Steal Of The Century
Akai S01 16-bit Sampler
At last, a sampler that's affordable, expandable and approachable.
OK, there's a recession on - but can you really afford not to read about a machine that pushes back the frontier of low-cost sampling? Paul White thinks not... Additional research by Derek Johnson.
Akai are no newcomers to budget sampling — indeed, it was they who started the whole 'affordable sampling' ball rolling, first with their S612 and later with the excellent S700/X7000 machines, the latter being flawed only by their very restricted sampling time and their reliance on the costly 2.8" Quickdisks.
The new S01 has been designed to a price, but rather than compromising on sound quality, storage or sampling time, Akai have chosen instead to limit features to the essentials. Unlike the S900 and 950 samplers which use 12-bit convertors, the S01 uses full 16-bit conversion, like the S1000 and S1100 models, but at a fixed sampling rate of 32kHz. This translates into very low noise and distortion, with an audio bandwidth somewhere between 14 and 15kHz, all of which bodes well for clean, accurate sampling. As standard, the S01 comes equipped with a little over 15.5 seconds of sampling memory which can be used all at once or to hold up to eight separate samples; an optional memory expansion doubles the available sampling time but the maximum number of samples in memory at one time remains at eight. The eight samples may be allocated to a keyboard split or addressed multitimbrally on different MIDI channels, but as the maximum polyphony of the unit is limited to eight notes playing simultaneously, it's more realistic to use the S01 for playing just one or two parts at a time.
While the technical specification is admirable for a sampler in this price range, many of the features taken for granted by those used to working with Akai's more up-market samplers have been omitted, and whether this poses a problem for you depends very much on how you work. Not only is this a mono unit, but there is only a single, mixed output so there's no way to separate sounds when mixing other than to record them to tape. Also gone is the comprehensive envelope shaping of Akai's more expensive samplers, to be replaced by a basic release time parameter, but speaking as an S950 user myself, I find that most of the time that's all I need. Another cost-cutting measure is the simple LED display, which replaces the rather more informative LCD readouts used on Akai's other machines, but on the plus side, the operating system is the very embodiment of user-friendliness.
Physically, the unit is instantly recognisable as an Akai sampler, the 2U case being finished in Akai's beige livery. The internal disk drive is a standard, 3.5" unit capable of using either standard Double Density (DD) disks or the higher capacity high density (HD) disks. MIDI implementation is quite conventional, but Akai have thoughtfully provided two MIDI In sockets with a front panel switch to select between the two — useful when switching from master keyboard to sequencer control. The audio output is also duplicated on the front panel.
One glance at the front panel should give you an idea of how the operating system works. The major functions are set out in the form of a four-deep, eight-wide matrix of printed legends. Beneath the printed matrix are the record button and eight selector buttons. Cursor buttons are used to select the required parameter from the matrix, horizontal and vertical LEDs following the selection, while the data entry knob can be used to change the value of the parameter selected.
Recording a sample is relatively easy, and the input level control has an associated sensitivity switch for selecting between -12dBm (typical home recording line level) and -52dBm, for lower level sources such as electric guitars, effects pedals and so on. Though there is no dedicated level meter, the matrix LEDs function as a bargraph during record and, as is the case with other Akai samplers, the recording process can be triggered automatically by the input signal, simply by setting a triggering threshold. Pressing the Bank selector button relating to the sample you've just recorded plays it back without the need for a keyboard, which is good for quick confidence checks.
Once a sample has been recorded, any unwanted silence can be trimmed off the front to make sure it starts instantly, and looping is implemented to create long sustained sounds. It is also possible to play samples backwards by swapping the start and end points. Only samples with a relatively constant level will loop neatly and some trial and error is required to get a clean loop, especially as the LED display is far too coarse to rely on when setting loop or trim points. However, even with my S950, I have to fine-tune loops by ear, and the S01 can produce very high-quality loops with only a little perseverance. Rapidly decaying sounds can also be played without loops; a Mono triggering option enables samples to be cut off when retriggered, for break-beat effects or fast drum fills which might otherwise exceed the polyphony of the unit.
