CD-ROM Sample Player
We test the world's first CD-ROM sampler.
What use is a sampler with no sampling inputs? Wilf Smarties takes a look at the world's first CD-ROM sample player and finds out.
The Akai CD3000 is not simply the playback-only version of the much praised S3000 sampler. It has an integral CD-ROM/CD player, and is also very much a sampler. The snag is that there are no sampling inputs, either analogue or digital. Instead, sampling must be done from a CD source, such as those reviewed in Sample Shop.
In appearance, the CD3000 is similar to the S3000; the flat control surface is well appointed, with illuminated buttons to indicate which mode is operational. Though hardened S1000 owners might initially disagree, an enormous ergonomic benefit has been gained by turning the old cursor wheel into a four-button array. Now the cursor (almost) always seems to know where on the screen you want to go and jumps to it: you don't have to scroll through all the intervening fields. The data entry knob is still there, though, as are the eight soft keys, whose function is always indicated along the bottom of the LCD. Also retained are the numeric keypad, the + and >/- keys, and the Mark, Jump, Name and Ent/Play buttons. There is a floppy drive for importing samples and saving parameters, and a headphone socket.
SCSI is fitted as standard; there are eight individual and a stereo pair of quarter-inch jack outputs, and MIDI In/Out/Thru DIN sockets. That's it for the back panel, except for the IEC mains inlet and a footswitch jack. Ground-sensing circuitry on all the unbalanced outputs should ensure that earth loops are never a problem. Audio spec is comparable with the S3000: maximum memory capacity is a slightly stingy (by 1993 standards) 16MB, and the unit comes supplied with 2MB of RAM as standard.
Anyone with a working knowledge of the S1000/1100 will have no trouble getting to grips with the S3000. The same goes for the CD3000, and only a few pages are significantly different from its sampling sibling.
Booting up from power on takes a second or so. Adjusting the LCD contrast, I was disappointed by the poor level of illumination: it was quite a strain reading it in a room lit by natural daylight. I later found out that this was because the light switch (hiding under the LCD contrast knob) was turned off! (Peter Gabriel was caught out by that one, too!) Aah... That's better. Apparently old S1000s are beginning to burn out their screens after being left switched on for months on end in studio effects racks. Hence this new, if devious, feature.
As far as the 3000 series' general performance goes, I would recommend that you get hold of David Mellor's review of the S3000 (and S2800) in the March issue of SOS. That covers many features common to both, and I shall be referring you to it occasionally rather than repeating information included therein.
The sonic architecture of the CD3000 is similar to that of the S3000, with resonant filters making a welcome appearance, and a general tidying up of the operating system having taken place post S1100. Effects options are the same as the S3000, too (no reverb). One or two general points omitted from David's review are worth mentioning.
• The provision of 32-note polyphony has necessitated the withdrawal of bi-directional as a looping option.
• S1000/1100 files stored onto double density floppies formatted as high density ones will not load. Of course you might want to drill a hole in the disk case, but I couldn't possibly comment...
• S1000 owners will recall that assigning keygroups accidentally while running a MIDI sequence occurred frequently and was very annoying. Here a MIDI-to-Span function switch disables such a possibility.
• The Loop in the sample EDIT 1 page is now defined by start and length. This means that once you have found a loop that makes sense for any sample with periodicity (one synth wavecycle, two beats of a one-bar drum loop, for example), you can scroll it up and down the sample.
I'm going to focus on the features pertinent to the CD3000, including loading and editing files from CD-ROM, and auditioning and sampling from audio sample CDs, an important feature of the machine given that there is a massive and expanding library available in this format. CDs also tend to offer more up-to-date sounds than CD-ROMs, which fare best when supplying 'timeless' libraries of, for example, multisampled strings.
I loaded in the first of five CD-ROMs that come with the CD3000. There is only one CD drive, and CD-ROMs load just like normal audio or sample CDs. No caddy is used, unlike with normal standalone CD-ROM drives.
Pressing DISK seemed the obvious thing to do. I saw that the S3000 was looking at partition A of the CD-ROM. The available soft keys in this mode were Find, Save, HDSK, Tags and Open. For now I hit Open. The familiar sight, of a split LCD screen with load type (eg. All Programs and Samples, etc,) on the left, and a file list of Programs to the right, meets the eye. What the hell, I've got a 10MB review model, let's load in an entire Volume.
Since basses were loaded, I decided to try out the Mono Legato playing function, accessed on the Edit Prog page. I've missed this ever since I sold my Minimoog to pay for the S770. What a treat! No sampler should be without this absolutely essential option.
