Akai S612 Update
...while Tim Goodyer checks out the production version of Akai’s contender and cocks an ear in the direction of some factory sound disks.
The Akai pre-production prototype was a mysterious beast. When we got our hands on it a month or so before the S612's official release in the summer, it had back panel legends scribbled on masking tape. There was no sign of the dedicated disk drive with which its designers intended it to be used, and as for an owner's manual... be reasonable.
There was no mystery about the way the sampler sounded, though. It performed so well that we only sent it back to Akai under threat of being forced to watch 16 consecutive episodes of Howards' Way.
Since then we've got another one out of them, though this is a full production model rather than a handbuilt, half-baked prototype.
The basic specification is unchanged. The S612 is still a 19" rack-mount sampling module designed to be used in conjunction with any MIDI-equipped keyboard, as it's currently unique in being devoid of one of its own (though February's Frankfurt show could see the arrival of a couple of other keyboard less modules from rival companies). What it does have — now — is the company of the MD280 Sampler Disk Drive for storage and retrieval of your own samples, or Akai's library of pre-recorded sounds. More on these in due course.
The S612 is a six-voice, velocity-sensitive device. Sampling is 12-bit, and maximum recording time varies, depending on the sampling frequency you choose to apply, between one and eight seconds. On the pre-production unit, there was no clue as to exactly what determined the sampling frequency, but it turns out to be the last key pressed prior to entering recording mode. Quite simple and eminently flexible.
Overdubbing is quite straightforward, too, and is not restricted to the sampling frequency chosen for the original recording; that parameter can be re-defined before each overdub. But, as the manual points out, it's advisable to save the sample to disk after each recording/overdub, as overdubbing is an irreversible process: once you've done it, you're stuck with it. Each successive overdub is attenuated (by -6dB, so we're told) so you need to exercise some care if your final balance of sounds is to be as you intend it. The saving-to-disk business can save a lot of heartache here as well, but in any case, the overdubbing procedure is easily mastered with a minimum of perseverance.
On with the story. Once safely ensconced within the machine, your sample is at the mercy of the S612's considerable manipulation facilities.
First of all, it's presently only possible to play back the sample from a keyboard, there being no playback triggering facilities on the unit itself. You're offered all the usual options: One Shot, Looping, and less commonly, Alternating. The first two should be self-explanatory, while the third involves reading the looped section of the sample both forwards and backwards before reaching the starting point again. This is a useful technique and is employed to good effect on Akai's library disks, as we shall see.
Apart from the masking tape and sockets for the disk drive, the rear panel of the prototype also hosted a couple of switches of uncertain purpose, alongside the pre-requisite MIDI In, Out, and Thru DINs and the line out jack. These controls have now shed their cloak of mystery, migrated to the front panel, and declared themselves to be Key Transpose and Manual Splice function controls.
Simplest first: key transposition is made by poking the relevant button (twice if you change your mind and want to cancel the command) and pressing the key you want to hear as middle C. A nice touch here is that the transposed key can be saved to disk along with the rest of the sample information.
"The Akai disk drive takes eight seconds to complete each of its Save, Load and Verify functions; and that is not quick."
Less straightforward is the splicing side of things. When either of the looping modes are selected, the splicing points are chosen automatically by the S612 itself, unless, of course, you want to butt in and take control of the operation yourself. No prizes for guessing that this is what the Manual Splice button is for. When the switch is activated, the slider normally used to determine the start point of sample replay also sets the start point of the loop. The sample loops between this point and that defined by the End slider until key release, when it enters the decay stage which, in turn, is determined by the Decay control.
This is simple enough in theory, but in practice it's a delicate operation that requires either a lot of patience or a lot of luck to be executed properly. It's not an area you can shortcut, either, as a sample that involves a loop is only as good as the loop itself. A more precise method of defining these points would have made the task a little less frustrating, no doubt about it. Still, the Akai system does work reasonably well, and provides adequate control over the sample.
