Around the end of last year Elektron announced the Analog Keys which they describe as their flagship analog synthesizer. For many it is the same as the Analog Four but with keys. Before we begin with this review I wanted to tell you that I already own an Elektron Analog Four and know it like the back of my hand. So in that regard I may skip over parts that I’m overly familiar with and will make a comparison between the two models.
The Analog Keys is a 3 octave 4 voice analog synthesizer with build in effects, arpeggiator and sequencer. The keyboard is 37 keys semi weighted which feels solid. The after touch needs some pressure which is way better than some oversensitive after touch keyboards out there. Each key has a led indicator as well used for various functions. Next to the keyboard are the octave buttons a assignable joystick which reminds me to the korg synths. The joystick has mapped the y-axis as pitch bend, the upper X-axis the modulation and the lower x-axis the breath controller midi CC options. Multi map button for using an setting up multimap mode which will be explained in detail. Midi ext mode to use your Keys as a midi controller and a hold button to hold played keys. The last dial that is not shared with the Analog Four is the sound selection dial which is a convenient dial to quickly find a patch to use.
The rest of the buttons and dials are the same as with the Analog Four, although the layout has been changed to suit a right handed keyboardist, are the track selection buttons. Master volume dial. Bank groups to switch through the four upper or lower banks next to there. A transpose button to transpose all selected tracks using the keys relative to the second C note on the keyboard. A often used function button to use all secondary functions of with red text indicated buttons.
Song and chain functions for the sequencer. The 16 step buttons for xox style editing with an additional page button for skipping through 4 pages to get 64 steps. The record start and stop buttons for the sequencer. A track level dial used for editing details in the LCD screen next to there. The viewing angle and contrast of that LCD screen is OK but to that regard an OLED display would be preferable. Maybe there will be a mod for this. A tempo button which I personally never use because I slave the tempo to midi.
The obligatory yes, no and cursor buttons. Next to there are ten dials for editing or use assigned functions which also can be used a midi CC dials. Underneath the performance button to switch between edit and assigned functions mode for the dials. The arp button to use standard arp patterns or a self defined pattern. A note button to edit the details of inserting a stepped note in a sequence. Next to there the synth engine editing buttons for OSC1, OSC2, filters, Amp ADSR, filter ASDR and assignable ADSR and two LFO options. And lastly the kit, sound, track, pattern and song buttons to edit respective details.
So in short, these are the most used functions right there to use and if you need to get into the details and setups you will have to enter a menu layer deeper. To that regard the Analog Keys is a menu diving synthesizer but not half as bad as some over complicated Japanese synths.
As to the difference between the Analog Keys and Analog Four when it comes to the size it is a bit odd that the Analog Keys is twice as wide as a Analog4. To that regard a 25 keys keyboard could also worked. But since you can play polyphonic it does make sense to have a 3 octave keyboard instead of a 2 octave one.
On the back are the headphone output. The L+R output and four separate tracks outputs. A L+R input which is rare in analog synths since most have only mono input. Four CV channel outputs which are combined in pairs so you will need two Y cables to use that option. With my Analog Four those sockets are a bit tight so sometimes the contacts are acting up. The midi in,out and thru where as the midi out and thru also can be used as Din Sync outputs and an USB connection which will come in handy with the upcoming Overbridge option.
The hearth of this synth is the analog synth engine. You have 2 Oscillators with your basic waveforms saw, transistor pulse, square, tri and input or feedback loop options an additional sub oscillator with one or two octave and even a unique 5th note option to create chord like patches. Oscillator 1 also has a S&H function to create a shapeable noise. Oscillator 2 also has amplitude modulation a soft/hard sync function with oscillator 1 and an extended vibrato function which acts like an LFO for pitch and amplitude. The oscillators themselves sound very thick but not as thick as discrete oscillators and. They are not screamy but have quite some character. If you want to have them sound more distinct you can adjust the oscillator drift or use the filter overdrive. As for the string sounds they mostly sound brass like.
As for the filters you have a 4-pole ladder filter, resulting in obligatory Moog like patches, and a second filter with options for 12db or 24dB high pass or low pass, a band pass, peak or band-stop. Similar to the Andromeda synth and giving you rather extensive options to filter especially if you combine it with modulation options. On a side note editing modulation slots for the keyboard and joystick are two menus deep and could have been solved by adding function options to Osc1, Osc2, Filters, Amp, Env and LFO buttons.
