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Akai XE8 Drum Box

Remove the sequencing facilities from your drum machine and what do you get? A damned good idea for a new product that's what! Paul Ireson checks out Akai's 16-bit sampled drum box - the perfect companion for your sequencer.


Remove the sequencing facilities from your drum machine and what do you get? A damned good idea for a new product that's what! Paul Ireson checks out Akai's 16-bit sampled drum box - the perfect companion for your sequencer.


Ever had a really good idea? You know, the kind of idea that makes you think 'Now why didn't someone think of that before?', and prompts looks of awe, respect and envy when you tell all your friends about it. No, neither have I, but every now and again someone does come up with them, and every now and again it's in the hi-tech music field. An example of such an idea might be manufacturing synthesizers without the keyboard to keep costs down and prevent duplication of unnecessary hardware, or, more to the point of this review, producing a drum box that does away with the rhythm composition facilities that hardly anyone ever uses.

Think about it. All or most of the percussion sounds used in MIDI music systems come from drum machines that provide a set of drum sounds and dedicated rhythm composing facilities. However, these facilities are hardly ever used because, like everything else, the drum voices are usually triggered externally from a MIDI sequencer. It's probably true to say that 80% of drum machines sold these days are used solely as sound modules, rather than as rhythm composers. And while we're on the subject of drum machines, the other problem with most beat boxes is that they have very little variation in the sounds that they offer to the user. Whereas musicians are used to being able to create their own instrument sounds on synthesizers, they're equally used to being stuck with the preset drum sounds in their beat box. So, why not produce a drum box that does away with unwanted sequencing facilities, and instead concentrates on providing a combination of high quality sampled sounds and sound editing facilities? What you get if you do exactly this is, in fact, an Akai XE8 Drum Expander.

Having said all this, it wasn't actually Akai who thought of the idea first: a couple of years ago Korg released the conceptually similar DRM16, but partly because good sequencers weren't quite so widespread as they are now, and perhaps also because the sounds were nothing to write home about, it never caught on. Now, however, the time could be right for a unit that can offer good and variable sounds, without wasting costs and controls on sequencing facilities... enter the Akai XE8.

WHAT YOU GET...



The XE8 is a 16-bit drum expander, which can draw on 16 sampled sounds stored in 1 Mb of internal ROM, and two plug-in ROM cards, each of which can hold up to 16 further sounds, fewer if the samples are longer and therefore require more memory. Any 16 out of the 48 sounds can be modified in various ways and combined into each of the 32 programs that the XE8 can store: think of these programs as drum kits. Although 16 doesn't seem an awful lot of sounds these days, a single sound can be tuned across 16 MIDI note numbers, so that a single tom sample can effectively become a set of 16 toms.

The XE8 is a compact 1U rack-mount unit, in the Akai house colours of beige or grey, depending on your point of view. To the right of the essential power switch on the front panel is a slot for the first of two plug-in ROM cards. A Shot/Copy pushbutton allows the sound currently selected for editing to be triggered from the front panel, and can also be used to copy the parameters of one program to another. Next to this are two more buttons, marked S-Sel and P-Sel, which respectively switch between the internal and card sound banks when selecting sounds, and switch between the parameters available at each of the 11 positions of the Play/Edit knob. Two red LED displays occupy the middle of the panel, one for the value of the current parameter and the other to show the number of the current sound.

Next across are three rotary controls. The first is the 11-position knob which selects the Play/Edit functions: Play, Program, Tune, Tune Modulation, Utility, VCA Modulation, VCA Envelope, Sweep Range, Sweep Time, Output, Note. The other two are both dual concentric controls. The first is for data entry (middle ring) and sound number (outer ring), the second for volume (inner ring) and One-Shot Play Velocity (outer ring). A monophonic (!) headphones output is the last thing you see before your eyes drop off the right-hand end of the unit.

An identical monophonic audio output is provided at the Mix socket on the rear panel, along with eight mono voice outputs, to which sounds may be allocated one by one. The usual trio of MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets graces the rear panel, and a second ROM card slot is also provided. In case you're wondering where the cards for these slots are going to come from, Akai supply two with the XE8 and are busy producing others. Both the cards supplied contain 16 sounds.

WHAT ABOUT THE SOUNDS?



