Elektron move into effects with an expensive but beautifully designed stereo distortion unit. Greg Scarth finds out what it can do.
As little as five years ago, it’s a safe bet that most people perceived Elektron as a fairly small player in the pro audio field. In the intervening years they’ve grown to become one of the biggest names in the world of synths, drum machines and samplers. In retrospect, the turning point was the introduction of the Octatrack sampler early in 2011. This marked the beginning of the end for the Monomachine and Machinedrum (both discontinued this year), setting the stage for what has now become Elektron’s core range: the Octatrack itself, the Analog Keys and Analog Four synths and the Analog Rytm drum machine.
The Analog Heat stereo distortion and filter unit is the latest addition to this line-up, introduced alongside the Analog Drive, which is a cheaper and more basic mono distortion pedal aimed at guitarists. The Analog Heat is, in many ways, the most conventional product Elektron have ever released. There’s usually a twist to most Elektron products that gives them a distinctive edge, whether it’s the deep sequencing options of the Octatrack or the four-monosynths-in-one approach of the Analog Four. Remember that this is, after all, a company which launched itself onto the scene back in 1999 with the SidStation, a synth module based on Commodore 64 sound chips.
make no mistake that this is a serious, professional piece of kit.
Despite its relative simplicity, the straightforward approach of the Analog Heat absolutely shouldn’t be taken as a weakness: make no mistake that this is a serious, professional piece of kit. A dedicated analogue effect unit might seem something of an anomaly in today’s market, but time spent with the Heat reveals the benefits of this kind of approach.
The primary focus of the Heat is of course the distortion section, but to understand the whole package it’s best to consider the rest of the setup first. The unit itself is incredibly well built and surprisingly heavy for its size, although the weight begins to make more sense when you realise how much is crammed inside: for a start, there’s a built-in audio interface to allow the unit to integrate with software (you can of course use it as a standalone processor with regular analogue audio ins and outs); there’s a choice of eight different analogue distortion circuits; there’s a two-band EQ section which behaves slightly differently for each distortion mode; there’s a multi-mode resonant filter section with seven different analogue filter types. All of these sections work in stereo.
So, finally, let’s get to the real point of all this: what about the distortion? In a word, it’s superb. The eight character modes range from subtle overdrive through to extreme destruction. Roughly speaking, Clean Boost equates to very mild analogue overdrive and Saturation is tape-style drive, while Enhancement imitates valve colouration. The medium-gain settings – Mid Drive, Rough Crunch and Classic Dist – are harder to define, but each offers its own distinctive sound. Finally, the more extreme options – Round Fuzz and High Gain – are pure aggression, easily descending into chaos as you crank up the drive and adjust the wet/dry balance.
On one end of the character dial, gentle application of the saturation or enhancement programs can be used to add life to anaemic snares or even gently warm up a complete stereo mix. At the opposite extreme, liberal application of the round fuzz or high gain settings can be used to add serious impact to a synth bass or, say, completely smash the fuck out of drums. Regardless of which you choose, the sound quality is, for want of a better word, classy – which is absolutely not to say clean, but there’s a precision and a manageability to the circuits which means you can truly control the sound you get out of them, far more than the typical distortion unit. It goes without saying that the stereo channels are perfectly balanced, so there are no issues with signals shifting around the stereo image or going out of phase.
I also found it interesting to think of the distortion as a backup to the tone-shaping sections. Working with the EQ and filter first to shape the frequencies without applying any drive, a tiny hint of distortion can then be added once the tone is suitably configured. The effect is to emphasise the filtering, bringing out the sections you’re trying to enhance. With the ability to choose from the difference distortion modes, it’s a little like having a bunch of stereo hardware EQ units at your disposal, each with their own character.
there's a precision and a manageability to the circuits which means you can truly control the sound you get out of them
The unit comes alive when you introduce movement to the settings via one of the modulation sources (MIDI, CV, LFO or envelope generator/follower). The modulation sources can be used to modulate pretty much all of the distortion, EQ and filter parameters, plus other modulation sources. For example, an envelope can be used to modulate the speed of an LFO, or a CV input can be used to modulate the depth of an envelope (or both simultaneously). All of this can be controlled over USB via the comprehensive Overbridge implementation, which makes the process of routing signals from your DAW to the Heat and back as simple and seamless as loading a plugin.
In summary, the Analog Heat is a stunning unit. The price might raise the odd eyebrow, and there’s no denying that it’s a premium product, but from the solid feel of the knobs all the way through to the sound itself, everything screams quality. If you compare it to cheap plugins and fuzz boxes then the price might seem extortionate, but a fairer comparison would be a studio unit like Thermionic Culture’s excellent Culture Vulture, which is in many ways more basic (no audio interface, no MIDI control, no modulation, primitive filters…) and costs twice as much.
The Analog Heat is undoubtedly something of a luxury, but what a luxury it is. If this is to be the start of a bigger move into the effects market by Elektron, I can’t wait to see – and more importantly hear – what they come up with next.
Purchase: Elektron Analog Heat
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