Akai S1000PB 16bit Stereo Sample Player with SWM and Workstation Disks
Do you find the idea of sampling your own sounds unappealing? Why not settle for a high quality replay-only sampler like the Akai S1000PB and spend the money you save on more library disks? Paul Ireson checks out the machine and Akai's newly launched set of Workstation and SWM disks.
If you want sampled sounds but find the idea of sampling your own unappealing, why not settle for a high quality replay-only sampler like the Akai S1000PB and spend the money you save on more library disks? Paul Ireson checks out the machine along with Akai's newly launched set of Workstation and SWM disks.
When is a sampler not a sampler? No, this isn't some kind of lousy joke, it's a (semi) serious question. Samplers are, are they not, devices that allow the digital recording and replay of any sounds. If you own a sampler, then your music can be played on any 'instrument' that you care to record/create with your machine. That's the theory at any rate. In practice, the 'instruments' tend to come almost exclusively from pre-recorded sample disks, as most sampler owners buy or swap disks rather than do any sampling of their own. The sampler is above all a way of reproducing 'real' instrument sounds accurately, sounds that somebody else has taken the trouble to record well.
My gut reaction to this state of affairs is that a lot of very powerful technology is being under-used, but this is perhaps a little unfair. Although the sampler's potential for exploring as yet uncharted areas of sound is not being tapped, its ability to play back any sound that the owner can find on commercial or a friend's disks - a range of sounds that is undoubtedly greater than that of any synthesizer - is, and that's a very useful function.
Since most users don't do any sampling of their own, it makes sense to separate the recording and playback functions of samplers and produce playback-only versions. Roland's U110 is one implementation of this idea - preset instrument sounds burned into ROM, though it also allows the user to supplement the onboard sounds from plug-in ROM cards. The latest addition to the range of sample players is the Akai S1000PB, a stripped-down version of the acclaimed S1000 16-bit sampler.
Both in terms of operation and physical appearance, the S1000PB is very similar to the S1000. Internally, the operation of the two is identical, except that the S1000PB cannot sample its own sounds. The samples that it replays are loaded via a 3.5" disk drive into 2Mb of onboard RAM. That's enough for 23.76 seconds of mono sound sampled at 44.1 kHz. Like the S1000, the S1000PB can read and write to both HD (high density) and DD (double density) floppy disks; the former allow more data to be stored but are disproportionately expensive. As well as reading all S1000 disks, the S1000PB can also read S900 disks. It might seem a strange move to give a state of the art 16-bit sampler the ability to read disks made by a 12-bit sampler, but the S900's popularity means that there is a good range of sample disks available for it. The S1000PB owner therefore has ready access to a vast number of sounds, even though not all of these will be able to take advantage of its superior 16-bit sound. Also, it means that there is no need to junk your existing found library if you are upgrading from an S900 to an S1000.
Externally, the S1000PB lacks the front panel controls dedicated to sampling and sample editing but retains the rear panel layout of the S1000: eight individual audio outputs, stereo mix left and right sockets, and mono effects send and stereo return sockets. The effects loop can be used to liven up the signal sent to the stereo outputs, and an effects send level set for each part when the S10OOPB is used multitimbrally. For MIDI control, there are the usual In, Out and Thru DIN sockets.
I'll give a brief overview of the operation of the S1000PB, but as it's so similar to the S1000, I refer you to David Mellor's review of that unit in our November '88 issue for more details.
The S1000PB constructs its sounds, in ascending order of organisation, as samples, keygroups and programs: samples are arranged within keygroups, and keygroups within programs. The keygroups and programs control aspects of the S1000PB's sample playback such as filter and amplitude envelopes, velocity crossfades of samples, etc. Sample, keygroup and program data can be loaded from disk, and although the basic samples cannot be edited, the keygroups and programs that determine how they are played can. New or edited programs/keygroups may be saved to disk, if necessary with the samples that they use, although it is obviously a more economical use of disk space to save only programs.
