Akai AX 80/1212 Mixer/Recorder
Akai leap bravely into the hard world of Pro music gear, with a poly, the AX 80, and a unique 12-channel mixer/recorder.
James Betteridge meets Akai's new boys the AX80 synth and MG1212 Mixer/Recorder to se if they're up to scratch.
Mention the name Akai to most home recordists and they'll think of the 4000DS, as if it was the only product the company ever came up with. For many it forms the corner stone of their recording knowledge, providing the first insight into the wonders of sound-on-sound and multi-layer music making.
To some of those stout, slightly impoverished, home tapers it might seem that, having hatched the 4000 series, Akai got to its feet, staggered off and died. In fact they've been extremely busy and equally successful in other areas such as hi-fi and video, but to the recording musician, they simply disappeared.
I'm pleased to say that, alter a lengthy gap for deep thought, Akai are back in the home recording business with an extraordinary 12-track mixer/recorder, the MG1212 and a new polysynth, the AX80. The 4000 became a legend; that's a hard act to follow.
The 12/12 will probably be the first of a new generation of machine based on a new format. Akai have taken on the praiseworthy task of popularizing this new format and this is alway a difficult decision because others can pinch your ideas, and learn by your explorations.
The combination of these two products was a happy one, for it allowed us to record the AX80 on the MG 1212, thereby giving you a practical example of both on the magazine tape.
The £1400 AX80 is a MIDI equipped, 8-note polyphonic, programmable synth with a plastic, 61-note, velocity-sensitive keyboard, looking to the uninformed eye not unlike the Yamaha DX-7. It has the same smooth control panel covered symmetrically with rectangular membrane switches and uses a 'centralised digital access' system of control whereby you are given only one large rotary incrementor to alter all functions, and the buttons provide a means of selecting the function you want to change.
At its most cumbersome (and cost-effective) this type of system involves a single incrementor wheel with which all edit adjustments are made, plus a calculator-style numeric keypad function select. Accurate editing by such means is at best laborious because of the inherent lack of user-feedback, ie it's hard to see what shape the various parameters are in at any given moment, and hence all but the most experienced programmer is likely to get lost in the process. Its sole virtue is that it keeps the costs down.
The price is rather high for an analogue-based, digital access synth, but fairly inexpensive for a one-knob-per-function model such as a Jupiter 8 or Prophet. In fact Akai offers a very good compromise between the two. Running along the top of the keyboard is a line of grey membrane switches that provide a means of selecting the stored preset sounds. In the edit mode these same switches allow individual access to each of the variables and have the relevant labelling under each one. Above the switches are six sets of vertical light blue LED bargraphs: OSC 1, OSC 2, VCF, LFO, EG and VCA. As a variable is selected, an orange cursor appears on the respective bar graph, and as the central controller is moved to adjust the variable, so the display changes accordingly. In addition, there are two other useful displays that, in the edit mode, show the number of the parameter being altered and the current setting.
By these means editing is relatively fast and simple, and whilst it isn't quite as 'tactile' as using a one-control-per-function system, a little practice makes it possible to quickly interpret the bargraphs, and to select parameters with very little reference to the legend under each of the 32 buttons.
The performance controls are very standard with one spring loaded, centre-biased wheel for pitch change and a second loose wheel for modulation of the oscillators and/or the VCF.
If its clean lines suggest a simplicity of heart, let it be said that there's more there than at first meets the eye:
- 61 Velocity sensitive plastic keys
- 8-note polyphony
- MIDI (Poly mode)
- 2 VCOs
- 3 LFOs
- 2 EGs
- 1 VCF + HPF
- Cross Modulation
Each of the VCO's (standard analogue) is capable of producing a sawtooth waveform, a variable pulse waveform or a combination of both. OSC 2's pulse width is fixed to give a square wave while that of OSC 1 can be modulated with variable depth and speed to give the normal variety of swept filter type-sounds. Cross modulation, is available between the two oscillators, providing a much wider range of fuller voicings.
Akai have been commendably generous in the LFO department. There are three of them, each providing a choice of square, sawtooth, reversed sawtooth and triangle waveforms. These can be applied independently to each of the two oscillators plus the VCF providing great flexibility.
The VCF section itself has the standard controls plus 'key follow' which adjusts the amount by which the cut-off frequency of the filter rises with pitch, thus increasing brightness and presence for higher notes. Key velocity can also be made to effect the cut-off frequency (as well as the volume), thereby giving an authentic edge to notes struck with greater weight. This is a facility that the Akai programmer failed to use to full advantage, with the majority of presets being non-dynamic or having only a very slight sensitivity to touch.
There are effectively two EG's, one of which can be applied to the VCF, and the other to the VCA. A common use of this might be to set a longer decay or release time for the VCA than the VCF, thus allowing a note to change tonally within its dynamic envelope, either at its beginning or end. Alternatively, the same envelope shape can be applied to control both the VCA and VCF, combining their tonal and dynamic contours.
The 96 memory locations are laid out in three banks of 32: 'Presets', 'Bank A' and 'Bank B'. The presets are safely fixed in memory and cannot be recorded over, whilst banks A and B are 'patch presets' and can be used for storing your own creations at will. All 96 sounds are editable, so that you can start with any one of them as a basis for your own sound, altering the various parameters to produce exactly what you require and then storing it in any patch memory — 33 to 96. In about 60 seconds, the contents of all 96 memories can be easily stored on cassette tape for future retrieval, thus allowing an unlimited number of sounds to be stored.
