Akai S01 Sampler
Akai the new...
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Akai's new sampler, the S01 has brought with it the promise of high quality sampling and a budget price. But is it the stuff that dreams are made of..?
Akai's name is synonymous with digital samplers. From the ground-breaking S612 in 1985 to 1992's flagship S1000 with its direct-to-disk recording option, the company have consistently been at the cutting edge of sampler design. Perhaps even more importantly, they've been responsible for this particular branch of technology becoming increasingly affordable. This may be due to research and development costs being shared between a series of similar projects, or (in part) to the current low cost of memory and processor chips.
Whatever the reason, the world of 'professional' sampling has just become a whole lot more accessible with the recent (and quite unexpected) release of a new, budget machine - the S01.
Given the power and the price of the other models in the 'S' range, the (relatively) paltry sum of £700 for this, the latest addition, would seem to indicate that it is some sort of cut-down S1000, or re-launched S700. But as we shall see, it is in fact neither of these, and ultimately, should only be judged on its own merits.
Finished in standard Akai grey, the 2U-high S01 has a distinctly professional look about it. Gone, however, is the ubiquitous LCD screen: editing has to be carried out on a much simpler three-figure LED display. The actual editing process takes place via a matrix-style parameter list printed on the front panel. This has seven columns with headings for the various editable 'areas' of the S01's processing system and up to four parameters per area. The first column, for instance, is titled 'Trim' and allows you to fine- and coarse-tune the Start and End points of a sample.
Movement between the various parameters is achieved by the use of just two buttons (for 'right' and 'down' movements), and a Data Entry knob is used to actually change the parameter values. The S01 bears some relation to the S700 in its use of sample 'banks'; however, where the S700 had six banks, the S01 has eight.
The 1Mb of sample memory provided as standard on the S01 gives you 15.625 seconds of sampling time, at the instrument's fixed sampling rate of 32kHz. Adding the optional EXM01 memory expansion board doubles the sampling time to a more substantial 31.25 seconds - easily enough to get experimental with, although it doesn't mean you can load more than eight samples at once. Memory space is dynamically allocated between the banks; if you record a five second sample in bank one, the remaining 10.625 seconds can be split any way you like between the rest of the banks - two seconds for bank two, one for bank three - and so on.
The eight numbered buttons beneath the parameter list are responsible both for selecting the sample bank and playing back the sample in that bank - both functions actually occur simultaneously, so you know exactly what you are working on in what bank. The Record key next to these has two functions, the most obvious of which is to record the actual sample! Its secondary use is to operate the disk drive for loading and saving routines - accomplished by means of a set of parameters in the matrix.
Most of the features on the front panel are obvious, like the quarter-inch jacks for input, output and headphones, and rotary controls for volume and record level. The rear panel is similarly straightforward with four MIDI sockets (including two MIDI Ins, selectable from the front panel), trigger footswitch, audio out and IEC mains sockets.
Sampling is a very straightforward process on the S01. The sampler's audio input provides a choice of two gain levels, High and Low; High for mics, Low for line-level signals. To enter sampling mode, you simply hit the Record button once and set the Record Level control for optimum signal level, using the four vertical LEDs on the parameter list as a meter. As you can monitor the input signal via the output, it is also possible to hear when the input level is too high and causing distortion - so mistakes are easily avoided.
At this point, the display shows a threshold level between 0 and 100, which is used to dictate when the S01 starts recording. A value of zero puts the S01 into record mode the moment a sample bank is selected, while any value between 1 and 99 sets a 'threshold' above which the input signal must rise before sampling starts. A nice touch here is that the display flashes when the correct threshold has been attained, so allowing for very accurate setting up (important if the input signal has any inherent noise).
A value of 100 calls for sampling to be initiated manually, which is often necessary if the signal has a very fast attack that could be clipped in automatic recording mode. After setting the threshold, simply hold down the record button, select the sample bank that the sample is to be placed in and that's it - instant recording.
I'm sure some people will be rather concerned at the prospect of working with a fixed sampling rate of 32 kHz as this effectively restricts the audio bandwidth to between 14 and 15 kHz. But I have a feeling that a degree of pre-emphasis is at work here because the audio quality is excellent - clear and sparkling. Everything, in fact, you'd expect from an 'S' series machine...