Up to four samples can be collected together into each keygroup; the keygroup is assigned to a user-definable keyboard range (hence the name), and within the keygroup the samples may be layered or velocity switched/mixed. Each sample is assigned to play over any MIDI velocity range desired, and if these ranges overlap, the samples can be set to play at full volume or made to crossfade in the overlapping region. Each keygroup has filter and amplitude envelopes through which its samples are processed. Up to 99 keygroups can be incorporated into each program: again, if they overlap, the keygroups can be set to gradually crossfade from one to the other in the overlapping region, or be fully layered.
A crossfade between overlapping keygroups is useful where multi-sampling is employed to produce a greater realistic range for, say, a piano sound. The use of a crossfade on the keyboard in the region where two samples overlap will avoid any obvious 'joins'. Keygroups with totally different samples, assigned to different keyboard regions, could be used to set up drum kits or keyboard splits - 99-way splits are possible in fact, provided your keyboard is long enough!
The S1000PB's standard 2 Megabytes of RAM can hold up to 100 programs, and these can be individually selected with MIDI Program Change messages on a user-definable Program Select channel. Each program can be set to respond to MIDI note and controller data on any MIDI channel, which may or may not be the same channel as that selected for global program selection. Several different programs can be given the same program number, in which case all are activated when that program number is selected. If the programs are set to respond on different MIDI channels, then they form a single multitimbral patch. There is no limit to the number of programs that can be assigned to the same program number.
The S1000PB is up to 16-note polyphonic - I say up to 16 notes because it will play 16 samples simultaneously, so if any programs use several samples to create their sounds, then they cannot be played with full 16-note polyphony.
As a rule of thumb, samplers are only as good as the samples they are provided with - give or take a few points for programming facilities, multitimbrality, etc. Given that replay-only units are aimed at users who want to spend more time playing than programming, this is doubly true of the S1000PB: its value is directly related to the quality of the disks that are available for it, and how much they make it an instantly usable device. Two new sets of disks - the SWM (Sample Wave Mix) and Workstation disks - are now available from Akai, and this would therefore seem the ideal time to take a good look at them, particularly as one set is 'player' rather than 'programmer' oriented.
The idea of the new workstation disks is to present the user with an instant multitimbral instrument setup, configured for a particular style of music. Each disk offers a basic group of instruments, with (for example) drums on one channel, guitar on another, string pads on a third, and so on. The arrangement and choice of sounds varies from disk to disk, depending on what style of music it has been created for, and is necessarily fairly basic. Some of the sounds will inevitably not be quite to everyone's taste, but the point is to provide a straightforward setup that can simply be loaded up and used without any programming hassle. You are, of course, quite free to supplement the sampled sounds from the workstation disks with sounds from other sources. The three disks supplied for review were the Rock, Jazz Rock and Funk workstation disks.
ROCK DISK: This offers a seven part multitimbral setup. The rhythm section consists of good solid drum sounds and a bright Rickenbacker bass. The third instrument is the all-important distortion guitar: at low velocities a slightly damped chord is heard; at higher velocities a healthy, screaming power chord rings out. Next come a couple of analogue synth sounds: Oberheim OBX brass and OBX strings. The brass sample is particularly good, very like that heard at the start of Van Halen's 'Jump'. Next in the 'classic analogue sounds' department is a fantastic sync lead sound, with a massive sweep. Finally, there are Hammond organ and Clavinet sounds.
The Rock disk passed its first important test: having loaded its entire contents I was knocking out heavy FM rock in no time at all. Whether or not this is a good thing is open to question, but it shows that Akai have chosen the right sounds. On reflection, it actually makes very good sense to organise sounds on the basis of musical styles or moods rather than on instrument types: much of the time it would be far more convenient to load up some or all of the sounds from a 'mellow' disk than to select suitable samples from amongst your separate 'piano', 'drums', 'strings' and 'synths' disks.
Good though the sounds on this disk are, the setup does have its shortcomings The drums are not in fact a complete kit; there is a single set of kick/toms/snare, with hi-hats, cowbell and two splash cymbals, and that's it. In order to bring this up to the minimum required by most users, ride and crash cymbals should really be included. It is, of course, possible to add these to the drum kit yourself, but the point of these workstation disks is surely to provide you with a good, basic setup for each musical genre, and I would have thought that crash and ride cymbals came above a splash in importance.
