Breaking The Ice
Who'd have guessed that Akai Iceland were about to release a MIDI bass controller and major software updates for the DD1000? Mørv Smørdilørv proves that you never can predict innovation.
With so many new developments coming from Japan, America and Germany, it's easy to forget that research work is going on all over the world. This report from Akai Iceland serves as a reminder of its importance.
Iceland might seem a strange place to find a section of a Japanese Company's R&D department, but Akai have been steadily building an international team, utilising abilities that have developed in various countries. Iceland, of course, is renowned for its post-production houses and has produced a stream of fresh ideas which fit in readily with the advance of technology. As none of the regular MT investigative team were able to make the trek to Iceland in time for this issue, I was asked to leave my own job as owner and manager of the popular Mackerel Pie Studio to bring in this report.
Downtown Reykjavik is the home of Glacier House Productions, the brainchild of Erik Thrømsjargg who also heads up the Akai team currently working on developing new systems.
"I started with Akai last year and it's been great", he explains after introducing himself. "I had my own production company for some time and had lots of ideas on how equipment should progress in the future."
How, I wondered, did Erik's work come to the attention of Akai in the first place?
"Well, I was doing some work for The Iceland Television Service", he replies. "It was a soap opera called Herringfølke and we decided that we could improve the speed and efficiency of laying down the audio. Back then we were still using the old Gaussfunk recorders and they were not so reliable. Sometimes we had to go on air and add the effects in real time. We used to get lots of complaints. Then I had this idea: a friend and I had got into computer programming using our Commodore 64s and one morning I woke up and said 'hey Lars' (Lars Trentøklaarksul is Thrømsjargg's long-time friend and collaborator) 'we could make a something here!' Of course he wasn't awake and said something like 'Go back to sleep, you wønker!' He's quite a joker, you know?"
The result was a genuine innovation - a multitrack digital recorder with timecode synchronisation running from custom software in the Commodore. Trentøklaarksul takes up the story.
"Of course we had lots of problems", he begins. "Storage space was limited because we had chosen 2.8" Quick Disks as the storage media and we had to find a way to change disks quickly. Fortunately, the same day we got the system up and running, we had a visit from our friend Loof (Loof Lirpa - now a permanent member of the team) who used to work with some British company. Loof came up with this quick-change system where the disks were stacked and just dropped into place on request. It was really original!"
This was the start of even greater things as the work piled in and the system gradually expanded as the team got into their stride. We asked where they sourced their sound effects for the very impressive library they currently own.
Thrømsjargg: "Most of them we recorded ourselves. Whenever we needed something, we just whipped out the portable wire recorder and made noises - great fun! One time we needed the sound of a group of angry sea-lions for Herringfølke and we just stood in the middle of the room grunting and slapping each other with wet fish. Unfortunately, the landlord walked in just then and we had to find another place to work. But you can't find that sort of thing in the BBC library, can you?"
So how did they start to work with Akai?
Trentøklaarksul: "Everytime we saw them at an exhibition we would suggest improvements to their DD1000 optical disk recorder based on our own system. I don't think that they appreciated it at first, but eventually they suggested that we did it ourselves. They were very reasonable about it and said we could take as much time as we liked as long as we updated them on progress every year or so."
"I'm still programming in Basic, of course. I mean, if it ain't broke, don't fix it! Know what I mean?"
So what improvements will go into the new model?
"Currently they are looking at making the system completely open-ended so that the user can program-in the features that they require."
Doesn't this mean the user will have to learn high-level programming?
"Yes, obviously", says Thrømsjargg, "but it is a very small price to pay for getting this possibility. The only problem is with the operators' manual - it's getting a bit big."
What other features are likely to be included?
Trentøklaarksul: "Whilst we agree on the importance of front-end software, we feel that the backside has been neglected, so we're working hard to make it more accessible. We are also developing a mode called Foreplay mode, this is where the entire machine can be primed before plugging in. Also, we will make use of the digital processing board to whip up an effect or two. We've just finished one called Flange-elation."
