Akai X7000 Sampler
Polyphonic Sampling Keyboard
Put six S612 modules in a box, stick a keyboard on it, add some new features, and you've got
Akai's contender in the budget sampling keyboard stakes. Simon Trask takes notes.
Akai's new keyboard sampler uses the same technology as the S612, but has a much-expanded memory and more editing options. Is it top of the budget class?
BACK IN THE SPRING of '85, Akai introduced the S612 sampler. It was a pretty auspicious debut for the company: 12-bit sampling, six-voice polyphony, disk-drive storage of samples - and all for around the £1000 mark. And together with Ensoniq's Mirage keyboard sampler, it marked the beginning of the boom in "affordable" sampling that has continued ever since.
The S612 forms the basis of Akai's latest sampler, the X7000. Essentially, what Akai have done is to combine six S612s with a five-octave keyboard and fitted it all into standard synth proportions. There's also a rack-mount version, the S700. With the X7000, you've got six samples at your disposal and six-note polyphony (in this case, six S612s does not make 36-note polyphony). As on the S612, each sample has 32K sample memory allocated to it, giving it a creditable 192K total. All the samples can be present on the keyboard at the same time, and notes are allocated dynamically to the samples, so any sample can be played with up to six-note polyphony, but no more than six notes can be played at once.
What makes the X7000 (and its rack-mount counterpart) an even more attractive proposition is that Akai have made available a memory upgrade (ASK7O) which gives you a total of 16 samples onboard (512K memory).
If you're heavily into multisplits, you'll be glad to know that all 16 samples can be placed on the keyboard at once - though you're still limited to six-note polyphony, which is a shame. To my mind it's worthwhile having the upgrade fitted from the outset (if you want to deal with so many samples, that is), as the price is very reasonable for what you're getting: an X7000 plus ASK7O costs under £1200, while the S700 plus ASK7O costs less than a grand. Compare these prices with the original cost of the S612, and you'll get a good idea of just how the price:quality ratio has progressed.
NOW LET'S GET down to some figures of a different kind. The maximum sample rate of the X7000 has been increased from the S612's 32kHz to 40kHz, giving 0.8-second sample time and 16kHz bandwidth. A 12kHz bandwidth gives a one-second sampling time, while the lowest bandwidth of 1.6kHz gives eight seconds.
Like the S612, Akai's latest uses 2.8" Quick Disks for sample storage (though unlike the S612, the disk-drive is inbuilt). This is both good and bad. It's good because the X7000 can load in samples from the S612, which means that for a new sampler, the 7000's got a pretty large sample library at its disposal. (Note, though, that you can't load samples from the X7000 into an S612, because the 7000
stores more information on its disks.) It's bad because each side of a disk only stores a single sample, so there's a lot of disk swapping necessary if you want to make the most of the X7000 - particularly if you've gone for the 16-sample option. It also means that building up a sample library doesn't come cheap, as there are just two samples per disk. Anyway, let's say you've got six (or 16) samples all loaded up and ready to go. How do you organise these samples so that you can make effective musical use of them?
The answer lies in the provision of 32 programs, which store what samples are to be used together and how they're to be spread over the keyboard, together with parameters affecting the samples themselves and their performance responsiveness. In addition to front-panel selection, the X7000 has a "program up" jack on its rear panel, allowing you to step through the programs using a footswitch - a very practical feature.
Each sample can be given its own range, specified as high and low notes, which gives you great flexibility when it comes to deciding exactly what keyboard textures you want. The range of each sample can be as little as one note (useful for percussion samples), or as large as the whole allowable pitch range of the instrument. So you can spread all six or 16 samples over the allowable playback range of 99 semitones (just over eight octaves) for multisampling or multisounds, or layer up to six samples. You can also define any area of the keyboard to play slave MIDI'd instruments only, simply by not allocating the X7000's samples to that area - the sampler transmits the MIDI note information, regardless of whether it's playing its own samples.
Obviously, the more samples you layer the less the instrument's polyphonic capability becomes. If you layer six samples (which should be plenty, really), you can only play a single note at a time, while layering two sounds gives you three-note polyphony. Bear in mind that this won't change with the memory upgrade, as you can still only play six notes at any one time.
THERE ARE TWO jack inputs on the Akai's rear panel, one for mic and one for line inputs; if both are connected, the mic input takes priority. There are also two rotary controls, for setting record level and monitor level respectively.