Anyway, having diligently devoted hours to the recording and reworking of your samples, it would be a shame if they were lost each time you switched off the machine, wouldn't it? Luckily, Akai have realised this, and have designed the MD280 Disk Drive to provide a more permanent means of preserving your work for posterity.
The MD280 is the same size as the S612 itself, being a 19"-wide, 2U-high unit. The front panel is divided roughly in half, with the left-hand side housing the disk drive itself, and the right acting as storage space for up to ten disks. The rear panel is dull in the extreme and has just two permanently attached leads, one each for power and data transfer, connected to the appropriate sockets on the S612. The device has very little in the way of controls, either, as all the relevant ones reside on the front panel of the S612. The only control the MD280 has managed to retain is an Eject button for getting the disks in and out.
There are three disk controls: Save, Verify and Load. There are only two things to be said about these functions. The first is that they do what they're supposed to, the second is that they each take eight seconds to do it, which is not quick.
Let's move swiftly on to the disks themselves. The disks are of the 2.8" variety and hold one sample per side. In case you're reading this after a heavy night, that's two samples per disk. To pre-empt the obvious question, blank disks are currently available through Akai at an RRP of £2.90, and are also used by Sharp and by Korg for their SQD1 sequencer. Akai UK have assured us that, after a brief spell of the disks being out of stock, no supply problems are anticipated for the foreseeable future.
Which brings us very conveniently to the Akai library disks. These are divided into groups of 20 sounds (so there are 10 disks in each group) as follows:
SL201 — Orchestral Sounds
SL202 — Percussive Sounds
SL203 — Choruses (Human voices)
SL204 — Rhythm Sounds
SL205 — Special Effects
SL206 — Sounds of Japan
SL207 — LA Studio 20
The sets vary in price, with SL202 and SL206 costing £59.90, and all the rest £49.90. It's a fair guess that dealers will be only too happy to split these sets up so that you can buy only the disks you want/can afford out of a particular set, making the RRP of a single, pre-recorded disk £5 or £6. Not so bad.
"One Akai disk has a group of people grunting in a sexual, rhythmic way; an amusing demonstration piece, but you'd be hard-pushed to find another use for it."
Most of the sound groups require no further explanation except, perhaps, the Rhythm sounds which include slapped basses, congas, tambourines and so on; the Special Effects which cover doors slamming, thunder and rifles; and the new LA Studio sounds. This last group covers a variety of samples from grand pianos to Fairlight presets.
Going through the contents of the review set (made up of a selection from various disk groups), we find: Piano/Piano B, Synth Clav/Vibes, Bass 1/Bass 2, Flute/Double Bass, Girls Chorus/Violins & Violas, JB/Tenor Sax, Acoustic Guitar/Rock Guitar and, finally, Fairlight/Girls; what more could you ask from a disk?
You want subjective impressions? You got 'em. Only problem is, this is where we run slap bang into the prototype syndrome again, for some of the disks Akai gave us had pre-production samples (oh dear) recorded on them. Subjectively, this unfinished state manifested itself in the form of various audible problems, most of them concerning looping.
On with the sounds, though. The pianos get better the more you play them, though the first had a terrifically buzzy loop at its end. The second piano is claimed to be a Yamaha Grand, and while it's not the same as the real McCoy (remember you haven't got all those mechanics attached to each note of the keyboard to make the sound more interesting), it's not far off. Both samples are wonderful reversed, so they should find use as effects as well as straight pianos.
The Vibes are one of Akai's strongest suits — clean and irritatingly playable. This time there's no loop on the disk, but it's easily done if desired (and if Akai haven't done it themselves by the time you hear it).
The Synth Clav sounds fine, albeit a little thin when it reaches its looped stage. It's a realistic solo synth voice, though; I found myself being tempted to reach for a filter cutoff frequency control from time to time. Still, it's a bit of a mystery to me why Akai have gone for a synth patch when they could have gone for a real Clavinet sample or, alternatively, gone for a non-imitative synth patch instead.
