The New Standard?
No-one can deny that Akai's S900 is the 'industry standard' sampler, having kept all newcomers at bay for well over two years. But now there's a new heir to the throne. David Mellor looks at the long-awaited 16-bit stereo, 16-note polyphonic S1000.
No-one can deny that Akai's S900 is the 'industry standard' sampler, having kept all newcomers at bay for well over two years. But now there's a new heir to the throne. David Mellor looks at the long-awaited successor to the S900 - the 16-bit stereo, 16-note polyphonic S1000.
Say it out loud... '16 bit stereo sampling'. It has a nice sound to it, doesn't it? Now try '12 bit mono'. Doesn't sound so good. In fact, it conjures up unhappy memories of all those samples that were unusable because the 12 bit quantisation noise got the better of them. The samples that needed a rackful of effects units to create a 3D image from cardboard cutouts. Those percussion reverb tails that dissolved into sandpaper hiss, rather than velvet silence.
Progress has some strange side effects. What was once earth shatteringly wonderful becomes outdated and inadequate. As far as 12-bit sampling is concerned, perhaps I am stating the case a bit too strongly as 12-bit samplers have a lot of good use in them yet. But take my word for it, one by one they will disappear and a cornucopia of stereo 16 bitters will take their place.
Up till now, affordable 16-bit sampling has meant the Casio FZ1 and its rack-mount equivalent, the FZ10M. But this hasn't stopped other manufacturers from selling 12-bit units in quantity. One which stands out for me is the Roland S550 (and the junior S330 model). Its TV monitor display beats the hell out of squinting at the fuzzy LCD windows of the competition. The Yamaha TX16W, too - once you have penetrated its complexities - has a lovely vibrant sound quality which could give it a market status that could keep it in contention for many months to come.
But it was Akai, with the S900, who made sampling serious and wallet-friendly. There are many musicians and studio owners waiting to see what Akai can come up with next, before raising their sampling status. Even with the advantage of 16-bit performance, the S1000 will need to be a very well thought out machine to maintain Akai's reputation. And if it fulfills expectations... well, there are going to be an awful lot of Building Society managers wondering where all the cash is going!
It's a question of noise performance. In any digital system, the basic equation is 6dB of signal-to-noise ratio per bit. Therefore, 12 bits equals 72dB signal-to-noise, 16 bits equals 96dB - an improvement of 24dB. To put this in perspective, 72dB is a little better than you would expect from a cassette deck with Dolby C noise reduction and good tape in perfect condition.
Digital noise, however, is well known to have more nuisance value than analogue noise dB for dB. So a 12-bit sampler can be expected to have a less-than-perfect noise performance. Usually, this is OK, as the level of the sample will obscure any noise present. But try sampling a drum sound with reverb. As the reverb dies away, the noise contribution of the sampler will be obvious. This may still be a usable sample, but not 100% as you intended it.
The 24dB improvement provided by raising the data format to 16-bit just about does away with any noise problems. 16-bit is Compact Disc standard and few people complain about noise from that source. Of course, the rest of the audio circuitry of any digital equipment has to be up to the 96dB signal-to-noise ratio. With competent design, there should be no difficulty.
If I wanted to summarise the advantages of 16 bits over 12, then I would say that it removes the limitations of 12-bit. Things where 12-bit said 'Sorry mate, you can't get away with that', are changed to 'That's OK, go right ahead'. And that's what I intend to do...
With the S1000, Akai have opted for not only the Compact Disc bit format, but also the same sampling frequency of 44.1 kHz (44.1 is what the world of digital audio calls a nice round number). This results in an audio bandwidth of slightly less than half this figure. The spec says 20Hz to 20kHz and it certainly sounds sparkling dean. One difference between the S1000 and the good old S900 is that you can only choose between two sampling rates, 44.1 kHz and 22.05kHz. With the S900 you could set any audio bandwidth you liked between 3kHz and 16kHz. I get the feeling that there is something completely different going on inside the S1000 compared with the older model, apart from the obvious data format differences. The difference is briefly discussed elsewhere in the review.
