Akai the New
A fresh look at the production model of the Akai S612 MIDI controlled sound sampler by Steve Howell.
Since our review of this new sampler in HSR June 85, it has been updated to such an extent that it has practically evolved into a new product. It's also cheaper...
What I reviewed in HSR June 85 was very much a prototype version of this model. However, it would appear that Akai have taken notice of criticisms of their prototype as the production model now includes some significant improvements.
The front panel has received a slight update. Underneath the 'Looping' section are two new buttons (again, of the membrane type); one for Key Transpose and the other for Manual Splice. The three looping modes and the two sliders associated with them still remain, but software updates and the two new controls all go to make sampling with the unit even more satisfying.
The Key Transpose function works in much the same way as on normal synths in that you press the button and the LED next to it flashes until a new key is pressed on the keyboard whereupon the original sample is transposed to that note. The Manual Splice is best described after a brief rundown of the revised sampling procedure.
As before, the sound to be sampled is fed into the unit either via the Mic or Line inputs and the level is set using the nicely sensitive bargraph meter and the input level control. Once the level is set, the New button is pressed and the LED comes on to say that the sampler is armed. As soon as the sound is heard the LED flashes for the duration of the sample time and your sound is stored.
Setting the sampling time is not automatic as I originally supposed but is set by pressing a note on the MIDI keyboard prior to sampling. This does two things in fact. Firstly it sets the sample time (which is between one and eight seconds) and secondly, it sets the note to which the sample will correspond. On power up, the default setting is two seconds which corresponds to the pressing of middle C, but pressing any other key will change that. The ability to assign your sample to a particular note is very handy for ensuring that your sampler is in tune with your other synths, but should you need a longer or shorter sample time, you can of course, use any key and then transpose the pitch of the sample so that it's in tune with the rest of your instruments. For what it's worth, the key transpose function is programmable and is stored on disk with other control settings.
This method of selecting sampling time is very quick and easy and you soon get to know which key is best for a particular type of sample. By using a sample rate of 32kHz, Akai have achieved a bandwidth in excess of 12kHz which in practice means that the sampled sound is virtually as bright as the original. At its maximum sampling time, its bandwidth is reduced to 4kHz (according to the handbook) and so, this is only useful for less demanding applications.
"...whilst it may be lacking some of the facilities of the Emu 2 or the Mirage, so do the Emu 1, the Synclavier and the Fairlight!"
The one modification that really brings this sampler into a class of its own is the auto-loop facility.
As soon as the sampling procedure outlined above has been completed, the S612 goes into an auto-loop mode and the internal computer looks for the best point to set looping points. If your sample exceeds the sample time, the result is normally a totally glitchless loop, but if your sound dies away before the allotted sample time, you sometimes hear queer noises as the computer sometimes picks up on the tail out of the sample which it tries to loop. Generally the loop is as near perfect as you'll get and any glitches are usually slight and can be disguised using a hint of vibrato. Should the loop be a disaster, I think you'll find that it's the fault of the sound and the computer just couldn't find a good enough point to loop. In this instance, it's best to re-record the sample and ensure that it's as even a sound as is possible to achieve. Should you wish to stick your oar in and try and do a better loop (not recommended if the computer has found one that is almost acceptable) you can do this using the aforementioned Manual Splice button. The auto-loop is then overridden and you're on your own. In the Manual Splice mode you simply need to hold a key down and then adjust the two sliders and listen to the results. This mode has real time playback of your actions so you don't have to keep re-pressing the note to hear the fruits of your efforts.
As on the prototype, you can edit the sound using the Start and End Points slider controls to chop off the front or back of a sound which is essential for tidying up silences and any extraneous noise that may creep in. Once the computer has selected its loop, providing you don't go into the Manual Splice mode, the Start control allows editing of the front of the sound. Only in the One Shot mode does the End control allow you to tidy up the sound's rear end. The S612 still allows you to overdub samples and the auto-loop functions on these as well, but don't be surprised if the loop fouls up a bit as looping complex sounds is a tricky business even for a computer.
