S1100 Expansion Unit
If a single S1100 isn't enough for you, Akai's S11OOEX offers an easy way to expand your sampling power. David Mellor meets an ideal partner for his main studio sampler.
Let's be clear about this from the start. This review isn't for the ordinary sampler user, such as you or me. No, this is for the type of person who has an Akai S1100 and still isn't satisfied. There's no pleasing some people... So, if you insist that a single S1100 isn't enough, then here is the product for you — an S1100 expander which gives you all the power and flexibility of the S1100 itself, but misses out the parts you don't need, such as a duplicate set of input sockets, controls and circuitry, and comes in at a price that may cause any S1100 owner, even those who were formerly quite satisfied, to feel a twinge of temptation.
Speaking as an S1100 owner myself, I am aware that even though it is one of the most capable and flexible samplers around, it has its limitations. The first limitation is the maximum number of simultaneous voices: 16. Enough for most applications, you might think, but voices have a way of disappearing quite rapidly. The first voice limiting mechanism comes into play when you are sampling in stereo. This, not unnaturally, halves the number of notes that can be played at the same time. Also, go easy on that sustain pedal. The sustain pedal may be known as the 'soul of the piano' but it does nothing for your sampled piano sound other than bring the notes of your chords to an earlier conclusion than you might have expected or liked. Also, remember that notes don't end when your finger leaves the key and triggers a MIDI note off message. There is usually a decay envelope on a sound, so that although you are playing a 'monophonic', the end of each note will overlap the start of the next — if you were to use stereo sounds, you could only use four such 'monophonic' instruments without note-stealing.
I have to say that moving from an Emu Proteus, that I had been using as a stop gap while I decided which sampler to upgrade my S900 to, came as a bit of a shock. The difference between 32 voices (on the Proteus) and 16 voices is considerable, but amply compensated for by access to an unlimited range of sounds and all the other benefits offered by the mostly excellent S1100.
The other limitation, which, like the limitation on the number of voices, applies to other samplers too, is that there are only eight individual outputs for multitimbral operation. 16 outputs on an S1100, one per voice, would be good. But would 32 outputs be even better? Of course it would, but we are taking a flight of fancy now. The ultimate would be to have a separate output for each sample that the unit can store. Maybe I'd better just keep dreaming.
So, assuming that you have a few pounds to spare, and you think that a single S1100 isn't enough to do full justice to your talent, you may have been considering buying a second S1100 and are wondering whether you can save some cash by getting the S1100EX instead. Will it be a compromise? Will you wish you had paid the extra. No, you won't. You'll be glad you went for the S1100EX because it actually has more to offer than a second S1100 would. Another S1100 would just be another box that has to be programmed and otherwise cajoled and cosseted, but the S1100 works as part of a team. It communicates with the S1100 and together they do a lot of the donkey work for you. All you have to do is choose whether you want extra voices or extra multitimbrality. After that it's go-go-go with some serious music making! But try not to think how much better still things would be if you had another S1100EX — the system can accommodate six altogether.
We are by now very well used to pieces of musical equipment talking to each other along pieces of wire called MIDI cables. But MIDI has always been, and always will be, a very pedestrian interface. It takes whole milliseconds just to pass the simplest of messages, for goodness' sake! How long this situation can last I don't know. Professional and other serious users have been straining at the leash ever since MIDI sequencers, and the bits and bytes of the MIDI signal have almost been bursting out of the cable in the rush to get to the other end. Making a faster interface is perfectly possible, but unfortunately it's bound to cost more and cannot be compatible with low end users for whom ordinary MIDI is good enough. A faster interface is in fact in common use in the music world; SCSI (pronounced 'scuzzy') is becoming ever more important to musicians as they attach external hard drives to their samplers and computers, and both MIDI and SCSI are used to hook up an S1100EX to its host S1100. The MIDI connection handles note data, as you'd expect, and the SCSI link transfers sample and edit data.
Figure 1 shows the MIDI and SCSI hook up. The MIDI cable goes, naturally enough from the Thru connector on the S1100 to the In of the S1100EX. The SCSI cable goes from the single SCSI port on the S1100 to the top SCSI port on the S1100EX. If you really are wealthy and have more S1100EXs, then the second SCSI port can be used to daisy chain extra units.
To use SCSI successfully you need to be aware of technicalities like SCSI ID numbers and terminators. A SCSI terminator is not, contrary to what you may think, a nasty machine with an Austrian accent and a taste for rapid-fire automatic weapons; it is in fact a means of telling the SCSI controlling software where the end of the daisy chain is. If you have only one S1100EX, then the termination switch is set to On. SCSI numbers allow the (up to seven) different devices on a SCSI daisy chain to be uniquely identified. The S1100 and S1100EX have preset ID numbers so that in their factory fresh state you can connect them up and start work, but if you are adding to an existing SCSI system, or someone has been fiddling, then you have to make sure that each is set to a different ID number.
A mixing console can only have so many inputs. Sixteen inputs used to be considered a lot, but now the requirement is for as many as can possibly be squeezed in. It is commonplace for broadcasters to order desks with nigh on 100 channels, and they are starting to insist that these channels should be stereo too. We might have to wait a while before such desks become more affordable for you and me, but in the meantime Akai have thoughtfully provided a method whereby the S1100EX need not be an added drain on channel resources, even if you have half a dozen of them.
On the rear panel of the S1100EX, as you will see from Figure 2, there is a pair of audio inputs. Note that these are not sampling inputs, but if you connect the stereo outputs of your S1100 to these, a cascade is set up so that stereo audio flows from one unit through another and thence to just two channels of the mixing console. This is more restrictive than two separate pairs of audio outs, but if you're pushed for channels — as many of us are these days — then this feature is very useful.