As mentioned before there are three straightforward ADSR curves. Being amplitude, filter and a free assignable one. They are snappy enough to produce some punchy bass lines. Two ADSR also has each two additional modulation slots. The amplitude ADSR page also has 3 send levels to the corresponding FX units, a panning option and a volume option. The two LFO’s have each 2 modulation slots and have assignable speed related to the global tempo and go into the audible range.
Quite the marketing term but to me it means having an extensive available slots for storing sounds, projects, kits and the likes. It’s quite extensive and more than adequate for a live setup. For me the downside is that the preset patches seem to be all from before the polyphony age meaning that most preset sounds are hardly useful for polyphonic playing. Then again never judge a synth by its presets.
For the FX track you have two LFO’s which seems to be a bit silly to me. The ADSR and LFO’s are also used CV track so you can assign ADSR and LFO’s to CV outputs. Usage of CV of course depends how you setup the four CV outputs. You can have two pairs of CV gate and CV level to control 2 synths or control a single synth with a CV gate and 3 CV levels. Each CV output can be configure as a V/oct, V/hz, linear voltage, trigger (voltage or slope) and a clock signal. You can calibrate the CV output in detail to match the specific voltages you need.
The fun part here is that you can use this entirely independent from the rest if you want to as a midi to CV converter with ideal features. Or simply to hook up a keyboard to a modular synth setup. That works fine with my Moog Voyager Old School. Especially considering I can have an extra ADSR and LFO to connect to the internal mod busses of the Moog. Ok, you caught me. I just realized this writing this review which now takes more time because I have to try this out.
As to using those 4 analog sounds there are some interesting options besides the one per every track in sequence mode. You can per voice chose to use them in unison mode or put them in a polyphonic pool resulting in polyphony for each track. The catch is that voice stealing will kick in pretty fast. With some smart programming you can have 4 timbres per midi channel and use each timbre with a polyphony of four if you use them in turns.
With the upcoming OverBridge which should be available Q4 2014 option you can record those timbres via USB as audio in your DAW. A similar option took Access with their Virus TI years to get right. The multimap is an option to create splits, map timbres to every key ideal for percussion sounds or both. Voice stealing also applies here.
There are three internal effects. A chorus which is your typical chorus which I prefer to use in a subtle way. A delay which is a tape emulated delay with the delay linked to the global tempo. In an older OS function the Analog Four this global timing, when synced with midi clock, was quirky resulting in tape delay glitches. Lovely to use on single voices to create pseudo polyphony. The reverb is also your basic reverb if it wasn’t for its darkish sound, meaning that it’s not bright but more like a plate reverb. You also can use effects as sends on the external inputs so you can use it as a effect unit as well. Or simply pass the inputs as is and save an input or two on your mixer or sound interface.
Each track has its own arpeggiator and can be used with default patterns or you can create an own pattern of 16 steps. You can adjust speed, length and legato. In addition you can add three separate additional note offsets so you can arpeggiate chords. Why there is an arpeggiator available for the FX track I do not understand. Oh Elektron, you so silly.
Like said before, patterns can have 64 steps for each six tracks. For every step you even can alter modulation values called parameter locks. This is limited because of memory use but the amount of possible modulation points is rather large.
You can enter patterns by recording them with the keyboard or entering them in step mode. Quantization is possible. Editing the notes is a bit cumbersome on the small LCD screen. You can edit accents, note and parameter slides. Granted it takes some time to get used to using this way of editing and compared to the big screen of a DAW there is quite the difference. To be honest I hardly use the sequencer but just use my Analog4 as a midi expander for the four analog timbres. But if you are keen on the hands on approach you can create patterns and chain them or put them into a song. Of course in combination with other Elektron products you have a vast choice of options for live music creation.
All in all the Elektron Analog Keys is a versatile beast. In a previous Analog Four review I liked to call it a Swedish army knife. This is a Swedish army knife with a keyboard and a joystick. This also implies that you need to be a bit tech savvy to be able to use this synth to the full extend. Probably the reason why a number of people put them up for sales again after a few months. But if you like instant electro sounds, electronic kits and use them in a live or studio setting you have to put up with the fact that you have to do some editing.
As the Analog Four to the Analog Keys I prefer the Analog Four because its way smaller size, in my size limited studio. But the keyboard is pretty good and as a main keyboard next to your mouse it will do just fine as well I reckon. The build quality of the Analog Keys is excellent.
As to the drawbacks there are just a few minor details as to editing modulation mappings for the joystick and keyboard and the viewing angle of the LCD screen. And yes it’s not cheap, but its way more than just four analog voices.