Eat your heart out PPG!
Akai S900 Sampler
Akai's first foray into the sampling market, the S612, was a resounding success. Their new sampling system, aimed more at studios, is considerably more advanced yet still a respectable price. Eventually it will incorporate a multitrack event recorder and harmonic synthesis module, but just released is the first system component - the S900 rack-mount sampler. Mark Jenkins checks it out.
Mark Jenkins gets his hands on Akai's impressive S900 eight-voice sampler which has already had PPG owners tearing their hair out in disgust! Read on and learn why...
If the Akai S612 Sampler made it on speed and efficiency, then the S900 will make it for versatility, attention to detail and sheer quality. For while the S900 isn't much more expensive than the company's first shot at the sampling market, it's ten times more powerful, and enormously attractive to the professional user.
Let's leave aside Akai's astonishing rise to prominence in the pro music field, a success story which has been the envy of many. It's no secret that Akai buy in technology from outside designers, although it is important to note that the company can complete a new product very rapidly and update it according to feedback from dealers and customers. In this way, their MG1212 recorder has been made SMPTE-compatible, and the S612 Sampler (which will remain in the product catalogue for a while yet) has been given a valuable audio sampling trigger input. But the S900 has pretty comprehensive sampling capabilities, and shouldn't need much modification once it gets into the shops.
As most interested parties will know by now, the S900 is a 3U nineteen-inch rack-mounting unit which combines the sampler and disk-drive elements that were separate for the S612. The S900 also uses a new disk design - the 3.5-inch disks familiar to users of the Prophet 2000/2002 and the Atari 520ST computer - rather than the 3.25-inch 'Quick Disks' of the S612 sampler. Loading time from a full one megabyte disk is around forty seconds, which may seem overly long compared with the S612's five seconds and the Prophet 2000's ten seconds per keyboard half. In fact, the S900 has enough memory to hold the sounds for an entire performance, so that forty seconds may be a once-only figure.
Before going on to discuss the finer details of the operation of the S900, let's first look at some basic facts and figures.
The unit is eight-note polyphonic, can multi-sample with up to thirty-two sounds in memory at once, has 12-bit operation with 16kHz maximum frequency response for a twelve second sample (48 seconds at 4kHz), offers a six octave playback range of samples, and responds well to velocity information. The sampler also responds to pitch-bend and modulation, has a built-in envelope generator, filter and LFOs, and features many useful facilities such as Sample Merge, Velocity and Positional Cross-fade, Looping and Alternating Looping. Interested? Read on...
Obviously, the S900 is going to be closely compared to Sequential's Prophet 2002 sampler; it doesn't have the Prophet's arpeggiator, very high frequency response, synthesizer-like filter facilities or velocity-controlled sample start-point, but it is significantly cheaper and uses the same disks, which cost around £45 per box often. Sampling can be an expensive business!
In many ways the S900 is easier to operate than the Prophet, with all the major function selections being made either from a continuously rotating front panel Control wheel or from the calculator-style keypad. There are eight buttons to select the S900's main modes: Play, Record, Edit Sample, Edit Preset, MIDI, Utility, Disk and Tune. Before going on to cover these, a little terminology needs to be explained.
Akai, in their wisdom, have invented the concept of Key Groups on the S900, which consist of one or two sampled sounds (labelled Loud and Soft for velocity control) together with a keyboard range. Thirty-two such Key Groups can be assembled into a Program and eight Programs can be held simultaneously in memory (or on a disk). Of course, the unit has only eight independent voices, and these emerge from a Mix output, from individual jack outputs, and also from a 13-pin multiway socket (as on the S612) designed to interface with Akai's own AX73 synth or VX90 expander. The use of either of these models will allow you to add dynamic filter and chorus effects to the S900's samples. So plenty of scope there.
Samples are edited in the Edit Sample mode as you might guess, and Programs are edited in the Edit Preset mode. However, let's now take a look at how a new sample is made.
The S900 features the same front panel Mic/Line sampling inputs as the previous S612 Sampler, together with a Rec/Play trigger socket as standard. Hit 'Rec' and you're immediately into sampling mode, with the LCD display asking you to name the sound to be sampled. You construct a name by hitting the Letter button and dialling up each letter on the Control wheel; numbers on the other hand are obtained by typing on the keypad, and there is enough space to enter a sound name plus a short code number or other note - such as 'Bass Guit S' for a soft bass guitar. Very user-friendly.
