In 2005, Elektron enhanced the Machinedrum by giving users the ability to load and trigger their own samples alongside the normal digitally synthesized percussion sounds. In addition to this ROM memory (long term storage), they also added RAM (temporary) memory slots, which could be used to creatively resample and manipulate audio in real time. After seeing the tricks people performed with this new UW (UserWave) version of the Machinedrum, a seed was planted in Elektron's mind of a new device that could take sampling even further. To that end, after years of development, and much high-budget product teasing, Elektron have finally released their first ever dedicated sampler, called the Octatrack DPS-1.
Physically, the Octatrack shares the same general layout of its Machinedrum and Monomachine brethren, although there are some obvious differences (like the switch from silver to black) that make it clear that its makers wanted to distinguish it as an entirely new creation. Although it loses two main data entry knobs, it gains an optical crossfader which can be assigned to control any and all of the parameters available in the machine. On the backside you will notice less audio outputs than on the other Elektron units, but in their place are two new modern additions: a Compact Flash slot and a USB port. The CF card is where all of the Octatrack's data gets stored, from samples to pattern and project data. Because of the large amount of data being pushed around, Elektron recommends CF cards with a minimum speed rating of 133X—so the old cards you have laying around the house probably won't work. The USB port currently only supports interfacing the Octatrack with a computer for the purposes of transferring files to and from the CF card.
With a name like Octatrack it might go without saying that the heart of the unit is an eight track sequencer, which can be used to drive internal "machines" responsible for either playback or input of audio. More machine types are rumored to be coming soon, in addition to MIDI sequencing, which brings me to an important caveat: even though the Octatrack is technically released, the operating system currently shipping with it is version 0.99. This means that while still very usable, it is missing some features that are promised to be coming shortly.
The Octatrack's sequencer is a derivation of the famed Elektron sequencer found in the Machinedrum and Monomachine, which has a number of clever tricks up its sleeve. Perhaps the best of these is what is known as parameter locks (or "plocks" for short), which allow you to lock in the value of almost any parameter of the instrument (playback, effects, levels, etc…) at any step in the sequence. The Octatrack's sequencer extends beyond the functionality of its predecessors by allowing each track to have its own unique length and time signature, and by supporting microtiming, where triggers can be shifted forward or back slightly to create groove. These are really impressive additions, but on the flip side there are some fundamental parts of the normal Elektron sequencer that the Octatrack doesn't yet support. The most notable omission is the ability to record parameter locks in real-time, which can be very powerful in live use. With any hope, this is coming shortly via an OS update.
When it's time to actually use that fancy sequencer, the first thing you need to wrap your head around is how everything is stored in the Octatrack. This new hierarchy is a pretty marked change from the old Elektron way of doing things and although it might seem overwhelming at first, Elektron has helpful diagrams in the manual and online that explain things pretty clearly. Once you've got that down, it's time to dig into the two machine types that the Octatrack uses for sample playback—Flex and Static. Both machines offer time stretch and pitch shift simultaneously, which has led some to call the Octatrack "Ableton in a Box." The Static machine streams samples directly off of the Compact Flash card, which means samples can be as large as your card can handle. The Flex machine, on the other hand, loads samples into 64 MB of RAM, which lets you do more with the sample (like slicing). One important note that disappointed some users is that sample playback on a given track is monophonic, so any long samples risk being cut off by subsequent sample triggers.
In order for a sampler to truly live up to its name, it has to have good sampling capabilities. The Octatrack certainly fits the bill, with a very powerful sampling mode that allows you to sample from either of the external inputs, any of the internal tracks, the cue out, or the master output. Each of the eight tracks has its own recorder upon which sampling can either be triggered manually or by grid sequenced triggers—and you can even capture from more than one source simultaneously. Once you've got the samples captured, you can trigger the track recorder output using a Flex machine. Any of the eight tracks can play back any of the track recorder outputs, which results in enough combinations and possibilities to make your head spin. It sounds complex, and to tell the truth it does take a bit of time to get the hang of it—but the end result is a machine with a huge amount of creative potential.
Looking past all of its assets, there are still quite a few areas where the Octatrack could (and probably will) be improved as the OS evolves. MIDI sequencing is confirmed to be coming, and one would hope that real-time parameter lock recording will follow close behind. There have also been rumors about additional machine types, like a looper that would give users an easier choice for real-time sound-on-sound overdubbing. Some additional improvements that would be nice to see include a new machine that allows for limited polyphonic sample playback, and an easy way to save all of the samples you've recorded in a session. That being said, even without any improvements, the Octatrack already does things that no other sampler can do. As time moves on, and some of the early wrinkles get smoothed out, I predict the Octatrack will undoubtedly join the Machinedrum and Monomachine at the top of many producers' wish lists.
Ease of use: 3.5/5