ELEKTRON MONOMACHINE SFX-6, SFX-60

Nothing is typical, conventional or ordinary about Elektron or its products. Billed as a multiple synthesis keyboard synthesizer and advanced pattern-based
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Nothing is typical, conventional or ordinary about Elektron or its products. Billed as a “multiple synthesis keyboard synthesizer and advanced pattern-based sequencer,” the Monomachine carries on the company's charge by drawing strong elements from its earlier products while offering five different mono synths, as well as effects, a 6-track internal step sequencer and six more tracks of MIDI sequencing for control of external sound sources. A creative-flow workstation, it pumps out inspirational and fluid beat-rich synthetic vibes that defy standard “groove box” or “synthesizer” labels, instead melding into a sort of homogenous, user-interactive mélange. But with a sound set — not to mention its functionality and lineage — that strongly deviates from the norm, does the Monomachine suffer from a self-imposed identity crisis?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Straight out of the box, the Monomachine is both familiar and new. Sharing more than a subtle resemblance to the Machinedrum, the brushed-aluminum front panel exudes confidence with its well-defined edges (reportedly machined by hand) and comfortably responsive tactile buttons and knobs, each producing reassuring little clicks as you push them down. The all-metal chassis, attractively painted in semigloss charcoal black, also shares Machinedrum's square, boxy contour — as well as weightiness at 15 pounds. New are the Monomachine SFX-6's proportions. Measuring a little longer than three feet, the unit takes up only seven inches of desk space front to back. These atypical proportions are due to equally atypical control and surface layout for a keyboard instrument.

To the left of the Monomachine's prominent three-octave (37-note) keyboard are all of the important master controls: a synthesis-parameter edit section consisting of eight soft-knob encoders (and a dedicated track volume knob), six track-select buttons, various system and navigation buttons, preset bank-select buttons, a row of 16 trigger/sequencer step-entry buttons and sequencer transport controllers. Positioned between the busy control section and the keyboard is a spring-loaded joystick controller that is used for, among other things, vector-style expressive control of your sounds, effects and sequencer playback. To the far right of the unit are octave up and down switches.

Also new — and greatly appreciated — is the Monomachine's cool icy-blue backlit graphic LCD, which replaces the often-contested, hard-to-read red display found on the Machinedrum. Graphics are clear and mindfully laid out, and the menu system is ingeniously programmed to always be only one or two button strokes deep.

Unfortunately, I have one major gripe about the general placement of things. Maybe it's just me and the way I chose to work with the Monomachine, but when I played notes on the keyboard with my right hand and wanted to tweak the parameter knobs with my left, my left forearm, wrist and hand were constantly directly in line of sight with the LCD — which, incidentally, is the only visual indicator of what you're accomplishing with the soft knobs.

Although Elektron's designers told me that a work-around for this is to edit sounds and sequence patterns in the control section using both left and right hands, then use your hands to control a sequence with the keyboard and joystick afterward, that didn't sit well with me. That's a cop-out and not the way most musicians work: You tweak as you play. It's human nature.

If you are tight for space and wish to save a sizable chunk of change, the 13.75-inch-wide SFX-60 desktop unit (rackmountable with optional accessories) incorporates the full feature set of its bigger sibling, including the sequencer. The only difference between the units is the lack of a keyboard and a joystick (where a standard MIDI controller can be used instead), and the SFX-60 uses an external power supply. Both units sport ¼-inch gold-plated stereo/individual outputs, four auxiliary outs, two audio inputs, MIDI In/Out/Thru and a stereo headphone jack.

FUNCTIONAL OVERVIEW

The Monomachine is somewhat of a freak in today's increasingly complacent hardware-synth arena. The sound-generating structure of it differs so greatly, and in so many ways, from the rest of the pack that you really have to understand how it produces the sounds that you're hearing to fully appreciate it. In a sense, you're not forced to learn a new form of synthesis, but a new compositional mind-set.

The basic sound-generating unit in the Monomachine (as well as with the Machinedrum) is what Elektron calls a Machine, or what other manufacturers might call models or algorithms. Each Machine is designed to generate sounds from a specific technique or method of synthesis and comes with its own unique parameter set. The Machines are grouped into families of so-called Mono-synths, which are simply more familiar categorical names for easier reference. It should be noted that the Monomachine also treats effects such as reverb, delay and chorus as Machines.

In order to become audible, Machines must first be assigned to a track — again, what other manufacturers might typically call a part. Each of the Monomachine's six tracks can have any Machine type assigned to it for playback by the pattern sequencer or for manual triggering. If you wish, you can assign the same Machine type to more than one track to achieve rich layers.

