Paul White looks at the first musical instrument product from a Japanese giant. Has Akai's poly got the sounds and the facilities necessary for it to make an impact on today's synth world?
Another Japanese giant enters the electronic music field: Akai's first piece of hardware is a programmable polysynth with a novel parameter editing system.
To me, the name Akai conjures up images of robust reel-to-reel tape recorders and stylish audio rack systems, and I suspect I wasn't the only one to express surprise when the company first demonstrated their range of electronic musical instruments almost a year ago.
In addition to the AX80 reviewed here, the company are also about to release the MG1212, a self-contained 12-channel mixer and cassette machine that uses Akai's own design of half-inch cassette tape, the MR16 drum voice generator (or Rhythm Oscillator Bank, as Akai call it), and the MS08 MIDI sequencer (Music Processor) to drive both the AX80 and the MR16.
Despite the fact that the AX80 and MG1212 are unlikely to appeal to similar sections of the market, Akai are marketing all their first-generation hardware under the umbrella title of Micro Studio System, and in this context, the AX80 must be seen as the prime sound source, though further synthesiser models are promised for 1985/6. Whichever way you look at it, there's no denying Akai have moved into the music world in a wholehearted way: the Micro Studio System is no fly-by-night creation.
Beneath the AX80's stylish and fashionable exterior lies a fairly conventional eight-voice programmable polysynth with 32 factory preset sounds and 64 user-programmable memories: that's 96 memories in all. The design uses sound chips from Curtis ElectroMusic in the States (SCI use them, too), while each voice has two Digitally Controlled Oscillators and, unusually, a sub-oscillator. The sound processing sections are fairly standard, but the Akai incorporates one or two less commonplace features that set it apart from the crowd - more on these later. A touch-sensitive five-octave keyboard is present, and MIDI is implemented fully (In, Out and Thru sockets, 16-channel assignment).
As you'll no doubt be aware, the current trend amongst designers of low-cost polysynths is to use a single control to change the value of all variable parameters when the machine is in Edit mode. This system has the advantage of being a significant cost-saver for the manufacturers (all those knobs aren't cheap), but the major disadvantage is that synth players can't see where all the parameters are at any one time or assess how two or more parameters interact with each other.
Akai have attempted to get round the first of these problems by employing a not insignificant number of fluorescent displays that tell the user the condition of each parameter at a glance.
These take the form of five groups of bar graphs assigned to various sections of the AX80's internals, namely DCO1, DCO2, VCF, LFO, and EG/VCA. Below each graph are the membrane touch-switches that select each parameter (they double as memory selector switches), while the values themselves are adjusted using either the up/down touchpad or - if more drastic action is required - the large rotary Control pot, a last-minute (it's nowhere to be seen on the initial press photographs) but nonetheless very useful ergonomic addition.
Elsewhere, further thoughtful touches abound.
The AX80's dual performance wheels (the pitch-bend variant is centre-sprung) are sensibly located immediately to the keyboard's left, and not only does each wheel have a control directly above it which sets its maximum range, but the LFO mod wheel may be routed to either the VCF or the oscillators. Meanwhile, the instrument's rear panel is sensibly angled so that connections can be made without the user having to go behind the unit to fiddle about, and among the panel's features are sockets for storage of programs on cassette tape and connections for sustain and program change footswitches.
It's worth mentioning at this point that although the AX80 has a chord memory and a hold feature, these are in fact the only concessions its designers have made to the 'even the family pet can play it' school of keyboard marketing. I think I speak for most of E&MM's staff and contributors when I express relief that the dreaded preset arpeggiator seems to be making a swift exit from the pro keyboard arena. So Well Done, Akai for keeping up the good work in that department.
Once you've got into Edit mode, altering parameter values is a simple matter of pressing the desired parameter button and using either the Control pot or the up/down touch switches to change it. The parameter value is displayed by the numeric LED display contained within the Data window at the front panel's extreme left, while the bar graph pertaining to the selected parameter is indicated by a red cursor. Neat.
Where a parameter can have either a positive or a negative value (the EG filter modulation, for example), the bar graph starts from a central position and moves either upwards or downwards as its value is altered.
"Thanks to the comfortable, positively-sprung keyboard, the AX80's sounds can be injected with a fair degree of user expression."
A quick run-down of the AX80's various parameters probably wouldn't go amiss.
Available in 16', 8', or 4' octave ranges, DCO1 may present either sawtooth or pulse waveforms, or a combination of the two: there's also the option of a further sub-octave, just to fatten things up. Pulse width modulation depth may be varied, and the rate of modulation is independent of the main LFO. Fine-tuning is carried out by means of the Master Tune control, and DCO2 can be tuned in semitone steps, enabling harmonies between the two oscillators to be generated.