OK, so some people say that Akai equipment is grey coloured. It looks beige to me and I love it. Actually, I'm not too bothered what colour equipment is - as long as it is not black. Is this a small point? I don't think so. A lot of manufacturers are concentrating heavily on the ease of use of their equipment (some are still not) but ease of use depends very much on how easily you can see what you are operating, and you could operate the S1000 in a coal mine with your Ray-Bans on.
The layout has changed slightly from the S900, but you can see the family likeness. The S900 had a row of buttons which selected the main functions, such as Edit Sample, Edit Program, MIDI etc, and there was a large, continuously rotating, stepped knob marked simply 'Control', with which you selected the particular page you wanted on the display and entered data.
I like the idea of evolution, where you get it nearly right on your first go and improve by stages. And this is how the S1000 has developed. The display is larger than before, and much more informative. Functions are selected by buttons as before, but above these are eight Soft Keys, whose use changes according to the function you are carrying out. The bottom line of the display shows what the soft keys will do at any time.
Instead of one control knob, there are two. One for the cursor position and one for data. There is a small, but significant, improvement over the S900 behind these knobs. With the S900, not every 'click' of the control corresponded to a change in the display. This meant that entries had to be made very carefully. The new controls seem to work perfectly (I haven't caught them out yet) and every click on the control means a change to the S1000 parameters. It's a small point, but it means that even after just a short period of use, data entry gets to be very quick. You just know how many clicks you need and enter them in handfuls.
There is a numeric keypad and buttons to Name samples and programs, to Play samples from the front panel and to (very good this) Mark a particular page and to Jump quickly to it from anywhere else you might happen to be.
Also on the front panel are input and output level controls. There used to be a separate monitor level knob on the S900, but some clever arrangements (described later) make this unnecessary. XLR (high quality ITT Cannons) and jack inputs, Left and Right, complete the picture. Oh, and thanks Akai for the contrast control which adjusts the optimum viewing angle of the display - another small thing, but it all adds up.
Ask the S1000 to give you a twirl and you will see the also-important back panel. Now, is somebody going to tell me why samplers never (or is it almost never?) have duplicate input sockets on the back? Does it make sense, when all the outputs are on the back for easy wiring to a patchbay, to have the inputs on the front and have dangling cables getting in the way of the equipment in your rack? Oh well, we'll just have to accept it as one of life's little mysteries and keep the dangling cables out of the way as best we can, because the S1000 inputs are definitely front-only.
Apart from the above point, the rear panel has plenty of connectors. Left and right stereo outputs, eight individual outputs, and also an Effect Send and two Effect Returns. Now that's unusual. Also unusual are the rear mounted headphone and footswitch sockets! Do you fancy giving me a hand to heave the rack round while I monitor on cans for a moment?
The usual three MIDI sockets appear as you would wish them, and also a standard IEC mains socket - better than the unusual 2-pin connector on the S900.
Now I know why there is a world shortage of memory chips - they're all inside the S1000! The S900 weighed in at 750 kilobytes, the Roland S550 and Yamaha TX16W at 1.5 Megabytes. The Akai S1000 comes with two whole Megs of memory to play with, and that is expandable to eight Megabytes. Incidentally, the Akai S1000 is the only one of this trio that can record a sample to the full capacity of the memory. Both the Roland and Yamaha units divide their memories into separate chunks. Akai claim, with a fully expanded memory, a maximum sampling time of "over 95 seconds", and that's at full bandwidth. The gap between sampling and digital recording is narrowing fast.
Having all that memory creates a problem - how to store the data. 3.5 inch DSDD floppy disks are perfectly adequate for the S900, as one disk equals the entire memory capacity of the sampler (plus a tiny margin). If a formatted disk can hold 750 kilobytes, how many disks do you need to store the standard 2 Megabytes of the S1000? You can work it out.
Fortunately, Akai have seen fit to allow High Density floppy disks to be used also, which hold twice as much data as Double Density types. The disk drive can tell whether a disk is formatted to Double or High Density. But before you rush out to buy a box of High Density disks for the S1000 you have on order (or will have when you've finished reading this review), make sure you have enough cash in your wallet. Branded HD disks sell for about £37.50 per box of 10 in London's Tottenham Court Road.
