Following in the footsteps of their successful S900 sampler, Akai's new baby looks likely to set new standards in sampling hardware. Simon Trask's thrilled to bits.
Akai's 12-bit S900 quickly established itself as the studio-standard sampler. Will the company's 16-bit S1000 sampler be able to equal the success of its predecessor?
PERHAPS ITS SOMETHING to do with their long and distinguished background in recording technology, but Akai have excelled in digital sampling from the outset. From the S612 sampler in 1985, which alongside Ensoniq's Mirage introduced "affordable" sampling, through the X7000 and its rack-mounted companion S700 to the studio-standard S900, the company have consistently produced quality sampling instruments.
But these days a company can't be seen to be resting on its laurels for too long, especially where sampling is concerned. A new generation of 16-bit samplers is emerging to take the lead at the professional end of the market, and Akai's new flagship sampler aims to be leader of the pack.
AKAI'S S1000 STEREO 16-bit linear sampler comes in a 3U-high 19" rack-mounting format and the company's distinctive light-grey colouring. At 9.5 kilograms it is no lightweight, but then in terms of capability it's no lightweight either.
The 16-voice S1000 comes with two megabytes of sample memory as standard, expandable to four, six or eight megabytes. An eight-megabyte system is capable of recording around 95 seconds in mono at a 44.1kHz sampling rate (unlike the S900, Akai's new sampler has only two sampling rates: 44.1 and 22.05kHz). Sampling inputs are located on the front panel, where you have both balanced XLR and jack inputs. You can select from three input levels (-58, -38 and -18dBm), with additional record-level control from a knob located above the sample inputs.
Of course the S1000 doesn't retain any sample data through power-down, which means you need to save your precious samples to either floppy or hard disk. The S1000 supports 2DD and 2HD 3.5" floppies, the latter providing around double the amount of storage of the former. It's worth noting that even 2HD disks won't save the entire 2MB memory that the S1000 comes fitted with, let alone the optional larger amounts of memory.
Provision for software updates is a requisite feature of any sampler nowadays. With some foresight, Akai have included a dedicated Options button for calling up a software page which will allow access to upgrade features. One such feature which has been touted since the S1000 was first announced is time-stretching, which allows the duration of a sample to be expanded or compressed without altering its pitch. Something tells me this feature is going to make a lot of people happy. Akai's new S950 sampler comes with time-stretching implemented, so hopefully the S1000 won't lag too far behind.
The sampler's rear panel is well endowed, with a slot for an Atari/Supra or SCSI hard-disk interface card, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, stereo audio outs and eight individual audio outs (with dynamic polyphonic voice assignment), a mono send/stereo return effect loop (through which you can route any combination of samples), stereo headphone output, footswitch input and a slot for Akai's AES/EBU digital audio interface card (which could open up some interesting possibilities for, say, DAT editing).
Prominent on the front panel is a 320-character (8X40) backlit LCD window (with contrast control located to the left for easy adjustment). Akai have put this display to good use in devising the user-interface aspect of the S1000. Essentially this revolves around two infinite rotary knobs for parameter selection and value adjustment respectively, eight dedicated Mode buttons, and eight Function softkeys for calling up sub-pages or activating specific functions within each mode. It's a system which makes for operational simplicity and clarity, and overall Akai must be congratulated on this aspect of the S1000. However, this doesn't mean the S1000 is a cinch to understand or that it always allows you to work quickly.
Akai are also to be congratulated on the S1000's manual, which has been written in a friendly and imaginative style and is fairly comprehensive. Minus points are the absence of SysEx and other MIDI information - Akai are really rather naughty about this - and the absence of an index (yet again).
THE S1000 ALLOWS you to store up to 200 samples in its internal memory. To make some sense of these you need to organise them into Keygroups, while Keygroups are in turn organised into Programs. To put it another way, a Program is a map of samples across the keyboard, and Keygroups are the means to create the map.
Up to 100 Programs can be held in the S1000's internal memory. Pressing Select Program takes you, logically enough, to a page which allows you to scroll through the list of Programs (five at a time can be displayed on the sampler's LCD screen). Although Programs are numbered, the S1000 actually identifies them by the name you give them. An easy way to layer Programs (and therefore samples) on the keyboard is to set them to the same number.
You can specify up to 99 Keygroups per Program, each with its own keyspan. Keygroups can overlap however you want them to, and you can specify a crossfade between Keygroups where they overlap. Defining Keygroups is a laborious process (despite what the fancy graphic display might lead you to believe) which could have been made much easier by allowing you to input low/high note values directly from the keyboard.