With the monitor level set above zero you can have your input signal present at all times, together with the X7000's own samples; a handy feature, but what a shame you have to grope around the rear panel to gain access to it.
Input level can also be monitored on the X7000's backlit LCD, and you can set a trigger level for use with automatic sample recording. There's also a record/playback jack input on the rear panel, allowing sampling and subsequent playback to be triggered from a footswitch.
"Along with the familiar four MIDI modes, Akai has come up with five more (modes 5-9)... The expansion may raise a few eyebrows, but it's all in the name of flexibility, and it all works."
One small point: if you want to play back your sample, you have to place it on the keyboard first, either by selecting an appropriate program or by setting the high/low range to an area of the keyboard that you want. Akai have set programs 1-6 to give you samples 1-6 respectively over the entire keyboard, which is as good a starting point as any, really.
Akai have retained the S612's ability to overdub samples, so you can sample a sound "onto" an existing sample, leaving you with two (or more) sounds in a single sample. But what you can't do is combine samples already existing in the instrument's memory, and that's a pity.
A feature which deserves mention, if only because it's so unusual, is resampling. This halves the sample readout rate by reading every other sample value, which has the effect of increasing the upward playback range of the sample by an octave. You can also put this to good use by "overdoing" it - keep on halving the readout rate and you inevitably end up in aliasing territory. Resampling needs to be used with care, though, as it isn't reversible, and it's not a program-specific feature.
ONE OF THE nice features of the S612 was the ready access to sample manipulation afforded by front-panel knobs and sliders. Now, these are nowhere to be found on the X7000, which uses digital access. But in keeping with Akai's current design philosophy, the X7000's economic (and straightforward) front panel design minimises the usual hassles of digital parameter control.
Sample editing facilities on the X7000 essentially govern looping and LFO settings, and their usefulness is increased by the fact that they can be different for each program.
The X7000 has four sample scan modes: one-shot, looping, alternating and drum trigger. Samples can also be played forwards or backwards. Drum triggering mode allows short gate-like trigger sources to trigger a sample for its full duration (in one-shot mode) via the mic or line inputs, which is useful if you want to trigger samples off tape or from a suitable drum machine, for instance. Audio triggering can also be set to control the length of the sample(s) being triggered directly. You can set which samples are to be triggered and what the pitch(es) will be, and store different selections for both settings in each program.
As on many samplers, looping can be either auto or manual; auto means the X7000 comes up with a loop for you, manual means you do the work yourself. The X7000's own attempts at looping meet with mixed success; generally it seems to be playing safe by going for the shortest loop feasible, which doesn't necessarily make for a very full-sounding loop.
Unfortunately, if the first autoloop isn't too successful, any further attempts only yield the same results, since the X7000 doesn't realise that you don't want the loop it's found and won't try to find another one for you.
Trying to find your own loops is as much of a hit-and-miss affair as it is on any sampler without the benefit of a graphic editing package - though at least the S612 had the virtue of front-panel sliders which allowed you to adjust loop and end points at the same time and with great speed. And the X7000 doesn't allow you to step through the zero crossing points, as you can on the Korg DSS1 and Prophet 2000 though Roland's S10 (which is a more direct competitor) is no better is this respect.
Each sample has its own LFO settings governing speed, depth and delay. The LFO depth can be controlled by aftertouch received over MIDI (the X7000's keyboard isn't pressure-sensitive) within the range set. What's a shame is that, as with the S612, you get only one LFO waveform: the humble sinewave. Still, being able to give each sample its own LFO settings is a valuable feature.
THE X7000'S SAMPLE quality will be familiar to anyone who has used an S612. It's capable of reproducing sounds with clarity and brightness from both mic and line inputs - in the former case even using a very average mic. To get the best results, you have to take a lot of care setting recording and input levels, but with appropriate settings you can minimise quantisation noise. This wasn't the case with all the library samples we had to hand, but the X7000's filtering can come in useful if applied with care.
"If the first autoloop isn't successful, any further attempts yield the same results, since the X7000 doesn't realise you don't want the loop it's found and won't try to find another for you."
