Elektron have applied their cute-and-friendly formula from the Digitakt drum machine to a new synth called Digitone – and it’s FM.

Now, the phrase Elektron uses is “accessible” – the press release writes “powerful yet user-friendly take on FM synthesis.” But this isn’t just marketing speak; it seems they really have made an effort to make frequency modulation more playable.

Good electronic music instruments give users lots of stuff to touch, and the feeling that the full range of each knob, for instance, sounds good or at least plausible. That’s where the wonders of FM sort of break down when they hit making hardware. Frequency Modulation synthesis is based on a simple principle: modulating a waveform with another waveform in the same audio range. And the whole joy of this is suddenly breaking open surprising tones – covering ranges edgy, metallic, unstable, futuristic.

Or – with a tiny change in parameter – something totally unrelated. Or awful. Or silent. So, to avoid unpleasant surprises, hardware builders have tended to hide away that complexity. So, the mighty Yamaha DX7 has basically no controls – and as it popularized FM, also gave people the (mistaken) impression that it always had to sound like Yamaha’s presets.

Plus, while those sounds are great, sometimes they need softening. (Think of the difference between hearing a reed instrument, and hearing just the reed.)

For fans of FM synthesis, just as exciting as the Elektron news this week is the extensive interview with John Chowning (who’s a natural teacher, always a pleasure to listen to):

Elektronauts Talk: John Chowning

Don’t miss his bit about how he explains FM synthesis to a child – it’s really elegant. And Dr. Chowning picks up on the two things Elektron has done:

1. Set some limits so you get hands-on control over sound without getting lost – exploring space, but not throwing yourself out an airlock.

2. Putting the FM synthesis engine inside a more conventional subtractive synthesis architecture. (Basically – adding filters!)

As John describes those:

I noticed, in your instrument, that you put some boundaries on the possibilities so that one doesn’t end up in a daze without understanding how you got there, or end up in silence.

And regarding the architecture:

[Digitone] lets the user intuitively explore this re-formable, shapeable ball of stuff, then put that through the normal processes of synthesis.

So the thing to watch with the Digitone will be how well its presets and sound design work in practice. You’ve got a four-operator FM synth. That’s the architecture used by Robert Henke for Ableton’s Operator, precisely because it’s more manageable (and covers most of the sounds you want to create); adding operators adds a lot of complexity.

Then each voice (there’s 8-voice polyphony) adds filters: one multimode, one “base-width.” (Think they mean bandpass? I’ll ask.) And each voice comes with two assignable LFOs and overdrive to make things dirtier.

They’ve also added quite a lot in the effects section – sends for chorus, reverb, and delay, plus a master overdrive.

This being an Elektron box, integration of instrument and sequencer are key. And like the Digitakt, even this smaller box can be used to drive external gear. There are four synth tracks and four MIDI tracks, both, so the Digitakt is a bit like a mini Octatrack – it can be a hub for a live performance or synth rig.

With trig conditions (interactive events that can occur on each step) and track lengths and micro timings, you can make some fairly complex patterns. And whereas the DX7 and its ilk let you punch in a preset and then play it as-is forever until everyone got annoyed of the sound, Elektron bring parameter locks to make per-step transformations of your creations. So imagine all that sonic possibility of FM synthesis, changing as the sequence runs. We saw a peek of how much fun that is with KORG’s humble volca fm – now you get it on a deeper FM synth.

Worth investigating in a review – how much work is it to modify or program your own presets, how it works having parameters change with different presets, and how playable the whole thing is. But even though FM synthesis is a creation of the 1960s, having a playable, sequenced FM synth definitely stands out from the crowd of noisemakers at the moment. The new Elektron is available now, though currently listed as sold out. (Someone obviously likes the idea.)

$759 USD/779 EUR/£699 GBP.

https://www.elektron.se/products/digitone/

Specs:

Synth voice features:
8 voice polyphony (multitimbral)
Multiple FM algorithms
1 × multimode filter per voice
1 × base-width filter per voice
1 × overdrive per voice
2 × assignable LFO per voice

Sequencer:
4 synth tracks
4 MIDI tracks
1 arpeggiator per track
Polyphonic sequencing
Individual track lengths
Parameter locks
Micro timing
Trig conditions
Sound per step change

Send & master effects
Panoramic Chorus send effect
Saturator Delay send effect
Supervoid Reverb send effect
Overdrive master effect

Hardware
128 × 64 pixel OLED screen
2 × 1/4” impedance balanced audio out jacks
2 × 1/4” audio in jacks
1 × 1/4” stereo headphone jack
48 kHz, 24-bit D/A and A/D converters
Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port
MIDI In/Out/Thru with DIN Sync out

Physical specification
Sturdy steel casing
Dimensions: W 215 × D 176 × H 63 mm (8.5” × 6.9” × 2.5”) (including knobs and feet)
Weight: approximately 1.49 kg (3.3 lbs)
100 × 100 mm VESA mounting holes. Use M4 screws with a max length of 7 mm.

