Nick Graham goes in search of the digital dream
The Akai S612 Digital Sampler is one of the most recent additions to the ever-increasing range of rack mounting, MIDI-controlled units aimed specifically at keyboard players. Standing 2 units high it will, by means of microphone or line input, sample any sound you care to feed into it. All the user has to do is set the record level so that it doesn't peak above 43 on the meter, press the Record Mode button, and make the sound - the Akai does the rest. Once sampled by the machine, your sound can be played at any pitch, either monophonically or in 6-note polyphony, by means of a MIDI keyboard (any make will do). If this keyboard is touch sensitive, the sample can be played with dynamics - and of course pitch bend and modulation can also be transmitted to the Akai.
To illustrate the versatility of this new sampler, I'll give you an example of its use. Recently, while recording with a band called Bach to Bolivia, we sampled a Fender Strat and then, using the overdub facility on the Akai, added to the original sample another note, one octave higher. This new layered sample was then transposed down one octave, using the Transpose function, and we ended up with a sound like a rather twangy bass. Using a Yamaha KX5 remote keyboard, I was then able (through the wonders of MIDI) to play a Duane Eddy (don't actually remember him; just heard the records) (oh, yeah? - Ed.) type bass solo, using the pitch bend ribbon and modulation control on the KX5 to produce the effect of those bendy bass strings!
The actual sampling took about ten minutes, and this was spent getting the right sort of sound for the Akai to sample. Because it was so quick to use, more studio time was available for the actual playing, which is just as it should be! (It also had the guitarist looking over his shoulder...)
According to the maker's specifications, the S612 is a 12-bit sampler with a maximum sampling time of 8 secs. At 1 sec. the sampling rate is 32kHz, dropping to 4kHz at 8 secs. What this means in practice is that most sounds need to be sampled within the 2 second range in order to retain enough top - even a bass drum needs highs to cut through. This is explained quite thoroughly in the handbook, which, incidentally, is one of the best I've seen for any keyboard or effects unit, and in any case the length of sample isn't critical once the Akai's easy to use looping and editing facilities are brought into play.
Once the sampling rate has been chosen by pressing an appropriately high or low note on whatever MIDI keyboard you're using, and the sample has been recorded, the start and end points can now be quickly trimmed to requirement using the two horizontal faders. When these faders are reversed, the sound is also reversed - it all adds up to very easy manipulation of samples. In the 'One Shot' mode, the sample is played through once, as long as a key is held down for the full duration. To produce infinitely sustained sounds it's necessary, as on all samplers, to loop the sound, and this can be done in a number of ways.
When the looping button is pressed, the Akai's computer scans the sample for the most appropriate splicing point and automatically provides the best loop. Similarly, in the Alternating mode it selects a loop point but then plays the loop forwards-backwards-forwards-backwards etc. This can be much more effective in producing the continuous sound of strings, for example, but don't expect miracles with looping - as with all samplers, the sound has to be perfectly even over a reasonable length of time (perhaps 1 sec.) before successful seamless loops can be built.
For effects/special loops, the Manual Splice facility allows the user to select the loop point, thus overriding the internal computer. Again, loops can be constructed as described above, enabling the setting of rhythmically repeated words, snippets of music or any other non-linear sounds, and in certain cases this mode is preferable to the automatic looping. However, with continuous sounds the computer almost always finds a better loop point than the human!
Once a sound is sampled and looped, there are a number of other parameters which can be altered from the S612. Using the LFO section, vibrato can be added in varying depths and speeds, and its entry can be delayed. Filtering can also be applied and the key-off decay of the note can be adjusted. Transposition is easily achieved from the MIDI keyboard - press 'Key Transpose' on the Akai and then press the appropriate note. Finally, tuning can be adjusted either before or after sampling over a range of one semitone.
Having achieved the ultimate sample, it can now be stored on a 2.8" disc using the optional (but almost essential!) Akai MD280 disc drive. This will set you back another £280 on top of the £900 you spent on the sampler, but in the absence of cassette dumping it's the only way to store sounds. All the looping and editing settings are remembered on disc, so that the sample comes back next time exactly as you left it. Akai supply the blank discs at £29.90 for ten, and also provide, as another optional extra, a very good range of 6 factory samples. Two of them cost £59.90 each, the other four are £49.90 apiece, and the user can select from a very comprehensive range, but if possible try to listen to a few first - some of them (for example, a choir singing the word 'Bon!') are fabulous, but virtually useless!
There's only one feature of the Akai S612 that I have any complaints about - unfortunately, it's only controllable from a keyboard, and no provision is made to trigger the sample from external sources. I'm thinking particularly about replacing/triggering individual drum sounds - a facility which would make the machine even more versatile, and invaluable as part of any studio's outboard gear! Apart from that, however, I have nothing but praise for this unit, and strongly recommend that, if you're looking for a high quality sampling system that is very quick and easy to use, then the Akai S612 MIDI Digital Sampler could be the one for you.
S612 MIDI DIGITAL SAMPLER £899.90
MD280 SAMPLER DISC DRIVE £279.90
Review by Nick Graham
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