In saying this, of course, I'm forgetting that the man or woman who can afford a multiple S1100 setup can afford plenty of mixer channels too, so let's look at the audio outputs in more detail. The S1100 has a stereo output; so does the S1100EX. The S1100 has eight polyphonic individual outputs; so does the S1100EX. In fact the audio facilities are duplicated right down to the headphone socket which, like that on the S1100, is positioned on the back. It must save on tooling costs, because no-one can tell me that there wasn't enough front panel space for it.
Eight individual outputs on the S1100 and eight on the expander will fill up a lot of channels, and also offer a lot of controllability. There is an enormous difference between setting levels on real faders and setting them via the display an LCD screen.
The S1100EX has two principal modes of operation called, rather unimaginatively, Mode 1 and Mode 2. Akai might have considered giving them more meaningful names like 'Multitimbral mode' and 'Voice expansion mode', in which case we would have had one less hurdle to trip over. In Mode 1 (what I would call 'Multitimbral mode') the S1100EX acts as a completely separate S1100, linked only by the floppy disk drive (or hard disk if connected) and display on the S1100. Let me take you through the sequence of operations.
Since there are no buttons on the S1100 marked 'S1100EX', there must be a clever way of telling the slaved system what you want to do. There is. Press the Mark key and hold it for just over a second. A SCSI status line appears on the bottom of the display which you can mostly ignore after the initial setting up. While holding the Mark key press the Ent/Play key and this will select a mode in which the S1100 is operating on its own. This isn't what you paid all your money for so let's load the S1100 up with some sounds as quickly as possible and move on. After you have filled your S1100 with 2MB, 10MB, or 32MB of sounds, according to its capacity, hold down the Mark key again until the status line appears, and press the +/< key. The LCD screen will go into 'reverse video' and the parts that were grey before will turn blue and the parts that were blue will turn grey. This tells you without any shadow of doubt that you are now operating the S1100EX. Every command you enter now will be piped straight down the SCSI cable to the S1100EX, as will the sample data you enter from floppy disk, hard disk or CD ROM. The beauty of the system is that apart from one key combination to set the S1100EX into Multitimbral mode, and two more to swap between the two units, there is nothing else you have to learn. You have saved a considerable sum of money and operation is as easy as before. In fact, the best way to think of this mode is as two S1100s. Keep that in mind and you can't go wrong.
If anything, Mode 2 ('Voice Expansion' mode), is even easier than Mode 1. This mode is intended for when you need to have 32 simultaneous voices, or 16 in stereo. This is usually the case when you are playing sampled piano. Without sufficient voices, it's very hard to use the sustain pedal without note-stealing becoming obvious. Switching into Mode 2 is as easy as switching into Mode 1. When you load some samples in from floppy disk, the S1100EX will load first, and the display will invert to tell you what's going on, and then the S1100 will load the same sample data. When this is done, you basically have a 32-voice S1100 at your disposal. All editing procedures will be exactly the same as if you only had an S1100, and when you save data to disk only one set has to be saved because the data is the same in both units.
Keep in mind that the S1100EX adds a whole new S1100 to your rack and you'll appreciate that feats like having two different digital effects running at the same time are quite unremarkable. But experienced S1100 users may wonder about a couple of other matters, so let me clarify...
Are you a Cue List user on the S1100? The Cue List allows samples to be entered against SMPTE timecode so that they can be played back in sync with a video without having to use an external sequencer or synchroniser of any kind. The S1100EX can do this too, but the IB-108 SMPTE reader/generator card isn't supplied as standard, as it is with the S1100.
As I said earlier, further S1100EXs can be added to the SCSI chain, but you only benefit from the added multitimbrality that Mode 1 offers. Although your first S1100EX will add an extra 16 voices in Mode 2, this doesn't unfortunately mean that another one would add 16 more. The first 16 notes would be played on the S1100 and the next 16 on all subsequent S1100EXs.
An interesting trick that the S1100EX's manual describes is digital mixing for resampling. This isn't specifically an S1100EX feature, since you could do it with an S1100 and a DAT machine, but it's interesting nonetheless. Here's how: first you need to have an IB-104 digital interface installed in your S1100 which provides optical and electrical digital inputs and outputs in addition to the digital output that the S1100 has as standard. Make up a complex stack of programs on the S1100EX that you think might be useful if it didn't use up so many voices, and play it back through the digital output into the S1100's IB-104 digital input while sampling digitally. This should give you a sound with several layers that can still be played with full polyphony. You could, of course, do this just as easily through the analogue inputs and outputs adding whatever EQ and processing you need. I suspect that having two samplers around will throw up a lot of possibilities that we haven't even begun to consider before.
The S1100EX is, not surprisingly, an excellent option for any S1100 user who is running out of voices and/or outputs. It would be nice if the S1100 featured 32-voice polyphony and 16 outputs in the first place, but it would have cost a lot more and it's a hell of a machine even without that. The availability of a reasonably priced expander in the form of the S1100EX only makes the S1100 look better. I am advised that it's best to have the same amount of memory in both machines, so if you have a 10MB S1100 (the original 2MB card plus an 8MB expansion) then you should budget for a 10MB S1100EX too. The S1100EX isn't going to make millions for Akai, since of all the people who bought an S1100 only a few will want another one. It does show, however, that they are thinking of the end user, and when it comes to choosing equipment for your studio it pays to look at the manufacturer as well as the product.
One last thing — if anyone ever manages to build a system with an S1100 and six S1100EXs, let me know. I want to see it!
Akai S1100X £1,799 inc VAT.
Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by David Mellor
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