Akai XE8 MIDI Drum Expander
As the sequencer comes of age, the role of the drum machine is brought into question: why have a sequencer in your drum box if there's already one in your computer? Simon Trask investigates what may be the next step for the beat box.
Akai's XE8 discards the onboard sequencing of traditional drum machines, says hello to MIDI and concentrates on sounds.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS. These days you don't so much have to think about which drum machine is most suitable for you as what is the most suitable approach to providing drum sounds. MIDI-based modularity and affordable sampling have, between them, removed the traditionally-conceived drum machine from its pedestal.
For one thing, as more and more musicians turn to sequencing their rhythm parts from a MIDI sequencer, the drum machine's onboard sequencing capabilities start to look redundant - unless you happen to be using Roland's new flagship drum machine, the R8, which throws a spanner in the works by only revealing its full capabilities when its onboard sequencer is being used.
At the same time, the traditionally closed sonic nature of the drum machine is being challenged by general purpose samplers and by sampling drum-machines. Drum boxes offering a limited set of sounds are no longer enough to satisfy contemporary rhythm requirements, especially at the pro end of music-making. What's more, it's becoming increasingly common for multitimbral synths to include a healthy selection of sampled drum and percussion sounds along with their synthesised sounds (witness Korg's M1, Kawai's forthcoming K1 MkII, and most of Roland's L/A synths).
Perhaps surprisingly, the MIDI drum expander (a MIDI drum machine minus the sequencing capability) has rarely been attempted by manufacturers. Korg tried, without great success, as far back as 1985 with the MR16. This MIDI expander unit combined the sounds of the company's DDM110 and DDM220 non-MIDI drum machines, added individual audio outs and removed the sequencing capability. I remember being a bit puzzled by it at the time. MIDI sequencers were much less sophisticated than they are now: they had far fewer tracks and far less memory, and possessed no drum machine-style recording and editing capabilities. In short, recording drum parts into a MIDI sequencer in those days had considerable disadvantages.
Nowadays the situation is reversed, which I guess makes the MR16 an instrument ahead of its time, and anyone who bought one far-sighted. However, it wouldn't be at all fair to compare the MR16 and the XE8; the latter offers better quality sounds and is much more attuned to contemporary requirements, as you'll discover.
THE XE8'S 1U-HIGH 19" rack-mounting format will no doubt please anyone looking for a compact addition to their MIDI setup. On the other hand, the necessarily limited panel-space seems to have posed problems for Akai.
On the front panel, a Play/Edit Select knob allows you to select the XE8's parameter groups, while a Parameter Select button with associated indicator LEDs allows you to select the parameters within each group. In combination they make parameter selection a speedy process, but unfortunately their effect is somewhat negated by the clumsy dual-concentric knobs used to select which program or sound you're editing and the data value of each parameter. The XE8's miserable display capabilities (a couple of two-digit LED windows with not even a handy mnemonic in sight) ensure that editing the expander is initially an irritating and bewildering experience. While the bewilderment subsides as you become familiar with what and where all the parameters are, the irritation hangs around - particularly with that clumsy dual concentric knob.
More encouraging news is the provision of a dedicated Shot button for triggering the currently-selected sample, and of a MIDI Monitor function which provides a quick means of telling what samples are assigned to what MIDI notes.
"Bass drums kick like hell, the snares are tight and snappy, the toms are deep and resonant... the sort of sounds which punch holes in speakers if they're cranked up."
The slot on the XE8's front panel is for inserting an Akai ROM sample card; a second card slot can be found on the rear panel (an arrangement clearly prompted more by lack of panel space than by any thought for user convenience). Nestling alongside this second card slot are MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, a mix audio output and eight individual audio outs (of which more later).
THE XE8 COMES with 16 samples permanently stored onboard in 1MB of ROM. These divide into four bass drums, three snares, three hi-hats, two toms, a crash cymbal, a ride cymbal, handclaps and "percussion". Further sounds can be accessed by plugging Akai sample ROM cards into the aforementioned two slots. Each card provides a further 1MB of sample memory, though the number of samples per card varies (up to a maximum of 16).
The good news here is that the first two sample cards in Akai's library are included free with the XE8, giving you a total of 48 samples to start out with. The manual lists the contents of two further sample cards, suggesting that Akai realise the importance of supporting the XE8 with a sample library. However, so far the company's concept of what samples to provide XE8 users with is disappointingly narrow and traditionalist; not that providing a variety of basic kit sounds is a bad thing, but, considering the sampler challenge, a more adventurous spirit wouldn't go amiss. As it is, the sample cards which come with the XE8 provide more of the same, though they do manage to add the occassional percussion sound such as cowbells and congas.
