Octatrack MK2 field report after 1 year of use (buying advice)


#1

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.


#2

Thank you for sharing this very informative and nice summation. I been thinking of grabbing an OT but haven’t considered most of what you mentioned. Very helpful :smiley:


#3

It is admittedly easy to write that using Live gives greater options (it does) or that the Digitakt is easier, more immediate and with better delay/reverb (all true) but when you sit down with the OT it really can be a joy and takes you places that would simply take forever, or involving a lot of fannying about, on other devices (in or out the box).

The OT can also be a gigantic pain in the arse and a turn off at times. I must admit to being a little tempted to flip mine to go back to the DT but having sat down with it to start the Halloween Challenge I’ve got to say I really enjoyed myself. Possibly to the point that I’d like to add the DT to the OT workflow I have.

Anyway, a lot of fair points though the RAM issue really doesn’t cause me concern as I tend to stick to static machines and use dynamic recorders to capture lengthy samples.

Interesting write up though and a nice summary!


#4

That is a good point! Like I said, I have enjoyed my time with the Octatrack very much. There is kind of a zen thing about getting away from your computer and switching on this single small device and creating music or strange sounds with it :slight_smile: Mastering the Octatrack’s functions was a welcome challenge for me and I learned a lot about making music in the process. I also firmly believe that restrictions make you more creative, but in the end some of these very specific restrictions got in the way of what I wanted to do with the Octatrack, so I amicably parted with it.


#5

I have had a MK1 for three years and I love it more now than I did then. I instantly want to ask, is one year long enough to fully learn any piece of gear? Is comparing a hardware sampler to a DAW a fair comparison given that a DAW allows for almost infinite plugins, feature updates, channels, midi options, sequencing options, etc Interesting opinion piece, to which my responses are

timestretch algorithm hasn’t aged well. For me golden rule of sampling is do not time stretch, so personal taste I guess
cuts off all excess bits instead of properly converting the bit depth this seems like a user operation issue really, if we know that you need to choose bit depth before importing samples.
cannot record mono files. Not a deal breaker…16GB flash card…
Only 64 MB of RAM I thought that might be an issue when I first got it, but it has been.
no way to seamlessly duplicate a pattern This might be an issue for some, but I dont think it is a deal breaker.
weird gainstaging. I dunno, I see it as a chance to improve my listening skills
level meter LEDs are not accurate enough. see above
Muting not a deal breaker for me
freeze delay (stutter, glitch, repeat) causes clicks I believe that is intentional to encourage people to quit using that over used effect ;p
looper function not an issue for me personally as I dont use it, I believe there are looper pedals that do a way better job than OT.
Delay and reverb are only available in FX slot 2 Yeah this is a grumble, but nevermind eh
reverbs sound much worse than those in the Digitakt or Digitone. subjective opinion really
No sidechain-compression. Good!
44.1 kHz sample rate which is plenty! can anyone really tell the difference between a 44.1khz sample and a 48khz?
Switching between quantized and unquantized recording is hidden in the menu. Yeah they did that deliberately just to mess with your head
No MIDI over USB. Again I don’t think this is a deal breaker, the OT has full midi connections, so any audio interface with midi can connect to a computer, should you need to.

Bottom line for me is, I use my octatrack almost everyday. I find I am more productive when working within limited parameters, I am more creative, more imaginative, more free. I really dislike using a laptop to make music and I really dislike the whole looking at a grid on a screen thing. I learn something new on the OT every time I use it, I haven’t learned anything new in Ableton since live 8. I would agree that using OT as an xox drum machine is maybe not the best use for it, plenty of other drum machines do a better job. But as a Sampler Octatrack excels.


#6

That explains a lot of things about the OT :smile:


#7

Thanks for your thoughts! Probably bookmark it to link to people asking around here whether they should get an OT.

Out of curiosity which ones exactly?


#8

I was looking forward to reading this. Then my shoulders slumped when you said the Alternative is Ableton Live.

The problem is motivation and inspiration not perfect quality.


#9

Yeah, stupid user, tries to load 24-bit files into a 16-bit project, what was he thinking :wink: No seriously, it’s a real issue. I first noticed it on Goldbaby’s samples, which sounded so much better on the PC than in the Octatrack. Turns out it’s the additional bit depth. In a 24-bit project everything sounds fine on the Octatrack.


#10

Well @sabana I’m sorry, but like I wrote in the opening paragraph… There is no other machine that can do what the Octatrack does.


#11

@sabana Why is motivation and inspiration a problem for you?


#12

@xidnpnlss Most recently it was the issue with the clicks in the retrigs and the stutter delays. I wanted to use those quite heavily in a new project and was more busy with cleaning up the little pops everywhere than making music. A while ago was the first time that I saw a plugin at work which did all that stuff way faster and without clicks, so I had to admit to myself that maybe I was holding on to that particular Elektron box for the wrong reasons.


#13

Interesting post and some good points. For balance maybe you can list the things you liked! I’m guessing it would dwarf the list of things you don’t! Iva had OT for almost a year and used it a lot for first six months then not at all due to work and other things, I’ll be getting it fired up soon to use for guitar - several great threads here from guitarists which inspire me.
Funnily enough I keep my sp16 because I like how it sounds despite all the limitations. That and no one will buy it…


#14

Which one though, what makes you say that ? Care to elaborate ?


#15

But music gear is an AND AND AND story not an OR OR OR story!


#17

Thanks for this. Confirmed many of my suspicions and crushed my GAS.

It would be nice if Elektron updated it to be more user friendly, but that’ll probably never happen, so I’ll stick with what I have :slight_smile:


#18

@jcd you may have seen the topic about screen burn-in.
i wonder if it affects all the units. what’s yours after 1 year?


#19

@ivarin No burn-in whatsoever. Is that an issue on the MK2? My Analog Four MK1 had massive ghosting and low contrast because I didn’t use it for a while. After a few days of constant use everything was OK again.


#20

you’re lucky :slight_smile:
this seems to be MK2 relatively common problem, check it out https://www.elektronauts.com/t/mk2-burn-in/

i’m seeing the evidence of this on my unit after 1 month+ of using


#21