Improve Your Memory
PLI Infinity Turbo Drive
Removable hard disks represent a cost-effective solution to data backup and storage problems for sampler owners. Kendall Wrightson takes a look at the PLI Infinity Turbo Drive in use with the Akai S1000.
Over the past few years samplers seem to have developed an insatiable appetite for floppy disks. The worst offenders eat floppy disks as if they were going out of fashion. Fortunately, they are - albeit rather slowly. This penchant for floppy disks, aided and abetted by the public's demand for 16-bit stereo sound quality, has yet to be satisfied despite the introduction of high density 3.5" disks.
For example, a standard 'slim' two megabyte (2Mb) Akai S1000 eats two 1.4 megabyte floppy disks just to save one full memory. A really 'fat' 8Mb S1000, fitted with three EXM005 2Mb memory upgrades, will eat six disks pausing only to ask you to insert another disk (make sure they're in the right sequence). Saving to disk, of course, takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. Words like 'impractical' and 'silly' come to mind. What's needed is a fast, high capacity, small, robust, cheap, standardised, interchangeable alternative to the floppy disk...
With average access times (the time it takes to retrieve data off the disk) of less than 50 milliseconds, the 'hard drive' is certainly fast. Storage capacity isn't a problem either - hard drives typically range from 20 to 750 megabytes. They are now much more robust, too; robust enough to be fitted inside sampling keyboards and expanders. Although improvements in the physical size of hard drives have been made in the last few years, in comparison with a floppy disk or a credit card-style RAM pack, the average hard disk seems immense.
Hard drive prices have dropped considerably over the last few years, with the proliferation of PC compatible computers. For example, an internally fitted 40Mb hard drive for a PC can be bought for under £400. However, as a PC drive, it will need an additional interface card which fits into a PC expansion slot. Any further peripherals will also require expansion slots.
'Hard Cards', a recent development, are even cheaper, because the hard drive is fitted to the interface card itself. Unfortunately, these hard drives and cards can only be used on machines fitted with an IBM PC compatible bus.
The idea behind the Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI, or 'scuzzy' for short) is that it permits up to seven devices to be daisy-chained to a host computer (or sampler) fitted with a SCSI port, without the need for expansion slots or interface cards. Physically, a SCSI port appears as a multiway D-type connector, and a SCSI peripheral will have two SCSI ports - a Data In port, and a Data Through port for connection to the next SCSI peripheral in the chain.
Unfortunately, the addition of SCSI makes hard drives expensive. A 40 megabyte SCSI external drive for the Apple Macintosh range (which has a SCSI port fitted as standard; PCs do not) costs around £1000. Also, SCSI is really only a hardware standard, since the host cannot communicate with a peripheral unless it knows what it is, ie. unless device-specific software has been written.
Nonetheless, the SCSI standard is better than no standard, and is rapidly gaining acceptance in the music industry, with Akai, Emu, Ensoniq, Korg and Roland among the first to fit SCSI ports to their range of professional samplers and CD ROM players.
Once you have a hard disk drive, the next question is what to do when the hard disk fills up. Buying another (or a bigger) hard disk is about as sensible as stone cladding your house, and much more expensive. Until recently, the only sensible backup solution was tape streaming. However, tape streamers are slow and very expensive: a 40Mb streamer costs around £1000. The new generation of DAT (digital audio tape) streamers provide a slightly more elegant solution, since a DAT recorder, unlike a tape streamer, can at least provide a decent tune when not being used for streaming. Thankfully, there are better alternatives to the tape streamer...
About two years ago the first removable hard drive media started to appear. These hard drives take the form of a cartridge which, when full, can be exchanged for a new one. Among the first to manufacture such devices were the American companies Bernoulli and Syquest. Indeed, it is a Syquest mechanism that lives in the PLI Infinity Turbo Drive.
Looking like see-through floppy disks that have undergone some incredible mutation, these 45Mb cartridges are surprisingly tough. Like floppies they have a write protect tab, but unlike floppies they measure about six inches square and weigh about 500g.
The Syquest mechanism is also found in the Mass Micro, Rodime and Relax removable hard drives - their cartridges are identical, and therefore compatible with the PLI, though each manufacturer's Macintosh (driving) software is different.
As a Macintosh hard drive, the PLI is very fast. It fair rattles along at about twice the speed of any other drive I've ever used. On the spec sheet, hard drive speed can be judged from the 'average access time'. Over the past two years an access time of between 40 to 80ms has been common; the PLI drive has an access time of 25ms. The PLI is supplied with several Macintosh software utilities, in particular the disk copier and the disk cache are extremely useful.
The UK distributors of the PLI drive, MCMXCIX of London, have persuaded Akai that the PLI's removable media constitutes the most accessible and reliable format in which to store sounds for the S1000 range of samplers. Akai have responded by writing appropriate software to recognise the PLI.
Aesthetically, the PLI is designed to sit under a Macintosh Plus or SE, so it's the same colour as a Mac, and looks a bit odd sitting on top of a clinically white S1000. Fortunately, MCMXCIX offer a 19" rackmount kit, fitted with a front panel mains switch, which makes things look a little better (see photo).
Having installed the Akai IB103 SCSI Interface Board in your S1000 sampler, the PLI drive can be connected. Both the S1000 and PLI should be switched off whilst the SCSI cable is connected and the SCSI ID switch set. All SCSI devices have an ID number (0 to 7), and data is automatically prefixed with this ID number before transmission down the SCSI bus. The PLI drive is factory set as SCSI device number '4', though this can be changed with the little red selector dial located on the PLI's rear panel.