Individual sample banks may be saved to disk, but it is easier to save the entire memory in one go in the form of an All file. Even with a fully expanded memory, the entire memory should fit onto a single HD disk, and with a standard machine, you should get two or more All files on one HD disk. There is no way of naming the files but they are automatically numbered as they are put onto disk; some form of personal labelling is mandatory if chaos is to be avoided. Good news is that Akai are already putting together a sample library for this machine which users may access free of charge, while samples (samples only — not program information) can also be read from existing S900, S950, S1000 and S1100 disks. In the case of the S900 and S950 disks, the sample resolution remains at 12-bit - we tried some samples from a friend's S900 library and found that they were read by the S01, though needed work on end and loop points. Because of the fixed sample rate of the S01, many samples from other machines will need transposing after loading, but a table at the back of the manual helps in this. In practice, some of the samples loaded in this way need a little work, as you occasionally get a bit of noise or corruption after the sample which needs to be trimmed off. This may be caused by the slightly different looping arrangements of the various machines.
And talking of looping, one of my gripes, which also extends to the more costly Akai samplers, is that the Loop and trim points are always shown in actual samples, which means that you have to get out your calculator to find out how that equates to elapsed time. If anyone at Akai is listening, let's have the option of working in milliseconds please!
Other features include the ability to select keyboard ranges for the various samples, pitch transposing and tuning, bend range and so forth, but one important thing that is missing is any form of vibrato LFO. This might not seem a big deal, but I know from experience that vibrato, particularly delayed vibrato, is exceedingly useful in disguising less than perfect loops in sounds like strings and choirs.
Despite the simplified operating system, the S01 can cope with the majority of sampling jobs without the compromises showing too much. It has enough memory to allow it to sample wholesale chunks of sound or music, while the looping facilities make it useful as a musical instrument. Some people will bemoan the fact that there is only one output, or that you can only change the release time of a sample, but for me, the lack of a delay vibrato facility was more serious.
Tonally, the sound is both clean and warm, though the sound quality does start to suffer if a sample is played more than an octave or so below its original pitch. You would expect a sample to sound a trifle 'crunchy' when played back at a significantly lower pitch than the original, but because dropping the pitch presumably involves dropping the sample rate, aliasing effects start to become evident in the form of non-harmonically related distortion, which get worse the more you drop the pitch. However, don't get this out of proportion — by being sensible in choosing what note to sample in the first place, most such nasties can be avoided, unless you actually want to use them for artistic reasons.
Operationally, the machine is very logical and straightforward to use and the only thing which requires any mental effort or perseverance on behalf of the user is setting up the best trim and loop points. There's even a selection of sample disks included with the machine to get you started.
With a full list price of less than £700, any compromises made in the design of the S01 have to be seen in the context of what else is available for the price. The old S700 cost a similar amount of money yet had a limited sample time, giving a maximum of something like two seconds at anything like a usable audio bandwidth, as opposed to the 15+ seconds you get from an unexpanded S01 at a very respectable 15kHz or so bandwidth. This is a mono sampler, and I for one can live with the single mono output. As for the lack of any envelope controls other than release time, that's fine — most of the time that's all I use on my S950. I do, however, find the lack of any vibrato facilities more frustrating and I would have liked to have some form of user-tweakable cross-fade looping, even if only in the form of an add-on circuit board, as was the case with the S700/X7000. It would also have been nice to be able to halve the sampling rate for those occasions where full bandwidth is less important than overall sampling time. Indeed, many of the features omitted rely on software rather than hardware and I have a feeling that what was left in and what was taken out was as much a matter of marketing strategy as it was of technical practicality.
The expandability of the S01 is excellent for a machine of this price, while the ability to pillage samples from other Akai formats (albeit involving a little effort on behalf of the user) is sure to be a big bonus as far as sales are concerned. Another plus point is the fact that the machine can use HD disks as well as DD; HDs can hold up to 1.44Mbytes of data which is almost three time the memory of an unexpanded S01 (500kbytes).
In some ways, the S01 is the ideal budget machine for dance music production because it is simple to use, has adequate memory and the facilities that have been omitted are the ones least used in these applications anyway. On the other hand, the machine is also capable of excellent musical results so long as you don't expect it to do anything too sophisticated, while the generally good audio performance should secure it a place in many professional audio and broadcast facilities as well as home studios. Finally, affordable sampling actually does mean affordable!
Akai S01 £699; EXM001 upgrade (doubles sample time), £79. Prices include VAT.
Akai UK, (Contact Details).
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