And of course, yes, Overbridge (Elektron’s tech for helping integrate their external hardware with your software rig).

Also worth watching –

  • R__W

    They’ve done a great job with the presets and demo tracks. They sound good, and are ‘cool.’ Other companies still tend to have dorky demos and annoying presets.

    I wonder how well it works as a live machine. It seems like a fair amount of menu diving. The reviews I’ve read of the Digitakt with the same form factor seem to suggest it’s more of a studio device. I wonder if the Digitone is the same. Whereas the Analog 4/rytm and octarack are suggested to be great for performance. I also wonder if Elektron has a specific product strategy with these devices… the Digis are “for” the studio, the others are for live performance, etc.

    • Nagasaki Nightrider

      Don’t know about the Digitone, but the Digitakt is certainly easier to use than the Octatrack, for instance, which itself is very widely used as a live instrument. The improved visual feedback from the backlit buttons and the brighter screen improve the live experience. From a menu standpoint, the Digitakt is maybe slightly more complex than a Machinedrum. From a portability standpoint, the smaller format is a lot more convenient for travel, of course.

    • Polite Society

      usually with elektron the menu diving is from a set-up point of view. though you usually have to flick between pages for various parameters.

      It doesn’t look like this has a performance mode, ala analog 4*. but on my monomachine i usually pair it with a fader/knob box as each channel can be set up with 2 reassignable parameters for pitch bend, mod wheel, breath, velocity and pitch which give heaps of live movement.

      weirdly on the newer devices they don’t offer mapping to pitch, but they do have 6 or 8 parameters for each other mod destination, looks like the digitone is the same in this regard.

      sequencing them and modulating them live is pretty easy and you can always save/reload patterns on the fly for those kinds of destructive builds.

      Though to answer your actual question, i don’t feel like there is much difference between the work-flows of any of their machines, though the digitakt definitely has a quicker sampling -> saved file workflow than octatrack for example. both are very capable as live samplers.

      • Polite Society

        Actually, i lie. i just read in the manual that the multimode filter and operator modulation of A, B1, B2 can be set to key scale.

    • Mactley

      the digis are definitely right at home in a live scenario. you have ctrl all, track mutes, the fill function, and the encoders to play with.

  • Mactley

    Honestly, this looks incredible and I can’t wait to get my hands on one. This plus a Digitakt is going to make a formidable live setup.

    • Tony Scharf

      I”ve got an A4, Octatrack and Digitakt and I plan to put a Digitone in to balance it out. It will be a nice little jam rig.

  • Alexey Loginov

    I think base-width filter is the same filter as, for example, in Octatrack, it have a high-pass cutoff frequency setting, named base, and width, which is low-pass cutoff frequency setting. So its a high-pass, low-pass and bandwidth filter at the same time.

    • Polite Society

      oops. didn’t see your reply when i posted mine.

  • Gerald Stevens

    How does this differ from the FM synth on the monomachine? Sounds the same (in description). The parameter limitations on the MM made it so that you couldn’t mimic a DX11 preset … No classic FM horns or strings or cheese. Yamaha made FM friendlier starting with the DX11, and carried it on all the way to the reface DX. The DX200 also is user friendly, lots of knobs, with a filter. But it also nails the presets and let’s the user tweak them in musical ways.

    • Mactley

      The monomachine used a very simple 2op FM method with only a few parameters. This is way more in-depth and tweakable.

      • Polite Society

        3 op parallel on one of the configs, but yeah super simple.

        Plus digitone will have sound presets. all monomachine sounds are saved together as whole kits.

        • Gerald Stevens

          The 3 o.o parallel is on the MM FM+

    • Rhythm Droid

      Sounds way clearer and punchier than Monomachine, plus with much better effects. 4 operators with 8 algorithms, operator crossfading, smoothly adjustable waveshapes for either carrier or modulators, full envelope control on both carrier and modulators. I’ll never look back at Monomachine for the FM engines.

  • Tony Scharf

    hmm…I love the chaos of FM synthesis. I hope they didn’t dumb it down *too* far. I like taking FM into places other synthesis types just can’t go. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s endured for so long. Once you get past the cheese of yamaha presets, you can create very wild sound with shifting, interconnected harmonic layers. FM + a custom controller interface can be an amazing custom instrument.