As it happens, these semitone increments cover a range from 2' to 16', and the two oscillators can be detuned if you're fond of chorus effects, or synced together for phase-sync fireworks. The second oscillator's pitch can be modulated by either VCA or VCF envelope generators, and in cross-modulation mode, this versatility should prove a real boon for lovers of dynamic flanging effects a la Gary Numan.
The VCF is a conventional low-pass filter with the usual cutoff and resonance controls, but usefully, a high-pass filter can also be called into play to clean up anything with a woolly bottom, if you'll excuse the expression. This section's Envelope Depth and Keyboard Track facilities should be familiar to most synth users, but Akai have added a key velocity-dependent component: just the thing to spice up a lack-lustre live performance.
The LFO section is of particular interest as it allows three different forms of modulation to be set up for DCO1, DCO2 and the VCF. Four waveforms are available for this purpose, but although this section's completeness makes the creation of rich, dynamic sounds a painless operation, I still feel the addition of an onboard chorus unit wouldn't have gone amiss. Presumably Akai have figured most keyboard players prefer to specify their own external effects units, but all the same...
Moving on to the EG, this is based on the familiar ADSR format and also incorporates a Key Follow component. As with the LFO, three values may be set up to control either the VCA, the VCF, or both together.
The VCA is in fact incorporated into this section, and has two control variable parameters - Level and Key Velocity. And yes, you've guessed it, it's these two controls that are largely responsible for setting up the keyboard's touch-sensitivity.
The AX80's factory preset sounds represent convenient starting points for further editing as well as being quite usable in their crude state. Usefully, Akai have split them into seven distinct groups that relate to their 'real world' equivalents, viz Percussive Keyboard, Brass, Woodwind, Strings, Bass, Organ and Synth.
The Percussive Keyboard sounds vary from something akin to a koto to some rather impressive electric piano voices, and although some of the remaining sounds are a little more obscure, that doesn't necessarily mean they're any less usable. All four Brass voices embody the kind of texture we've come to expect from polys of this calibre, but where the Akai scores is in the fact that dynamic control of the VCF adds greatly to the amount of expression the player can inject into the output.
Things aren't quite so rosy in the Strings department, where the cyclic effect imparted by the oscillators tends to make things sound a little on the artificial side. That apart, the sounds are perfectly satisfactory, and especially so in the lower registers, where things get almost too realistic for comfort.
"Patch editing is more easily accomplished on the Akai than any other synth employing digital parameter control... those bar graphs play an important part here."
Three Bass sounds are offered, and all of these incorporate some degree of touch dynamics as well as being full, fat bass synth sounds in their own right - excellent for Bird of Prey impressions, I'd have said.
Finally, the Organ presets vary from Stars on Sunday to key-click Hammond, while the Synth voices are, well, synth-ish, though by no stretch of the imagination do they illustrate the instrument's capabilities fully.
As the review model came without any form of user manual (wish I had a fiver for every time that happened - Ed), it was with some trepidation that I approached the opportunity to create sounds from scratch.
I needn't have worried.
Almost everything on the AX80 works as you'd expect it to, and there are even little status LEDs on the Master Control section to tell you which button is currently engaged, just in case you get stuck. During the review period, anything that wasn't readily apparent soon became so after a little tentative button-pressing, and I'll stick my neck out and suggest that you should feel perfectly at home with this instrument after the first half-hour.
Patch editing is more easily accomplished on the Akai than on any other synth employing digital parameter control, and not surprisingly, those bar graphs play an important part here.
As far as the MIDI goes, the AX80 exchanged information amicably with E&MM's small collection of similarly equipped instruments, other than those with known character defects, which shall remain nameless.
To be quite honest, it's a fair while since I came across a more user-friendly machine than the Akai: whatever you want to accomplish, it's never more than a button or two away.
A visually attractive synth, the AX80 is capable of producing a wide range of 'analogue' synth sounds, and thanks to the comfortable, positively-sprung keyboard and its associated velocity sensing, those sounds can be injected with a fair degree of user expression.
As I've already mentioned, the Akai has a number of useful extra features such as the trio of LFOs, cross-modulation facility, and of course those wonderful bar graphs.
Yet despite these facilities and the ergonomic soundness of the control layout, there's no escaping the fact that the AX80 has no distinctive sound of its own - which may or may not be a bad thing - and although I liked the velocity control of filter and amplitude, Akai's designers could at least have given it a decent dynamic range.
As a first-time effort from a company entirely new to the world of musical instruments, let alone professional electronic keyboards, the AX80 has everything you might reasonably want from a polysynth in this price bracket - plus a bit more into the bargain - without actually possessing a distinctive character of its own. Now, it's debatable whether many people put individuality high on their list of priorities when buying an instrument in this market sector, but if you're one of those who do, think carefully before you sign that cheque.
RRP of the AX80 is £1399 including VAT. Further information from Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul White
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