Akai S900 MIDI Digital Sampler
Sampler Supreme? Nick Graham tries the Akai S900 S-S-S-Sampler
Just about everybody who has heard the Akai S900 in action has proclaimed it to be one of the hottest products of 1986. I confidently predicted in a previous issue of this magazine that, provided it lived up to its specifications when it actually arrived in the shops, the S900 was probably set to become the DX7 of the sampling world. Well, Akai have now shipped in about 250, and they're selling like hot cakes: in fact, yours truly bought one of the very first batch, so I've had it long enough now to know that I wasn't wrong — it's brilliant!
For those who haven't already heard, the Akai S900 will record 12 seconds of sound (11.75 seconds, to be precise) at a maximum sampling frequency of 40kHz. This gives a more than respectable 16kHz bandwidth, which is enough to satisfy most sets of ears (young children and dogs can hear up to 20kHz and sometimes beyond, but they don't buy a lot of records!). When the sound to be sampled doesn't require full bandwidth, this can be narrowed, extending the total sample time available to 64 secs, at 3kHz bandwidth. If you don't really understand these figures, the quality resulting from full bandwidth recording can be favourably compared to that of a good domestic cassette recorder using normal tape, but, unlike any kind of tape machine, the sound, once sampled, can be manipulated in a great variety of ways.
When it comes to recording a sample, the Akai S900 is simplicity itself. Even if, like me, you get bored reading manuals, the instructions on the excellent LCD display have only to be followed, and you really would have to be pretty incompetent to make a mess of it. First, name the sample — the Akai allows letters, numbers and a sharp (#) sign to be entered — and then, after selecting how you want to monitor the sound (i.e., on its own or as part of a programme), specify sample type. At this point the choice is made whether to construct a velocity crossfade sample or a normal single sound. Musical instruments in general will display different harmonic or timbral characteristics according to how loudly they are played, and so a velocity crossfade made from one 'soft' and one 'loud' sample will to some extent simulate that kind of change. The harder the keyboard is played, the more of the loud sample is heard — the softer it's played, the more of the soft sample is heard. In practice, drums and percussion sounds don't need crossfades, whereas a piano or violin can really be brought to life using this technique. Once you're familiar with the type of sounds which benefit from velocity crossfade, then no more time is wasted over this decision.
A few more steps to actually sampling the sound — just select audio bandwidth, then specify the approximate recording time. The pitch of the sound being recorded also has to be selected (from a keyboard) and then the S900 has to be told how to record; either by automatic audio threshold trigger, or from the moment a key (any key) or footswitch is depressed. The display now becomes a bar-graph meter which shows the input volume, freezing the peaks. If threshold recording was chosen, the threshold of triggering can now be set with great accuracy, and when you finally go for it the S900 displays the sampling time as it elapses. Your new sound is immediately playable from any MIDI keyboard in full 8-note polyphony, or it can be triggered at its original pitch from the Akai itself. Since all the steps in the sampling procedure are logical and always presented in the same order, it's not long before it becomes second nature.
Having sampled your sound you'll probably want to edit it, and 'Edit Sample' can provide hours of fun! This mode offers you the opportunity to edit the sample start and end points and discard the unwanted bits, reverse it change its pitch or fine-tune it, merge it with or splice it to another sound to create a totally new sound, and re-name it if required. Looping can be achieved in normal/alternating mode, and auto looping provides a quick and sometimes effective alternative to laborious manual methods. Rumour has it that Steinberg are writing software for the Atari ST computers which will allow on-screen visual editing and looping similar to that provided by the Sound Designer/Apple Mackintosh package for the Emulator and Prophet 2000. This would make life a lot easier — even with the S900's high resolution (down to a single byte), looping by ear requires the patience of a saint!!
Entering 'Edit' mode now opens up another set of possibilities. This is where the samples are arranged in 'key groups' so that the keyboard can be set up with different samples assigned to different areas or individual keys. ADSR envelope characteristics, filters, LFO, and other control parameters can now be applied, and 'loud' and 'soft' sounds can be paired as velocity crossfades. Individual sounds can be assigned to any of the 8 mono audio outputs or placed right and left in a stereo split, and of course separate MIDI channels can also be assigned to individual sounds with a high degree of flexibility, especially when working with MIDI recorders. Other features of Edit Programme mode include keyboard tracking (loudness and filtering), and positional crossfade, which allows key-splits to overlap.
Both samples and programmes can be saved to disc at any point in the proceedings — the Akai's 750k disc capability can store the entire sample memory plus key group information on one disc. It is possible to carry 32 samples in memory at one time, but even when you have to reload, the 40 secs required to load a full disc isn't bad going when you consider the amount of data involved. Gone are the days of manufacturer-formatted discs (thank goodness!). The Akai formats its own, and can do it without losing the data in its memory. In fact the disc facilities are excellent, enabling the loading saving and editing of individual samples and key groups as well as bulk dump options. MIDI has already been mentioned in connection with key groups, but in addition to the channelising possibilities the S900 responds impeccably to MIDI control. It will also receive and send 'system exclusive' information either over MIDI or via an RS232 computer bus. As an update (extra money) Akai are supplying an audio trigger option for all eight outputs, giving a means of playing the sounds directly from drum pads or from triggering devices in a real kit!!
In general, operating the S900 is a pleasure; it's so logical, and the display so clear and easy to understand. All functions and parameters can be selected from the keypad and mode buttons, but a 'control' knob is provided for quickly stepping through the 'pages'. The whole appearance and build of the machine says professional; it's rugged and attractive, and I don't know how I did without it. Admittedly the sound library available is almost non-existent at the time of writing and the machine arrived with just the grand piano disc, bass disc, demo disc and blank disc. However, more sounds are on their way, and in any case I've had a certain degree of success in sampling my own.
Finally, it may seem like stating the obvious, but the S900 is a rack-mounted machine and needs an external keyboard. In my case it's a DX7, but any good keyboard with full MIDI spec will do. If the S900 is controlled from the Akai MX73 keyboard, however, certain extra sample editing features are available, including analogue treatment of sounds, so if you're looking for a sampling and keyboard setup it would make sense to consider this combination. Anyway, I think I've said enough. I'm going back to my metalbanging — if you don't want an S900 now, you never will!
RRP £1,699 inc. VAT
More from Akai (UK) Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Nick Graham
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