My only real quibble with the PLI is that it is internally terminated. This means that it is not possible to daisy-chain several PLI's together - which is the whole point of the SCSI standard; the PLI drive has to be the first or last device in the chain.
(It is possible to remove the termination from inside the unit, though how this will affect the warranty is as yet unclear. If this is done, an external SCSI terminator needs to be connected to the SCSI Through port. If a terminator is not fitted, the load on the host device (S1000) can be enough to blow the power supply, so it's best to ask a man who knows about SCSI before attempting this!) Multiple PLI's connected to one S1000 would allow Akai to write a SCSI copying routine to speed up cartridge copying. At present, MCMXCIX has to back up cartridges onto DAT (using the Akai IB 104 Digital Audio Interface update).
Before a serious loading/saving experience can take place, the PLI cartridges have to be formatted. As the software supplied with the PLI works with the Macintosh, it is necessary to format from the PLI with a Mac. Once connected to the S1000, a further formatting operation is necessary.
The entire Mac/Akai formatting operation takes a good 30 minutes. Fortunately, MCMXCIX do this for you with all new cartridges, which is something of a relief. The formatting also reduces the capacity of the PLI cartridge from 45 to 42.5 megabytes.
When the PLI is turned on, the green power LED illuminates and a red LED stays lit until full operational speed is reached. At this point a rather comforting click is heard, the red LED goes off, and the drive is ready for use. Despite the internal fan, the PLI is very quiet - quieter than an S1000 fitted with an internal hard drive.
The Akai SCSI software is very easy to use, the S1000 soft keys offering all the usual load, save, rename, delete, clear, go and formatting options. The F5 soft key, labelled 'FIDSK', provides access to the SCSI ID screen. Here it is necessary to tell the S1000 the ID number set on the PLI. The SCSI ID number of an S1000's internal hard disk (if fitted) also shows up here. It is very important that the two ID numbers are different, otherwise the set-up will crash.
Data on the PLI can be viewed by volume, program or sample. The maximum size of a 'volume' is dependent on the memory size of the S1000 in use, therefore a volume could be up to eight megabytes in size.
MCMXCIX offer four PLI cartridges of sounds for the S1000, and have wisely chosen to restrict all their volumes to 2Mb, which is the standard S1000 memory size. A 2Mb volume takes about 10 seconds to load into a clear memory. Confirmation of access is given on the S1000's display, which bears the legend 'Loading...', and also by the PLI's red LED flickering on and off. Adding samples or programs to a bank takes a lot longer, as the S1000 has to re-arrange its memory to incorporate the new sounds.
It is possible to try a different cartridge without turning the whole system off, but it takes a little longer than changing a normal floppy disk. First, the cartridge release lever must be pulled back on the PLI drive. This immediately illuminates the red LED, and the drive slows down. Once stopped, the red LED goes out, the cartridge can be removed and another one inserted. The release lever can then be pushed in and 30 seconds later, the new cartridge is up to speed and ready for accessing.
It cannot be stressed strongly enough that the cartridge must not be removed whilst being accessed by the S1000 - the outcome would be similar to dropping the cartridge from the top of a high-rise block of flats!
As a method of quickly auditioning sounds, the PLI is fast and simple to use once set up. The sounds that come supplied (apparently unavailable for any other machine) are professionally sampled and arranged. The four cartridges currently available are soon to be complemented by a fifth, giving a grand total of over 200 megabytes of sounds - the equivalent of 143 high density floppy disks.
The initial investment of £1350, for the PLI drive and one cartridge, may seem expensive when compared to a standard 40Mb SCSI hard drive price of around £1000. However, additional 45Mb cartridges cost £125 each, so the PLI quickly becomes cost-effective. The PLI would certainly give pro studios, hire companies, and session players the edge over the competition, and for them the PLI comes highly recommended.
A further advantage for the professional samplist is that the PLI drive can also be used with the Emulator III and the Simmons SDX, and in all probability other future SCSI-equipped musical hardware. Please note, however, that the S1000 sounds are not directly compatible with other samplers.
Those of more humble means should take a long look at the Akai IB104 Digital Audio Interface Board. At £299 it represents very good value for DAT owners, offering digital domain sampling and an inexpensive, though slow, real-time sample backup facility.
Ideally, all samplers and computers should come supplied with a built-in, high capacity, exchangeable storage medium. At present, the main drawback to this is the relatively high cost of removable hard drives. This problem is currently also shared by the new breed of optical read/write drives now being developed. However, there can be little doubt that these optical drives will ultimately provide the solution to the storage crisis.
In the meantime, storage will continue to be the weakest link in the chain. Thus the system offered by removable hard drives, like the PLI, currently provides the only professional option.
PLI Infinity Turbo Drive (including one cartridge) £1395. 45Mb cartridge £125 (three for £345). Rack-mount kit £135.
MCMXCIX, (Contact Details).
Akai S1000 Upgrades:
EXM005 2Mb memory expansion board (maximum of three per S1000) £699.
IB102 Atari/Supra Hard Disk interface £99.
IB103 Hard Disk Interface Board £99.
IB104 Digital Audio Interface Board £299.
Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Kendall Wrightson
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