Akai ASQ 10 Sequencer
The return of Roger Linn, as a member of the Akai team, promises much to the world of musical technology. The ASQ 10, bearing the Linn name, is a heavyweight sequencer in all senses. David Mellor assesses its abilities.
OUCH! That was my reaction when I dropped the ASQ 10 manual on my toe. We are used to seeing pretty thick manuals coming with musical equipment these days. Usually the only reason for the thickness is because they have English, French, German and Cockney Rhyming Slang sections covering the same information. But this manual is English from start to finish - all 160 pages of it.
Not only is the manual heavy, the machine is too. When we are used to seeing sequencing packages on floppy disk, it makes a change to have a hulking great dedicated box. At least we can be sure that it is optimised for the sequencing function, and that there will be no chance of anyone slinking away with it for a quick game of Space Invaders.
As you will see if you can bear to look at the suggested retail price at the end of the article, the Akai ASQ 10 is certainly not cheap. It's possible to buy hardware sequencers for less than £300 these days, so how come it costs so much? Surely there are only a certain number of functions a sequencer can have?
One of the primary selling points must be the Roger Linn name. After all, he invented the sampled drum machine and virtually created the modern musical idiom single-handed. Some might say he has a lot to answer for! Unfortunately, although the Linn LM1 and Linn Drum were very successful in their time, Roger Linn bit off a little more than he could chew when he produced the Linn 9000. This wasn't just a drum machine, it could take samples and acted as a pretty sophisticated MIDI sequencer too. This was when it was working OK. The ability of the Linn 9000 to crash and lose sequence data is legendary. There is now a company in the USA (Forat Electronics Inc.) who remanufacture Linn 9000s and make them work as they were supposed to. I'm sure Roger Linn would have done this himself, but the accountants got him before he was able to.
It must have been quite a coup for Akai to enlist Linn's help in designing their new range of professional products, which includes the MPC 60, a successor to the Linn 9000. The benefits of this marriage, hopefully, are Linn's originality, and the renowned Japanese knack for reliability. Thus, we can expect the Akai ASQ 10 sequencer to be pretty comprehensive in its abilities, and well built too. From my acquaintance with the unit so far, all seems to be A1. Still, the price is a high one, and any potential purchaser is going to want value for money. So let's look and see if it measures up...
The ASQ 10 is big. Some 16 inches deep and 14 inches wide, it claims to 'fit easily under the arm'. That's pushing it a little, but it is better than lugging about an Atari ST with monitor and keyboard. There is a 3.5 inch DSDD floppy disk drive for storage of sequences and a larger than usual LCD display panel to let you know what's going on. Most hardware sequencers have a tiny little window, and it's good to see that this has been improved upon.
Note capacity is a quoted 60,000, which sounds like plenty but you would have to go easy on continuous controllers and aftertouch to approach this. You should still fit the average concerto in with room to spare.
The ASQ 10's internal organisation is interesting. Most software sequencers are track-based. For instance, the Steinberg Pro 24 has 24 tracks, the Hybrid Arts SMPTE Track has 60, Voyetra's Sequencer Plus III has 64. In the case of the ASQ 10, there are 99 sequences and each sequence may have up to 99 tracks.
Many sequencers store MIDI channel assignments as part of the track data, so that you can eventually mix several MIDI channels onto one track and have them play different instruments. The ASQ 10 stores only note and controller data and channelises it on the way out of the unit. This means that each track can only have one MIDI channel associated with it. (You can actually have two MIDI channels, but playing the same notes). Still, even with this slight restriction, 99 tracks ought to be enough. I think it makes things simpler this way too. The sequences on the ASQ 10 are what other people might refer to as segments. The sequences can be chained together and used to build up a song.
The ASQ 10 is built for uncomplicated use, but covering just about every function you might need in a sequencer. One of the most successful features is the throw-away-the-manual button, HELP. I haven't counted how many help screens there are, but it seems that for every position you can place the cursor on the display, for any function, there is a context-sensitive help page. And very straightforward and useful they are too. Actually, you can't completely do without the book, but once you have an idea of how the unit operates, then any point of detail is quickly sorted out. You don't look like a twit doing it either.
The first thing you'll need to find to record a sequence is the main operating screen. This is easy to do, just hit the MAIN SCREEN button. In fact, you'll find yourself pressing this at all sorts of times to exit the function you're in, or as a 'panic button' when you have lost your way. The main screen presents you with the information shown in Figure 1.
The last four functions are placed in a row above the four 'soft' keys. Pressing any of them takes you into the corresponding function. Different screens use the soft keys in different ways.
When you power-up the machine, this is the display you are initially confronted with. You are invited to record on track 1 of sequence 1 and, as you can see, they are both currently empty. As you fill up the tracks, each one can be given a name or the ASQ 10 will do it for you. Most hardware sequencers haven't got to the stage yet of being able to name tracks, so this is a most welcome feature. Also, the fact that default track names are automatically assigned by the machine means that even if you are too flushed with inspiration to take time out to make one up, then you'll still know what's going on when you take a break. Tracks can be switched ON, OFF or SOLOed at will.
There are two types of tempo memory available on the ASQ 10. One covers all the sequences and tracks and is known as the 'master'. The other is specific to each sequence. This is handy as you can have a 'starting' tempo which will be used most often throughout a piece, yet adjust it for each part of a song. There can be tempo changes within a sequence too. Furthermore, tempo can be adjusted to a resolution of 0.1 BPM (beats per minute) and may alternatively be displayed as frames per beat.
Something I found extremely useful was to have a simultaneous display of bar and beat, and also the elapsed time. The time is indicated both for internal and external sync. How much time have I wasted in the past either putting a tune through the stopwatch treatment or calculating tempi and numbers of bars? This is the way it should be!
The PLAY/RECORD buttons are nice and big, and resemble a tape recorder rather than a sequencer. Whether this is a good point is open to debate, but someone has been exercising a bit of brain muscle because the ASQ 10's recording system is very good.
There are two red RECORD buttons. Two? Yes, one for initiating recording, the other for overdubs. Two PLAY buttons as well - one to play from the current position, the other to play from the start. Recording is normally done as a loop of bars. This loop can be any number of bars long, so if you didn't want to loop but to record continuously, then you would set the loop to 999 bars. It seems strange to me that drum machines have recorded in loops - ie. in 'continuous overdub' mode - since the year dot, but sequencers haven't generally tried to imitate this. All the more strange when most of us make up drum tracks in the sequencer, rather than on the drum machine, to gain the advantages that the technique offers.
Suppose with the ASQ 10, you had set a loop of two bars. This is actually the default value. To start recording, press RECORD and PLAY START, and you're off. When the two-bar section reaches its end, it goes back to the beginning and the LED above the OVERDUB button comes on to indicate that you're now adding to what you had done before. It's good. Erasing is done just like on a drum machine: hold down the ERASE button and, at the appropriate time, press the note on the keyboard you want to get rid of. I'm tempted to ask, 'Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?' - except that it has been thought of before, but it usually isn't done. This method is good for keyboard sounds too. It's nice to record the simple bits first, then overdub a few 'tricky' notes.
The LOCATE button is nice and big too. Press this and the LCD screen will offer a selection of three location markers - A, B and C - which can be precision set to 1/96th of a beat. Another possibility is recording a basic track of maybe a hundred bars, then selecting a loop of any length within that to work on overdubs.
There is no function labelled 'quantise' on the Akai ASQ 10 but never fear, all - or at least most - is catered for. Timing functions are handled under the banner of TIMING CORRECT, for which there is a large selector button. Normally, you are invited to record in the realtime quantise mode. In other words, as you play, your input is being rounded to the nearest 16th note, or whatever value you have set. You can also have this shifted forwards or backwards in time to compensate for sounds with a slow attack. This latter feature is a touch unusual to have while recording, but may find a use. If this fix-it-as-it-goes-down approach is not to your liking, then simply set the Timing Correct to 'off' and the track can be quantised later. The only slight problem is that if you want to quantise, but keep the original in case it all goes wrong, then you have to copy the original onto another track yourself. It doesn't happen automatically as in some sequencers.
Also, there is no choice of quantisation method. On the ASQ 10, the MIDI Note On message is shifted in time during quantisation and the duration of the note preserved. This is OK, but for some applications it's better to shift the Note On and leave the Note Off where it was, losing the original note duration but adding a nicer 'feel' to the music. The third possible method is shifting both Note On and Note Off to their appropriate 16th note positions, to produce step-time like precision. Personally, I'd like to have seen an option for this on the ASQ 10.
Linked to the Timing Correct function is a feature which seasoned Linn users may recognise. Pressing the TIMING CORRECT button while recording lets you repeat notes at a rate determined by the quantise setting. For instance, if you had set the rounding-off interval to be 16th notes, then it is possible to record repeated 16th notes without your hands fading into a blur of motion. Additionally, any pressure information transmitted while this procedure is being carried out is transformed into velocity data.
As in all good sequencers, there is an automated punch-in facility for tidying up bits of your music which fail to respond to other techniques. Some sequencers that allow a punch-in can only manage to do it on the bar line; the ASQ 10 is accurate, on punch-in and punch-out points, to 1/96th of a quarter-note beat.
Before I move on to editing sequences, I must mention Akai's implementation of the sustain footswitch. If you are a sustain user, as I am, then you will doubtless be aware of the possibility - probability! - of overdubbing passages and getting the footswitch 'on' and 'off' messages confused. It is quite normal to end up with a complete mess that can only be cured by going into the editing procedure. The ASQ 10 looks after the sustain footswitch in a different way. Sustain messages are translated immediately into their effect on the notes played, and the note values adjusted accordingly. This is instead of each sustain message being recorded verbatim. The nett effect is that you can overdub and sustain as much as you like without any sustain messages being applied to notes previously recorded.
The proof of the sequencer is in the editing, goes the old proverb. What's needed for easy editing is a large display, and we have one here. In Step Edit mode, using the < > and << >> buttons, a track can be scrolled through note by note. You get to hear the notes too, and if you want to hear a note again then there is a soft key for PLAY EVENT, which does just that.
Corrections can be made to the note number, Note On and Note Off velocity, and duration. However, there is no provision to move a single note in time, which I consider to be a serious omission. Sometimes, you need to play a track without quantisation to get that old-fashioned human touch, but just an occasional note needs to be pushed into line. On the ASQ 10, the offending note would have to be corrected using the punch-in feature.
One good point is that notes can be edited (apart from duration, which you have to enter yourself) from the MIDI keyboard. Note too quiet? Play it louder! This is certainly a step in the right direction. Non-note events are also editable.
Step-time recording can be done in Step Edit mode. With Auto Step Increment selected, play in some notes and they will line up on time values according to the quantisation interval selected. If you want to enter notes in step-time which are of unequal durations, then it would be best to write to Akai and ask for this to be implemented as a software update, because it can't be done with the present version of the operating software. Well it could just be done, I think, but it would be a time consuming affair of entering notes and adjusting their duration. No thanks.
Song mode is fairly simple, as it should be, and is just a matter of entering sequences in their correct order to chain them together. No problems with this. And in case you want to arrange basic tracks into a song and then overdub, a song can easily be converted into a sequence.
So, what other goodies does the ASQ 10 have that may tempt the would-be purchaser? Well, there are several forms of synchronisation possible, including SMPTE and MTC (MIDI Time Code). The SMPTE implementation is adequate for the task, although there is no provision for the unit to recognise what rate of code is being read - 30, 30-drop, 25 or 24 frames per second. Chasing is as quick as anyone could need and frees the user from the bind of an external sync box. The other forms of sync available should satisfy users of weird and wonderful antique equipment which unfortunately doesn't speak the latest sync dialect.
Another goodie is the ability to dedicate tracks to be drum tracks. This is common in sequencers, to have drum tracks which will not be subject to transposition. Changing key is OK for musical parts, but doing this to a MIDI drum track makes all the drum note assignments change.
The ASQ 10 goes a step further than this. Incoming MIDI note numbers can be assigned drum names from a possible list of thirty-two. It's a pity you can't name your own, but since this is an unexpected plus anyway, I shouldn't carp. These names can then have outgoing MIDI note numbers assigned to them. You really have to use this feature to appreciate the advantages. It means that during recording and editing operations you get to talk about Bass, Snare and Hi-Hat instead of C1, E3 and B5. Much better. There is also drum mixing and tuning for use with the much looked forward to Akai MPC 60 drum computer.
So there we have it. It's too big to put into a nutshell, and I have had to skim over several features that go towards the VFM (value for money) rating of this machine, such as Tap Tempo (can you guess what that does?), Count In, Shuffle, and the two independent MIDI Ins and four MIDI Outs.
The key question has to be 'Is it worth it?'. That depends on how much cash you have to spare. If I'm going to be very blunt, the ASQ 10 does not achieve a lot more than the Alesis MMT8 sequencer, which costs less than £300. There are features which are not there on the Akai that really ought to be at this price: versatile step-time recording, a facility to adjust the timing of individual notes...
Then again, you could say that a Rolls Royce doesn't have many more facilities than a Ford Sierra. Is that worth the extra money? What the Akai unit gives is a feeling of confidence. Everything it does has been well thought out, and there does appear to be room for software expansion. I can see this unit selling well in the professional market, perhaps not so well in the fields of endeavour, where every penny has to be made to account for itself. I shall not be buying one, nor shall I long for one, but if you need to have the ultimate in hardware sequencers, this must be it.
Price £1599 inc VAT.
Contact Akai (UK) Ltd, (Contact Details).