Once the sample has been recorded, you can immediately play it back by pressing the relevant bank button (ideal for DJ's). However, attaching a MIDI keyboard lets you 'play' the samples in the proper sense of the term. This is an easy operation as there are only three parameters that have to be set - Keyrange High & Low and MIDI channel.
Editing samples on the S01 is a similarly easy process. Any unwanted audio signal at the beginning or end of the sample can be isolated using the Start and End Point parameters (both fine and coarse tuning is provided). And this of course means that only the exact part of the sample you want is played back. As you'd imagine, the S01 also allows you to remove the unwanted pieces completely - and there is an incredibly simple Truncate function for this purpose.
If a sample needs to be looped, the Loop Point parameter has to be set; the sample will play back from the Start Point to the End Point as normal - and will then return to the Loop Point, and play between here and the end point to form the actual Loop. (The looping can be set to on, off, or one-shot - meaning that the sample plays back for its full length regardless of how long you hold down the key.) Naturally, certain sounds are much easier to loop than others - drum and percussion breaks, for example, which I managed to get up and running in around ten seconds flat - it really is that easy.
Other sounds are not so cooperative when it comes to looping. Getting decaying samples such as a piano sound to loop is what one could term a black art, and it is in this area that there appears to be a serious omission. The one facility which made a good loop easy to obtain on the S900 was Autoloop, which with a little careful setting up gave excellent results very quickly. This was followed by Auto-Crossfade looping in the Version 2 software for the S900 (and continued in the S950) - making it possible to loop even when a natural glitch occurred. In fact, even the S700 had a basic autolooping facility. But not, I'm afraid, the S01: it's down to your own skill.
Once basic sample editing has been completed, various other parameters can be set. In the Level column there are options for adjusting the actual volume of a sample, which is useful for balancing the levels of the individual samples in the eight banks. The Release parameter can come in handy, too, and is particularly good for adding a 'pseudo-reverb' to certain sounds.
Pitch includes fine and coarse transpose, and constant pitch is also available - useful for placing hi-hats (etc.) across a keyboard so that no matter which key you hit, the pitch is the same (...easier for those of us with large fingers). You can also determine whether or not a sample will respond to the velocity of an incoming MIDI note.
On the MIDI side, each sample can have its keyrange set. This allows you to define up to eight zones on a keyboard, each with a separate sample - an asset, clearly, for live use. And you can even set the keyrange by hitting the highest and lowest notes of the range you desire on the actual keyboard. Alternatively, each sample may be assigned an individual MIDI channel if you wish to use it as a fully-fledged multitimbral machine.
In addition to all this, each sample can be assigned a MIDI Program Change number. As different samples could be assigned the same number, you might use four samples for (say) a brass sound and the remaining four for strings - switching between them by sending single Program Change Commands from a sequencer or MIDI keyboard.
The S01 supports the Sample Dump Standard format for bulk dumping of samples via MIDI, so you can transfer to a wide range of samplers via programs such as Alchemy on the Macintosh and Avalon on the ST - if you don't mind the wait. Unfortunately, there's no SCSI port fitted.
S900 and S950 owners will no doubt be wondering if the S01 can read their sample disks. Unfortunately, the answer is no. As these samplers use a 12-bit format, and the S01 is 16-bit, they are incompatible. S1000 disks are supported, but because the S1000 uses 44.1 and 22.05 kHz sampling rates, the S01's coarse and fine transpose parameters have to be set to the relevant figures in order to replay the S1000 sample at the correct pitch. To this end, the S01 manual has a conversion table with various sampling rates and the necessary transpose figures. As tedious as this may be, Akai should be praised for keeping compatibility on the agenda and indeed, for supporting their machine with its own library from the start. They should also, I believe, be applauded for not showing it at countless exhibitions in prototype form simply to whet the public's appetite.
Akai are going to be selling S01s by the truck-load. If there ever was a machine released at the right time at the right price - this is it. It slots effortlessly into a range of different markets: there's the keyboard player who wants to get into sampling but who could never afford an S950. There's the DJ who wants an easy-to-use sampler which doesn't sacrifice audio quality. And there are the educational establishments who need to teach sampling, but not at the level demanded by the S1000. Finally, there are countless people who already own an Akai sampler and simply want more of the same!