Between them, the internal sound bank and the two supplied cards give immediate access to 48 16-bit drum samples. The sounds have been sampled at either 32 or 44kHz - the lower rate is presumably used for the kick and tom samples, and the higher for percussion, cymbals and snare sounds. Listening to all 48 sounds in their 'natural' form, at the correct tuning and without any artificial envelope decay applied, I was surprised not to find more variety in the types of percussion instruments provided - there are no timbales and no tambourine for example, whereas there are six different bass drums.

My main impression of the sounds was one of presence and sheer power - plenty of truly atomic kick drums and toms, and the hardest, most metallic hi-hats I have ever heard. This had me worried for a moment, because the basic hi-hats were simply too harsh for many applications. However, a little tuning and tweaking can produce anything from the meanest to the subtlest hi-hats. A special mention must also be made of the cymbals - they just sound so real. Too real, perhaps. Whilst I was investigating the sounds, I unexpectedly came across the first crash cymbal sample, and felt as if Phil Collins had just cracked me across the head with a 20" Zildjian crash! Each of the sets of toms (ie. toms 0-1 in the internal bank, 2-5 on card 1) are just that - samples of a full set of toms so that you don't have to tune any toms too far from their original pitch. The percussion sounds on the two cards comprise of two cowbells, two woodblocks, and an assortment of conga and bongo sounds.

A little bit of quantisation noise was noticeable, particularly on the kick and tom samples, but I was listening to the sounds with the VCA fully open at the end of each drum sound - the VCA decay can be set to close as the sample ends, reducing the amount of such noise.



"Between them, the internal sound bank and the two supplied cards give immediate access to 48 16-bit drum samples."


ARRANGING YOUR KITS



The programming side of the XE8 is where things really happen - if you want to layer reversed tuned toms on top of a flanged snare, from C3 to E3, this is where you can go about doing it.

Sounds are arranged into 32 programs or patches: each patch contains 16 sounds, and each of those 16 sounds is created from one of the 48 drum samples, modified by a variety of pitch and amplitude modulation effects, and mapped on to any part of a MIDI keyboard. Several samples can be assigned to the same area of a MIDI keyboard, so sounds can be easily layered. This facility proved very useful for creating massive tom sounds, new kicks, a timbale from a snare/tom combination, etc. The 32 programs can be selected either directly from the front panel, or with MIDI Program Change commands.

TUNING AND MODULATION



The first and most important of the XE8 sound parameters is the Sound Source which, of all the internal and card sounds, is the sample that provides the basis for the sound to be created. This can then be allocated to a range of up to 16 MIDI note numbers. The tuning of the sample can be defined by Coarse and Fine controls, over a total range of 16 semitones. Layering two identical sounds on the same key and slightly detuning them with the fine tuning parameter produces a neat flanging effect - good on toms and cymbals. The basic tuning can be affected by either Note Velocity or Key Offset (note number), and the depth of this modulation set from 0-15. At its maximum depth of modulation, Key Offset produces a chromatic tuning of the sound across whatever keys it is assigned to.

Output Level (0-127) can be set individually for each of the 16 sounds, and each sample can be played either forwards or backwards (musique concrete fans should love this feature). The amplitude of each sound can be modulated either by Velocity, to produce velocity-sensitive sounds, or Key Offset, to produce a sound which increases in volume up the keyboard. Further amplitude changes are available via a basic VCA. Hold and Decay times can both be programmed (both 0-127), the maximum decay being quite long enough for a five second crash cymbal. Hold simply sets the length of time the VCA stays at maximum amplitude before the decay begins.

Pitch Sweep can be applied to any sample, and proved most useful for creating synth-tom sounds. The maximum sweep range seemed to be about two octaves, though it's a little hard to tell on short percussive sounds. The VCA Decay Time, and Sweep Depth and Time can all be modulated either with Key Offset or Note Velocity.

OUTPUT ASSIGNMENTS



Two play modes are available for assigning the 16 sounds to the eight audio outputs in different ways. Fixed Assignment allows you to specify which sounds appear at which output - useful if you want to process a particular sound through an external effects unit. Because each output is monophonic, each time a new sound is triggered at an output, the previous sound is cut off. Free Assign, on the other hand, assigns each new sound to a different output when it is triggered, to ensure that notes are not cut off. For example, when several cymbal notes are sounded one after the other. In either assign mode, the Mix socket still carries a monophonic mixed output.