Sample resolution is 16-bit linear, while, according to the manual, a combination of 33kHz and 44kHz sample rates have been used. Possibly, sounds with a longer decay (crash and ride cymbals, for example) have been recorded at the lower sample rate in order to save on sample memory; this would accord with the existing cymbal sounds, which don't have all the higher-frequency detail found on some other drum machines.
So what does the XE8 sound like? Well, to my mind it doesn't qualify for the "acoustic realism" school, but if you like hard, punchy, upfront "electronic" drum sounds then you could soon be making friends with it. With the exception of one bass drum, the XE8's sounds have been recorded dry (none of this ambient stuff), so you have plenty of scope for treating them yourself.
I have reservations about the cymbals; they seem too upfront and brash. However, the bass drums kick like hell, the snares are tight and snappy, the toms are deep and resonant, the cowbells and other short high-end sounds are bright and dynamic. All in all, the sort of sounds which can punch holes in speakers if they're really cranked up.
Playing back the samples in their original form is only part of the story, however. The XE8 allows you to alter its Sounds by tuning them in coarse and fine amounts (+7/8 in both cases), reversing them, altering their amplitude envelopes (hold and/or decay) and creating tuning envelopes (with high-to-low or low-to-high sweep). All the samples remain clean and clear across their full tuning range, so you won't find yourself having to sacrifice quality for the sake of variety. One point worth making is that an envelope decay can be much longer than the sound itself, and sometimes this leads to a faint click following the sound; if you notice this, shorten the decay.
"As more musicians turn to sequencing their rhythm parts from a MIDI sequencer, the drum machine's onboard sequencing capabilities start to look redundant."
Using the above edit parameters it's possible to create a much wider range of sounds on the XE8 than its list of samples might suggest; in particular, use of pitch sweep can create some unexpected effects out of familiar sounds.
Additionally, the tuning, amplitude and envelope decay of a Sound can each be controlled by MIDI note offset or MIDI velocity, with associated depth values. You can use velocity control of pitch and decay, and you can "loosen up" the mechanical exactitude of the XE8's sounds by introducing subtle fluctuations in pitch and duration. To use multiple tunings of a Sound across the keyboard, you just assign it to a suitable note range and set its pitch to be controlled by note offset (the maximum depth setting of 15 is equivalent to qual temperament). Using these edit parameters in conjunction with the XE8's ability to layer its sounds further increases the sonic possibilities open to you.
THE XE8 HAS 32 onboard Programs, each of which allows you to use a maximum of 16 samples drawn from the internal memory and the sample cards. Sounds (as the selected samples are known) can be played with up to eight-note polyphony and output via the mix out and the eight individual outs. All of the Sound-editing parameters described above are storable per Program.
The 16 Sounds of a Program can be organised into a "drumkit" (an assignment of samples to MIDI notes), so that each time you call up a Program from the front panel or via MIDI patch changes you're calling up a new "kit". This is quite different from the typical approach on drum machines, where all the drum sounds are mapped across the MIDI note range in a single "kit", and carries with it a potential problem, namely that in changing to a different Program you might cut short, for instance, a strategically-positioned crash-cymbal hit. The good news is that you need have no fear of this on the XE8: active sounds play for their full duration regardless of Program changes.
But does this mean you can literally change Program at any time and get the results you intend? It's most likely that you'll be selecting Programs via MIDI patch changes, whether from a MIDI keyboard, percussion controller or sequencer. Using a sequencer playing or recording at 12Obpm (in my case it was C-Lab's Notator), you can insert patch changes as little as one 768th note (2.6 milliseconds) after and two 768th notes (5.2 milliseconds) before a Sound is played and you'll get consistently correct results. If you want to get clever with your XE8 and a M IDI sequencer, you can use rapidly-switched MIDI patch changes to combine Sounds from different Programs into a single rhythm pattern.
Now, you could say that with a single "kit" consisting of all the available samples you wouldn't need to resort to such deviousness. However, Akai's approach has its own distinct advantages, most notably the fact that the samples being played are independent of the MIDI notes being used to play them (whereas the more familiar drum machine approach uses fixed assignments). If you stick to the same Sound-to-note assignments across all your Programs, you can change your "drumkit" at any time simply by inserting a patch change into the sequence.
Actually setting up "kits" on the XE8 is a laborious process, so using the same mapping for all Programs soon becomes a good idea (you just have to Copy the one Program). "Kits" are defined by setting upper and lower note-limits for each Sound (unfortunately, you can't take the easy way out and play these in from your keyboard). Each Sound can have its own independent note-range, allowing you to layer a maximum of eight sounds per note (with a consequent reduction in polyphony, of course).