This machine could be likened to a very sophisticated, very high quality, 12 input, 12-track portastudio. It offers comprehensive mixing and recording facilities in a single, compact unit. The major problem for most people will be the price tag of £5999.90, and in fact with that in mind, it has to be said that this is a professional's piece of hardware. It's great fun to use and the all-in-one design offers a delightful reprieve from the usual nightmare of mixer-multitrack connecting leads.
When Fostex brought out their ¼" 8-track machine, and then subsequently their ½" 16-track, there was much murmuring in the tents regarding the lack of compatibility with other systems. However, in practise, the extraordinary value they offered won them a sizeable chunk of the amateur and professional markets.
With the Akai MG1212 comes yet another tape standard in the form of a Betamax-style closed ½" cassette. The machine runs at either 3¾ips or 7½ips giving 10 and 20 minutes playing time respectively. At a cost of £15.49 per cassette, and assuming the higher speed for mastering, creating a multi-track tape library could be an expensive hobby. On the other hand, the convenience of having such a compact and relatively robust form of storage may well be worth the price. You can forget about greasy finger marks all over the middle-8 and the age-old enemy, edge damage — you never actually get to touch the tape.
Whilst this insulation has its positive points, it also means that you can't get at the tape for editing. Editing multitrack is not uncommon in professional 24-track studios, but for most people it's a bit of a handful, and they would prefer to limit themselves to 2-track razoring. Whether or not this is a problem for you, then, must depend on your normal method of operation.
Just as with the tape format, the convenient all-in-one design feature also has a negative aspect: should you wish to expand to a larger console format or a larger track format, one at a time, you can't. The 12 into 12 format is fine for recording purposes, but if you want to use any number of effects during mixdown, there are only two dedicated effects return inputs provided. This may be enough for some applications, but anyone able to afford six grand is highly likely to have a wide selection of effects devices — certainly more than two. How are they going to return them to desk when all 12-channels are used up for tape mixdown?
Whilst still on the subject of effects, another limitation of the cassette format is that it doesn't allow reverse echo to be recorded. This process is much used in pop/rock music and involves turning the reels of tape over and recording on them backwards. That just isn't possible with unidirectional cassettes.
The mixing facility is quite comprehensive. It features balanced mic (XLR) and unbalanced line (phone jack) inputs. There is a 2-way pad in front of the mic amp giving either 20dB or 40dB attenuation allowing the connection of a variety of low level sources. The line input is unusually sensitive, and thus when connecting standard line level instruments, the input trim control often has to be right down, and the channel fader below its optimum position. The bonus of this sensitivity is that there is plenty of gain to allow the direct connection of an electric guitar or bass without need of a DI box, and with an input impedance of 50kohms, there should be little problem with HF loss. The use of a DI box and the mic input is still preferable, of course, as it offers all the benefits of a balance line, but if you get caught without one, it's good to have the option.
The 3-band, sweepable eq provides a musical +/-15dB with a nicely overlapping range of frequencies, and is switchable in and out, allowing comparisons to be made between the original sound and your equalised version. There are three auxiliary sends, two of which are pre/post switchable and controlled by a dual-concentric pot which is convenient for use as a single stereo send for either stereo effects or foldback. Surprisingly, there is no channel mute button.
A very useful feature of the 1212 is the provision of nine tape position memories which can be used in various ways including to allow speedy location of specific points in a recording; automatic drop-ins and drop-outs; playback mutes for assisted mixing or 'practise drop-ins' and cycling between two points. This last application is great for repeatedly practising a tricky part until you get it right — constant rewinding can get surprisingly taxing after a while. The main benefit, however, must be the facility to enter into memory the points at which you wish to drop-in and out, and then leave the rest to the Akai technology. Having entered the points, you can hear the effect by having the machine automatically mute playback at those points. If they're slightly wrong, you adjust them until they're right, then go straight ahead with the actual drop-in/drop-out, knowing that it's going to be okay. That's a big relief, and allows you to concentrate on getting the playing right.
There is also an extra track provided to record a sync pulse for a drum machine or sequencer making post syncing a cinch.
Channel to track routing is also fully electronic and centralised. Connecting a source to channel 1 will automatically send it to track 1 etc, unless the channel is otherwise routed. Channels are routed via a single pair of mono busses — A and B. Any number of input channels can be routed to any track via each of these busses, but even so this means that, for instance, should you want to record a complete drum kit on a stereo pair of tracks, you will need to utilise both A and B, leaving no means to route any other tracks. In one way then, it's a sophisticated method, but in another it's very limiting.
All in all neither of the products was stunningly impressive, yet both were well constructed to very high standards. The MG 1212 is capable of excellent quality recordings, and would be ideal for an established writer/producer who wants a quick and convenient way of recording demos at home, but for the average musician, in consideration of the price, it's rather limiting. The AX80 is quite well conceived, but the programming of the sounds is rather weak, and as it stands the competition might well have the edge on it.
Having said that, it must be remembered that this is a new beginning for Akai, and they are still learning. If they use the feedback that they receive from these models constructively, who knows what the future might hold. I for one cant wait to seethe Mark II versions, if and when they arrive!
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Review by James Betteridge