A couple months ago I purchased an Elektron Octatrack MkII, I found it quite enjoyable to use and its a product that basically nothing else competes with 100%. Because of this I decided to pick up both the Elektron Digitakt and Digitone, since they have a similar workflow, but 3 weeks later i've processed a return at Sweetwater and am sending them back. I've bought dozens of pieces of hardware gear over the years, my studio is full of stuff, and i've NEVER returned anything outside of a factory defect (and the only instance of that was also by Elektron) because I typically research quite thoroughly before buying. In this article i'm going to talk about why the Digitakt and Digitone were my first returned music gear purchases.
You might realize these devices ARE for you in this article, so just in case i've linked to Digitakt and Digitone on Amazon below.
Why Write This?
First of all, whats the point of me writing this article? Well mainly its to save other people the inconvenience if you realize these products are not for you from reading this. But also one of the reasons I so mindlessly ordered these was the insane amount of love these devices get online. It's incredibly hard to find anyone talking about bad experiences with the Digitakt or Digitone. The few cases I could find resulted in a passive aggressive group of Elektron fans defending the device.
When I ordered my Octatrack MKII, the original unit I got had multiple hardware defects. 1st the CompactFlash 'Octaflash' card it came with died within 7 days, so I lost all the work i'd done in the first week on the device. 2nd my unit had broken main stereo outputs. When I went to the Elektron forums to ask if I was doing something wrong there were many helpful people, but also a few snarky comments implying that I didn't understand how audio cables work or that I must have a broken audio interface (even after assuring them every other device I own works fine in it). Amazon processed my replacement super fast and of course my 2nd Octatrack worked perfectly fine.
Okay now I want to address an elephant in the room: the argument of whether the Digitakt is 'just a drum machine' or if it's something more. When it comes to just laying down a drum pattern, a lot of my complaints about the Digitakt go away. Technically the Digitakt is a drum machine, but its largely advertised as a sampler and groove-box by the company and everyone else that uses it online. If you're looking for a super straightforward and powerful drum machine, the Digitakt is a fantastic option, but if you want to make full songs on it i'd look elsewhere.
I didn't return these devices because they're 'hard' or because I 'didn't put the work into learning them', because by the time I returned them I had made a dozen tracks on both devices (and tracks using both at the same time) and felt pretty fast at using both of them. These devices are very easy to learn, especially after using the Octatrack for a few months. SO lets talk about why I returned them...
Reason #1: The Sequencer
The general workflow of the Digitakt and Digitone revolves around the all-powerful Elektron step sequencer. Not gonna lie their sequencer is incredibly powerful and flexible, but at the end of the day I think this is the #1 reason I returned these devices. With the Octatrack you CAN go in and customize every single step of your 64 steps in a sequence, but most of the time you don't have to due to the nature of the device being a stereo sampler and live performance device - typically you're using it as a mixer / live audio processor and less of an overkill step sequencer.
With the Digi boxes you can live record patterns into the device and it works, but you're always limited to 64 step patterns (unless you want to do some crazy work with conditional triggers, which are powerful but very time consuming). Typically you're also going to have to go in and manually add in some triggers, which means you're going to have to manually adjust the pitch and any other parameters for that trigger.
Once you go through and create your pattern this way you then get to do it all over again for another pattern. Yes you can copy and paste patterns to start from that place, but you can imagine this is a relatively tedious workflow. I found this process of clicking a trigger, turning a knob, clicking another trigger, turning a few knobs, very boring and tedious.
As I mentioned at the start for a drum pattern this problem goes away, but when using the Digitakt as a groove box (or when using the Digitone) this problem is still very much there. The sequencer is something that should be marveled at, but with its power comes a LOT of busy work if you want to make more complicated patterns.
Reason #2: Arbitrary Limitations
Typically I find limitations with music devices to be useful because they force you to be creative and work in new ways. This is true for a lot of the Digitakt / Digitone. You only have X amount of tracks or X amount of synth voices, so you must be creative to make it work. However there are many arbitrary limitations on these boxes that only frustrated me.
The largest is probably a lack of a song mode. You can't pre-program multiple patterns to play in a sequence, you can stack a few together on the fly but its a bastardized version of a song mode at best. On one hand you could say its because these are performance boxes, but other limitations prove otherwise.
The performance aspects of the Digitakt and Digitone show other arbitrary limitations. You can't set any macro knobs to adjust parameters on the fly, the only thing you can really do is the 'control all' feature, where you adjust the same parameters for every single track on the device with one knob. Even this is kind of 'hacky' because this is only useful if you save your current pattern into memory and then use a shortcut key to paste it back after you're done editing to restore all your settings back to normal.
