With interest in FM synthesis currently high, Elektron have produced a synth whose sheer versatility belies its diminutive size, says Chris Lyth
FM synthesis has always retained a certain mystery, appearing to the outsider as something of a dark art, known only to boffins like Brian Eno. And in a way, there was some truth to this: FM was once shockingly alien. It arrived at the dawning of a new digital age and its newfangled algorithms seemed more akin to a computer programmer’s stab at a concept album than a living, working musical instrument.
The general mood at the time oscillated between confusion and derision from players used to the warm sounds and tactile operations of the 70s/early 80s analogue synths. What was this clear, cold, disharmonious nonsense that could only be controlled via a small LED screen and a membrane keypad?
This didn’t stop the Yamaha DX7 from becoming the quintessential classic synth of the 80s, making an appearance on thousands of hit records, or the DX100 - in the hands of Messrs May, Saunderson and Atkins - from laying the groundwork of Detroit techno. In many ways the DX100 should be as revered as the Roland TB-303, TR-909 and TR-808, but for reasons unknown it has never held the imagination of producers in the same way.
Now, 30-plus years later, FM is being reimagined, and becoming very much de rigueur with the release of Yamaha’s Reface, Korg’s Volca FM and now Elektron’s Digitone. I recently got my grubby mitts on one of these, so what's it all about and how does it compare to it’s dusty forbears?
Essentially, the Digitone is a four-track FM synth workstation. Each synth has its own sequencer (more of which later). The concept is easy enough to understand: you have a mutable button for each synth and once you hit button three, you guessed it, all sequencing and synth parameters of the unit now correspond to synth three, simple enough.
If you're familiar with the Digitakt, then it’s a very similar deal. It’s housed in the same tank-like metal casing, the only difference being that the trig buttons are horizontal and there are four dedicated track selectors. The trig buttons are dual function and used for playing and recalling sequenced patterns. There's a vivid bright OLED screen (excellent when playing live in dark rooms) and eight silky smooth continuous encoders, which take their functions from the live screen view selected using the various other buttons across the panel. The intuitive layout is close to genius, but it does take a little getting used to: Elektron machines have their own language, which means there is a moderate learning curve before your patience is ultimately rewarded.
What's immediately apparent are the pains that Elektron has taken to make the immensely powerful FM synth engine more accessible and user-friendly. From my experience, it’s the most elegant take on the FM user interface to date. Fundamentally it’s the same line of FM synthesis as taken by the DX7, but has been simplified by refining the structure and the user interface. The Digitone only has four operators with eight different algorithms, whereas the DX7 had six operators and 32 algorithms. The boldest implementation has been to limit the ratios to multiples of 0.25. This, in practice, gives a more musical, less dissonant harmonic structure to the sound engine.
Let's get twisted
If you want to get in to harsher, Autechre-esque territory, there is the detune control that offsets the ratios. The LFO section is comprehensive, and done in a way that allows you to modulate almost any parameter. Some utterly batshit crazy sounds can be generated with a foray into the LFOs.
Another controversial idea has bee nto introduce a more conventional LP/HP filter plus a separate band-pass filter on each of the four synth engines. Controversial maybe, but the union of the two is inspired and adds another dimension to the sound-shaping possibilities; furthermore, it's an essential live automation tool.
As with the build and overall aesthetic similarity, the Digitone borrows many of the Digtakt's features including its much revered and powerful sequencer. The sequencer features live and step sequencing, micro timing for shuffling notes back and forward from the grid, conditional locks for building in random events, a chord generator and arpeggiator.
The piece de resistance, however, is the parameter lock function, which allows all of the synth parameters to be locked to a particular step in the sequence. This can be written either in live recording mode (meaning that all of your encoder tweaking and setting changes will be captured), or in step mode, where you hold the note and twist the encoders, locking all changes to that step. Needless to say the sound design abilities here push it beyond your average groovebox and into a dynamic shapeshifter. You can also use the MIDI outs to sequence other gear, which is ideal if you're gigging and want to travel light.
How does it sound?
As you would imagine, the Digitone is shipped with a whole sack of factory presets, so if you are wary of getting stuck into programming your own sounds at first, there are plenty to get you going. The presets are great starting points for exploring the synth engine and working out how a sound has been made.
Immediately, you'll be struck by the sheer range of sounds that can be coaxed from this little box, from crystal clear ethereal pads to massive industrial slabs of distorted bass and everything in-between. The presets encompass the familiar and the more esoteric: there’s a few FM classics in there for good measure, punchy Detroity bass, clanky bell-like percussion, gritty garage organs and some very nice drums.
The low-end is monstrous, but not in a typically gritty, analogue way: it’s a thick, precise low that will shake any dancefloor to dust if handled properly. It’s pretty easy to get into classic 80s electric piano and brass stab territory, too.
Just for FX
The onboard FX, while not being quite in the Lexicon/Eventide league, are generally very good. You have Reverb, Delay, Chorus and Overdrive, all of which can be used at the same time and are shared between the four synth tracks.
The Chorus in particular stands out for me as being very thick and lush-sounding, and the Overdrive adds as much grit as anyone is entitled to. The Reverb and Delay are both great for adding ambience when required: they have a truncated but still very useful set of parameters for sculpting your sound. Importantly, you can also route external audio into the unit through the left and right inputs, which is a nice touch. The FX parameters can be parameter locked in the sequencer, which adds another great tool for sound design.
This is arguably Elektron’s boldest move yet, but the Digitone stands out as something different in a market saturated with analogue gear. While its blatant FM sound may not appeal to everyone, it’s a deep and immersive instrument that’s capable of building complex and evolving timbres. It won’t give you a 303, mimic analogue or provide instant gratification, but given time it will open up the FM Pandora’s box where others have failed.
Review score: 4/5
Words: Chris Lyth
Eight-voice polyphony (multi-timbral)
Multiple FM algorithms
1x multimode filter per voice
1x base-width filter per voice
1 x overdrive per voice
2x assignable LFO per voice
4x synth tracks
4x MIDI tracks
1x arpeggiator per track
Individual track lengths
Sound per step change
FX: Panoramic Chorus, Saturator Delay, Supervoid Reverb,
Overdrive master effect
128x64-pixel OLED screen
2x 1/4-inch impedance balanced audio out jacks
2x 1/4-inch audio in jacks
1x 1/4-inch stereo headphone jack
48kHz, 24-bit D/A and A/D converters
Hi-speed USB 2.0 port
MIDI In/Out/Thru with DIN Sync out
More info: Elektron.se