You can specify MIDI velocity-response ranges for each of the four samples within a Keygroup, with the option to crossfade between samples where these ranges overlap. To my mind, this aspect of the S1000 greatly enhances its flexibility. What's even better is that you can specify tuning, loudness, filter-cutoff and individual-output offsets from the "global" Program values, as well as an absolute pan value (L50-R50) and a sample playback mode, for each sample within each Keygroup. This means you can treat the same sample in a variety of different ways.
Other features which are global per Program include LFO pitch modulation, loudness, dynamic control of loudness, the stereo pan position, and dynamic control of panning.
If you want to create a stereo mix on the S1000, you can add in effects processing by routing the samples through the onboard effect loop, into which you can plug external signal processors (Roland's new RE3 Space Echo worked very well in this context). Individual Programs can be given their own effect on/off setting, but there's no provision for controlling the effect level of each Program. Of course the individual outs aren't included in the effects loop.
There are eight individual audio outputs in addition to the stereo outs. Each Program can be assigned to any one individual out, and more than one Program can be routed through the same output. Additionally, you can route each sample within each Keygroup of a Program to any individual output by specifying an output offset. Needless to say, this feature greatly enhances the flexibility of the S1000's output routing.
Of course you can use the stereo outs as two more individual outputs, bringing the total up to ten. Voice assignment is dynamic across all the outputs, and despite Akai's labelling of the individual outs as mono 1-8, they are in fact polyphonic. All in all, you could scarcely ask for a more flexible set of output facilities than Akai have provided here.
THE FIRST THING to be said about the S1000's sample quality is that it is extremely clean and dynamic, and is mercifully free of noise in the traditional weak-spot: the tail end of sound. Really, it's everything you might expect from a 16-bit system.
As mentioned earlier, you have a choice of two sample rates: the CD-standard 44.1kHz and more modest 22.05kHz (giving 20kHz and 10kHz bandwidths respectively). Along with a growing number of samplers (such as Ensoniq's EPS and Roland's S330), the S1000 employs an interpolation algorithm for sample playback which ensures that resolution isn't lost when samples are transposed downwards. The result is a cleaner and brighter sound than we've come to expect from samplers which employ the more traditional variable-rate sample playback.
The S1000 requires you to sample on top of an existing sample, so you must either select one of the four default waveforms or copy an existing sample first. Then you must select stereo or mono sampling, the sample bandwidth, a root note for sample playback at original pitch, and a record duration. There are three means of triggering the sampling process: input level (relative to a programmable audio threshold), MIDI Note On command (in which case the note you select will become the root note for sample playback) or footswitch trigger (from the rear-panel footswitch input).
Input level is adjusted using the Rec Gain switch and Rec Level knob on the sampler's front panel, and the sampler will give you an amplitude-envelope display of the signal as it's being recorded. The sample can be immediately played back either from the keyboard or (if you're temporarily keyboardless) by pressing the S1000's Ent/Play button.
With a sample in memory there are basically three things you can do to it: trim it, loop it and splice it. Trimming allows you to snip off the beginning and end of your sample, allowing you to be not too specific when sampling, discarding whatever you don't need (or, alternatively, extracting whatever you do need) after the event. Pressing the Ent/Play button allows you to hear the trimmed sample before you actually do the irreversible deed.
Akai haven't stinted on the S1000's looping facilities. You can create up to eight loops for each sample, which seems rather excessive but will no doubt please some people. To my mind, having so many loops presents more interesting possibilities for looping rhythms than for looping segments of instrumental sounds. To activate each loop, you have to specify a non-zero duration (anything up to 9.998 seconds); the sampler will continue to loop round the specified portion of sample until the end of the allotted time, when it will jump to the next non-zero loop. These durations can be specified to millisecond resolution, which doesn't make life as easy as being able to specify a repeat number for each loop, but does offer more possibilities if you're patient enough.
The Loop screen provides two windows, which show you the amplitude envelopes of the overall sample and of sample segments at the beginning and end of the loop. As in sample trimming, you can zoom in and out on the waveform and the loop segments if you need to see any part of the sample more clearly. You can also press the Ent/Play button to hear the aural results as you adjust the loop start and end points - an exceedingly good idea, as Mr Kipling might say.
The S1000 provides two looping aids: auto-looping and crossfade. The former when activated searches out loop points which in theory should lend themselves to smooth looping (making different attempts each time you press the F7 softkey). This seems to search out not only zero-crossing points but (to put it crudely) waveform "shapes" which in some way mirror one another. While this approach certainly proved to be useful, it is (as the manual admits) by no means infallible. After all, unlike humans, samplers don't actually have ears - and what's more, there might not actually be any ideal loop points. The next step, then, is to help create them by means of crossfade looping. This is a process which attempts to "smooth out" the jump from loop end to loop start by fading out a certain number of samples before the loop end while fading in the same number of samples at the loop start (you can set this figure yourself). Crossfading on the S1000 alters the crossfaded segment permanently, so you should approach it with caution (perhaps making a backup of the sample beforehand). As I've no doubt said before, the best path to looping heaven is your own experience. The S1000's software helps, and while not as sophisticated as that on Ensoniq's EPS, is not to be sniffed at.