The last limitation i'll bring up is that MIDI channels can only have 4 note polyphony. Also it has a lot of quirks when you overlap notes on the end of a pattern or try to stop notes early in that polyphony. The worst part of the MIDI channels to me is probably just the programming aspect, back to Reason #1 - its not fun to program these.
Here's some rapid fire ones.
- No time stretching on the Digitakt (this one is the strangest decision to me)
- Mono samples
- No expandable storage
- File organization is a mess, you can't really easily manipulate folders (I really wish you could just mount the device as a drive on your computer and move stuff around)
(P.S. I can't say for sure how 'arbitrary' these actually are. I'm sure the hardware has its own limitations but considering the size of the units, the features packed inside and the price of the units I have a strong suspicion they could have resolved most of these. Its pretty clear these were design decisions and not things that were left out, which is why I consider them arbitrary.
Reason #3: Shortcuts
I'm okay with a few shortcuts on a music device. Heck, even with the Synthstrom Deluge having probably over 100 shortcuts I can live with, because they're all basically shift+button. With the Digitakt / Digitone (and the Octatrack too), you're constantly smacking shortcut combinations.
Not only that but shortcuts change depending on what page you're on in the device. Click Func + record (copy) to copy the pattern, enable record mode and do the same to copy the track's triggers, while in record mode use page + record (copy) to copy the page. Accidentally cleared the pattern instead of the page or track? You better use that shortcut a second time to undo it before you click anything else otherwise its gone for good (because there isn't a real undo button).
You do get very quick at these shortcuts over time, but considering how frequently you'll use these actions it would have been much more desirable to have more dedicated buttons to these actions that are less page dependent. This is more of a critique on Elektron's sequencer as a whole and not just the Digi products.
Reason #4: Genre's
While you technically can make pretty much any style of music with the Digitakt and Digitone, there are a few genres that these devices work best at. If you look up demos and jams on these boxes you'll find a lot of techno, minimal electronic, ambient and lofi. Can you technically make a future bass or pop track on them? Sure. Will you make a good one? Probably not. I haven't heard one I thought was sufficient.
These boxes work best for very loopable genres. If you're style requires more motion, less repeating parts, or transitional elements you're going to have a harder time making that work. The lack of song mode amplifies this, but it really just comes down the nature of this being a step sequence based device.
Comparing them to the Deluge its night and day. On the Deluge you can much more easily draw in notes and chords, instead of holding triggers and turning knobs one by one. On the Deluge you can also have infinite and variable pattern lengths for every track and section, and you can also use the song mode to tie it all together. While you may be able to do the same thing technically on the Digitakt / Digitone, you're going to spend MUCH longer doing it and it won't work as well.
Even the OP-1 I found more conducive to my writing style than the Digitakt or Digitone. With the OP-1 you're recording to 4 audio tracks in a linear manner, so you can record all the details you want for a song. That comes with its own limitations but for me it was a drastically improved workflow over the Elektron boxes. Plus the sound design on the OP-1 is more fluid and fun.
I'm not saying the Digitakt and Digitone are bad, i'm just saying they weren't for me and my workflow and thats likely true for a lot of other people. The dream of a magical box you can use to make full songs is realized in both the Digitakt and the Digitone, but it comes with a lot of caveats. If you don't make very loopable genres of music, or you hate the idea of performing lots of button presses just to get a perfect pattern down, or you dislike the idea of so many shortcut combinations, or you need a song mode... you may want to pass on these devices.
To me the Deluge is a massive improvement in every way over the Digitakt or Digitone, and it does more than both of them combined at nearly the same price point for ONE Elektron box.
The dream I had was to create some songs that were more performable, using the Digitakt / Digitone / Octatrack workflow to write tracks and perform vocals over them for awesome video content. I had no dream to switch to the DAW-less workflow, just to mix some of that workflow into my skillset. The problem was that this workflow is incredibly time consuming for my style of music compared to so many other workflows that exist, both in and out of the box.
I had fun learning the devices and made some dope tracks, but nothing that hit the style or quality of something I would ever release. Once I felt fluent on the devices the fun wore off, because writing on the Deluge is fun and easy and writing on the Digitakt / Digitone is tedious (to me). If you like these boxes I totally get it, your workflow or mindset must gel with them in a way that it didn't gel with me, different strokes for different folks.
I'll finish this off with some positive comments about the Digitakt and Digitone... The buttons feel amazing, the boxes look awesome and are tough as nails, the sequencer is incredibly powerful, they're both easy to learn, Overbridge 2.0 is the best software integration for a hardware device i've seen outside of Ableton's Push 2, and you can make some amazing sounds with these devices. With the Digitone you can literally have every style of all 4 tracks play a different sounding synth, and for the Digitakt you can have up to 128 samples in memory and every step could cycle through those 128 samples and modulate them in infinite ways for every style.
Don't let my viewpoint scare you away from these boxes, but also don't blindly trust the YouTubers that love them.