Snap Shots & Symphonies
Akai S612 MIDI Sampler
Akai's first sampler - with its own 'Quick Disk' facility.
Akai don't look as if they are a company who do things in halves. Only 8 months ago they launched their first line of equipment in the pro-musician market - namely a 12-track recorder/mixer using video tape as its recording medium, and a 8 note polyphonic, programmable, touch-sensitive keyboard. At this year's Frankfurt Music Messe, they unveiled eight additions to their new range - a MIDI polysynth, a mother keyboard,.a Music Computer system, Sound Module, MIDI Arpeggiator, Delay and Fader (all of which work via MIDI control of the MIDI'd instrument's sound generator), and the S612 MIDI sampler.
The S612 is housed in a 2U 19" rackmounting unit. First impressions are of a very smartly styled, organised and clearly labelled facia, which has a colour scheme extremely reminiscent of Yamahas more recent lines - lots of green, mauve, red and blue. A quick peek around the back however gives this away as being the pre-production unit that it is by the absence of any labelling for the three connections, in addition to having two anonymous push-buttons and a single red LED.
As most people must know by now, sampling is the name given to the short-term digital recording of sound, which can then be replayed in real time, either by external triggering as on the DMX15 80S, or from a keyboard as on the Fairlight.
Where Akai's S612 fits in, is somewhere between the two, in that its physical appearance/construction is not dissimilar to AMS's DDL, whilst its samples can be stored onto floppy disk and are played by a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI source. The floppy disk storage of samples is optional but the MIDI instrument of control of the samples is essential. In this respect the fundamental system that we are talking about is the Akai S612 with a MIDI keyboard, which is in my case a DX7 synthesiser.
The facilities that the S612 offers are sampling from 2 to 8 seconds, editing, looping. LFO modulation and filtering of the sample and as I previously mentioned, the ability to Save/Load this data onto the 'Quick Disk' disk drive for immediate storage and retrieval of the sample.
Looking at the front panel, on the left is the power On/Off switch, two input jacks (mic and line), input level and monitor level knobs. Input level is indicated by a 7 stage LED record level meter with indicators in green up to 0dB, and then three reds for 0, +3 and +5dB. One other input socket 'Ext Trigger', is not for the external triggering of samples but for manually controlling the start of sampling.
The touch-pads in the center of this unit's facia are colour-coded, the two red buttons on the left are for recording of samples, mauve buttons for MIDI channel and Mono/poly switching, brown for data transfer to disk, and blue for sustain mode (looping etc). Coming back to the two record mode buttons, these are labelled 'new' and 'overdub', and are self-explanatory in that when you hit the 'New' button, on hearing a signal the S612 will load a new sample, erasing the memory's previous contents. However, by hitting the 'Overdub' button, you will retain the previous sample, while being able to load a new sample 'on top' of it. This feature is quite useful for building up unusual effects, however I found its best use was in simulating multi-samples over the keyboard. For example, a single sample of a piano will sound realistic within the octave of the sampled note, yet when you play a couple octaves away, it will begin to sound like a banjo, or low 'mess' as the case may be. So by sampling two or three notes over the keyboard, although not cutting out the sound of samples out of their range, the effect still dramatically improves the scaling of the voices. You could of course overdub many more than two or three times, however you would degrade the sound quality much in the same way as 'bouncing' on a conventional tape machine.
The S612's sampling time is determined by the note played on a MIDI instrument prior to sampling, and this can be from 2 seconds to 8 seconds. The sample 'root note' and sample length are determined prior to actually recording it. Play C below middle C, and you've not only set it as the center point of the sample's range, but selected its sample time — the lower the note, the longer the sample, the higher the note, the shorter it gets (with corresponding effects on bandwidth and hence, sound quality.) Optimum quality being achieved at the minimum sampling time. This roughly reached a 15KHz bandwidth for the shortest sample time, and fell when sampling time increased to this unit's maximum sampling time of 8 seconds, to a point where treble could be termed non-existent.
The mauve buttons come under the heading of 'MIDI', and are for Mono/Poly, Channel Up and Channel Down switching. The S612 will receive MIDI information (key on/off, pitch and velocity sensing) on 9 MIDI channels as well as an Omni mode for reception from any MIDI channel (display reading 'O' in this case).
Beneath the MIDI switching are three brown touch-pads for data transfer to-and-from disk. When the S612 is used in conjunction with the 'Quick Disk', the whole system becomes more versatile. It can be used to store libraries of, alternative snares, different bass guitars, or simply many different samples and effects for live use (all looping, etc. being stored with the samples of course)
In fact to the get the most out of this unit I would recommend that it be used with the disk drive as the looping and editing of samples can be a fiddly business, as I'll now explain.
To the right of the record level indicator are two horizontal sliders, beneath which are three blue touch-pads marked 'One Shot', 'Looping', and 'Alternative'. These are the controls with which samples are 'tidied-up'. In the straightforward 'One Shot' mode, a sample will be replayed once, and the two sliders will control its start and end points. This is how you can sample a sound off a drum track, and then 'edit' it so as to just play the snare, for example.
In the 'Looping' mode these sliders are assigned to the start and end of the loop. In order to hear how shifting the sliders affects the looping, there is a black button on the back of the S612 which repeats the sample every time a slider is moved - a very useful function, but still it is next to impossible to produce a loop without a slight click on this unit. One other looping mode is available, called 'Alternative'. Here certain unconventional looping effects can be achieved, such as the first loop being a segment of the original sample, yet played backwards.
Further to the right are an LFO and output stage. The LFO controls consist of rate and depth as well as a delay control for determining the amount of time before the LFO affects the sample. The LFO is very useful in 'covering up' clicks in loops, and de-humanises sampled vocals adequately. In the output section is a tone control and a decay control which will affect the release time of the sample. Then all that is left is the output level control, a tuning control and single output socket to conclude the front panel bits and pieces.
On the S612's back panel are the MIDI connections, and a socket for the disk drive (presumably, as there are no labels on the back panel of this model - even for which is the MIDI In or Thru...).
There is a little red (again un-labelled) button above which is a red LED which flashes when the button is pushed to enable transposition of the samples over the keyboard. You press the button, the LED will flash, and the note you play on the keyboard will correspond to the original pitch of the sample.
It is unfortunate that Akai have not put any additional inputs and outputs on the rear panel for studio linkage (as it is rack-mounting) to a patch-bay, but the red and black buttons have been shifted to the front panel on production models.
The S612 was one of the big surprises at Frankfurt, and is certainly something for Akai to be very proud of. It is a very useable piece of equipment, with all the essential features which are necessary on a sampler of this calibre. The way in which one loops and edits samples is very simple and easy to deal with, making the S612 a convenient, simple and rewarding instrument to use.
Prices: S612 £899, Quick Disk £279.90;
Review by Curtis Schwartz