Even though HD disks hold more data, they still don't reach the full 2 Meg level, so if you need to store more than this, the S1000 will prompt you to insert another disk. It is not possible to split one sample across several disks, so the maximum length of mono sample you can store on disk (as opposed to hold in memory) is limited to just over 18 seconds. It should be enough.
While on the subject of storage, there are hard disk interfaces both for Atari-format hard disk drives and for SCSI units too. These would be very useful for anyone who needs a 'core' of samples for regular use. They can store full-length samples too.
Even Prince Charles would approve of the architecture of the S1000. It's something that some other samplers have not been able to get quite right. The totally brilliant thing about the S900 was that you could load a program from disk, and it would automatically fetch all the samples it needed too. It's a real pain when you have to load a program, see what samples it needs, then load them one by one. With the S900, you could browse through your disks and quickly load in a selection of programs to try out.
Now that's good, but very often you would find yourself wanting to combine the programs in memory so that they could all play at the same time, either via different MIDI channels or as 'layers' of sound. To do this, one of the programs had to be edited, the number of keygroups increased, samples allocated etc, etc... A lengthy process.
The S1000 has a similar system where you can load programs together with their corresponding samples automatically. But this time, each program is given a number. And you can renumber these programs as you wish, some perhaps having the same number. Instead of selecting a program, you select a program number, so if several programs share the same number, they will all play together. Brilliant.
The way in which different programs can be made to work together is very comprehensive, yet straightforward. Directly from the Select Program page (the normal playback mode of the S1000) you can select Resp - the Play Response page. This gets you very quickly into the important parameters you need to make programs work amicably alongside each other. Parameters such as MIDI Channel, Polyphony, Priority, Key Range, Octave shift, Mono output, Effect output, Pan position. I have detailed all these in a sidebar, but the ones most worth mentioning here are Polyphony and Priority.
I haven't touched upon the S1000's capability of 16-note polyphony since the beginning of the review. Although it's a very desirable feature, in normal two-handed keyboard playing it doesn't have that much advantage over 8-note polyphony. But since the S1000 makes it so easy to combine programs, it actively makes you want to drive it hard, and you'll be using every note possible, very quickly. If you have several musical lines on the go at the same time, played via a sequencer over different MIDI channels, there will come a time when even 16 voices are not enough. The two ways around this here are the Polyphony setting, where you can select the maximum number of notes simultaneously available to each program. Also the Priority, where you can set a program to be Low, Normal or High note priority. Important musical lines would be given High priority, and they would steal notes, if the 16 note limit would otherwise be exceeded, from those set to Low priority. Top priority programs are given Hold status. Their notes cannot be stolen by another program. It's all so sensible.
You can't have too many outputs on a sampler, that's a fact. But the usefulness of multiple outputs is reduced if you have to go through the slog of allocating how many notes each output is expected to produce. If that's the system, note stealing as described above is impossible too. The S900 only allows one note at a time through the multiple outputs. That's good only for basslines and drums.
Like the Roland S550 (and S330), the S1000 gets it right - every output will play as polyphonically as you like. Used as part of a sequenced MIDI system, this would make the S1000 a very powerful tool indeed. Not just the promise of power, but the fulfillment of that power - up to 16 simultaneous notes anyway.
Looking at this machine, you could get the impression that Akai have investigated every sampler on the market, taken the best features from each and mixed them with creative ideas of their own.
There are two display pages for sample record. The first is for housekeeping matters, like whether the sample is stereo or mono, giving it a name, and deciding how long it is going to be. The next page is for doing the deed. Appearing on the left of the screen is a bargraph meter (which for some reason you are able to switch off). Next to this is a display area which - wonder of wonders - traces a graph of signal level as you record. It's so clear that there can be no more excuses ever for over-recorded samples.
The next step is to edit the sample. Another graphic screen shows you what the sample looks like. Not as clearly as Roland's video monitor, but pretty good, and a lot easier to carry about!
Start and end points of the sample are entered using the Data control, and cursors show you whereabouts in the sample these points are. It is often very easy to find the points you want by eye alone, with just a quick aural check to make sure. You can zoom in on the start or end of the sample to see what's going on in detail.