I found that after 20 minutes or so of working with the sounds on the disk, I had assembled a basic track using five of the seven sounds, and was missing the exact sound that I next wanted to add. This is not a criticism of the disk, as it could not hope to provide everyone's ideal instrument setup in full: the next best thing is to provide a good basic selection which you can then change/supplement to meet your requirements, and it does just this.
The first sample I added to the basic configuration was an overdriven lead guitar sound. I took the necessary program and samples for this from another sound disk. Unfortunately, because the samples and programs necessary for the Rock workstation setup occupied 73% of the S1000PB's memory, I was not able to load all of the samples necessary for the full multi-sampled lead guitar, but I could fit in the upper range that I actually needed for the part I was going to play. Had I needed a greater note range, two options would have been open to me: I could either have erased any unnecessary samples from the S1000PB's RAM to make room for those that I did need, or I could have edited the keygroups in the lead guitar program to play the samples that I could load over a greater range of the keyboard.
FUNK DISK: This one contains the fullest range of drums - excellent electronic kick and snares, and percussion sounds sampled almost entirely from a Roland TR808. There are 15 sounds in all - not a very comprehensive setup when compared to the 50 or 60 sounds found on many drum machines, but certainly all the important sounds are covered.
The other sounds on the disk cover a fair amount of the important funky sound ground, in a contemporary rather than a '70s P-Funk vein (now that would be quite a disk, how about it Akai?). Traditional sounds are represented by Rhodes piano, damped electric guitar, and a slap bass sound. There is also a decent selection of synth sounds, half of them bass, half of them more suitable for the upper octaves of a keyboard. The synth bass sounds are arranged with a split keyboard so that the upper part of the split plays downward runs/slides of notes - a classic funky effect, and very reminiscent of Jam and Lewis productions. Listen to Janet Jackson's 'Control' if you don't know what I mean, or the intro of 'Human' by The Human League. As with the Rock workstation disk, the sounds have been well chosen, and provide a pretty solid basis for producing contemporary dance tracks.
JAZZ ROCK DISK: This struck me as being perhaps the least interesting of the three workstation disks, without the distinctive character of the others - but this may have more to do with the insipid nature of most jazz rock music than with any shortcomings in the disk.
The two electric and one synth bass sounds are very usable, and the only sample that really lets things down is the acoustic piano. The multi-sampling technique is obvious here, in that the joins between sections really show. The basic piano sound is also thin and unconvincing, and the looped portions of the samples are very weak. By way of comparison, I'd say that the piano sounds on Roland's U110 are far better, despite being noisier. The synth sounds on this disk are along the lines of analogue strings, pads and brass: all good, but as I said, a little characterless in my view.
As with the Rock disk, it should be remembered that both the Funk and Jazz Rock disks can only provide a starting point for your music. The basic group of instrument samples can be supplemented to taste by more samples and programs drawn from other disks, to personalise the setup and make it a little more individual. If necessary, some of the samples loaded from the workstation disk can be erased from the S1000's RAM to make way for the new sounds. The workstation configurations are in fact nothing special, in that they are exactly the kind of setups that many users might create and save for their personal use, but equally this shows an awareness on the part of Akai of the needs of many musicians, and the workstation disks provide the kind of good basic setup that a lot of sampler owners want.
The SWM disks are a second new set of disks for the S1000/S1000PB, which effectively turn the sampler into a kind of digital synthesizer. They contain a range of sampled synth and acoustic sounds, ready looped, and ready to be combined and processed by the S1000PB's filter and amplifier sections.
Each of the four disks also contains 40 programs that use these samples to create 'samploid' synthesizer sounds (for want of a better term), which are quite different to the sampled acoustic sounds offered by most library disks. The disks do not actually add anything to the facilities of the S1000/S1000PB, but by providing a certain kind of raw material, they push the user in the direction of using the sampler and its processing as a synthesizer, and a very good one at that. First impressions of the SWM sounds are excellent: a mixture of smooth, rich analogue sounds, complex D50-ish digital twangs and whooshes, and many sounds based on vocal 'aah' samples of various kinds.