Sample splicing allows you to take any portions of two samples and link them together to form a new, third sample. Using successive splices you can link together any number of samples, and with a bit of crafty manipulation even insert one sample into another. By specifying a crossfade overlap you can smooth out the transition, a useful feature if you want to combine, say, a piano attack with a string sustain.
Digital filtering (employing an 18dB/octave low-pass filter) is applied to samples in real-time, and may be programmed for each Keygroup within each Program. Additionally, individual samples within a Keygroup can have their own cutoff offset.
Filter cutoff can be controlled dynamically from MIDI velocity and aftertouch, while setting a key-follow value allows the brightness of a sound to be changed according to key position (in positive or negative directions). Additionally you can assign pitch and filter-cutoff to be controlled by envelope two. Resonance control is not implemented, and apparently is out of the question.
"The S1000 employs an interpolation algorithm for sample playback which ensures that resolution isn't lost when samples are transposed downwards."
Envelope one is hard-wired to controlling amplitude. Attack and release times of this envelope can both be controlled by attack velocity, while release time can also be controlled by release velocity, and decay and release times can be related to pitch (with a choice of positive and negative response in all cases).
The S1000 presents you with a graphic display of each envelope's shape, and while you still have to alter numeric ADSR parameters rather than "drag" the shape around as you do in much mouse-based computer software, it's a useful feature nonetheless.
WHEN YOU POWER up the S1000 with a sample disk in its floppy drive, the entire contents of the disk, including operating system if present, are loaded automatically. While the sampler holds its initial OS software internally in ROM, on power-up it looks first on floppy and then on hard disk for an OS with a higher version number. If it finds one, it will load it and run it in preference to the default OS - clever stuff.
The S1000 allows you to load the entire disk contents, all Programs and samples, all Programs only, all samples, cursor Programs plus samples, cursor item only (Program, sample or drum file - see below) or the operating system. Once OS upgrades are made available on disk, you'll be able to make as many backup copies as you want.
One feature of extreme importance to S900 owners who want to upgrade to the S1000 (or even to use an S1000 and S900 alongside one another) is the new sampler's ability to load S900 samples and translate them into its own format. This means that the S1000 straightaway has a vast library of samples to draw on, even if they aren't going to show it off in its full splendour. The four S900 source disks I tried presented no problems; the samples emerged not only unscathed from their journey into sound but positively radiant, with their loop points thankfully preserved. However, you will need to redo the amplitude envelope settings (an easy enough task) and remap the samples across the keyboard (a more laborious task). If you no longer need to use your S900 disks, you can always reformat them for S1000 usage.
The manual notes (rather honestly, I thought) state that, because the S1000 uses a different pitch-shifting method from the S900's, it may "sometimes produce more noise if it plays a sample which was lightly clipping in the S900". You have been warned.
Saving to disk works along the same lines as loading. "Mass" saves can be spread across more than one floppy if necessary (the S1000 prompts you to put a new disk in the drive). However, remember that individual samples are limited by single disk capacity, so if lengthy samples are the name of the game you'll need to invest in a hard disk (in which case you'll also benefit from a much faster disk access time).
Programs and Samples on disk can be renamed at any time, and you can clean up your disks by deleting cursor item only (ie. the currently-selected sample or Program), all Programs (but not their associated samples), all samples, the entire volume (everything on the disk) or the operating system.
When you switch off a hard disk, its read/write heads are normally left hovering somewhere over the disk surface. For this reason, any knocks received in transit could crash the heads onto the disk, with disastrous consequences all round. Fortunately the S1000 allows you to "park" the heads safely away from the disk area.
Floppy disks can be formatted for low or high density as appropriate, but it seems that hard disks have to be formatted externally (though from the S1000 you can delete the directories on your hard disk whenever you want to re-use it).
INCLUDED ON THE S1000 is a special Drum mode dedicated to working with Akai's ME35T trigger-to-MIDI unit. This otherwise impressive converter for those musicians of a percussive persuasion has only one memory, which is why Akai have allowed all its parameter values to be programmed on the S1000 and stored on disk.