"Although we haven't got an optical disk to work with, we've managed to duplicate the effect by utilising the ultraviolet rays coming through the hole in the ozone layer" reveals Thrømsjargg. "Bouncing them off a giant mirror mounted on top of Lars' house and directing them through an open window in the roof works good on sunny days but it does slow us down when it's cloudy."
Trentøklaarksul continues: "I'm still programming in Basic, of course. I mean, if it ain't broke don't fix it! Know what I mean? This gave me an idea to incorporate a 'Shoot-em-up' game into the DD1000 for those moments when you need some kind of diversion."
"The portable version is nearly ready", Thrømsjargg reveals, "we just had to make up a special pair of brackets for the ski attachments. We'll have to make the buttons a bit bigger too, because it's a bit tricky trying to hit the right one wearing thick woolly mittens."
Are the resourceful duo still managing to keep up their post-production work during this development period?
"You pluck it just like a string, but it doesn't need a neck because it's rigid - you just 'fret' the string itself."
"For sure", says Trentøklaarksul. "We've just received a contract to work on a new series called Magnus, which is all about a quizmaster who solves murders. We've got to do all the language dubbing for other countries - the first one is for China. I don't know where we'll find an Icelandic who speaks Chinese, I suppose we'll have to find a Chinese who speaks Icelandic. Then we've got a film coming up. It's called Geyser II - the final confrontation."
Astonished at the level of development which had been going on almost under my own nose, I was disappointed when it was almost time to wind up the interview. One final question had to be answered, however. When will this tasty system be available?
"Well, you know what software is like", says Thrømsjargg, enigmatically, "it's completely impossible to predict. So we'll announce it now and hope for the best."
Thrømsjargg, however, is not the only Icelander with ideas - Trentøklaarksul too has an invention going through the Akai R&D department. But where Thrømsjargg's creativity begins in the studio, Trentøklaarksul's ingenuity favours the performing musician. His Rod-knee, therefore, is a MIDI bass controller with a difference - a couple of differences, in fact. He explained them on the Ski-doo as we travelled back to Reykjavik station.
The first is derived from the fact that Trentøklaarksul has modelled it on a tea-chest bass, and so it has only one string. The second - and this is the secret of its success - is that the "string" is solid.
"Ja ja", responds the friendly inventor as I point this out. "You see, the trouble with MIDI basses is that they use pitch-to-MIDI systems and these are too slow for such low notes. So I use the graphite rod - I'm a Brookside fan so I call it the 'Suspended Rod' system - instead. You pluck it just like a string but it doesn't need a neck because it's rigid - you just 'fret' the string itself. The vibrations are much faster than ordinary guitar string vibrations and they're detected by special circuitry in the headstock. This deducts the unfretted length of rod from the total length and gives you the pitch that was played, but there's no conversion from pitch information so it's very fast. Also it's wireless - the transmitter is part of the Rod-knee and it comes with a receiver/decoder ready to connect to any MIDI system.
"Oh, yes - I call it Rod-knee because of the integral knee rest in the design. It's kind of an Icelandic joke, yes?
"Before I had the right material for the string it was not so good, though. I was using a zinc-based material and it wouldn't conduct the vibrations unless it was super cooled. That's how my wife lost three of her finger tips. She used to be a cellist, you know'?"
Since this interview took place, Akai Iceland have generously given me the chance to to try the new recording/editing system at Mackerel Pie. And, as we had an important solo session with the Sugar Cubes' Bjork lined up, we were able to put it through its paces in earnest - but Earnest was on holiday that week! (That's another Icelandic joke!) Although we're sworn to secrecy regarding system specifics, I can confidently say that we can't wait to get a production version installed. And the finished version of the Rod-knee is arriving next week and should be launched at the Frankfurt trade show. It's going to be a great step forward for MIDI and for bass players. And for Iceland.