Both the basses are of the electric variety, the first being a currently fashionable slap sample. Great sequencer fodder, this; Trevor will have to find a new trick now. The second bass is softer and works well where the percussive attack of the first is a hinderance rather than a help.
Another excellent sample is the flute, which comes into its own when soloing with a slow repeat echo and has a wonderfully natural feel to it in a classical context. The only things to beware of are the sharp (pre-production) cutoff at the end of the sample and the unnatural tremolo that arrives as soon as you take things too far from the original sampled pitch. Lingering on the subject of pitch for a moment, I can't work out why this sample should be a semitone sharp of concert pitch — remember the key transpose?
"Akai's version of Orch 4 tells you there's an abortionate loop at the end of the Fairlight sample that everybody misses. Interesting."
The Double Bass is sadly rather unremarkable. It works well enough in isolation, but once in amongst other sounds it becomes anonymous and, well, unremarkable.
Girls Chorus is a fascinating vocal sample. There's a bad glitch in the loop on this one and I couldn't do a lot better when left to my own devices, but, played within their useful duration, the girls are just dandy. For some reason best known to Akai, this one doesn't seem to be greatly different from the Girls sample on the back of the Fairlight disk, so I'll skip that one.
Novelty time now with JB, the meaning of which I know not (Jail Bait? James Bond? Jones Brothers? Answers on a postcard please). Whatever it stands for, it sounds like a group of people grunting in a vaguely sexual, definitely rhythmic way. It's certainly an amusing demonstration piece, but you'd be hard-pushed to find another use for it. I wonder what actually was going on...
The Tenor Sax is another casualty, you'll be disappointed to learn. Definitely not suitable for solo or melody work, it's OK for a few stab chords. That's really a great shame, because the sound of the real instrument is so evocative, and the looping here is almost perfect.
Another failure is the Acoustic Guitar, which sounds more like a bad piano to me. Moving quickly on we get to the Rock Guitar, but before you bury your head in your hands (as I did on hearing of it), you'll be relieved to learn that it has its uses, and effective ones at that. The sample is a good one (direct-injected into the sampler by none other than Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter, or so I'm told), and as such, it lends itself to most of the inflexions available to a guitarist — pitchbending, manic vibrato and all. I was surprised when it stopped short of feeding back, but I still managed to perfect the 'budding Richie Blackmore practising in the front room' routine. The neighbours were impressed.
And so, finally, to the one you've been waiting for. Yes, the Fairlight sample does sound like a recording of the Orch 4 preset, and yes, it does sound just the same as it does whenever anyone else uses the real(?) thing. Sampling samples seems to me a fairly ludicrous exercise, but if the demand is there for a down-market version of what has been a fairly exclusive voice, there's no reason why manufacturers shouldn't seek to cater to it. And what the Akai version does tell you is that there's an abortionate loop at the end of the Fairlight sample that everybody avoids. Interesting.
As an instrument in its own right, the Akai S612 is no more likely to put Fairlight out of business than Henry Ford was likely to make Messrs Rolls and Royce reach for the sleeping pills. But, along with its contemporaries, it's certain to have a far-reaching effect on musical trends. The samples I had are worthwhile, and the sounds should get better before the library becomes freely available.
If you already have a MIDI keyboard, the Akai's new low price makes it almost irresistible value for money. It stumbles a little, though, over its inability to store more than one sample at a time, its lengthy disk-changing time (it'd be a pig to use live; no wonder the Akai demonstrators use so many 612s linked together), and the fact that, in the current absence of an external single trigger, you can't actually sample anything without having a keyboard around unless you don't mind not hearing your recording till after you've dumped it to disk.
Akai's new sampling machine, the S900, is a better thought-out, more comprehensively-specified device, but is likely to cost in the region of two grand. The S612, meanwhile, has few enough compromises to allow it to please most of the people, most of the time.
Prices S612 £799; MD280 £199; disk sets £50 and £60 (see text)
More from Akai UK, Electronic Music Division, (Contact Details)
Review by Tim Goodyer
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