The way that all of these sounds are put together is that several samples are layered on top of one another, either within the same or split between different keygroups - using different keygroups allows several samples to be processed by different filter and amplitude envelopes within the same program. The process is superficially similar to LA synthesis: combining sampled portions of either synthesized or acoustic sounds. Principal differences are that the samples used in the SWM programs are not divided strictly into 'attack' and 'sustain' components. Some do consist purely of a short looped synthesizer waveform, but all those that have an interesting attack portion also have a looped sustain portion - so the equivalent of an LA brass attack partial is a powerful brass blast, with attack and sustain, which could therefore be used on its own without having to find a sustain sound to match it. If you do want to use just the attack portion of any sound, you simply chop the rest off with the amplitude envelope.
The looped portions of these SWM sounds are also often much longer than in LA-type synthesizers, giving sounds a lot of life and movement even before any form of modulation is applied. For example, at their 'original' pitch many of the sample loops are around a second or two in length; the longest being that of a fantastic filter sweep sound, modulated by a slow LFO. The unfortunate direct consequence of long loops is that not all that many samples can be stored in RAM. The two disks we were given to review, both with 40 programs, had 18 and 24 samples respectively, which doesn't give a huge range of basic sounds. However, the capabilities of the S1000PB's filter and envelope sections make up for this, and the synthesis possibilities of the SWM disks are most rewarding to explore.
Several keygroups can be used to crossfade sounds from one region of the keyboard to another, so a sound might consist of a filter sweep with an analogue string sound at the bottom of the keyboard, with that string sound crossfading into a vocal 'aaah' further up the keyboard. This crossfading could be repeated at several other points on the keyboard, if desired, or the filter sweep set to crossfade to a bell sound at yet another point. The decision is yours...
One of the great things about using the S1000PB as a synthesizer is the number of sound sources that can be combined into a single sound - up to 16, compared to four at once for LA synths. And although only 16 sources can be heard at once, more than this can be addressed in a single program through keyboard splits and crossfades if you fancy creating something really over the top. So, the 12 samples that combine to produce a sound at the top of the keyboard can be totally different to the 10 that are used at the bottom. I had endless fun assembling programs that used six or eight samples, with different 'layers' of the sound crossfading from one sample (or set of samples) to others at various points on the keyboard, or with two separate washes of sound fading in and out after an attack portion. Elaborate stereo sounds can be created by assigning different pan positions to the different keygroups in each sound.
The 40 preset samples on each disk are excellent, but the fact that the SWM disks are oriented towards synthesis means that you are inspired and encouraged to create new sounds of your own from those basic building blocks provided - this is certainly not the case with most sample disks, which simply hand you a whole bunch of sounds on a plate. Having said that, should you choose simply to use the SWM disks to provide another 40 preset sounds, you at least have some very good ones, and they are undoubtedly sounds that take the S1000PB into unfamiliar territory, thus making the use of a sampler less obvious.
With the release of the S1000 sampler, Akai took the quality of 'standard' pro studio equipment up a notch. For anyone who won't need the user-sampling facilities of the S1000, the PB version must be very tempting: the price saving is considerable, the sound quality is the same, and like the S1000 it has access to what is perhaps the largest sampled sound library around. Between S1000 and S900 disks, any S1000PB buyer should be spoilt for choice when it comes to assembling their personal sound arsenal. This last point is important, because most S1000PB buyers will want to spend their time playing rather than programming and sampling.
The new workstation disks are very much aimed at these users, providing an instant group of instruments for various styles of music. The setups are necessarily fairly basic, and will therefore be supplemented by sounds from other S1000 disks, but make it possible to just load a single disk and play. The configuration of different sounds could of course be created from scratch, but if you don't have the sound disks/time/inclination to do this then the workstation disks are a great asset.
The SWM disks are a little different: although they provide superb synth sounds, which are an instant way of making your sampler sound like something quite different, they will also appeal to people who do have the time and inclination to programme their sampler, and create new sounds of their own. Using the SWM disks I really began to wonder whether, for most people, something like the S1000 could replace all of their existing synthesizers - all it takes is enough RAM, and the right disks. Without doubt, they are an essential addition to every S1000 owner's collection.
S1000PB £1999 inc VAT.
Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).