The year is 1994, look around in any studio bankrolled by a major and there's no telling that music tech companies would be falling back onto analog drum machines some 20 years later. To brands like Roland, Akai, and Oberheim, the digital sampling drum machine was the future, and the future it became, until the personal computer became the future and much more. Now with the majority of music producers preferring to work "in-the-box", companies have found it harder to entice consumers to spend their dollars on hardware. Why spend my money on a sampling workstation, when I can crack a copy of Ableton, pull a bunch of sample packs off BitTorrent, and make a hit record on my way to the gig?
This dilemma has forced many companies to revisit the past and resurrect what was once considered by executives as obsolete and costly to produce — analog circuitry. While Roland may still seem reluctant, legendary developers like Korg and Roger Linn, alongside the more freshly sprouted Elektron, have all taken a stab at combining the best of the hardware and software worlds, each making an attempt to entice producers to take their music making literally outside the box. Elektron's Analog Rytm is the company's first drum machine with analog filters and voices, and while many mouths are watering at the more obvious sonic benefits of analog circuitry ("warmth", "grit", "thump", whatever you want to call it), it's the Rytm's smooth hardware workflow that makes the machine worth using over the suite of plugins sitting in your DAW.
CUT TO THE CHASE
The good: You get all of the sonic and workflow benefits of analog hardware in a tight package, with arguably the best drum machine sequencer out there that has step programmable accent, triggers, mutes, and slides, all done in an OS that seemingly never hangs up.
The bad: Missing external triggering options to sequence other gear.
The dealbreaker: With an analog filter and overdrive on every voice, the Analog Rytm packs a punch while pitching its own definition of what a modern drum machine should be. Its filter and mod routings loads the machine with depth without drowning itself in striving to be the more limitless piece out there.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Let's take layering different drum sounds as an example. Each piece of kit on the Rytm has two layers, an analog "Synth" layer, which allows you to tune and edit parameters from analog sound sources (think sine and square waves for kicks and toms, noise oscillators for hats and cymbals), and a "Sample" layer, where you can load preset samples already found on the machine, or whatever you have kicking on your PC via USB. The ability to simply scroll through your sample bank of sounds with one knob to find a layer that works as its playing is very powerful for workflow. This feature can already be found in most DAW's, but on the Analog Rytm, it's a dedicated knob sitting next to another knob that let's you tune the sample as you swap, making it a very quick seamless process.
Finding and fine tuning the sources for your sounds is only the start, after that you've got a whole host of processing options to run them through. Like slamming them through the Analog Rytm's overdrive and analog filter section that can be found on every voice. The multimode filters come in 7 different flavors, from your obvious low-pass and high-pass modes to more alluring band-reject and notch filtering. The latter can lead to some pretty weird results when swept around with the Analog Rytm's LFO, which sports a whole host of different waveshapes like square, ramp, exponential, and random.
The Analog Rytm provides your bread and butter modulation controls for each individual voice, so you can route LFO's and envelopes to nearly any destination. Try using the handy multiplier in the LFO section to ramp up the speed to an extremely high rate, so you can get those harsh bell like FM sounds when you route it to the sounds pitch frequency. It's little added options like these that make the Analog Rytm a very deep and versatile instrument with only a handful of features.
Last but definitely not least is the Analog Rytm's sequencer section. I try to avoid making sweeping statements when I write gear reviews, but I really can't help it with this one, the Analog Rytm's sequencer is the best drum machine sequencer out there today. Being able to choose between punching in steps like a TR machine or tapping beats out on drum pads a la MPC does loads for workflow, and maybe more importantly — fun. Aside from that obvious improvement, when you get into the nitty gritty, you'll find that the sequencer section dives into depths that haven't been properly explored before in past drum machines.
The first being trigger mutes, which lets you program in specific steps where an assigned drum sound will mute another drum sound. This is an absolute must for programming more human-like drum patterns and was traditionally reserved for hi-hats, while the Analog Rytm offers this feature to any voice in your drum kit. On top of that you can program steps for accents, swing, and slides, and not to forget, being able to record automation as you play around with a sound's parameters live. Imagine being able to change the tuning of a tom on a specific step to play a rhythmic melody, or changing the decay on a kick to make it punch and swell throughout your loop. It's features like these that will depth and variation to your productions, and it's all there waiting to be tapped via the Analog Rytm's robust sequencer section.
To put it simply, Elektron's Analog Rytm pushes the bounds of what hardware and software can do to your sound and workflow. The drum machine is pretty damn close to being perfect, but I have to say that there are a few minor things that can leave you thinking, "what if?". The only one really worth mentioning is the lack of any usable triggering outputs. Considering how well the sequencer is laid out, it's a shame that you won't be able to use it to trigger voices on other synths and drum machines. It's a standard, almost primitive feature on drum machines that has been around since their birth, and it does leave you scratching your head when you see that the Analog Rytm does sport a MIDI Out port. This could have been added with a few lines of code, which makes it clear that Elektron is very reluctant to make the Analog Rytm crossover with other products in their lineup like the Octatrack. Regardless, this is a decision that prevents this machine from being perfect, especially for users looking to sequence other hardware during a liveshow.
The way Elektron has implemented the concept through the Analog Rytm OS is where Elektron really deserves a round of applause. In the past, many of Elektron's competitors have struggled with buggy OS's that still haven't been fixed to this day, meanwhile the Analog Rytm comes with no weird bugs or freeze ups right out of the box. Newcomers to Elektron products may feel intimidated going to work on this thing, but as any well seasoned Elektron fan knows, give it some love and you'll be on your feet in no time. The learning curve is not that steep, every parameter is usually just a button or knob away, and when you look at the system as a whole, it really all makes sense. For a first run at analog, Elektron has shown that they can push out a machine that takes the best bits from the past, expand on them to make a product that can stand in their groundbreaking line up, and still come away from it all largely unscathed.