poly, MIDI, bar-graphs...
THIS IS the second time an Akai keyboard has fooled me.
The first occasion was in Frankfurt this February when said Japanese company, best known for their tape decks and hi-fi, jump-started the musical instrument bandwagon with a couple of leads from their recording expertise. They produced a self-contained, 12 channel mixer and cassette deck using purpose built, half inch Akai cassettes. Intriguing enough, but alongside was a five octave programmable polyphonic synth called the AX80 which at first glance looked hauntingly familiar.
The sleek black panel, simplicity of controls, extensive use of LCD displays not to mention the turquoise and lilac colour schemes smacked very strongly of a Yamaha DX7 copy. Had Akai sneaked in with an FM digital machine of their own creation, and were Yamaha finally to have a challenger in the algorithm field?
So arriveth the first fooling. The Akai AX80 was, in fact, an analogue device with two oscillators, a VCF, a couple of envelope generators and a parameter display system that made Oxford Street's Christmas lights look like two candles in a cupboard.
But essentially it was not too different in specification from keyboards already produced by Siel, Roland, Korg, etc. We caught the raft back to England and waited to hear from the local Akai representatives.
When the telephone call came in October, we were ready to be caught out again. Did the world really need another analogue synth when those inhabiting the globe were starting to sound depressingly similar? More to the point, did they need one at this price? It certainly wasn't cheap, and the trend for the last 12 months had been to squeeze down the price as far as possible — certainly below a grand and, if conceivable, below £500.
So I was prepared to mark Akai's homework with the word 'cribbed' pencilled in the margin, but at the last minute I put the HB back in the pocket. Fooled again.
It does manage to sound different — not all the time and not in all of its facilities, yet there is something at the heart of the Akai which sets it ever so slightly apart from the existing popular makes. There isn't the characteristic piano-like cleanness of a Roland, nor the bright, brassy behaviour of a Korg. Someone who'd had the Akai at his establishment for a while claimed it reminded him of a Prophet. Can't go along with that 100 per cent, but there is something of that extra thickness and slight unpredictability that lived in the fives... the feeling of things going on in the sound down there which you don't quite understand...
Still a lot of money, though, so let's see what you're getting for your £1400.
First point to make is the touch sensitive keyboard which can be directed to the VCF or the VCA and be made to transmit its info (to machines that can comprehend it) down the MIDI sockets at the rear — in, out and thru, which we take to be American for 'through'.
The parameter system of programming is by now well established. Each section of the synth has a code number that is called up using a row of light pressure-switches along the front panel. Thereafter its value can be altered. Some keyboards apply a calculator pad to dial in the appropriate numbers, the Akai, like the Yamaha, goes for individual buttons.
There is a bonus here which must add to the price and certainly contributes to the luxury. Not only is each parameter's value exhorted in a red LED display window, there are also blue/green LCD columns, closely allied to mixing desk meters, that sit above the call up button for each parameter under a smoked, plastic cover. They give you a direct visual indication of the values of all the parameters of a particular sound programme at once.
It's possible to alter those readings in no less than three ways. At the extreme left of the control panel is a large, smooth, black control knob which is for 'bulk' changes — a quick spin from left to right will take the figure in the DATA window from 0 to 99 in most applications (a good range considering many cheaper synths are limited to 32, 16 or even 8 steps to save on memory space).
To its right is a grey, oblong pressure panel labelled Edit Control which moves the value up or down by single increments... system two. Finally the call-up buttons themselves will change the values, again by one step each time you press them. This is a crafty manoeuvre since for the speediest fine tunings, you could put the Akai into Edit mode, press button 8 for detune to select that parameter, then punch it again another two or three times to detune the oscillators — instant change in sound without sending your fingers flying all over the front panel. (The catch in this technique is that the callup switches will only change the figures in one direction — that last chosen on the Edit Control tab.)
There are 32 additional grey patches running across the remaining three quarters of the front panel and these are the aforementioned call-up buttons, doubling as the memory selectors when the synth is not in Edit mode. In all there are 96 memory spaces — the first 32 of them are factory pre-sets which can be edited but not written over — the originals are locked in memory for good. The remaining 64 you can play about with as much as you like.
Lists of facilities never won any literary awards, but they do present a case for the machine's capabilities and the thoughts of its designers, so let's read out.
Oscillator one has a frequency range of 16, 8 and 4 foot, can be switched to ramp or square waveforms, or both, lets you set the pulse width depth and speed, turn on a sub oscillator (one octave down) and determine the final level.
Oscillator two offers a range of 16 foot to 2 foot in semi-tone steps and then allows you to detune it from osc-1 by approximately a quarter tone in each direction.
Ramp and square waveforms again, no sub oscillator this time but a cross mod option plus switches for envelope generator depth so the ADSR sections can swoop the pitch around.
The filter features cut-off, resonance, EG depth and key follow as standard, but joins the recent Rolands in appending a high pass filter. This is also where the button for the touch sensitive keyboard lives, marked key velocity, and again adjustable from 0 to 99.
In the final two sections Akai have had to cram the electronics a mite since there are three LFOs and three possible envelope generator configurations. The LFOs are directed to osc-1, osc-2, and VCF so each version is displayed separately so its values can be reprogrammed by the joint depth, speed, delay and waveform buttons (pulse, sawtooth, ramp and triangular). The envelope generators let you set the VCA's ADSR and the VCF's ADSR independently, or use one envelope generator to control both departments. Some budget polysynths only give you one anyway. The Akai supplies the option for both systems. A single ADSR is faster for setting up certain sounds. Finally we reach the key velocity button for the VCA plus the overall VCA level.
The Akai is equally as thorough in its back up functions. The sloped rear section is angled at less than 45 degrees down from the main panel so all the sockets are clearly on view. Among these are the output, headphone and sustain pedal jacks, a footswitch socket for stepping upwards through the programmes, and two extra jack sockets for cassette load and dump plus the infamous MIDIs. The AX80 can be made to send and receive on different MIDI channels which are selected using the MIDI switch on the panel, then choosing 1 to 16 from the call-up buttons.
Sliding along to the performance section we notice that the expected centre sprung pitch bend wheel is partnered by an oscillator or VCF mod wheel — but no sign of any portamento.
Time to consider the Akai as a whole. The touch sensitive keyboard is a success, definitely one of the better examples that have crossed the OTT path in the last few months. The keys feel resilient and solid, and the lift you hear in volume or VCF brightness is dependent on how hard you hit said keys. It's not like the Casio CT6000 reviewed in last month's issue where normal finger pressure provides the maximum output and you need to press more lightly for quieter effects. The Akai responds in both directions and has a wide dynamic range.
Even more vital — and expensive — is the bonus of touch sensitivity on individual keys. You can hold a chord and press just one of the notes more violently than the others and hear that note stand out brighter or louder than the rest of the chord.
This greatly increases the AX80's facility for expression and control — we are not talking DX1, but it leaves its rivals under the 1,000 akker mark considerably behind in the final sprint.
In terms of sound creation, to be honest the AX80 does little more than machines from Roland and Siel that fall below its price tag. There's only a certain amount you can do with two oscillators, two envelope generators, etc, after all, in fact there are a few functions missing from the Akai — where's the sync for producing harmonic growls, how about a mono button for converting it to a lead line synth and for this sort of money elsewhere you'd be expecting some form of split keyboard and an arpeggiator.
Running through the Akai's presets and some of the sounds programmed in by demonstrators, it performs elegantly in the areas of brass, strings, organs, filtery-wahs, harpsichords, a few bell and tinkly noises and the occasional forlorn and moody special effect. The cross modulation can copy some of the habits of synced up oscillators, but it's a weakly brewed mixture. No radically innovative or otherwordly noises were conjured into existence, so how does the Akai earn its medal for being different?
Reviewers live in fear of becoming drippily sentimental or drunkenly poetic at this point because it involves describing the 'quality' of sound.
"I'll pick out two traditional examples, since we're discussing two hoary old descriptions. Many polys imitate Hammond organs by setting one oscillator to a straight square wave, fixing the second oscillator at an interval of a high fifth for the percussion and then closing down the filter to produce the required key click.
It works, but old Hammonds tend to be at their best when they are on the verge of death and distortion. Many Polys are too clean to capture that element of the sound — but not the Akai. In its organ programmes the basic waveform was undeniably grubby, filthy, rich with distorted overtones and generally highly recommended.
Classic two is the familiar men-from-boys tester of orchestral strings — a hurdle that many synth designers leap by putting the oscillators out of tune and adding a touch of vibrato backed by a chorus unit if they think the VCOs themselves are too cold. The Akai's oscillators are comfortably soft and rounded.
But their route to a surprisingly full and fluid string sound takes in one more twist — it seems as if the detune parameter is somehow linked to the keyboard scaling; the two oscillators become more detuned the further up the keyboard you go. By tiny amounts, it's true, but enough to remove the uniform cycling effect that afflicts the orchestral strings of many polys. It evens out the Akai's tone and adds to the richness and interest. This again bears a faint resemblance to the Prophet's Poly Mod, responsible for a good deal of that synth's expansive voice.
The Akai's expensive... but it lands on the ear as though it ought to cost a lot of dosh.
But will it be fashionable? Can it cater to the current desire for crisp, acoustic, digital voices... will it Marimba, can it clang? Probably not.
AKAI AX80 poly £1400
Review by Paul Colbert
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