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...
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.
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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