Belizean Heat Live at the Maker Faire (and Octatrack Nerdery)

I was asked to play the Vancouver Mini Maker Faire again this year and I felt like playing something new. The last two years in a row I had played Sonidos de Cuba, although each performance was quite different as one used Ableton and the other used the Octatrack. Since returning from Belize I had started using those fresh recordings to create new music and I was excited to play it out and get some feedback. Before playing the Maker Faire, DJ Smiley Mike of CiTR’s Trancendance asked me to come by the studio and record live on the air! He also streamed the performance live using Meercat and you can see the video below.

Warning! The rest of this post is rather dry and technical. If you’re not interested in the workflow of the Elektron Octatrack just enjoy the video.

Only one song, the opener Ella’s Garden, was really close to complete, the others were still rough ideas without much structure. To bulk up this new set I decided to create live versions of my remixes and the Protosonos EP. The first step was to get all of the material into the Octatrack. I discovered recording from Ableton into Harrison Mixbus is a great alternative to using Rewire. When Ableton is a Rewire Slave, it deactivates any third party plugins along with my APC40, but this is not the case using Mixbus over Jack. I just have to assign the outputs of my Ableton tracks to the inputs of my Mixbus session. I used the same stem format I had used for Sonidos de Cuba to keep it simple and consistent. It had worked for that live performance, although reducing my stem count to 7 would have allowed me to take advantage of using track 8 as the Master track. This opens up the potential to use bus compression and also use the Trig keys to play with the master delay rates. Dataline makes great use of this technique in some of his Youtube videos.

Once I recorded my stems into Mixbus, I imported them into Pro Tools so I could chop them up into more slice-friendly files. Yes, it’s rather tedious going into a third DAW and I probably could have accomplished this in Mixbus, but it’s a new program for me and I’m much more familiar with Pro Tools. When you slice a Wav file into a slice grid in the Octatrack, it’s able to slice into 2, 4, 6, 8, 16, 32, or 64 slices. It’s best to prepare your files to divide evenly into these numbers, otherwise you will have to manually move slice points and delete slices. With most of my percussion and bass loops I prefer to have a few short loops. For the Kick/Snare stem for example, I would probably have 4x 1-bar loops, Bass stems and hi hat stems might be 4x 4-bar loops. If I want something to have more variation or have it evolve I’ll use longer loops. Usually for my field recording stems I’ll use 16 slices so each pattern has a unique bed. Before I export the stems from Pro Tools I make sure I document how I’ve prepared them, that way I know how to slice them once I import them into the Octatrack. I also name each stem by song, element, and BPM.

With this tedious prep out of the way, importing into the Octatrack is way more efficient. Now comes the fun part! If the material has been prepared properly, creating patterns becomes a much more improvisational and organic process. I was surprised how quickly these songs came together from scratch once I started sequencing my stems in the Octatrack. Sequencing is great for getting the structure of your songs together, but what really breathes life into a live performance, and sets the Octatrack apart from other sequencers/samplers is the Scenes and Parts functionality.

Scenes are your crossfader assignments, and you can assign them to the 16 Trig keys. A Scene basically contains a collection of values. So by assigning a different Scene to each side of the crossfader you can smoothly transition between these collections of values. OK, so what does that mean? You can use the crossfader to gradually bring in a melody or bassline. Then you can make that more interesting by adding a filter sweep. You can assign slices of your samples to different Scenes and sweep between all the slices in your grid. This is lots of fun for doing drum fills as you can always mute a Scene to quickly return to your normal state. You can even assign scenes to control the playback rate and direction. By having one side normal and the other full speed reverse, you can get an effect similar to vinyl scratching. Any parameter on any track can be mapped to a Scene, which overrides any values locked to steps of the sequencer, and they can quickly be set up and removed on the fly. Hopefully that gives you a sense of how powerful and fun this feature can be.

Each Bank of patterns on the Octatrack has 4 Parts, which contain your Machine and Scene assignments for each track. By switching Parts, you’re able to reassign the types of tracks you’re using, switch to a new bank of samples, switch to a new bank of Scenes, or change the effects on each track. However, this doesn’t change the sequences laid out on each track. Personally I find this really useful for switching between what I think of as playback mode and input effects mode. In playback mode, each track is assigned to a stem, and the inputs are all direct monitored so they pass through unaffected. In input effects mode I’ll reassign my least important track as a Flex machine using it’s own record buffer. That way I can set up record and playback trigs to record my trumpet and sample, sequence, rearrange, and otherwise mangle it. Because you can chop the record buffer into a slice grid, and it retains that grid even after you re-record it, I’m able to lay out a sequence before I record anything. Then as soon as I do a recording, it’s already sliced and sequenced into a pattern. This technique is tons of fun, especially when combined with filter and delay settings in my Scenes assignments.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Octatrack, I always recommend Merlin’s guide as an essential companion to the official Elektron manual. You can check it out here. It really helped me figure out how to lay out and organize a project, and make sense of the Octatrack’s structure. The Elektronaut forums are also a great resource.

If you have cool tricks and techniques that you enjoy using on the Octatrack, I’d love to hear about them. One of the things I love about the unit is that you can use it in so many different ways so it’s always interesting to see how people put their own personal spin on it.

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