Why the Octatrack Is the Weirdest Electronic Musical Instrument Around

Old, recalcitrant, yet rewarding—it’s like the protagonist of an 80s buddy movie

Key Takeaways

  • Officially, the Octatrack is an '8-track dynamic performance sampler.'
  • There’s almost no musical task the Octatrack cannot do.
  • It’s frustrating, unique, and an utter cult classic.
Octatrack dynamic performance sampler


Elektron’s Octatrack is a 10-year old groovebox that’s hard to learn, has outdated audio effects, and no clear use case. And yet, this legendary machine still sells today, remains much loved, and is utterly unique.

The Octatrack comes from Sweden’s Elektron, and is perhaps one of the weirdest electronic musical instruments ever built, from its design to its music-mangling results. The Octatrack is hard to describe. It’s a step sequencer with eight tracks, but it’s also a sampler, an eight-track recorder, a MIDI sequencer, and an effects box. You can use it as a guitar looper pedal, or just as a mixer for other gear. And it’s this profusion of possibilities that lead to the first Octatrack myth: that it’s hard to learn.

"The OT is equally versatile and idiosyncratic. With its rich feature set it's unrivaled, but the lack of guard rails in some areas makes it a somewhat high-maintenance companion," musician and Octatrack user Hans_Olo told Lifewire in a forum thread. "However, judging by the number of studio videos I’ve seen it unexpectedly pop up in, 10 years in, it still seems to be the prime choice [for] many artists, which I attribute to the lack of any real competition."

Learning Curves

Any time you read about the Octatrack, you’ll see that it has a "steep learning curve." But this is only true if you’ve never used a step sequencer before. It’s deep, sure, but no harder to learn than the computer or phone you’re reading on right now. 

In a way, the Octatrack is like a general purpose computer. It can be pressed into pretty much any musical role, and you can usually find several ways to achieve your goal. This complexity can lead to frustration, but once you get rolling, you can do everything with dedicated buttons, or button combos. Watch some of those videos mentioned by Hans_Olo, and you’ll see it being played like a musical instrument. 

Octotrak dynamic performance sampler set up, on, and sitting on a wood table

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

"There’s something about being able to set up the hardware so flexibly to function the way you specifically want that really makes it unlike anything else out there," musician Tarekith told Lifewire in a forum thread. "Though arguably what also makes it so complex for new users too."

What Does It Do?

Take a look at the picture above. That row of 16 buttons represent the 16 sixteenth notes in a bar of 4/4 music. They’re called "trigs," for triggers, and they can trigger a sample, or a MIDI note. But they can also trigger a recording, or be used to play a sample chromatically (at different pitches). Or you can slice up a sample, and play those slices with these keys. Or use the trigs to add effects to each individual step, all depending on the mode you’re in.

Then, look to the right, and you see a DJ-style crossfader. This can also do almost anything, but the gist is you can take any parameter from any knob or dial, and use the crossfader to control them all at once. The results, like everything on the Octatrack, can be either subtle or wild. 

Octatrack dynamic performance sampler close-up shot of crossfader

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

And that’s just the beginning. The beauty of the Octatrack—and the thing that keeps musicians coming back to it—is the flexibility, and the fun. I recently bought a second one, after selling the first a few years back, and so far, I’ve used it only as an eight-track guitar looper, with all kinds of effects mapped to that crossfader. Hooked up to a foot pedal, it’s just about the most fun I’ve had (musically) in years. 

Showing Its Age

In a way, the Octatrack is the George Clooney of grooveboxes. It’s getting on a bit, and showing its age, but it still looks great. Its reverb effect is rough but still charming, and it stores your work on a CF card. Yes, a Compact Flash card. 

The Octatrack sampler standing on its side and surrounded by other accessories


But with age comes experience. The Elektronauts forum, where we discussed the Octatrack for this article, has more than a decade’s worth of knowledge and advice for the Octatrack.

"There’s definitely a plus side to having a massive user base, and ten years of forum posts figuring out what it can do, and how," says musician and forum member Jay B. "The deep fans are very devout, and probably spend more time answering queries than I spend making music at all."

Aging, flawed, tricky to get along with, but utterly worth it. Here’s to another 10 years, Octatrack.

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