Thoughts on Elekton’s Digitone Keys
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
[Written 29th July 2022]*
During this week of COVID isolation I have had the opportunity to spend some time with Elektron’s Digitone Keys. The bigger sibling of the Elektron’s Digitone which combines the features of the earlier model with the addition of 37 aftertouch sensitive keys, mod and pitch wheels, and individual outputs for each track. It would seem at first glance, that such a simple list of additions would be unlikely to change the purpose or function of an instrument in a dramatic way. However, within the short time that I have spent with the instrument, it has impressed me just how dramatic a difference these simple additions have made to what this device is. So much so that I have been inspired to pen my thoughts into something of a review of the instrument, in the hope that doing so might shed some light on what I think is interesting about this instrument, and what it says about electronic musical instruments in general.
Physical Design and Layout
Elektron have made the design choice to horizontally align the keyboard and control surface, reducing the overall depth and bulk of the device, and maintaining the original layout of the Digitone to the left of the keys. This design is rugged and easy to transport – and is a worthwhile trade off for the necessary reduction in total number of keys in comparison to a keyboard of comparable horizontal length. This horizontal form factor inviting for both playing and tweaking/sequencing as the two modes of operating the instrument. Indeed, it is the former ‘playing’ of the instrument that is what separates it from the former Digitone, and marks this out as a performance instrument.
To assuage any anxieties that such a fusion could be awkward, the integration of the keyboard is basically perfect. Every aspect of its design has been chosen to allow you to make full use of the Digitone’s existing functionality (as well as its limitations, such as monophonic, rather than polyphonic aftertouch). There are additional encoders for quickly modifying a range of preset or user set parameters. The keys feel strong and reassuringly sturdy, which is appreciated when it can sometimes take a noticeable amount of force to use the full range of aftertouch modulation. All the physical controls maintain the standard of quality that Elektron is known for, the overall effect of which is an instrument that can withstand the physical demands of live performance (especially when transported within its specifically designed backpack).
For sound design, the Digitone Keys provides an approachable and flexible take on Frequency Modulation (or FM) synthesis and shares a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of other synthesizers of this type. However, the sound engine shines in some non-obvious ways - for example, it is particularly good at noise. Especially for a synthesizer with no dedicated noise oscillator. Using the FM engine, it is easy to add grit or filth to sounds, often in ways that may surprise compared to the ‘clinical’ reputation that digital synthesizers are often ascribed. This ability to make colourfully noisy, and distorted sounds is even more impressive given the quite simple ‘overdrive’ effect available. Elektron have chosen to compliment their FM engine with extensive filtering options, more typical of traditional subtractive synthesis. While it is possible to sound design without these filters, they are a welcome addition that expands the sonic capabilities of the instrument and help to make it more approachable to newcomers.
The Digitone Keys allows ‘tracks’ to be layered on top of each other, or split across the keyboard, and when sequenced each ‘track’ can trigger more than one sound using Elektron’s ‘sound lock’ feature. Indeed, a wider variety of sounds can be sequenced within a single ‘pattern’ than the four provided ‘tracks’ would suggest – up to the hard limit of 8 simultaneous voices, which remains the most obvious limitation of the Digitone Keys. Although the Elektron provides unison controls, the aforementioned ‘sound lock’ feature, and a chorus effect (following in the footsteps of the Juno 106) that help make effective (and often creative) use of this limitation. However, an expanded voice count would have been welcome feature for the Digitone Keys compared to the original Digitone.
What is the bottom line for my use case?
Having had the chance to consider the Digitone Keys with some hands-on experience, I think I can now decide with confidence that I would rather the original Digitone model. This conclusion may come as a surprise after having spent a review detailing the ways in which I believe the addition of the 37 keys has enhanced the Digitone Keys in comparison to its original version. But what this experience has shown me, is that the Digitone Keys is an exceptional performance instrument, and that use case is not what I am currently after in a synthesizer. For me, this is an example of the often forgotten truth: that more features do not always make for a better instrument for every user, especially when those additional features are not in service of that user’s needs (and come at an increased cost).
If at any point my needs were to change, and I required a synthesizer for touring and live performance, the Digitone Keys (and matching carry bag) would certainly be at the top of my list for consideration. For form factor, features and sonic fun, it is a hard instrument to beat on stage – but in the meantime, its smaller sibling will have a very welcome place within my studio, for all the sound design and sequencing joy that it brings.
*With special thanks to Patrick Lang for loaning me his Digitone Keys during this week of my COVID isolation.