Looping is as it should be - as on the S550 and S330, not as on the S900 and TX16W. I'll keep on saying this till I'm blue in the face, or until all samplers work like this. The way to make a good loop is to be able to hear alterations to the loop as you make them. If you have to play the sample from the start every time you want to audition a change, then it takes so much longer to find the perfect loop that you will probably give up. Here (as on the Roland samplers) you hold a key, the loop cycles, and you just keep on turning the Data wheel for minimum glitch. So easy. And the loop screen gives you the advantage of two windows. One shows the entire sample and the loop points, the other homes in on the join of the loop, so you can see as well as hear when you are approaching a good loop point.
By the way, you don't just get one loop here, you get eight! I might be tempted to agree with those who say that eight loops are overkill, and that one sustain and one release loop are enough. But they don't get in the way, and someone might use them, so they are fine by me.
Before I leave looping, I must admit to finding out something here that I didn't appreciate before - how difficult it is to loop stereo samples. The loop in each of the stereo channels obviously has to be the same length, or it wouldn't be proper stereo after one cycle through. But can you find one loop point that's good for both channels? I'll leave it to you to guess the answer!
Oh, and did I mention auto loop finding (works as well as it ever does... ), crossfade looping and sample joining?
Collecting a bunch of samples into a usable program is to the samplist what washing up is to the cook. I'm still waiting for the sampler that can produce a program automatically, but I'll probably have to wait for the S1100 for that. But even though it often seems to be a chore, rather than a creative process, there are some clever points here.
Akai's method for allocating samples to MIDI notes revolves around the concept of a keygroup. Say you had a bass sample, you might allocate it to MIDI notes C0 to C2, MIDI channel 2. You might also want to set parameters like the degree of velocity sensitivity, or which output the bass sample emerges from. All this, the choice of the sample and its parameters, is a keygroup. And you may have several in a program, overlapping notes where necessary.
To determine the range of notes the keygroup will cover, you are assisted by a graphic display of a keyboard. Up to five keygroups can be shown simultaneously, so it gives you an idea of what the finished program will be like. Each keygroup has two envelope generators. One for level and one for filter. The envelope on the S900 was set numerically, but here there is room for a graphic display, and it does make it easier, especially with the filter.
So far I have assumed that one sample is going to be allocated to the keygroup. Could more be possible? Let me tell you a story...
I had the opportunity recently to have a play on one of the biggest Synclavier systems in the country (the Synclavier is the synthesizer/sampler/digital recording system/just-about-everything-else that you buy when your pools coupon strikes lucky). I was marvelling at the fact that on a strings program, if I hit a key softly, I got one sample. A bit harder and another faded in, harder yet another, and at maximum velocity a fourth sample. All on one key. There must be a lot of programming skill that goes into getting this sort of thing right, but I was convinced of enormous possibilities.
So where does this get us, the Synclavier system being capable of four-way velocity splits? I'll tell you: The S1000 can do four-way velocity splits too! It's not easy to programme successfully, but you can get some fascinating results.
Of course not. You could write a book on the S1000 (any offers?), but I hope you've got the picture. The sidebars should fill you in on the precise details. But does the S1000 lack anything?
Technically, no. If I had one, I'd want another for the car because it's so good. But I suspect that after the initial flurry of excitement, many potential purchasers will try it out in their local music shop and think to themselves, 'What's all the fuss about?'. I received my review model with four factory sample disks: Drums, Piano, Strings and Brass. The samples are well recorded but there is nothing that makes you think, 'Wow, isn't this a great sampler', like you say, 'Isn't this a great synth' when you try out the factory programs on the Roland D50.
The S1000 is a great sampler, but where are the programs that show it off? The four-way velocity split capability? The samples demonstrating 8-stage loops? The disks that mix and match different programs? Nowhere (yet), and these and others are vital features which make the S1000 a winner over and above the 16-bit quality of the sound.
My advice is to listen to the Drums disk and marvel at the stereo image and the high sound quality, explore the Sample Edit and Program Edit pages and assess their extraordinary potential, then get your name down on the waiting list, quick. You will be using the machine to its full potential even if the initial four factory disks don't.
As a parting thought to this lengthy review, no-one who bought an Akai S900 ever had cause to regret it, and the S1000 will be the same. It's the new standard.
£2899 inc VAT.
Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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