Digitone Keys from Elektron has the same synthesis engine as the “regular” Digitone, but as it quite clear from the first time you look at it, something is very different: Elektron added a three octave keyboard, as well as the additional controls above the keyboard, and the pitch and mod wheels on the left.
Elektron is also providing hundreds of new presets, that are adapted for expressive control – meaning the react to velocity, pressure and mod wheel controls.
Let’s start with an overview of the synth and layout. Digitone Keys is an 8 voice multitimbral digital synth that includes both FM and subtractive synthesis engines, as send effects.
The 8 voices can be split up among four tracks and the keyboard. Digitone is multitimbral, in its particular case meaning that each of its voices can potentially play a completely different sound.
Digitone Keys also has 4 additional tracks for MIDI sequencing, and the keyboard can also be used to play external gear live.
It has Chorus, Delay and Reverb effects, which can be applied as sends from any of the four sequencing tracks as well as to audio coming in through the audio inputs on the back.
The overall build is metal – it’s heavy and very solid.
In addition to the regular headphone and stereo 1/4 inch outputs, Digitone Keys has individual stereo outputs for each of the four tracks, and two pedal inputs – sustain and expression. It has MIDI in, out and through. Its USB port can be used for MIDI notes and parameter control, as well as for multitrack audio using Overbridge.
The keyboard feels great – it isn’t weighted but the action feels solid and it has aftertouch. The keyboard itself has three octaves and can be transposed and additional three octaves up and down.
Mod and Pitch
Both the pitch bend and mod wheel can be used as mod sources for up to four synth parameters – so essentially they’re like macro controls.
You can edit the four parameters that the two wheels control in the sound setup menu and I’m told that in a future firmware update you’ll be able to do that just pressing the buttons under the wheels.
The central section layout is a very similar to the original Digitone except for a handy Sound Browser button. The Track Note button has moved to a new location above the keyboard.
On the central panel, the bottom two rows let you sequence steps, select patterns and banks, and can also act as a secondary keyboard. The MIDI button toggles between controlling the four synth tracks and the four MIDI sequencing tracks.
The eight encoders on the right side of the screen have different functions based on the page you’re on and are typically arranged like the on screen parameters.
Moving on to what’s new above the keyboard – the are five new buttons on the left side of the keyboard, each has a regular and shift function. These buttons let you control key hold, portamento, the arpeggiator, activate keyboard splits (multimap) activate external MIDI control (turn “local” control off) and activate various track transposition and chord functions.
Each of the tracks can have its own key holds (whether for drones or arpeggio patterns).
Finally, new to Digitone Keys, are 8 additional encoders. Their default functionality gives you an accessible copy of various parameters from the synth screens, and you can also use them as 8 additional user assignable parameters.
Synth Engine and Sequencer
The synth engine and sequencer of Digitone Keys are identical to those of the original Digitone. They’re explained in detail in the companion video, but overall you can expect the same FM and subtractive synth features, two filters, effects, modulators, unison and voice controls, as well as all the usual Elektron sequencer features, including sound and parameter locks, microtiming and trig conditions. Digitone Keys also contains all the MIDI sequencing features of Digitone, including four 8-note MIDI tracks with 8 CC parameters and a MIDI LFO.
Pros and Cons
The most noticeable feature of Digitone Keys is the side by side keyboard/control layout, and I have to say that it does take getting used to. When you play the keyboard, your eyes and attention are front and center – synths are built with the controls above the keyboard and pitch and mod wheels close by for a reason. Placing the controls on the left makes sense because it lets you continue playing with your right hand, and the eight programmable encoders let you keep the functions you need nearby.
When you reach for the encoders if you play standing up your left hand blocks the screen. It’s less of a problem if you’re sitting down as your line of sight is under your hand, but if you’re looking at Digitone Keys from a high angle, you’ll need to turn the parameters with your right hand or use some left hand gymnastics if you want see the screen. The layout takes getting used to for sure.
On the pros side for the layout – if you plan to sequence other gear, it is nice to not have a big synth dominate your desk and leave room for other gear behind it.
More on the pros side – attaching a keyboard to Digitone, whether an external one or one that’s fixed to it truly opens it up as an instrument and the features Elektron added to Digitone Keys deliver on a fully integrated expressive experience.
Having four arpeggiators with four holds per track really opens the instrument up, in addition to the build in sequencer of course.
The cherry on top are the hundreds of new presets – Digitone sounded great before and the new expressive presets add an entirely new dimension to it. With the four track sequencer and audio effects processing Digitone Keys can be an excellent brain, sounds and effects engine for a multi instrument setup.