Although editing is easy in that it is conceptually straightforward, the design of the Data Entry/Sound knob causes problems - because the two controls are concentric, it's all too easy to accidentally turn one whilst adjusting the other. On several occasions I changed a parameter for the wrong sound, by unintentionally dragging the Sound knob as I entered a data value with the Data knob. Worse still, I also entered spurious values for the same parameter for several sounds, by dragging the Data knob slightly as I turned the Sound knob. Surely it can't cost that much more to fit two knobs in place of a dual concentric control?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS



When I first heard the XE8's sounds in their naked form, I had a few nagging doubts that it was capable of producing sufficiently subtle sounds. Matters were not helped by the fact that there were no factory preset programs on the review model to show off its capabilities. However, after a little fiddling around with the parameters on a few sounds, I soon dispelled these doubts.



"My main impression of the sounds was one of presence and sheer power - plenty of truly atomic kick drums and toms, and the hardest, most metallic hi-hats I have ever heard."


The unit's main strength is its range of potential sound - of course it's not limitless, but there's undoubtedly plenty of scope for creativity here. The ability to swap sound cards extends the range of sounds still further, and should hopefully make up for a few omissions from the selection of factory sounds in the internal bank and on the two ROM cards supplied.

The XE8 reverses the recent trend for Latin sounds, opting instead for a better selection of 'conventional' drum sounds. But although sound editing facilities are provided, there's no way you can conjure up a tambourine sound out of a few toms and cymbals.

I took particular pleasure in building up some awesome layered tom sounds, tuned across a full octave on the keyboard, and setting up several sets of toms - Demon Drummers of Kodo look out! Exploring the more extreme reaches of sound editing also proved rewarding. My personal favourite of all the sounds I created - and the eeriest sound I've ever heard from a drum machine - was a reversed, flanged, slightly swept ride cymbal, tuned to a chromatic scale. It sounded almost as good played forwards!

VERDICT



On reflection, the basic design of drum machines has changed less than almost any other electronic music product over the last few years. From the Drumatix to the RX11 to the Alesis HR16, all have combined a defined set of sounds with rhythm sequencing capabilities. The sounds are now digital, the sequencing facilities improved, but that's about it.

Given that so few users actually require the composing facilities on their drum machines, the time would seem to be right for units like the XE8 (I'm sure other manufacturers will bring out similar products in the near future). It'll be interesting to hear what the preset programs sound like on the production models: if they're good enough, I suspect that many owners will just rack up their XE8 and use all the programs without editing them, which would be a shame as the potential for creating your own individual drum sounds is certainly there, if not actually vast.

To sum it all up, for me the XE8 replaces facilities which I don't need on my drum machine (sequencing) with some that I do (sound editing) - and that's real progress. I suspect it's the first of a new breed in the world of the beat box.

FURTHER INFORMATION

£499 inc VAT.

Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).

AKAI XE8 DRUM SOUNDS

INTERNAL: Kick 0, Kick 1, Kick 2, Kick 3, Hi-Hat 0, Hi-Hat 1, Hi-Hat 2, Snare 0, Snare 1, Snare 2, Tom 0, Tom 1, Crash, Jazz Ride, Clap, Perc

CARD SL801R: Kick 4, Snare 3, Rimshot 0, Hi-Hat Closed 0, Hi-Hat Open 0, Tom 2, Tom 3, Tom 4, Tom 5, Cymbal 0, Cymbal 1, Percussion 0 (cowbell), Percussion 1 (cowbell), Percussion 2 (woodblock). Percussion 3 (woodblock), Orchestra Hit.

CARD SL802R: Kick 5, Snare 4, Rimshot 1, Hi-Hat Closed 1, Hi-Hat Open 1, Tom 6, Tom 7, Tom 8, Tom 9, Cymbal 2, Percussion 4, Percussion 5, Percussion 6, Percussion 7, Cymbal 3, Cymbal 4


Also featuring gear in this article



Previous Article in this issue

Digidesign Turbosynth

Next article in this issue

Waiting For The Perfect Song


Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

 

Sound On Sound - Dec 1988

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

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Gear in this article:

Drum Module > Akai > XE8


Gear Tags:

Digital Drums

Review by Paul Ireson

Previous article in this issue:

> Digidesign Turbosynth

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> Waiting For The Perfect Song...


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