Akai S900 Sampler
Paul Fishman gets weird — again
Unaccustomed as I am to continuously pestering manufacturers about their latest 'world shattering' pieces of equipment, I have noticed that since my return from the Frankfurt trade fair (no I didn't decide to go in May to avoid the rush), I have been occasionally behaving rather strangely. I have noted that every now and then I have had the urge to telephone Akai. At first I tried to suppress this desire and I wouldn't tell anybody just in case they thought I was weird or something, but I've since come to terms with the fact that quite a few people think I'm weird. Anyway, what's wrong with a man with three buttocks! It's a brilliant place to park a bike.
Anyway, I eventually went to see my doctor about the 'problem' — the phone calls, not the other matter — and he suggested that the solution could be to do with something that I might have seen in Frankfurt on the Akai stall. I couldn't remember embarrassing myself by walking in with my flies undone, and then I remembered. The key to this problem was to do with a rather large crowd that was gathered around the S900 Sampler. At first I admitted that I wasn't impressed having seen that the world and his mother had brought out samplers that were entirely average. In fact, I found a really good game to play; it's called 'spot the sample'. All you have to do is guess what instrument it's meant to be without somebody telling you: 'Oh, it's real strings is it, I thought it was a snare drum'.
But to my relief there were one or two manufacturers who were introducing new sampling products that didn't cost an arm and a leg to buy and whose quality of design and frequency response was stunningly acceptable: they were giving the expensive sampling keyboards a serious run for their money. Akai's S900 was well up there, and that's coming from a man who's seen more samplers than he's had microwaved hot dinners.
In addition to this a very good friend of mine and an exceptionally fine drummer, Mr Roland Kerridge — available for Bahmitzvah's, weddings and funerals — who is also the drummer in the band I play in (which is also currently available for Bahmitzvah's, weddings and funerals, etc) had been suggesting that he wanted to buy a sampler within the next 25 years of his life. His intention was to use it primarily for percussion and therefore its quality of playback would be essential. Because the band had miserably failed to become tax exiles this year, price was a rather large consideration. Consequently, the S900 was extremely high upon his list of two different instruments — you can guess the other manufacturer.
So after a few months of spontaneous phone calls I managed to lay my hands on the S900 as soon as the first demonstration models arrived in the country.
What we have got here is an eight voice Multiple Point Sampler, which means you can have lots of different sounds across the keyboard at any one time. It features 12 bit sampling which is much better in its dynamic response and general quality than eight bit. With 32 sampling points available and a frequency response of 16kHz at a maximum sampling time of 11.75 seconds and a price of £1599, we in the trade say 'it knocks the bollocks out of most things.' Japanese expression I think? This sampling rate is variable down to 7.5 kHz which gives a 63.3 second sampling time — which is truly mental.
Sounds can be reproduced across a six octave range with a maximum transposition of three octaves either way from the original sampled pitch. Editing and looping samples as well as all the standard synthesiser processing, filtering, envelopes, LFOs and velocity controlling are all possible.
Unlike some of the other machines around, the S900 is not a spin-off from a keyboard, it has been designed purely to be used as a rack mounting unit controlled by MIDI triggering. It comes with a built in floppy disk drive using the 3.5 inch both sides, double track, double density disks with a memory capacity of one mega-byte. The actual internal memory is 750Kbyte.
Initially, being a keyboard player, I have never really quite got over the shock of not having a keyboard attached to MIDI rack units/expanders and I find myself feeling a bit naked without the usual black and whites in front of me. But what is far worse these days, and is a comment aimed at all manufacturers, is language. No, I'm not implying that there are too many four-letter words in the users manual but a plea for some sort of standard of communication. People talk about the problems of different manufacturers creating their own MIDI specifications, but it's no wonder to me because they can't even decide on what words mean what in English, let alone computer language. Now this by no means is a comment that is levelled at Akai any more than any other manufacturer, it's just that it has occurred to me that everybody invents their own definitions. Life would be so much easier if we could all agree.
With the Akai S900 a Key-Group is a pair of samples, one relating to when the keyboard is played softly and the other when played hard. These can be made to either switch between each other dependent upon velocity or to gradually fade between the two at a specified threshold point. This is enormously useful when trying to recreate the change in sound between, for example, a plucked brass string and a slapped note. A Program (or preset) is a set of key-groups assigned to the keyboard. A maximum of 32 key-groups can make up a program. The S900 can store up to eight programs obviously dependent on the available memory. A few more program spaces wouldn't have gone amiss for the collections of short samples.
The S900 has eight front panel master buttons. These select between various modes of operation: Play, Record, Edit, Sample, Edit Preset, MIDI, Utility, Disk, and Master Tune. Each of these functions (except Master tune) includes several pages, which display the specific aspects of the function controls and the values of several parameters. These are changed by either the 0-9 parameters keys or the singular large rotating control. Pages can also be advanced by the 'up and down' arrow buttons.
A large luminous display shows the currently selected page and its respective settings. By moving the cursor along the screen the different parameters are selected and can then be edited.
