The Octatrack is a Swiss army knife. There is no other single hardware device that can do what the Octatrack does. For good reason it was once described as “Ableton in a box”. Without a computer you can:
- Play samples on 8 monophonic tracks
- Program complex sequences with probabilities, fill and parameter locks
- Sequence MIDI on 8 additional tracks and send it to external gear
- Play samples of up to 2GB in size (the files can be streamed directly from the CF-card if you use static machines)
- Slice samples
- Do timestretching
- Edit samples in the internal audio editor (AED)
- Preview Tracks and Samples via the cue out
- Use it as a looper device
- Sample live from 4 inputs (single or in stereo pairs)
- Sample the audio of external devices perfectly synchronized to the beat via recording trigs
- Use 2 effects per audio track
- Apply the effects to incoming audio (the Octatrack can be used as an effects pedal)
- Assign scenes to the crossfader and seamlessly morph between many parameters (you can also scratch via the “Rate” parameter for example)
For me it took quite a while to really get to know my way around the Octatrack, despite having had experience with two other Elektron machines. It offers many functions, some of which are not that intuitive to find or to use. There are important “hidden” key combinations that aren’t printed on the case or referred to on-screen, so reading the manual is imperative.
Speaking of which, the manual is rather dry and written from the perspective of a technician. It helps to make your own cheat sheet with the most important shortcuts, functions and troubleshooting as soon as you are familiar with the basics. The fact that my cheat sheet fills over a dozen pages is a testament to the complexity of the machine.
As I said there is no other single hardware device that can do what the Octatrack does. To everyone who is interested I would like to tell the other side of the story, as I see it after one year of using the Octatrack. The more you use the device (which I had lots of fun doing), the more you notice little problems and inconsistencies. Many of these have existed for years in the MK1 model, so realistically I would not expect any fixes via firmware.
- You can hear that the timestretch algorithm hasn’t aged well. I don’t like to use it because it thins out the sound. It sucks the life right out of some samples even if you just let it activated in a neutral setting. This is the default for a newly loaded sample if the Octatrack thinks it’s not a one-shot Sample (it is often wrong). Especially with kick drum samples I often notice when timestretch is activated by accident.
- If you load a 24-bit sample into a 16-bit project, the Octatrack apparently cuts off all excess bits instead of properly converting the bit depth, which sounds like a bad bitcrusher on a low setting. If you want to effectively use the already scarce RAM, you need to convert all samples beforehand on the computer.
- You cannot record mono files. Even if you record from a single input in mono, the file is saved as a stereo WAV. What a waste of space!
- Only 64 MB of RAM. They could have easily given the MK2 version 1 GB or at least 512 MB of RAM, considering how cheap RAM is now compared to 10 years ago.
- When playing live, there is no way to seamlessly duplicate a pattern to continue working on a copy of it (e.g. to keep some good versions of the pattern to return to later or build a song from). You have to copy the current pattern into a buffer, jump to an empty pattern and then paste the pattern from the buffer. This inevitably leads to at least a short audio blackout until you have pasted the pattern information. Other Elektron boxes like the Analog Four, Rytm, Digitakt and Digitone can do an on-the-fly pattern copy/paste/clear (you don’t have to leave the current pattern).
- The Octatrack has very weird gainstaging. If you’re interested search for “octatrack gainstaging”.
- The level meter LEDs are not accurate enough. The signal is often only hot enough if the LEDs are well into the red. I believe Elektron recommended “green, almost yellow”, but for me this leads to a signal that’s way too quiet. Maybe this is the reason why recorded samples by default get a +12dB volume boost in the sample settings (but that can’t be the solution to a clean signal flow with a good noise floor). A normal dBFS scale would have been more useful. The Octatrack community has found a tedious workaround via the noise gate, with which you can approximate the correct input level.
- Muting a track immediately zeroes the audio levels for that track. On all other Elektron machines “mute” means that the following trigs won’t be played, but the current sound gets to play until its end. Both methods have their uses, it would have been great to be able to switch between them.
- The freeze delay (stutter, glitch, repeat) causes clicks (especially with bass-heavy material) because it performs no micro-fades. Inevitably the waveform sometimes jumps from a higher to a lower position, resulting in an audible pop. Same problem with retrigs.
- The looper function of the Octatrack (pickup machines) is unnecessarily complicated, also there is no undo.
- Delay and reverb are only available in FX slot 2, so you can’t combine the two unless you sacrifice another track especially for that purpose.
- The reverbs sound much worse than those in the Digitakt or Digitone.
- No sidechain-compression. Complicated workaround: you can imitate the effect via LFOs.
- 44.1 kHz sample rate (Digitakt and Rytm operate at 48 kHz).
- You can’t display all the parameter values of one page like on the other Elektron machines by holding the corresponding SRC/AMP/LFO/FX1/FX2 button.
- Switching between quantized and unquantized recording is hidden in the menu. On other Elektron devices you can just hold REC and push PLAY twice.
- No MIDI over USB.
Bottom line: Even if you love all-in-one hardware solutions, you should think twice whether or not you’re making too many compromises. For the same money you get a good laptop, Ableton Live Intro (its features exceed the Octatrack’s), an audio interface (e.g. Behringer UMC1820 with twice as many inputs as the Octatrack and acceptable latency) and a plugin like Looperator or Turnado from Sugar Bytes for live effects. This setup would be more flexible, user-friendly and would have higher quality effects. Also: If you want to use the Octatrack as an X0X drum machine, you will probably be much happier with the Digitakt’s faster workflow, better sound engine and higher quality reverb.