Published On: Wed, Feb 26th, 2020

Model:Cycles review: An affordable and approachable FM groovebox

There are also two other options on the front panel that are unique to the Cycles: punch and gate. These are simple on and off buttons, but they dramatically change the behavior of your sound. “Gate” simply means the note you play will be held until you release the pad or trig key, essential for sustained chords or leads, while “punch” adds a pseudo compressor and some distortion. This is a good way to add a little grit and bite to a sound without having to rely on the normal FM dissonance.

Before you start messing around designing your own sounds though, it’s worth quickly checking out the stock patterns and presets to give you an idea of what the machine is capable of. There are 32 patterns already loaded in the first project for you to explore that cover everything from drum and bass to trap, chiptune, dub and IDM. And the 512 preset sounds give you claps, leads, chords, rimshots, et cetera — basically, anything you need to start sketching out your own tracks.

Poking around at these is also a good way to get familiar with the performative aspects of the Model:Cycles. Like the Model:Samples, this is a largely knob-per-function experience. There are velocity-sensitive pads with aftertouch for each track, 16 trig keys for step sequencing or playing sounds in chromatic mode, a retrig button, a fill button, and 14 knobs to twist and turn as you explore the limits of each pattern. Plus there’s a control-all button that allows you to quickly mangle your creation before reverting it back to its original state by pressing function and pattern.

Elektron Model:Cycles

Also like the Samples, and unlike some of Elektron’s more expensive gear, the Model:Cycles is hands-on with almost no menu diving. Coming to grips with playing it live is a core part of the Models experience, especially when you’re talking about that control-all function. It’s a powerful tool when wielded properly — but it’s also easy to turn your masterpiece into an unrecognizable and unmusical mess if you’re not careful.

For the most part, playing Model:Cycles is just like playing the Model:Samples. The core controls are all the same. The UI is the same. And the sequencer is the same — and still incredible. Honestly, of all the features that you’d want the company to make available in its entry-level products, it’s the sequencer.

The 64-step Elektron sequencer has a number of features that make it unique. For one, there are what it calls parameter locks. That means that every step on a track can have completely different settings. Many sequencers have a similar feature, but the Elektron implementation is particularly powerful because basically any and all parameters can be locked with almost no limitations. That includes everything from the decay to the amount of reverb to the speed of the LFO or what it’s applied to. Even the machine or preset can be changed on a per-step basis. This is super handy for making the most of the six tracks, since you can do things like put your bass drum and snare on the same track if they’re not going to hit at the same time.

Elektron Model:Cycles

There are also trig conditions: These are rules that govern when a step is played. The most basic example is adding a snare roll that only plays when you press the fill button. But the more interesting options are the probability and ratios. These allow you to extend the life of a simple four-bar loop by injecting a bit of unpredictability. You can set an extra kick drum to play 33 percent of the time or every second time through a pattern. Or you can build an elaborate set of conditions that relies on the outcomes of other trig conditions. For example, you could set a short synth melody to play 15 percent of the time. That could trigger a response line from the bass, which then causes the hi hats to play in double time and the bass drum to drop out.

It’s surprisingly powerful and complex for something that is squarely entry level. To be fair, the same was true of the Model:Samples when it was released last year, but now that the price has dropped from $399 to $299 for the Models lineup, it’s even more intriguing. There isn’t anything else quite like the Cycles in this price range.

Novation’s Circuit is perhaps its closest competitor. It’s a $330 groovebox that has legions of fans thanks to its versatile design and affordable price. Its four drum parts and two synth parts are a little more prescriptive than what the Cycles’ offer, but its two synths are polyphonic, and it can be loaded with 60 seconds of samples. It has a much larger selection of effects too: 16 delays, eight reverbs, seven sidechaining effects and a multimode filter. That’s quite a lot compared to the Cycles’ single delay and reverb options.

The Circuit can also be powered by a handful of AA batteries. When the Model:Samples was released last year, Elektron said it was working on a battery handle for the device (and by extension the Model:Cycles). But it’s a year later and we still don’t know when that will arrive or how much it will cost. You can buy a cheap adapter off Amazon and use any standard USB battery pack with the Model instruments. But it’s not exactly ideal.