The X7000 comes with a set of three disks providing a multisampled piano and a single double-bass sample. The piano is clear if a little thin-sounding, but suffers from noise and hasn't been looped. Applying the sampler's autolooping yields an unconvincing result. The bass is also noisy, but adjusting the filter cutoff soon clears this up, with no adverse affect on the sample quality.
Other sample disks which we had to hand included orchestral hits (naturally), mixed chorus, trombone, synth piano, brass, strings, and slamming doors. All are bright and crisp, and punchy when they need to be.
To play these samples, Akai have given the X7000 a keyboard which may not be pressure-sensitive, but which includes release velocity along with the more usual attack. For each sample within a program, you can set maximum volume and low-pass filter levels, while attack velocity response can be set to affect volume and filter levels within the ranges you've set. Similarly, you can set an absolute release value for each sample together with release velocity response; for release velocity to take effect, the sample has to be either looping or alternating.
After the cumbersome digital filtering on Roland's S10, the X7000's analogue low-pass filtering is a joy to use, and extremely effective - particularly when used in conjunction with attack velocity sensitivity.
MULTITIMBRAL SAMPLERS ARE well suited to multichannel MIDI access, and consequently to use in conjunction with a MIDI sequencer. Yes, we're talking MIDI Mode 4 territory, and just for starters. Akai's rack-mount S900 sampler bears witness to this, and it's refreshing to see that the company has put even more thought into the MIDI implementation on the X7000 (and, of course, the S700).
Because along with the familiar four MIDI modes, Akai have come up with five more (modes 5-9), so take a deep breath and here we go: Omni on/Special mono, Omni off/Special mono, Multi program/Poly, Multi program/Mono, and Multi program/Special mono. Something tells me this drastic expansion of MIDI modes may raise a few eyebrows, but it's all in the name of greater flexibility, and it all works.
Essentially, these modes allow a different program on the X7000 (1-16 or 17-32) to be assigned consecutively to each MIDI channel (program 1 to channel 1, and so on), while the number of voices allocated to each program/channel can be the full six, or can be determined by the number of samples assigned to each program, or can be monophonic per program/channel. Remember, though, that there can't be more than six voices playing at any one time, which means there's some pretty clever dynamic allocation going on. Whatever, Akai's approach is commendably flexible.
As well as MIDI velocity information (attack and release), the X7000 can respond to channel aftertouch data, which is good news - remember that, as I've said, the instrument's own keyboard isn't pressure-sensitive. So if you want to use aftertouch you're going to have to make use of another keyboard (though not Akai's own MIDI controller, the MX73, as that isn't pressure-sensitive either - has this company got something against aftertouch?).
Other MIDI information that X7000 samples can respond to includes sustain, pitch-bend, mod wheel, main volume and program changes - though only program change reception can be turned on and off. The X7000 can also transmit and receive sample data via MIDI System Exclusive codes, though there's no indication of whether Akai are using the MIDI sample dump standard.
Finally on the MIDI front (or rear, in this case) is the ability to turn local control on/off, which is useful if you want to use the sampler as a master keyboard for recording with a MIDI sequencer. Unfortunately, you've again got to grope around the instrument's rear panel to locate a small on/off switch; so if you get to a gig and find your keyboard is silent, check that everything's OK at the back.
The X7000 has the ability to output samples individually, but the chosen method is unusual: instead of the familiar individual jack outputs, what you get is a single 13-pin DIN socket on the rear panel. The designers' primary intention here seems to be that you should connect the X7000 to an Akai AX73 or VX90, both of which allow you to process samples with their own onboard editing functions. In case you're wondering where you can get hold of a 13-pin DIN cable, Akai market one themselves; it doesn't come with the sampler, but then I wonder how many people are going to make use of it. I can't help thinking that six individual outs would have been preferable, if a little bit more costly to fit.
FAR FROM BEING old technology, the X7000 is a very contemporary instrument, both in sound quality and facilities. It's a carefully thought-out machine which competes very favourably with its competitors, functioning successfully as an easy-to-use sampler from the "front end", while offering plenty of sophistication for people who want to incorporate it into a multitrack MIDI sequencing environment.
The complete sampler, perhaps. And at a price, even with the memory add-on, that makes refreshing reading.
Price X7000 £999; S700 £849; ASK70 Expansion Memory PCB £149; set of 10 library disks (20 sounds) £49.90-£59.90; box of 10 blank disks £29.90; all SRPs including VAT