"If you want to get clever you can use rapidly-switched MIDI patch changes to combine Sounds from different Programs into a single rhythm pattern."
Akai have included factory preset Programs which can be recalled individually at any time, but in truth these are very poorly programmed and of limited practical use. A better set of Programs would have made the XE8's abilities more readily apparent, and lessened the need for immediate full-scale editing. Sometimes I wonder if manufacturers really care about putting their instruments across.
THE XE8'S ATTEMPTS to release its Sounds from their 19" cage meet with mixed success. For one thing, its individual audio outs are monophonic; for another, the 16 possible Sounds have to be assigned to eight outputs. What's more, you can't de-assign Sounds - all 6 have to be assigned to the outs in some combination. This in turn means that Sounds are present at both the individual outs and the mixed out, whereas it might've been more useful to have some sounds coming out of the individual outs and others coming out of the mix out.
There are two alternative ways of assigning Sounds to the individual outs: free and fixed. The former is perhaps of limited use, as it assigns consecutive Sounds to the next free output, or to the output with the currently lowest volume level, and only outputs one Sound at a time. Fixed, on the other hand, allows you to assign each of the 16 Sounds to one of the eight outs.
However, because the individual outs are monophonic, if you assign more than one Sound to the same output channel then they can't be output simultaneously, and one active sound will be cut short by the other (of course, sometimes this might be what you want, as with open and closed hi-hats). This does rather tend to put a damper on the XE8's Sound layering possibilities.
Finally, the XE8's onboard capacity of 32 Programs can effectively be expanded by means of SysEx data dumps. Unlike many other companies, Akai include no data details in the manual (instead, you are requested to "please inquire the Akai Electronic Instruments Sales Division about the content of Exclusive"), but a quick inspection suggests that the XE8 deals in straightforward Program dumps (no SysEx edits) which can be originated from the instrument's front panel.
I DON'T THINK Akal have an automatic winner on their hands here. The XE8 strikes me as being the sort of instrument which will find its devoted followers but not widespread popularity. Certainly the sounds won't be to everyone's taste. They have a hard, upfront, electronic quality which should appeal to musicians who want a tough, punchy edge to their drum sounds; I can see the XE8 coming through well on the dancefloor (it was learning to trance-dance just before Christmas), perhaps finding a niche for itself in hip hop and house music. However, Akai must come up with a broader and more adventurous range of sounds to support the XE8, as the current library is on the limited side to say the least. As it stands, the variety of drum and percussion sounds offered by Roland's LA synths and by their U110 sample expander (particularly with its Latin and FX Percussion card) outdo the XE8.
One thing's for sure: the XE8 doesn't win any brownie points for operational convenience. Basically, Akai haven't made the best use of the XE8's front-panel space. Clumsy dual-concentric knobs and uninformative two-digit LED windows do not make for user-friendly operation. "Plenty of buttons and knobs" does not necessarily equate with "ease of use". Clear parameter organisation and straightforward access are just as important; in this respect, Akai could learn a lesson or two from Roland's U110 sample expander, which has a very fast edit system and still manages to find room for four card slots on its front panel.
When it comes to sonic open-endedness, the XE8's two card-slots are a strong point in its favour. However, you should bear in mind that second-hand samplers (like Ensoniq's Mirage and Akai's own S700) can be picked up as cheaply as, if not cheaper than, the XE8, and are still inherently more open-ended. On the other hand, even with its operational awkwardness the XE8's advantages shine through: the straightforwardness of having ready-made samples (though remember that you're at the mercy of Akai's sample library), the convenience of a dedicated "drumkit" approach to organising sounds, and the immediacy of access to samples provided by card as opposed to disk storage. What's more, Akai have struck a good balance between sonic flexibility and editing simplicity on the XE8. On the other hand, while it's good to see individual audio outs on the expander, it's also a shame that they're monophonic, that there's no stereo output, and that Sounds can't be assigned to individual or mix outputs.
The XE8 is up against stiff competition, and is maybe over-priced considering its expander status. After all, if there's no economic advantage to a sequencer-less drum expander, you might as well consider that a drum machine gives you the sequencing for free. Nonetheless, if you already own a MIDI sequencer and/or a MIDI controller, if you like the XE8's hard-edged electronic sounds, and if its semi-closed sonic nature doesn't pose any problems for you, then Akai's MIDI drum expander may strike just the right balance both in your music and in your MIDI setup.
Prices XE8, £499 (including two ROM cards); Extra ROM cards £59.95. Both prices include VAT.