Next I loaded in an ethnic percussion map and played some complicated and busy rhythms on it. No sign of any sample whines or other spurious noises, as was sometimes the case when forcing the issue on an S1000. In order to do a quick test on MIDI response time I played all 29 samples on that particular Keyspan simultaneously from a sequencer. The time spread was very small, subjectively much better than on my 24-note polyphonic Roland S770. Meantime, the 3000 series look like being ideal for dance music. Akai reckon on a 1.5ms MIDI response time, which is bloody good! Beyond this Akai say that notes are output as fast as they arrive (which tends not to be the case with many or even most products). I heard nothing to contradict this claim while auditioning the CD3000, though I don't have the specialised measuring equipment/software which would enable me to give you absolute confirmation of it.
FIND: This function applies to CD-ROMs (and presumably hard drives and floppies etc.) I typed in 'EL'. Hitting Find filtered from the file-list all files which did not have 'EL' contained in the name. This is a search function long overdue and much appreciated. (I was looking for (El)ectric Pianos: I was also offered a V(el)ocity stack). NB: Normally you can view all files in a particular Volume. Under Find you look through the entire contents of the selected partition at once.
SETUP: This is the clever bit, and is unique to the CD3000. Any Akai user knows that saving Parameters uses up a tiddly amount of memory, unlike the majority of Samples. Now a Setup can be saved to floppy, along with any Edits. A Setup is created by Marking files on a CD-ROM. This set of marked files can be named and saved for later recall. A typical setup might be a palette of drums, bass, piano, percussion and strings for dance remixing work. However, not only these files, but any edits made to them can also be saved. So long as these have been saved to the same disk the Setup routine will automatically search for and load them after it has concluded loading the files from CD-ROM. These edits, as you might expect, can include any alterations to a Program. What you might not expect is that changes to a Sample can also be stored cheaply to floppy in this way. There are no plans to implement this on the 3000 series samplers, more's the pity!
TAGS: These are user-definable subdirectories, or groups of files, for use with hard disks or CD-ROMs. The manual suggests that one/some/all of the CD-ROMs are pre-Tagged. Not as far as I (or Akai UK) could see. In any case, a subdirectory system is most useful for collating all the ingredients for a song, and would seem to be all but irrelevant to CD-ROM, where instruments are already easily found, being filed according to type. I didn't have a hard disk formatted to the Akai, and the user can't Tag files on CD-ROM. However, I'm sure it'll work, since it's really only a simpler version of the Setup procedure which does.
MIXED MODE (AND DATA FILES): This new CD format, which has audio and CD-ROM information on the same disk, is not digestible by the CD3000 yet, but it will be soon. The same goes for the Data sections common to many sample CDs.
"I never did like the sound nor scope of the S1000's filters, but those of the CD3000 are very good."
Having the CD deck integral to the sampler obviates the need for a separate CD-ROM player. However, there are probably more tangible ergonomic benefits when using audio CDs. Most home CD players do not have a digital output, and many samplers do not have a digital input. Here the link is made for you. Also, the CD player's transport controls are on the same function keys that are used during sampling, and during the entire sampling process you are working from the same screen.
Pressing Edit Sample opens up a menu of soft options, as on the S3000: Select, Rec 1, Rec 2, Edit 1, Edit 2, Edit 3, and Delete. The Rec 2 display reveals the transport controls for the CD player, as well as elapsed Track time, Track number, Index number (for subtrack location) and other more general sampling parameters. The FF and Rewind function keys let you hear the audio as it is being spooled, useful for locating samples within a Track. Good news: the Pause function is very accurate - good enough for stopping between items on even the most congested sampling CD.
Track selection is via the data wheel or numeric keypad: the arrow left and right buttons select which character or number is being edited. CD transport running status is maintained during track switching. Naming is perhaps the most tedious aspect of sampling on Akai samplers. Samples on CDs, however, can all be defined by track and index number.
Sampling takes place on the Arm page, but there was a snag. When I entered the Arm page the CD transport controls disappeared! Hitting Go primed the recorder and simultaneously started the CD player. Sampling began once the preset sampling threshold had been crossed. Fine — except that there was no way of manually stopping the recording process and/or the CD player, other than by Aborting the sampling process altogether.
All of which made sequential sampling rather tedious. After the first 'take' I had to go back into Rec 2, find the next cue point and re-arm.
Of course, the smart way to use a sampling CD is simply to pause between takes, re-arm, re-name and go for the next sample. Since both sampling and naming are carried out sequentially, it's easy to keep track of which sample you are on.
