April 23, 2013

Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 MKII Review

Very recently, Taylor found himself trapped in a situation reminiscent of Groundhog Day where I was repeatedly rattling off complaints about my drum situation. Having gone to an entirely hardware synth driven arrangement recording, my drums situation had started to seem like more of a time sink than ever. I had been alternating between using Maschine and some old favorites in a loopmasters sample library for a while, and then gradually got around to beating up the same set of samples from 505, 606, 707, 808, and 909 sample sets for every track. Sometimes I would drop these samples straight into an Ableton timeline, or I would use them in Maschine, Drum Racks or Reason’s Kong, depending on what software combinations I was using for the project.

Lucky Taylor sat through quite a long process of me rambling about why this or that device didn’t work.

While I will swear up and down by Maschine to possible buyers, and think it is a great piece for software work flows and on the road productivity, it wasn’t solving the problem I bought it for- which was a hassle free means of traveling between DAWs. The process of saving samples became difficult when trying to keep track of everything. Tweaking samples every project, retuning things, etc. was really getting on my nerves. I began to long for my previous collection of drum machines (having owned everything from R-70s to RX 11s at one point or another) and I realized that I would be quite happy to have a dedicated hardware piece again. Rather than having 18 million kits to choose from, this would limit me to a smaller set, I imagined, but it seemed worth it if it could get me along to the process of finalizing and mixing things a bit sooner. Also, quite frankly, I don’t care about chasing other people’s drum sounds. I think kick envy is a sad epidemic in the music world, and leads to people forgetting what the rhythm elements do and what to focus on when choosing them.

However, I was having a hard time turning up anything short of a Dave Smith Tempest that could meet my needs. Cool as the Tempest is, I am not paying the price they want for it. I don’t love the way the unit sounds and it seemed like another rabbit hole to jump down that would be the opposite of time saving. I looked at the Drum Computer as well, but it was headed in a direction that I thought would lead to a lot of program/freeze/save to make up for the fact that it is really a very simple device. I kept coming back to how I missed my old Korg ER-1 drum machine, but would like something a little more versatile and a little more intuitive.

My search led me to the Elektron Machinedrum. I was hardly unaware of it, but it really made an impression once it was officially in the “thing I need” category. Being very well heeled in the MIDI department, this was the one that would be able to receive MIDI input from wherever I wanted to send it, as well as allowing me the luxury of an on board step sequencer for those days where old school programming is calling to me. What was cooler still was the “machines” system, which through the combination of synthesis methods, would allow me to get back those sounds I loved from my older machines as well as design my own new sounds using the modelled engines. Having the machine also meant I would be able to use it with a different preamp etc, so not only could it free me from my overstuffed sample libraries, but in a pinch, I could make all new ones.

The MIDI connectivity is a huge plus.

The MIDI connectivity is a huge plus.

Then, just as I was getting ready to start shopping for one, we picked up Elektron. Well, lucky me! I grabbed that box and made it home in a not terribly safe amount of time. There was much rejoicing.

At any rate, I have been using mine for a little over a month now. The benefits? All that I had predicted, and more, came to be true. One major unforeseen one was that my file weights are down until a production is nearing completion and I actually start to print the audio for all the instrumentation. My hard drives have been breathing a sigh of relief on that count. Most of my Ableton files spend a few days of their lives as MIDI clip/Program Change collections waiting to be arranged. I have also found myself settling on certain sounds as a default starting point for my projects. I will still end up making new sounds when I need them (synths and Elektron Machinedrum sounds), but am overall finding that the sound of my upcoming EP has been defined by a limited palette of the synths I spent these past few years gathering, and the user banks of sounds I have built for myself.

There are plenty of options for sounds so you won't feel limited.

There are plenty of options for sounds and so you won’t feel limited.

While this simplicity may not appeal to everyone, I feel like it was exactly what I needed. I like to save the intense editing for that place where inspiration has done its job and I know I like what I am doing. I have always really hated that feeling of trying to inspire myself from the ground up. The Elektron Machinedrum fits well into this mentality. Since I got it, the ideas I go after are purely melodic. The core of sounds that I like allows me to get a certain amount of programming done before I start thinking “OK, time to go tune all the drums and shorten the decays.” However, the fact is that the Elektron Machinedrum is so easy to use that I can tweak on the fly without mousing through menus or hunting for samples.

Another really great thing about the state of my hardware driven rig is that the DAW world is my oyster. Dealing with a variety of projects, and this particular job requiring me to jump effortlessly between Logic, Pro Tools, Reason, Ableton, Studio One, and whatever else gets thrown at me. It was getting just a little annoying having to rebuild the sounds I liked from rig to rig. Maschine had not cured this comprehensively by any means. I now have a full palette of sounds that are not in any way DAW dependent. It might sound silly to anyone else, but this has made my year.

If synthesizers are your thing and you think it has gotten a bit bland out there since everyone started using the Deadmau5 LoopMasters pack, Elektron Machinedrum might just be your thing. (Side opinion: I personally do wish people would quit using that sound pack. Everything sounds the same out there. It’s getting silly. Sometimes I really feel like people have missed the experimental side of electronic music completely.)