Clearly this is a clever marketing ploy on Akai's part, as to get the most out of the ME35T you need to use it with the S1000. Still, the trigger conversion aspect of the ME35T is well-designed, and for any S1000 owners wanting to use their sampler as a sophisticated drum/rhythm machine it's a useful marriage.
You need to set up two-way MIDI communication between ME35T and S1000, allowing whole Drum Programs or individual parameter changes programmed on the S1000 to be transmitted to the interface via MIDI SysEx. In this way the sampler is effectively providing the programmable memories for the interface. In fact you can address up to two ME35Ts from the S1000, each via its own SysEx channel.
However, there appears to be a problem, in that the S1000 only seems capable of saving one Drum Program to disk, which rather limits its usefulness. A bug, perhaps?
BASICALLY, THERE ARE three ways of playing the S1000 via the five-pin DIN cable: on a single channel (Poly mode), on any of 16 channels (Omni mode), or multi-timbrally on up to 16 channels at once (Multi mode).
Multi mode works like this: you assign each of the S1000's Programs to any one MIDI channel (1-16) and to a MIDI patch number (1-128). You can only call up an S1000 Program if the incoming MIDI patch number has been assigned to a Program; if you send the sampler a MIDI patch number which hasn't been assigned to an S1000 Program, the sampler will remain silent on that channel. A trifle confusing in the heat of the moment, perhaps, but straightforward enough once you've sussed it.
Akai have gone one step further in allowing you to assign multiple Programs to the same incoming MIDI patch number - in other words, layer sounds within the instrument. Bearing in mind that layered textures will reduce the polyphony of the S1000, this is a useful feature to have.
Although voice allocation in Multi mode is completely dynamic across Programs and channels, you can actually specify a polyphony limit for individual Programs, which can be a handy way of avoiding unintentional voice-stealing from other Programs. Another interesting (and unusual) feature of the S1000 is its ability to assign low, normal, high or hold priority to individual Programs. When the S1000 runs out of spare voices it steals from low-priority Programs first and high-priority Programs last. Hold is a special case, in that voices for Programs wth this priority can only be stolen for new notes required by the same Program.
Other useful MIDI features include a MIDI note PPM display for all 16 channels, a MIDI data receive monitor and a matrix-styled MIDI data-filter display which allows you to selectively enable and disable response to notes, pitch and mod wheels, aftertouch and volume on each MIDI channel.
SysEx communication allows you to transfer all programs, all samples, a single program, a single sample or the drum settings. Akai have provided two protocols for sample transfer, the generic MIDI Sample Dump Standard and an S1000-specific format. According to the manual, the latter "invokes a superset of the SDS standard, with additional built-in commands which recognise certain special features of the S1000". I'd guess, in the absence of further information, that this has something to do with the loop and envelope settings.
SysEx transmission can be initiated from the S1000's front panel, but whether data can be pulled out of the sampler remotely isn't clear. On the reception side, SysEx data is received automatically when the S1000 is on its MIDI page. It's worth pointing out that sample transfer via MIDI is inherently a slow business, and not really advisable for large amounts of data (unless you're very patient).
AKAI HAVE DONE more than enough on the S1000 to justify it becoming the latest must-have studio toy - from which point it will no doubt go on to establish itself as the new workhorse of the professional studios.
The sample quality is excellent, living up to the reputation of true 16-bit sampling. However, on the sound front I must point out that our review model exhibited an annoying continuous background whine which most definitely shouldn't be present on a high-end professional instrument such as this. Akai could have provided a better introduction to the S1000's many capabilities than the four sample disks (piano, strings, brass and drums) which come with the machine, but at least there are already over 100 sample disks available specifically for the S1000 (though some samples require a lot more memory than the standard two megabytes) and S900 owners can readily draw on their existing libraries - a big point in the S1000's favour.
Akai have made very intelligent use of the sizeable LCD screen, and overall are to be congratulated on the operational design of the S1000. However, I would like to see the mapping of Keygroups onto the keyboard made much quicker by allowing low/high note limits to be programmed from the keyboard itself.
Already a powerful beast, the S1000 could really set the sparks flying if Akai get their act together on the promised time-stretching upgrade.
The company are also releasing the S1000PB, a playback-only version of the S1000 for £700 less, and the S1000HD, which is an S1000 with onboard 40Mb hard disk for £1100 more.
Akai's new flagship sampler is indeed a worthy successor to the S900, and should be gracing the upper echelons of studio-land for some while to come.
Prices S1000, £2899; S1000PB, £2199; S1000HD. £3999; EXM005 2Mb memory upgrade card, £699; AES/EBU digital input card, £99; Atari and Supra hard disk interface card, £99; SCSI hard disk interface card, £99; Sound library SL1001, £19.99 per disk. All prices include VAT.
More from Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask