had some study and participation of evolution among groove-boxes, I chose the Analog Rytm as my first Elektron machine because… it seemed logical to go with (what seemed to me) as the most logical device.

the RYTM; my first Elekron

Elektron_Analog_Rytm-Top front panel of Analog RYTM, from site

The Analog RYTM (AR) is very “left-brain”; explicit, and (mostly) hard-wired to sound, think, and drive a (traditional) analog drum machine.

  • Each of the 12 pads is pre-labeled with abbreviations of recognizable drum names (“BD” bassdrum, “SD” snare drum, etc) because they correspond to unique circuits that generate those specific sounds (in the analog side).
  • Each track could could make sounds from synthesis or samples, each track shared the same filter, effects, and mixing
  • it included the latest iteration of “the Elektron sequencer with P-locks” to control all of this.
  • It was designed with a USB cable, for loading sounds (and later, editing everything from a computer via OverBridge).

Thus I was confident I could fiddle about within it’s obvious drum-machine design and get happy accidents that should remain rhythmically useful.

This much is evident from even short, commercial-type videos on the Rytm’s features, such as the one below:


The separate is clean here. All the sound-sources lined up in my head in like the columns of mixing-board’s channels, and each column could permute along the row of the sequencer… every sound tidy and seperate grid. Sure, each track could play patterns of uniqe (row) length, but its easy (for me) to envision polyrhythms as separately-sized rotating grid rotating along in sync to common pulse… as long as they don’t bump into each other.


The MachineDrum; the progenitor “beat box”


front panel of SDS-1+UW, from site

The SDS “MachineDrum” (Elektron’s first-groovebox released in 2001, now discontinued as of 2016) seemed, from the first time I heard of it in 2002, a weird hybrid. I started reading it’s manual, yet this botique box from a far-away country remained…foreign (not no mention OUT of my budget).

Years later, after year of scratching through Elecribes and an MPC, I resumed studying it when the rise of YouTube brought “tutorail videos” to my desk.

I realized it was a “middle brain”. It was built to look and act logically like a drum machine, but with intuitive virtual-controls open-architecture to be more (an effect-unit, MDI processor, or even sequence-driven effects-processor  using P-locks).

The later “-UW” version of the SDS-1 allowed not only for one to load their own sounds into the 12-bit sample player, but also the provision of

  • RAM machines to trigger record sound into 1 of 4 slots. One could thus sample by hitting buttons, or use the Sequencer to automatically/repeatedly sample…
  • ROM machines to play back from those slots, with arbitrary playback settings (pitch, direction, digital degradation).

As stated in the manual for the Octatrack “DPS-1” the OctaTrack’s manual, the MacineDrum’s ROM/RAM features are the inspiration of the OctaTrack architecture.

The OctaTrack (the dark canvas)

 front panel of DPS-1, from site

The OctatTack (aka the DPS-1, “Dynamic Performance Sampler”) is by contrast, extremely “Right Brain.” It’s “8-tracks” are built of layers…

  • 8 sequences, which can now be of independent length (for polyrhythms)
  • 8 audio paths, of Amp, LFOs for modulation, and 2 stereo FX slots, allowing mix/match among various algorithms.
  • 8- Recorders that write to 8 respective addresses RAM, which can be rationed from the available memory (almost 6 minutes of stereo audio at a 44.1 kHz CD-quality sampling).
  • 8- (assignable) sound-triggering slots for various machines
    • Static machines stream audio right from CF card
    • Flex machines load audio from card, or from RAM recorders for more live/destructive editing.
    • Thru machines  (for rhythmic chopping of audio feedthrough).
    • Neighbor machines (to re-process the previous track through additional FX units, allowing long series FX chains..
    • PickUp machines (added on OS 1.25) acting as “live loopers,” allowing overdubbing, beat-sync, and other behaviors within the device.
  • 8-tracks of MIDI sequencing to drive your external gear, perhaps to be (re)mixed/ (re)sampled as audio by the OT.
  • a crossfader to morph between “scenes” of settings across ANY setting of the audio layer.

…but these layers (recorders, players, sequencers) seem…creatively disconnected.

Specifically, while studying the manual (before buying) I realized that any track’s Playback machine could read from not just it’s own, but alternately OTHER track’s RAM buffers. It was not just rows or columns…it was a messand I wanted in.

“getting” the OctaTrack before and after I got one of my own.

With continued study of the manual (over a year before purchasing), I cam to understand how the modular separation applies both up- and down- the heirarchy apart from the individual “sound sources.”

  • the  Set contains a “pool” of all samples, which can contain an arbitrary number of Projects to assigned, permute, and sequence these samples.
    • the Project (effectively limiting all that you can touch at one time)
      • assigns the mapping of samples from the “pool” 2 slot-lists; 64 Flex-slots and/or 64 Static-slots for quick (re-)assignment of samples.
      • hosts Arrangements (“songs”), which play back various Patterns sequentially.
      • 16 Banks, each of which contains accommodations for both both the sampling/time-stretching audio side and the MIDI-sequencing side, driven by…
        • 16 Patterns of 8 Audio Tracks and 8 MIDI tracks. Each of these tracks could be of unique length (and sclae relative to master clock), and only stores the timing of trigger data, and any P-locks that map to the audio or MIDI players defined in the “Parts”.
        • Four (4) Parts to specify how Audio tracks and MIDI tracks will process/generate sound or control.
          • unique Recorder Setups for determining the source, length, and physical control of RAM recording per-track
          • Audio Machine assignments from Flex- and Static slot-lists
          • Audio Track Parameters across a set of 5 Audio Page-pairs (parameters on to the Main page can be p-locked, those on teh Setup page cannot), including:
            • Playback settings for the assigned Audio Machine
            • Amp settings or level, pan, and amplitude envelope
            • LFO page assigning for 3 seperate LFOs (to automatically modulate any parameter w/in that track over time in smooth or steppy ways)
            • FX1 page for setting the 1st effect (anything but reverb)
            • FX2 page for setting the 2nd effect (any)
          • MIDI Track Parameters across 5 Page-pairs
            • Note to store up to 4 notes per trig-event
            • Arp to arpeggiate any notes presently sustained in a rhythmic cycle
            • LFO to modulate MIDI parameters automatically…
            • CTRL1 page to standard MIDI-note messages like PitchBend, and 4-other Part-custom Control Change messages (ModWheel, Pan, Volume, EffectsSend1, Effects Send2, etc, etc)
            • CTRL to store another 6 custom Control Change messages…
          • 16 Scenes of multiple P-locks, for any setting(s) of any Audio track, allowing you to use the cross-fader to assign morph between any two Scenes (“of groups of p-locks,”).


Screen Shot 2017-07-01 at 8.03.01 PM.png
A (very necesssary) hierarchical model of the OT from its manual.

If this sounds confusing, it is… but the more I studied and admired, the more I felt…

"it's not hard, it's just complicated"

…and with that, I eventually sound myself dreaming (literally while I slept) of ideas like  “matrixed re-sampling”, so I soon saved to buy.

From my anticipatory study of the manual, through my eventual experiments with having my own hands on, I realized why (indeed) the OT has the steepest “learning curve”…. because it has the most open architecture.

  • before you can make any sound, you have to program sound you want, assigning a type of player and specific pre-loaded sounds or RAM-slots to that playback-machine.
  • before you can sample any sound, you must program your Recorder; using a Setup menu to capture from assigned inputs, record for certain lengths, and set how the Rec buttons will control this
  • before you can program, you have to know how to plan within the OTs architecture; consider HOW you want to capture and manipulate sound and understand if that would work.
  • before you can program and understand, you have to studyusually from the increasingly abundant reference and tutorials on Elektron forums and linked videos.

This is why most people (myself included) REQUIRE(D) tutorials to learn how to use the OT:  I fond myself having to close my eyes and imagine certain flow of signal and control, before opening them to dive into the small screen. Definitely a contrast to my history of “grab knobs and zone out”

…but the results of experimenting have been inspiring, and gotten me to think about sampling, mixing, and sound-design in exciting new ways. I’ve shared some concepts below, and  I suggest you start learning YOUR way around the OT by trying to re-create some of YOUR work flow from the DPS.

That may help you “feel out the darkness”.


Helpful ?

was my history-lesson/technical breakdown helpful to you. Let me know in the comments below ?


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