If you’re on the fence, check out our overview video. We give a pretty good run through.

Fun Fact: The track playing in the background was made using the Machinedrum.


The Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 Mk II Synthetic Percussion Sequencer is a revision on a product design that first hit the market in 2001. Since then, the Machinedrum has seen five iterations, with the UW and “+” versions including onboard sampling and an expanded memory option respectively. The SPS-1 MkII is more closely related to the original Machinedrum and includes neither of these features. Machinedrum evades the common drum machine tendency to rely on ROMs or user generated samples and instead reaches back to some of the most influential drum machine synthesis methods of the past to expand your tonal palette and allow for sonic exploration.
The basic sound generating unit in Machinedrum is called a machine. While each individual machine is designed to make a particular type of sound (like a kick or clap or snare or hat), they are all grouped according to the type of synthesis used to create the sounds. These “families” are referred to as “MD Synths.”
The TRX MD-Synth is inspired by classic analog drum machine synths, a certain family in particular being hinted at by the two letter prefix. While it does not make an effort to recreate a specific machine, it does focus on creating those classic sounds with extended and relevant controls.
The EFM MD-Synth uses Elektron’s Enhanced Feedback Modulation algorithms. These are reminiscent of phase distortion and fm synth type sounds and can be used for everything from achieving realistic sounds to creating crazy effects.
The E12 MD-Synth is built on carefully processed sampled percussion and is designed to allow for extensive user control of these samples. In use it feels like a muscled up and tweakable throwback to the Yamaha R series drum machines of the 80s.
The P-1 MD-Synth is a physical modeling drum synth meant to simulate the behavior of acoustic drums. While these have thus far been effective with appropriate effects, I have found that, in use, the P1 is considerably more fun when approached as yet another drum synth and sound design tool.
The GND MD-Synth is not really an “MD-Synth,” but a set of miscellaneous machines that can be used for adding tonality and an “empty” machine. The empty machine is the default blank space for any of the 16 machines not loaded. The remaining machines in the GND family are Sinus, Noise and Impulse. Sinus is a sin wave generator with pitch, decay and pitch ramp controls that can be used to create a number of timbres and effects. Noise is exactly what it sounds like- a noise generator with a single decay control. I think it’s safe to say we know what to do with noise. The Impulse is a phase oriented noise that is controlled via adjustments of up and down values for the impulse shape. Additionally included in the machines menu is the MID machine, which is used for controlling external Midi Devices when using the Machinedrum as a sequencer.
Top Level Controls on the Machinedrum are fairly self explanatory. The left side focuses on part and pattern selection, with a large dial at the top capable of selecting parts in an old school way. Parts can also be selected using the function key (which is essentially a shift command) and selecting the individual voice via the part keys along the bottom of the Machinedrum.
Below you will find the pattern selection controls. Patterns are divided into 8 banks. These 8 banks can be accessed via four buttons that are toggled between 1-4 and 5-8 via a bank group button. To select individual patterns within the banks, the bank button must be held while one of the part buttons along the bottom the the Machinedrum is pressed.
The central section of the Machinedrum allows for browsing functionality within menus accessed via the controls on the right side of the unit. This amounts to four cursor keys and enter/yes and exit/no buttons. To the right of these controls are the basic transport buttons, record, play and stop. Alongside them are the pattern/song mode selection button and the Kit button, which accesses load and save functionality for kits, as well as the ability to edit the individual machines being used in the kit and accessing control for the master effects unit. Above these are the Data Entry controls A-H which each access the synthesis, effects and routing controls. Each set of controls is accessible via a button below the encoders.
Pattern creation on the Machinedrum couldn’t be easier. Patterns can either be created in the traditional step sequencer mode. Or changes can be made to the sequence in real time recording mode.
The i/o on Machinedrum is comprehensive and lets the instrument expand with you as your studio grows. A standard headphone output allows for quick and easy access when away from the studio. Main Outputs A and B allow for standard stereo operation, while four additional outputs allow for flexible routing of drums to a mixer or interface as well as passing along any sounds that you send through the on board effects via inputs A and B. Standard MIDI controls allow the Machinedrum to easily talk to any DAW or hardware you have whether you are syncing Machinedrum and running patterns, triggering the individual machines via MIDI, or using the Machinedrum to sequence the other hardware in your studio.
Overall the Machinedrum is a very versatile tool that can be easily added to an overstuffed studio, or quickly become the centerpiece of a new producer’s rig. Solidly built and with robust on board effects, the Machinedrum is a tool worth looking into when you are through being dazzled by Elektron’s most recent release, The Analog 4. I added one into my studio and couldn’t be happier. For the best prices on the Machinedrum SPS-1 MK II and Elektron’s other products, be sure to go to If you have any questions about the Machinedrum, feel free to ask them in the comments and go check out the blog we’ve linked below. You’re watching