Having named your sound, you'll now want to move to the next 'page' on the LCD display. This is done by pressing the Page Up or Page Down button, which in this case takes us to 'Monitor'. This page allows you to call up an existing sample to use as a tuning reference for your new sound. Next up is 'Sample Type', which has the options Normal, Loud or Soft (the latter two being used for velocity cross-fade sound pairs - whoops, sorry, that should be Key Groups).
'Audio Bandwidth' sets the all-important sample frequency response which can extend up to a maximum of 16kHz, but which defaults to 10kHz to give you around 20 seconds of sampling. Selecting a figure from the Control dial or keypad for this display automatically flashes up your sampling time available, in this case between 250 milliseconds and 19.005 seconds for a 10kHz response - the fact that you can set sampling times accurately to the millisecond using the keypad may be a great advantage in some applications, although as we'll see, it's possible to edit samples retrospectively anyhow so you don't need to be precise at this stage.
The next display is 'Pitch', expressed as both a MIDI Note Number and as a musical note - for example, C5. You can fine tune the pitch of the sample and enter the basic pitch value you want either from the Control dial or from a connected MIDI keyboard. If you don't have a keyboard around, there is a front panel Play button which will play through the sample in memory once, for checking purposes.
The 'Sample Start Option' page follows, which allows you to select MIDI Key Down, Footswitch, or Audio Trigger. There's no default value here, so you have to select one of the three options before you can proceed any further.
The next page consists of a cunningly-designed VU meter laid out sideways on the LCD display, and this has a 'T' indicator for the trigger threshold (which can be moved with the Control dial) plus an indication of 0dB. When you trigger off the sampling mode, a line of arrows builds up along the top of the display to show you how quickly your sampling time is being used up.
Suddenly, after all that, you find yourself with a shiny new sample. Now what to do with it?
Let's assume you want to edit your sample a little before saving it to disk; in this case you hit the Edit Sample button and are first presented with an opportunity to change the sample's name. Then there's a display of overall loudness, coarse and fine pitch - which allows you to standardise your samples against one another to overcome inconsistent sampling practices - followed by the detuning function which also allows you to create chorus effects if you play back detuned pairs of samples.
Next, we have the 'One-Shot, Looping, Alternating' display, which allows you to set an auto-loop locator in action to give your sample a sustain section. Auto-Loop starts from the end of the sample and stops at the first zero crossing point, allowing you to try out the loop and hit Enter to go on to the next one if it's no good. Generally speaking (and except for very complex sounds), a decent loop should be found after three or four attempts.
Obviously this facility is invaluable for the musician who doesn't want to spend a lot of time tediously searching through wavetables or waveform diagrams for appropriate crossing points, and that surely must include all of us! It's also pretty easy to alter the start and end points of the sample; the total sample length is shown in arbitrary units (124,900 for a five second sample - work that one out if you can!), and coarse and fine adjustment of start and end points is available.
With the sample length and loop point displayed numerically, you can then go on to re-sample at half bandwidth if you really need to save memory (a 16kHz response being unnecessary for some percussive sounds), then discard material before and after the section you want to keep, and finally save to disk. The 'Splice/Cross-fade' display comes next, which allows you to name any two samples that you wish to be merged, cross-faded, or simply joined together.
Moving now into an entirely different mode, 'Edit Prog' also begins by asking you to enter a name so that your groups of sounds will always have a convenient label. The second display in this mode is 'Key Loudness' (again,to balance up the levels of sounds which are to be used together) along with a 'Positional Cross-fade' function. This determines just how rapidly one sound turns into another if both overlap on the key assignment page; obviously this permits very complex multi-split Programs to be created which can have sudden transitions between samples at some points and smooth fades or velocity cross-fades at others.
You can then decide how many Key Groups to use in the Program (this procedure wasn't covered in the manual for some obscure reason) and allocate their key ranges. Since the names and key assignments of each Key Group are displayed, multi-sampling becomes a very simple task; each Key Group can have the same loudness, filter, transposition and fine tune settings, or they can remain independent.
The S900's envelope and static filter settings are quite comprehensive, although there isn't actually a dynamic (ADSR-type) envelope for the filter. All the envelope settings have pre-determined default values (0,80,99,30 in fact) so most sampled sounds will work first time if you do make use of the envelope treatment. It's even possible to create a velocity/pitch offset to simulate the bending of a guitar string if you hit the key harder, and Akai have imaginatively labelled this function 'Warp'. Beam me up, Scotty!
Next is the 'LFO' page, which has Depth, Rate, Delay, De-sync (so that individual Key Groups have different LFO treatments), and additional Depth for modulation wheel or after-touch control. You can also set the filter to follow the keyboard position, so that high-pitched sounds are more sparkly and brighter than low-pitched sounds, and select Constant Pitch so that the note played on the MIDI keyboard doesn't affect the pitch at which the sample is replayed - it will always come out at C3 regardless.