When required, names can be entered for the various samples and programs by pressing the Letter button.
After the usual bout of confusion when confronting a highly versatile and complex piece of equipment such as this, it is fairly easy to get to grips with the S900 as it's sensibly laid out. Remember that samples are created into key-groups and then assigned to programs.
When sampling you first select a name, then a choice of three types — Normal, which defaults to responding to velocity when played, or two other velocity cross fade programs for soft and loud samples. After this you decide on the required audio bandwidth and the recording time available. A maximum of 11.83 seconds (at full bandwidth) and minimum of 250 ms, which is a quarter of a second for those of you who have yet to go decimal. You then select the pitch that you want to record your sound at (this can be changed after), set your level, hit the magic button and a way you go. Unfortunately you can't just stop and start the recording as you have to specify the time you wish to record.
Once the sound has been recorded you move to Edit sample where the sound can be adjusted in pitch and volume. The next page deals with the replay — whether you want the sound to play with or without loops and if the loop moves from beginning to end or continuously back and forth. After this, editing the length of the sample is easily done by the use of the coarse and fine settings, etc, one second equals 40,000 units, fine tuning is adjustable per unit. Looping can be set manually or automatically where the computer hunts around trying to find a suitable zero crossing point — I know the feeling. A rather handy feature is that you are given the option to hear the sample at half the bandwidth so you can find out whether you actually need to keep it at its original quality therefore saving on memory space. Sounds can also be crossfaded, merged and spliced together so to create various weird and wonderful effects and then stored as new sounds in memory or on disk.
Editing programs adjusts the key loudness, selects which key-groups are assigned, how they are mapped, and therefore their ranges. Eight ranges can be overlapped; you specify the lowest and highest notes but you can't see the original pitch on this page so you have to go back to Edit Sample — file under 'silly'. The loudness, filter and pitch of key-groups is then set and these can be different for the loud and soft samples if required. There's independent volume and filter tracking across the keyboard and the envelope and velocity sensitivity — loudness, attack, filter, and release. A nice little feature is the inclusion of a page called 'Warp' which translated means the response of velocity on pitch bend either up or down and the time it takes. MIDI channels are selectable between 1-16 Omni mode from the key-groups and programs, so more than one sound can be addressed from an external MIDI sequencer by recording tracks on different channels.
The output panel on the rear of the S900 has a left and right output and mono mix output as well as eight individual outputs of the voices. This is a great advantage as separate outputs gives you the choice of different eqs and effects for your sound, a feature that is sadly lacking on the Prophet 2002, which has to be its nearest competitor. For any drummer this, I think, would be a major consideration. And while we're on the subject, the S900's response to MIDI triggers is staggeringly fast without the occasionally frustrating delays found on the Emulator II.
There is a button on the front panel marked Utility. This is for the future available add on options of trigger inputs from non-MIDI sources and an eight voice Harmonic generator. This will allow independent control of up to 16 individual harmonics each with its own envelope, so complex waveforms can be created.
Now I'm sorry to dig up old moans of reviews past but I think it's rather important to stress to any manufacturers reading this how much it annoys me that you keep on forgetting one or two little details. Most people who buy equipment don't want to be bothered to edit and really explore your equipment. Now don't take it personally, it's just that people like the easy life. So much equipment sells purely on the basis of the quality and the amount of sounds you get with the instrument when you buy it. People say 'have you heard the amazing piano sound in the Wa Wa Wa Keyboard', thank you very much, they are sold. They can go home, turn it on and there it is; flick a switch and another great sound appears. The manufacturer sells his instrument, the retailer doesn't have to work his arse off demonstrating and begging customers to buy it, and the user gets instant satisfaction when they get home. As far as sampling instruments go it is essential to provide a decent size and quality library with the instrument that comes with it when you buy it. By all means sell library disks as extra options, it's called supporting your product and very sensible too. But give yourself, the retailer and... oh yes, I nearly forgot... the user a decent starting point. Most people who walk into their local music shop and buy a sampling device are hardly going to go out and book the LSO so that they can sample them.
With the Akai you get four disks: piano, bass, test and blank; with the Sequential Circuits you get three disks: piano, acoustic guitar, bass, organ, brass and strings. Come on lads, you can do better than this; it's ridiculous that so much time and research is spent developing software for potentially excellent equipment and they sell themselves short by putting some different sounds in it, and not many at that!
Whatever comments I might make I cannot deny the fact that the S900 is brilliant in terms of quality and versatility, especially when you consider its price. A few details and features could be a little better — eg a headphone socket would have been useful.
There will be much competition between Akai and Prophet, each having their own specific advantages and disadvantages. Akai sampling time is much greater than Sequential's — with the update memory the Prophet can only store a maximum of six seconds at 16th replay. But the Prophet has a few interesting features — velocity effecting the starting points, and loop release to name but two. For those of you who are seriously considering buying one of these two instruments, I'm afraid you are going to have to go and fight it out at your local music shop.
Review by Paul Fishman
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!