I called Akai UK to complain about this (and also, it must be said, to make sure that I hadn't lost the plot). Guess what? They agreed with my points entirely, and by about the time you read this the Abort key will have had its function changed to Finish. Sampling will automatically stop along with the CD. Now you can set the sampling time window for as long as you like with impunity. They also responded to my comments about the sequential naming of samples that is endemic to bulk sampling from CDs. Again on the v1.3 software release, you will find, for example, after you have taken 'Snare 1' you will be offered 'Snare 2' as the next default name. I was impressed by the speed with which Akai implemented the software improvements outlined above.
I was also impressed by the processing speed of the CD3000. No sooner was a sample in the bag than the screen was primed, ready for the next take. I loaded in 20 samples from a single track of XL1, reviewed in last month's Sample Shop. You should be able (with v1.3 software) to do the same job in about one tenth of the time!
Samples duly taken, I did little sample editing. See the S3000 review for a description of the new cut and paste routines. I did look into looping, though. Even without smoothing I was able to get good loops quickly from sustained synths, though I cursed the fact that the cursor always lands on the finest Vernier. For example, the Length parameter has three decimal points, and the last two were never needed. Therefore the arrow left key had to be pressed at least twice every time that field was recalled. A cursor which remembered which character was last altered in any particular field would be preferable. Akai are aware of this, but to implement such a feature would take some heavy programming.
As usual, in order to do anything other than audition and edit raw Samples it was necessary to install them into Keygroups. I duly named a new Program and dialled in 20 Keygroups (why can't this be done with the Data wheel?) The Mark/Jump function saves a lot of time when installing samples into them.
Since the example set was strictly one key per sample, I switched all keygroup pitches to Constant. Thus, no matter where I subsequently mapped them onto the keyboard, they would play at their correct pitch. Placing Keygroups such as these (one key per sample) onto a Program's Keyspan was easy over MIDI, using the MIDI-to-Span function described earlier. Now it was time to start playing with those new resonant filters...
If you look at the schematic in the S3000 review, you will appreciate something of the scope of the synth engine common to it and the CD3000. Akai are talking to Steinberg about developing Cubase MIDI Mixers to drive the 3000 series, and v1.3 software should have full SysEx control over every parameter.
You can set up envelopes for individual Keygroups or all Keygroups within a Program simultaneously. ENV 1 is a standard ADSR hard-mapped to level. It works fine, but it's the next one that really interested me. For two years Roland owners have had access to resonant filters: now Akai users can join the club. I never did like the sound nor scope of the S1000's filters, but those of the CD3000 are very good. Their 12dB/Oct slope is not particularly generous, but they sound musical, and are capable of a wide range of synth effects.
Before you even begin to understand how they work, give yourself a treat by going to the Filter page, turning the resonance full on (+15) and sweeping down and up with the Frequency. That shook you, didn't it? To the right of the LCD are three ways to map frequency control. You will need to choose the third if you want to audition a filter envelope, but to begin with try the first, velocity. Velocity controlled resonance is a classic synth effect.
When mapping the four stage envelope (ENV 2) to frequency it can take values of -50 to +50. Taking a negative value is like inverting the envelope of, say, a Juno 106, but instead of two positions (up or down), here you have 101 (a significant number perhaps?), enabling easy envelope attenuation. A range of templates are offered to get you started, and a graphic display shows the envelope generated by scrolling the four level and four time parameters.
The CD3000 is for you if you want to expand beyond one Akai 16-bit sampler. Full 2-way compatibility with the S1000/1100 is yet to come (apparently). Meantime, think of it as an ideal companion to the S2800/S3000/S3200 range. It is true that the CD3000 is more than just an expander, but I'd say that this was its most viable (and intended?) role. In the unlikely event that all you'd ever want to sample would be from commercially available libraries, this could be your core sampler. Some dance programmers might be able to live with this for a while, but they are bound to want to do fresh samples eventually, especially if a vocalist is involved. My advice to them? Start off with something with an input or two before venturing into CD3000 land. Anyone thinking about shelling out £2000 for a top-quality sound module should first take a look at the CD3000, though, since it is exactly that, but with the huge plus of having an almost limitless sound library available to it (ie. anything on CD or CD-ROM!).
Loading from CD-ROM was no different from using an external CD-ROM drive. Sampling from audio CDs resulted in no appreciable signal degradation, being conducted entirely in the digital domain. With the planned software update described in the review, the CD3000 should represent the most user-friendly front end on the market for the bulk loading of samples from sampling CDs.
Considering the onboard processing power, and the fact that it comes complete with a huge library on CD-ROM and SCSI thrown in, unlike other Akai machines, an RRP of £2499 for the CD3000 seems about right. A library of this size could set you back £600 or more, CD player with digital output £200, CD-ROM player ditto. Viewed like that, you're only paying £1500 for the sampler!
CD3000 with 2MB RAM and live CD ROMs £2499 inc VAT.
Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Wilf Smarties
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