    • Foosnark

      Same here. I always felt that FM had more potential than typical DX7 sounds, and occasionally that would shine through in a patch even on those 80s synths.

      Once I got into modular, I dove much deeper into FM (and phase modulation, and filter FM and so on). There’s exponential vs linear (or both simultaneously), thru-zero, different character when using saw core vs triangle core VCOs, whole worlds of different waveshapes to work with, infinite tuning possibilities, forcing inharmonic tones into some semblance of order with a PLL, and so on.

  • A great video to watch is Cuckoo’s coverage of this from NAMM. He talks with Simon from Elektron who worked on the Digitone, and Simon talks about some of the ideas behind it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1K95OHVzhQ

  • Heinrich Zwahlen

    As an alternative Reaktor Rounds does sequencable FM sound changes although only with 2 operator engines.
    Combine that with Maschine Jam and you’ll have a formidable hands-on stepsequencing setup for less money that includes lock and morph functionality between sanpshots. Touchstrips make control even more fun than knobs and faders imo. Sensible fm limits can be customized with macros by defining ranges beforehand.

  • Polite Society

    FYI – the Base-Width filter historically in Elektron devices is a combined high(base)+low(width) pass filter, where together it works as an adjustable band-pass with two resonant peaks and adjustable envelope amount. Usually the low pass follows the highpass. They’re pretty great, all-round flexible filter configs.

    • Gerald Stevens

      It is very similar to the MS20 filter.

    • Polite Society

      Actually after reading through the manual, it looks like the base width filter is stripped back on the Digitone. no envelope, no resonance which is a bit sad. Hopefully that changes. Though the main multi-mode filter has both.

      • Benny

        Bass.

        • Benny

          plz ignore last comment.

          • Polite Society

            i want to but it haunts me.

  • The Digitone is four-operator FM synth with 8 algorithms. It appears to have a great deal of functionality, but excelling at FM is not one of them.

    Compare with the Korg Volca FM, a full six-operator 32-algorithm FM synth. Not only does it provide panel access to all parameters, but the sounds can be edited at leisure on the computer. Because it is fully-compatible with original DX7 sound carts, the entire history of FM sounds can be loaded and tweaked.

    For playback the Volca has innovative Carrier and Modulator knobs that aggregate internal parameters. Plus a sequencer and parameter automation. It doesn’t really miss a trick, despite the obvious limitations of its form factor. But then again you can buy five of them for less than the Digitone.

    Not sure why Elektron dumbed down the FM implementation in this box.

    • Yoni Mazuz

      I could swear an earlier edit of this post had Peter calling the Digitone a “*much* deeper FM synth” than the Volca, which seemed unfair. The Volca FM has a really staggering array of parameters, but most of them are quite a PITA to get to, especially when you have to remember what the abbreviations are for them on that tiny 7-segment display. Elektron left out a lot of the complexity, but they definitely took care in what they simplified, and then they added more to the engine, even if you ignore the filter. Like the X/Y mixer to crossfade between carriers is cool. And the Digitone has 2 LFOs with lots of waveform variations vs. the Volca’s one LFO (though it looks like each can only have one destination, so while they may be able to target more parameters, I guess you can’t individually vary the LFO depth for each operator’s amplitude).

      Anyway, it seems like the FM architecture was a matter of thoughtful tradeoffs and useful additions instead of just dumbing down. Looks like there’s still plenty of menu diving for hands-on sound design, but at least the screen is way more useful than the Volca’s. Plus the multitimbrality and way-deeper sequencer/project setup really makes this an apples-to-oranges comparison. You’d need at least 5 Volcas to do what this can, plus a mess of extra cables besides.

    • Aiki

      To get more customers and make FM easier to get into for the non sound designer or mathematically oriented music maker. Both the digi boxes are designed specifically to be “gateway drugs” into the elektron method.

  • Korhan Erel

    Sounds fantastic, has some killer features such as preset change per step, is one of the few (only?) FM synths in the market that has a filter, and does not try to copy any other gear… and people find this problematic? If you need the DX7, get a Volca FM. If you need another instrument that has its own unique design and capabilities, get the Digitone. Or get both. 🙂 But please don’t complain that the Digitone cannot load DX sounds. Please let some manufacturers refuse to copy the past and be inventive. Thank you.

    Personally, I don’t know if I will buy the Digitone. First I need to see what I can do with what I currently have. Then I’ll decide. And then there is the Empress Zoia, which I find very interesting, because I could use it in many other genres I am active in (free improv, jazz, etc)