In Studio with the Elektron Octatrack

In May 2017 I picked up the Elektron Octatrack, after years and years of hovering around the idea. The Octatrack is an 8 track performance sampler, designed for both live performance and the studio. My motivations for working with this unit were to remove the laptop from my live sets and to place it as the nerve centre of a hands on all machine studio set up.

My first ever introduction to the unit was back in 2013 when I saw this incredible Blade Runner-esque product announcement on Youtube, I knew there and then that this was a machine I needed in my life, last year I finally took the plunge.

The first person I saw using the Octatrack live was an incredible Irish artist by the name of Fran Hartnett. Fran has always been using the Octatrack almost since day one. In 2016, we were playing at an Irish Pagan Festival called ‘Lunasa’. After a summer of issues in airports, carrying my various machines around and a couple of incidents of being abandoned at venues with bags of equipment by promoters I was looking for something more minimalist. Fran was performing solely from the Octatrack and it sounded incredible. That was the decisive moment for me, after I purchased the unit I went to him for lessons a couple of times.

Shortly after I bought the unit I moved to Ibiza for 6 months so it wasn’t really until January of this year that I had the opportunity to truly explore this machine. The first thing that struck me was just how unintuitive it was to learn, you really need to sit down and give this monster your full attention. The second thing that I realised was just how fanatical hardcore Octatrack users are, its almost like a way of life. Pretty much any question or problem you can think of is addressed on the user forum.

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The real key here is time and patience with what you are doing. After the first week of pretty much working on this machine 5 to 8 hours a day I felt like I was learning to make make music all over again, so the inevitable self doubt crept in. “I can do this quicker in Ableton” etc etc. That kind of thought process was counter productive, I had to remind myself of why I was doing this in the first place. There is a steep learning curve but this is a unique machine with huge capabilities.

When it came to performing live with the Octatrack I set myself a deadline and stuck to it. I did some shows in Pygmalion and District 8 in Dublin followed by a show in Cork. There were some unnerving moments, working on the Octatrack in the dark, you can easily press a button by accident and end up somewhere you don’t want to be. I would compare it to match fitness for a footballer, the more games you play, the more comfortable you are. As a live performer I think that is the case no matter what you are using, let alone something new.

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With live performance you have a couple of options, you can work in long stems or tracks of audio if you want to keep certain elements of your arrangement in tact. You can break your tracks down to loops and create almost new compositions, or you can load up some samples, send midi out to some machines and just go for it.

I did a show for friends of mine under an alias. This in itself was a liberating experience as it gave me the freedom to do pretty much anything, sonically and performance wise. I ran the live set from the Octatrack, I loaded in some kick drum samples and sent MIDI to a Doepfer Dark Energy (MK1) and a Nord Lead rack. The Octatrack and the Dark Energy ran through a Moog MF Drive distortion pedal and into a Korg Electribe ESX-1 drum machine.

In this set up I could send program changes to the Electribe, run all low end through the distortion pedal and again through the valve amps on the Electribe and perform the electribe live on top (hi hats, snares, toms). I ran the Nord through a Moog MF Delay, using the drive on that to thicken up the Nord (it needs it sometimes) and obviously working the delay throughout the set.

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One of the stand out performances I’ve done on the Octatrack this year was performing on the Amnesia Ibiza Terrace with Carl Cox and Adam Beyer for One Night Stand in July. That was an incredible show, the Amnesia booth and their tech staff were really on point. It came 10 years almost to the week, from my first trip to Ibiza, where I religiously went to Cocoon Mondays and Space Sundays/Tuesdays. Playing on the Terrace was one off the bucket list.

I also got to perform on the Richie Hawtin’s Model1 Mixer with Hito Presents OTO at IPSE in Berlin and at Life Festival with Adam Beyer, Joseph Capriati, Alan Fitzpatrick and Amelie Lens. There’s been some really great shows already this year.

Overall the Octatrack has been extremely challenging but also rewarding. I still feel like I am scratching the surface with the machine. Every Octatrack user I meet uses it in a different way and from each person you learn something new. There is no substitute for time and effort, this machine offers a lot but you have to give it your full attention. As my father would say, “there is no substitute for hard work”.

To learn more about the Octatrack visit the Elektron website here