Akai AX73 Programmable Polyphonic Synthesiser
In many ways the smart money has been on Akai ever since they launched the S612 rackmount sampler in 1985. Subsequently this Japanese giant has been doing a lot of things right, producing a whole range of equipment that people can understand, want, and, most importantly, can afford. A case in point is their recently launched AX73. The AX73 is an analogue synthesiser, and quite a large part of the instrument's appeal may well be that it has provision for manipulating samples from the S612, or in fact from their new mega-sampler, the S900 (see our review in Issue 11 - Ed.). However, since the recommended price is only a measly £699, the AX73 should be well within the reach of the keen first-time buyer for whom a sampler is on next year's shopping list. So, how does the AX73 rate as an individual instrument? In short, very well indeed.
First of all, the AX73 looks considerably more than £699's worth of synth. The keyboard is a full six octaves (an octave more than almost any other synth around), and the light grey control panel is distinctive, clean and obvious. The keyboard is slightly weighted, and velocity sensitive.
This is an analogue synthesiser. The voice structure will be instantly familiar to anyone who has been using synths for a few years; and for those who haven't, well, the classic VCO-VCF-VCA flow isn't one of life's great mysteries. Although there's only one oscillator per voice, bear in mind that Roland's classic Juno 6/60/106 range was similarly blessed. You may not be able to programme fifths or densely swirling detuned effects, but the inclusion of a chorus (coupled with strong oscillators to begin with) means that you're by no means sentenced to sounding namby-pamby. In fact, in spite of its lack of oscillators, the AX73 is immensely more powerful than the 2-oscillator AX80!
Programming is carried out under DAC (Digital Access Control), with a 10-digit keypad to enable each parameter in turn. The value slider or pair of value keys are used to make adjustments. DAC has never been the speediest system around, but Akai have made life a little easier by allowing you to skip through the parameters using the forward and reverse keys whilst in edit mode. The same keys speed through the patch programmes in bank mode. Programming is also made less problematical by the inclusion of edit/compare facilities and a contrast-controllable backlit LCD.
If the AX73 has a less than spectacular complement of oscillators, it more than makes up for this lack when it comes to the filter section, the LFOs, and the general accessibility of the envelope generators. Standard in terms of offering the classic ADSR parameters, the envelope generators can be variously applied to the VCA, the VCO and VCF, the VCA and VCF, and the VCO. Inevitably, this type of description sounds pretty meaningless in print, but suffice it to say that you are offered — and simply, not exhaustively — plenty of choices when tailoring the shape and tonality of your sounds. The AX73's velocity sensitive keyboard can be set for varying tone (VCF cutoff) or volume (VCA) as well. LFO modulation can be applied to VCO, VCA or VCF, can be chosen from five waveforms, is variable in speed and depth, and can be delayed. Again, the possibilities are straightforward, but quite sufficient.
Right: the sounds. 100 can be stored at any one time, and they are mainly very crisp, clean and precise. (Additional sounds can be loaded and offloaded from cassette.) This is no wild blitzkrieg instrument for sure, but it can be surprisingly punchy in a controlled sort of way. I was certainly impressed with the feel of the keyboard — firm but not exactly what I'd call weighted — and by how much freedom the additional octave seems to give. Performance controls include a pitch/filter wheel and mod wheel (both programmable in range), programmable portamento, and three forms of keyboard assign: Poly (6-voice), Dual (3-voice, double oscillator power) and Uni (monophonic).
The second of these modes brings me to the question of keyboard splitting. There seems to be some confusion between a keyboard that can split or layer its own internal voices and one that can assign a MIDI split. The AX73 can programme a MIDI split only; in other words, it can assign to a particular stretch of keyboard a voice from an incoming sound source — in this case, primarily I'd imagine, a voice from one of Akai's own samplers. At the risk of being repetitive, the AX73 cannot split or layer its own internal voices. Still on the clarifying trail, I've read literature (from the USA, I admit!) claiming that the AX73 has an arpeggiator. Well, it hasn't. Still, the ability to split and control voices from a sampler is considerable one, and on testing the AX73 with Akai's new S900 I came away highly impressed with both instruments.
Connections are made using Akai's 13-pin Exclusive output from the sampler. Voices from the AX73 and a sampler can be balanced in terms of volume, and assigned combined or distinct areas of the keyboard. More importantly, not only can the AX73's batch of editing parameters be used to tailor the sounds of an incoming sample, but you can even end up with a final output comprising the 'straight' sample, the modified or AX73-edited sample, plus one of the AX73's internal programmes. Textures and tone colours using this type of arrangement can be (literally) fantastic. Finally, such sample-edits as have been made, along with MIDI split positions etc., can all be stored as part of a patch programme. Again, this shows considerable insight and care on the part of the manufacturers.
The AX73 offers a lot for the money. What impresses me is that you can grow into this instrument. On the face of it, you simply have an easy-to-understand analogue poly blessed with 100 standard, though quite classy, factory programmes and quite a few nice touches such as voice naming (12 characters), keyboard sensitivity, and the 6-octave keyboard. However, should you want to beef up your system with a sampler, the AX73 can then accomplish what no other polysynth can manage in terms of editing samples and storing their manifestation along the keyboard. The AX73, along with the impending launch of Akai's sequencing package, their MIDI mixing desk, new 14-track recorder, and expander based on the AX73 (VX90) to name but a few, seems to offer irrefutable evidence that Akai have finally arrived.
RRP £699 inc. VAT
More details from Akai (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Julian Colbeck
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