More significantly, it's possible to set each Key Group to a different MIDI channel from 0-15 (that is, from 1 to 16 - there's a slight peculiarity of the ROM program here). In fact, there's another MIDI page which allows you to switch Omni Mode off, to select the basic channel for multi-timbral playing of samples, and to test the MIDI functions with a diagnostic routine (which wasn't yet operational on the version I reviewed).
The S900 also has a tremendously useful 'MIDI Monitor' page which flashes up the note value, channel and velocity of any key played into it. The pitch wheel range over MIDI can be set up to a maximum of seven semitones, and you can switch from MIDI to RS232 control, which is a function most probably designed for future computer-aided editing of samples.
Lastly, it's possible to assign the Key Group samples to the left or right stereo audio outputs located on the rear panel, and these will also all appear at their respective individual mono jack outputs as well as at the Mix output.
In terms of the 'Disk' mode, the S900 can hold eight Programs on a single disk, while other disk functions allow you to load individual sounds or an entire disk, to erase individual Programs and samples or to clear whole disks, and to format a new disk, which takes around forty seconds.
The 'Utility' mode wasn't in fact working on the review model, which only leaves 'Tune' mode to be discussed, and this basically sends a Master Tune command to all connected MIDI units - very handy, since Akai still use analogue oscillators in all other synths.
On the rear panel, the S900 features MIDI In, Out and Thru DIN sockets, an RS232 computer interface, and a panel which will eventually house individual trigger input sockets for controlling samples from external drum pads. Also forthcoming for the S900 is an interesting Harmonic Synthesis software package, a Long Duration Looping Recorder package, and a Sample Waveform Editing package - so lookout PPG!!.
The S900 comes supplied with four disks - a set of piano samples which will require a little editing (just to give you some experience on the system), some slapped and picked bass guitars, a 'Welcome' disk with various whacky musical examples, and a blank disk to allow you to start sampling. A library of sounds will be made available (but when?) so I am told, and at least one company, MIDI Services, is already working on alternative samples.
Time to come to a few conclusions about the Akai S900 Sampler, taking into account its rather commendable selling price of £1599 including VAT.
Firstly, you'll probably agree that the sampler sounds much more difficult to use than Akai's original S612 model, which really made its name for speed of use despite slight limitations in other areas. But in practice, you'll be glad to hear, this impression doesn't ring true; almost all the sampling parameters on the S900 have appropriate and instantly usable default values, and if you're happy with them, you can simply thumb 'Page Down' a few times and you'll be ready to go in a jiffy. Specifying your own values is an easy enough process otherwise.
As with most gear these days, some of the function terminology takes a little getting used to, but on the whole the S900's displays are written in clear English. Having so much information displayed in front of you is absolutely invaluable; the two-digit LED displays of the Ensoniq Mirage and Prophet 2000/2002 pale into insignificance in comparison.
Certainly, the S900 is a versatile machine that allows you to create complex multi-split samples quite quickly. This procedure is a nightmare to achieve satisfactorily on the Mirage and only slightly better on the Prophet, although the Prophet does have one facility missing from the Akai, namely velocity control of the sample start-point. However, you can still achieve plenty with Akai's velocity and positional cross-fade, warp and filter tracking facilities.
The lack of a dynamic filter envelope may be missed by those wishing to further process their samples, but Akai's VX90 synth module wouldn't be too expensive an addition to solve this problem, and would add decent analogue synth sounds to the sampler's armoury.
As for overall sound quality, a 16kHz sample bandwidth is highly respectable, and the Akai is capable of a bright and cutting sound if desired. What undoubtedly gives this machine the edge for those most interested in recording, are the eight individual voice outputs which take the S900 out of the Prophet/Mirage league into the Emulator II league as far as recording practices go.
The Akai unit looks good and sounds good, not in the least out of place in the most professional studio setting, and so the company can expect good sales to the pro studio market. A certain number of studio and home users will probably go for the MX73 keyboard to accompany it, as that unit seems excellent value for money as a powerful multi-split mother keyboard.
If you haven't already guessed it, what I'm trying to say is that the S900 is inevitably going to be an enormous success for Akai. Falling mid-way in price between the comparable Mirage Multi-Sampler and Prophet 2002 units, it improves on both of them in many ways, and thanks to its generous LCD display is undeniably easier to use. With additional hardware and software options on the way, the Akai S900 Sampler is going to be a world-beater!
Review by Mark Jenkins
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