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Akai AX80


Article from International Musician & Recording World, January 1985

Jim Betteridge puts the new poly through its paces

It's Akai by us...

There will surely come a day when X's go out of fashion, but right now the inclusion of one in a title implies a futuristic hi-tech content. To name just a few current applications we have variously the AMX, BMX, DX, DMX, HX, LX, TX and finally, the diminutive ZX. Now we have an AX from Akai: the AX80.

After a lengthy pause Akai (not to be confused with 'a Kawai') are back in the home recording business with an extraordinary 12-track mixer/recorder (see review in this issue) and the new polysynth under scrutiny here, predictably entitled the AX80.

Their last significant offerings in this area, the 4000D and 4000DS 'sound-on-sound' tape recorders, became something of a legend, and up until last year articles were still be written involving their applications (I know, because I wrote one of them).

Akai the Noo

That was Akai then, but this is Akai the noo... and the resurgence of the name in a world of the modern interfaceable, quantisational muso has been well planned. It can't be denied that the contrivance of the AX80 has been greatly influenced by the success of the Yamaha DX7. Apart from the name the AX also looks quite similar and is priced at a virtually identical £1,400. Apparently, rather than working to a specific price, the Akai design approach was to consider the pros and cons of all the competition, create a synth to beat them, and then finally, find out how much they could put it in the shops for. Whether or not this is strictly true, the resultant price drops it in with some very stiff competition and makes it rather expensive for what is ostensibly a straightforward analogue synth. However, there's more under the hood than is at first apparent, and so I suggest that you reserve judgement for a few dozen lines yet.

The overall spec is quite impressive:

61 Velocity sensitive plastic keys
8-note polyphony MIDI (Poly mode)
2 VCO's
3 LFOs
2 EG's
Cross Modulation

One of the things that is immediately off-putting and out of keeping with the high price, is the apparent use of centralised digital access control. This type of control system is commonly used on less expensive instruments and at its most cumbersome (and cost-effective) it involves a single 'incrementor' wheel with which all edit adjustments are made, plus a calculator-style numeric keypad used to select the appropriate parameter with reference to a chart supplied in the manual. An example of this is the Sequential Circuit's Six-traks. Accurate editing by such means is at best laborious and at worst impossible because of the inherent lack of user-feedback; ie it's hard to see what shape your numerous variables are in at any given moment, and hence all but the most experienced programmer is wont to get a trifle lost in the process. It is cheap to implement, however, and hence relatively powerful polyphonics can be produced at reasonable prices.

Akai in the Darkness

The AX80 is not just another digital access synth, nor does it offer the expensive luxury of having 'one-control-per-function' (as per Prophets and Jupiters etc). Instead, it settles on a fairly happy compromise: running along the top of the keyboard is a line of grey membrane switches that, in the 'Preset' mode, provide a means of selecting the stored preset sounds. In the 'Edit' mode these same switches allow individual access to each of the variables.

The real-time feedback of parameter status (ie, all the settings) is provided by six sets of vertical, light-blue LED bargraphs running across in a series above the line of switches. Each set contains between two and seven individual bargraphs depending on the number of variables involved, eg two for the VCA, and seven for OSC Two. The groups are labelled as follows: OSC One, OSC Two, VCF, LFO, EG and VCA. As a variable is selected, an orange cursor appears on the respective bar graph, and as the central controller is moved to adjust the variable, so the display changes accordingly. In addition, to the left of the bargraphs there are a couple of good-size alpha numeric displays that, in the edit mode, show the number of the parameter being altered and its current setting. With a degree of practise, basic edits could be easily made and confirmed, even in the half-darkness of a stage, with confidence.

There are two or three ways of changing a variable once it has been selected, depending on its nature: A. The central incrementor wheel (labelled 'control' on the AX) B. Repeatedly pushing the original parameter select button to nudge the value up one increment at a time, or C. by using a large dedicated rocker switch to nudge the value either up or down. Variables with a wider span are usually graduated from One to 99. In such cases it is advisable to use the wheel to quickly reach the approximate setting and then nudge it to achieve better accuracy.

By these means editing is relatively fast and simple, and whilst it isn't quite as 'tactile' as using a one-control-per-function system, a little practise makes it possible to quickly interpret the bargraphs, and to select parameters without having to squint at the legend under each of the 32 buttons.

The memory is configured in three banks of 32: 'Presets' are factory sounds stored in ROM forever, ie the memory can't be over written. The other two banks are 'A' and 'B' which provide a total of a further 64 memory locations complete with editable factory patch preset sounds. You can either keep these factory sounds or use the space to store your own creations. The contents of all 96 memories can then be dumped onto cassette tape for future retrieval. Nothing unusual here.

The oscillators are normal, analogue VCO. Each of them is capable of producing a sawtooth waveform, a variable pulse waveform or a combination of both. OSC Two's pulse width is fixed to give a square wave while that of OSC One can be modulated with variable depth and speed to give the normal variety of swept filter-type sounds. Cross modulation, is available between the two oscillators, providing a much wider range of fuller voicings.

What is unusual is that the AX80 has three LFO's each providing a choice of square, sawtooth, reversed sawtooth and triangle waveforms. These can be applied independently to each of the two oscillators plus the VCF providing great flexibility. Even more control is provided via the relatively unusual addition of a high pass filter, also to be found in the same section.

The filter section has the standard controls plus 'key follow' which adjusts the amount by which the cut-off frequency of the filter rises with pitch, effectively giving higher pitched notes a brighter more present quality; a characteristic generally in keeping with acoustic instruments. The keyboard's velocity sensitivity can be applied to both the VCA and the VCF to give increased level and a brighter tone (higher cut-off frequency) as you, the player, lay into the keys with greater ferocity. There is no after-touch (pressure sensitivity).

The performance controls are very standard with one spring loaded, centre-biased wheel for pitch change and a second loose wheel for modulation of the oscillators and/or the VCF.

Back at the Akai Corral

The Akai Electric Company is now a very large international concern dealing mainly in hi-fi and video, and so whilst they have the weight and backing to produce high quality products and service, it has to be seen that, in commercial terms, the professional musical instrument market is relatively small fry for them. The obvious concern for the punter must therefore be that the company will spend a few hundred thousand on R&D and an initial product launch to test the waters, and then drop the lot like the proverbial over-warm brick should results be less than satisfactory, thereby leaving said punter-person hi-tech and dry.

Word from the Akai Corral suggests that such fickleness couldn't be further from their intention. There are numerous plans involving new products (currently not for publication) that go forward to the end of '86, and they mean to provide the best service they can and establish themselves securely in the market. No worry there then.

The preset sounds on the AX80 were, on the whole, not exceptional and at the price they really need to be to make the instrument competitive. On the other hand this could simply be a function of inexperienced programming, and the degree of editing control and flexibility offered means that, if you know what you want, you have the tools to achieve it.

Fine-tuning the sound of such a relatively complex instrument using centralised control is not altogether easy; sometimes you just have to twiddle two knobs at a time whilst listening to the combined effect. Thus the flexibility of having cross mode, three LFO's, velocity sensitivity, etc, is slightly impaired. Conversely, one can't really complain about being given a wide range of facilities.

I think that Akai would admit to having 'limited' experience in this market, and considering that this is their first product of this kind, the AX80 is well made, though far from revolutionary (unlike their recording system). A composer/sequencer is planned for next year, and who knows what the distant future might hold? It looks promising.

Akai AX80 - RRP: £1,400

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Roland TR-707

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Jan 1985

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > Akai > AX80

Gear Tags:

Analog Synth

Previous article in this issue:

> Workbench

Next article in this issue:

> Roland TR-707

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