The track assignment of Machines and their parameter settings is collected in what are known on the Monomachine as Kits (that's multis to you and me). Kits are essentially the top level of the sound-unit hierarchy — what you play. Additionally, they embody the controller assignments, the keyboard layout, the triggering/portamento options, the I/O routing and the internal busing for each of the six tracks. The unit ships with 48 factory Kits, with a total user memory for 128.

The Monomachine is not a solo synth, per se, but a textural songwriting springboard. It offers various working modes allowing you to approach the six tracks of synthesis in several ways. The first is to think of the Monomachine as a six-part multitimbral monophonic synthesizer, in which each track can be independently programmed with individual sound-generating Machines or effects Machines, which can be controlled on their own MIDI channels. The second is to think of it as a six-track pattern and song sequencer with control of traditional pitch and note trigger events, as well as direct control of all sound and effects parameters and envelope triggers. The third, and most typical, is Multi Trig mode, in which all six tracks are controlled from a single control or MIDI channel, offering monophonic layering possibilities and real-time interactive performance manipulation of pattern-based loops. Here, it's best to think of a Kit as “the band,” perhaps consisting of a bass sound, a lead sound, a rhythm track and so on. The sequencer can be part of the control, and your sequences can be transposed in real time as you play from the keyboard.

Additionally, you can operate the Monomachine in Poly mode, as a six-voice polyphonic solo synth; in Multi Map mode, in which you can lay out sequences over a keyboard for live or studio use; or as a MIDI sequencer with six tracks of synched control for external gear. Now that you understand how Monomachine was built to behave, take a closer look at its two main elements: synthesis and pattern sequencing.

SOUND MACHINES

Even though I initially said that the Monomachine contains five different Mono-synths, it really has seven. That's a bit of a misnomer, though, as two of them are actually specialty-use and don't generate (interesting) synth sounds at all: GND produces basic electronic pulse and noise elements that are meant to supplement the main synths, and FX offers effects (more on that later).

Of the five main Mono-synth families, first up is SuperWave, which fittingly takes its inspiration from the analog-synthesizer world and features three Machines: Saw, Pulse and Ensemble. Saw is a monstrous eight-oscillator affair consisting of one base sawtooth oscillator; a pair of unison oscillators operating above and below the base oscillator by a user-definable offset; another pair of unison oscillators that operate at double that distance; and, finally, three suboscillators. The first sub generates a square wave an octave below the base whereas the second and third produce sine waves that are one and two octaves below the base, respectively.

Furthermore, Pulse offers one base oscillator, two unisons and two sine subs. The base and unison pulse oscillators feature sweepable pulse-width modulation complete with a pulse-width Restart feature for Note On events.

Finally, Ensemble is intended for creating chords and features with up to eight oscillators: two instances each of a base plus three offset oscillators. Each offset oscillator pair can be pitched in semitones or to exact octave intervals for cleaner-sounding chords.

The second Mono-synth is SID, a physically modeled representation of the bright and aggressive-sounding synthesis used in Elektron's SidStation. This family's sole Machine, SID 6581, offers one oscillator of high-quality MOS 6581 chip emulation with your choice of sawtooth, pulse, mixed (a Sid specialty) and noise waveforms. Ring modulation, hard sync or a combination of the two can be fashionably influenced by either an adjustable source frequency or by the notes being played on another track.

Next up is the DigiPro family, a collection of two Machines specializing in raw digital waveforms of the grungy 12-bit variety. Wave is the first Machine and contains a table of 32 original 512-byte waveforms that run the gamut from sharp and biting to crisp and bright bell tones. You can meld and modulate adjacent waveforms to create hybrid sounds, as well as apply hard sync to them. The Beat Box Machine is your ticket to lo-fi sampled percussion by drawing on 24 sounds, mapped across two octaves, shaped in the traditions of the Machinedrum's E12 synth. You get a funky selection of essentials from bass and snare to hi-hats, cymbals, claps, whistles and various hand percussion.

FM+ is what Elektron is billing as “21st-century FM synthesis,” and it rocks! The first Machine here is FM+Static, a two-modulator algorithm built for achieving musical Yamaha DX-7 — style results. The pain of hit-and-miss FM programming has been lifted, somewhat, by Elektron providing coarse “listed frequencies” for modulation, preselected for yielding good results. You can adjust the fine-tuning, volume and envelope, feedback and harmonics control. The second Machine, FM+Parallel, features three straightforward “listed frequency” modulators side by side, and the final, FM+Dynamic, allows envelopes and feedback loops to mutate frequencies over time, creating tasty havoc.

The final Mono-synth is VO, an inspired attempt to bring formant-synthesis voice modeling to the Monomachine platform. Its sole Machine, the VO-6, allows the user to combine predefined consonantlike sounds with malleable vowel parameters to create portions of spoken words.

