Elektron Machinedrum Review

Also known as the Elektron SPS-1, Synthetic Percussion Synthesizer. I'll just state outright that if you're interested in doing some heavy percussion composing or playing this is the machine to get. Easily the most powerful drum box available. With four types of synthesis, a powerful 16-track sequencer, loads of real-time control via knobs, a big LCD display, and some nice effects, the Elektron MachineDrum delivers a professional-sounding drum machine that outstrips the functions of its competitors.

Visit the Elektron site (www.machinedrum) to view the product specifications and hear some sound samples. However, like most product demos, the provided sound samples only hint at the capabilities of the MachineDrum. The unit itself is smaller than I expected (roughly 13.5x7x2.5 inches), but weighs a ton (6.2 pounds) for its size. The build quality is exceptional. There are six individual outputs and two inputs. The requisite three midi connections are also present. The only quibble I have with the unit is that the wall wart connector fits too loosely to the back of the box and is easily disengaged. Elektron should have installed an anchor to hold the cord.

A drum machine lives or dies on the strength of its sound, so let's start here. There are four different types of synthesis available in the box; well, really three:

- TRX is based on modeling, and covers the Roland TR series.
- EFM is FM synthesis and offers some wild possibilities.
- E12 is sample-based and covers Drumulator territory.
- PI is physical modeling of acoustic drums.

The TRX synthesis does a good job of replicating the Roland TR series, but with a wealth of parameter controls, it can veer far from this territory. The EFM synthesis is actually capable of some realistic drum sounds, but also excels at some nice weirdness. E12 covers those 1980s sampled drum sounds to a tee (think Genesis' Mama). While PI is supposed to model acoustic drums, it can actually produce the most synthetic percussion of the bunch.

Besides the requisite bass, drum, snare, hi-hats, etc., each synthesis type offers its own variations and particular percussion. Some have claves, bongos or toms, and of course claps, rim shots and cow bells. There's lots of sonic variety available due to the parameters. For example, a clap sound can be tweaked into a bull-whip snap, or a bass drum can be tuned up to a high-pitched tom.

Drum kits can be constructed mixing and matching any of the four synthesis methods. There's also a sine wave generator that can be used to construct more "melodic" tones, and a noise generator. Each of the drum sounds (or Machines as Elektron calls them) can be tweaked in real-time using the parameter knobs of the MachineDrum. All the drum sounds have up to eight parameters, and each kit can contain up to 16 machines.

Between the large LCD and the wealth of knobs, the MachineDrum is a tweaker's paradise. Knob changes are reflected in the LCD by small knob pictures that display the parameter value and a graphical representation of the knob movement. The knobs push down to reveal the actual value in the LCD. You can also push the knob down and turn for quicker parameter changes. A nice alternative to the turn-the-knob-faster for quick parameter changes implemented on some gear. You can also move any number of knobs simultaneously. The LCD shows you everything that's going on for a particular drum sound. And moving to a different sound is as easy as moving the large data wheel or pressing one of the 16 grid-edit buttons at the bottom of the unit. There's a series of 16 LEDs that let you know what drum sound is currently active for editing.

There are effects available for each drum sound in a kit, as well as global effects. Each individual drum sound has five effects at its disposal: distortion, tremolo, track EQ (a simple one-band parametric type), filter and sample rate reducer. In particular, the filter is capable of much sonic variation, offering a resonant 24dB lo/hi/band-pass filter. The parameters give you control of both the low and high filter cutoffs, as well as a variable gap bandpass filter.

There are four global effect-delay, reverb, compressor and EQ-with dedicated send levels available for each drum sound in a kit through a dedicated routing screen. Global effect settings are available for each drum kit. The quality of the effects is good for a drum machine, with the reverb capable of some nice gating options. Each of the global effects has eight parameters available. None of the effects are going to beat an Eventide or a Lexicon, but they provide flexible choices, particularly the compressor, which gives the drums some extra punch when needed.

In addition, each drum kit has 16 assignable LFOs to modulate track parameters. Each of the 16 LFOs offers two synchronized waveforms. A mix control allows the output to be set to any mix between the two waveforms. The speed of the LFO is synchronized to the global tempo. The LFOs are by default mapped to control their own tracks, but they can be set to modulate any track.

The MachineDrum includes a powerful pattern-based sequencer that draws on the Roland X0X tradition as a starting point. The sequencer has two main modes: pattern and song. The pattern mode can be divided further into two types: classic and extended. Classic mode separates the sequencer from the drum sounds, so that changing a pattern will not change a drum kit. This is useful for trying out different drum sounds with the same pattern. In extended mode, drum kits and parameter lock information are saved with each patterns. So what are parameter locks?

Similar to the Jomox XBase09, the MachineDrum sequencer can save parameter changes for a track in extended mode. A parameter can be locked to a certain value for a specific step. All synthesis, effect parameters can be locked. Thus, you can program a snare drum to change pitch, filter, pan, eq, etc. for any step. The drum will revert to its original state unless a parameter is locked for a particular step. More than one parameter can be locked on a track, and other tracks can have locks on the same step as well. A pattern can have a total of 64 parameter tracks. In addition, locks can be programmed to slide gradually to the value of the next step.

Patterns are easily constructed using the Roland X0X grid metaphor. Just select the drum part your want to enter and click the pattern buttons at the bottom of the unit for the step you want the drum to sound on. If you make a mistake, just click the button again for the drum sound to disappear on that step. Choosing the next drum sound to enter is as easy as turning a knob. A great feature is that patterns are written directly into memory as you compose, so there's no need to save your work. You can also copy or clear patterns easily.

Patterns default to 4/4 with 16 steps, but you can have up to 32 steps in a pattern. It's also possible to chain patterns together to accomplish odd time signatures, a process not easily accomplished on competing products. Patterns do not retain tempo information in pattern mode, but tempo can be set easily in integer steps for precise control. Tap tempo can also be set if required. In addition, there's an adjustable swing function and a dedicated accent screen for quickly changing the accentuation of a pattern. Accent increases the volume for all tracks in a certain position within a pattern.

Song mode is basically where you string patterns together. When you enter song mode, the screen still makes room for the parameters of the active drum voice, which is nice. A song can be up to 256 steps long. A step can be a pattern, a loop or a jump. Thus, you can loop a series of patterns, or jump from one step to another. There is also the ability to offset patterns on a step so that only one part of a pattern will play (e.g., a snare drum roll). The display allows you to see the list of patterns with in the song by scrolling. All in all an easy user experience.

The MachineDrum is not cheap at $1,100, and is only available direct from Elektron in Sweden. But, to be fair, the now-defunct Quasimidi 309 was the same price when it was introduced, and it pales in comparison from a sound and feature perspective. The Jomox XBase09 is also not inexpensive, and its sound is not as flexible as the MachineDrum, despite the XBase's analog engine for bass and snare drums. Ditto for the much cheaper, model-based Korg Electribe R. In addition, it only took two days from the time I ordered from Elektron for the MachineDrum to arrive at my door.

I view percussion as central to my music creation: funny, considering my forthcoming CD (Sonic Approach) has very little drums on it! But in the few days I've had the MachineDrum, I'm already fast at work on some new compositions. If your interested in doing some serious synthetic percussion programming and sequencing, you can't go wrong with the MachineDrum.