Although not exactly a Mono-synth, FX offers four Machines in the form of a gated reverb snagged from the Machinedrum; a stereo chorus; a compressor/limiter; and a Thru function for routing external signals to a track for shaping, filtering, LFO modulation and so forth. I find that the implementation of effects as a Machine that ties up a track more than a little quirky, but then again, that's something the Monomachine excels at.

Initially, I was shocked, and a little miffed, at just how few synthesis parameters were present for each Machine: only eight knobs and one synthesis page on an instrument costing this much? Hell, sometimes the synth-parameter page wasn't even fully utilized. Then, I quickly realized that Elektron had actually done users a favor and boiled down what could have been a UI-busting array of parameters and complexities to only the most important. The company's choices are extremely musical and generally achieve quick, happy results.

PATTERN SEQUENCER

The pattern sequencer is a central part of the Monomachine's distinctive, dynamic character and sound. It's also a rather lengthy section in the manual and something I'll try to sum up musically, rather than technically, leaving that fun reading for potential owners. The 16 buttons across the bottom of the Monomachine play double-duty in the pattern sequencer by acting both as triggers/step markers and pattern-preset selectors. Multicolored LEDs above each trigger button indicate active notes within a pattern or the availability status of a pattern memory location. The Monomachine can hold 128 patterns in memory across eight banks (labeled A through H) of 16 but ships with only three banks, or 48 patterns, filled.

Akin to the sequencer in the Machinedrum, pattern editing and recording can be performed in either step/grid or live record modes. If you're familiar with vintage drum machines, grid composition mode will be old hat: Choose a track, select an event trigger, set the note pitch via cursors or the keyboard, and repeat down the line. This is an ideal method for quickly generating rhythmic looped phrases and percolating bass lines. Live recording mode allows you to play in notes freely using the keyboard (or an external MIDI controller) but always hard-quantizes them to the current scale resolution. Fine editing of your live performance happens back in grid mode — just as you would event-edit in software.

In either mode, the default grid is 16 steps long in 4/4, expandable to 64 steps, and can be tempo-multiplied twice for a maximum resolution of 32nd notes. All six tracks share the same scale length, always play back in sync and can be individually muted during recording and playback. Tempo (30 to 300 bpm) is globally set and not stored with the pattern whereas Swing values (50 to 80 percent) are saved individually, per track, with the pattern. There's even the availability of 12 discrete arpeggiators (one per track, including the external MIDI sequence tracks) for each pattern.

Finally, patterns can be triggered individually via sequencer transport, keyboard trigger or MIDI commands. Patterns can be chained together two at a time (fun for live remixing), or they can be linked together to form a song. Songs are entirely constructed on the LCD and can have a maximum of 200 pattern instances with control of pattern start position, length, transposition, tempo and number of repeats. There are 24 song memory locations in the Monomachine.

GETTING INSPIRED

Monomachine's strong point is not so much as a stand-alone monosynth or as a prefab sequence player, but as a highly interactive performance machine. With a variety of keyboard trigger modes, you can play back patterns and embellish what's already there, or you can mute out a track completely and play the Machine residing on that track live via the keyboard — ideal for improvised or solo parts. Or you can launch the Monomachine into Multi-Trig mode and be your own conductor.

All of the Mono-synth Machines surprised me with their inherent power. Deceivingly simple and appearing short on synth parameters at first, they proved really quite robust. My favorites, SID and Wave, were a lot of fun. I was easily able to charm much larger, fatter, nastier sounds out of them — especially from SID, which repeatedly defied the cheesy, glitchy sound that most people associate with the C-64.

As for a wish list, it's surprisingly short. It would be nifty if the SFX-6 keyboard generated aftertouch for yet another source of control during performance, but it doesn't; it's merely a trigger. I also wish that you could save Machine edits as patches, separate from Kits, and that pattern edits were done in a memory buffer with a save function.

In the end, the Monomachine left me unbelievably inspired to program my own patterns and rip off some of the deft ones in the factory banks. It's a quirky machine. But the bottom line is that it's a blast to play, it forces you to program some truly original stuff, and the ability to combine different synthesis styles is beautiful.

Product Summary

ELEKTRON

MONOMACHINE SFX-6, SFX-60 > $1,950 (SFX-6); $1,350 (SFX-60)

Pros: Unique approach to rhythmic, groove-based synthesis. Inspiring songwriting tool. Intuitive pattern-based sequencer with advanced parameter automation features. Highly interactive user interface. Extremely well-written manual.

Cons: Growing pains with early units. Expensive.

Contact: tel. 46-31-743-7440; e-mail info@elektron.se; Web www.elektron.se or www.monomachine.com