It's also possible to initiate a sampled recording using the Rec Trigger input. This allows you to arm the sample using the New (or Overdub) button and then jump into the sampling mode with the depression of a footswitch. This may seem a bit daft but, in the normal mode of sampling, the recording of a sound is initiated when the sound passes a threshold level. On sounds with a slow attack, this can sometimes lop off the initial part of the attack. Using the Rec Trigger option allows you to overcome this problem by timing the depression of the footswitch with the sound. Remember that any mistiming here can be rectified using the Start control to edit out any embarrassing silences. Also, as before, sounds can be reversed partially or totally by setting the Start slider further to the right of the End Point slider.
"All in all, one of the easiest samplers I've used is now even easier and even more flexible."
The rest of the panel is much the same as before and allows quite extensive modification of the sound using the filter control as an elaborate tone control. You can also add vibrato (with or without delay) and you can add final release to a sound using the Decay control. This seems to allow longer release times to be set than on the original and it is now a good few seconds long. This control also utilises a Loop-in-Release function as found on the Emu 2 in that, once a loop has been established, after a note has been released, the looping continues and the sound fades away under the control of the Decay pot. Other samplers tend to loop the sound whilst a note is held but as soon as it's released, the sample's natural decay is heard. Personally, I prefer the system adopted by the Akai as it allows a far greater degree of control over the sound to be had.
All in all, one of the easiest samplers I've used is now even easier and even more flexible. It's not unknown for a sound to be sampled, looped and edited and ready for action in under a minute. Compare that with other samplers!
And so to the Disk Drive, otherwise known as the MD280 Q-Disk. The gaping holes that appeared on the prototype now feature protection covers which, when removed, reveal multiway connectors for the Q-Disk and the cassette interface. The what? Yes, in their infinite wisdom, Akai have seen fit to provide a means of storing sounds onto cassette using that funny little cassette unit Commodore make for their computers.
You would think that having this cassette interface is a godsend but there are quite a few drawbacks. Firstly, it takes two minutes to save, verify or load a sound which is hardly ideal. Secondly, it's prone to saving and loading errors. The third and perhaps biggest drawback is that the disk drive always takes priority. What this means in reality is that you can't use the cassette as a cheap backup with sounds stored on cassette as the disk drive is the master unit. Should you try to disconnect the disk drive so that you can save onto or load from cassette, the removal of the disk drives multipin connector temporarily turns the S612 off and so any sound stored in it is lost. Should you, for instance, have a sound on cassette that you wish to store on disk you would have to disconnect the disk drive and then load the sound from cassette. You would then have to remove the cassette and insert the disk drive's plug which would turn off the sampler, thereby losing the sound you had just loaded. Silly. Despite which, Akai recommended that you turn off the S612 before connecting the disk drive as connecting it with power on is likely to damage its delicate microcircuitry!
"It's not unknown for a sound to be sampled, looped and edited and ready for action in under a minute."
The idea of a cassette drive was as a cheap alternative to the disk drive but now Akai will only be marketing the S612 and the MD280 as one complete package: you can't now buy just the sampler on its own. In fairness, Akai have dropped the price of the whole package quite considerably and shop discounting is making the two units available for about £1000.
The disk drive is, like the S612, a 2U 19" rack mounting unit and is situated to the left of the unit and next to that is a recessed series of slots for storing disks (ten in all). It connects to the sampler by a large multiway connector and is powered from an 8V source derived from a small socket on the rear of the sampler. The drive itself takes 2.8" disks. Everybody's reaction to this so far has been that you can't get 2.8" disks but indeed you can. Sharp make them for one of their computers and typewriters and their reference number is MZ-6F03. They should be available from any good Sharp dealer. Alternatively, they will be available from any Akai dealer, so supply should be no problem. The good news is that they only cost about £2.50 or so each which is, as far as I know, the cheapest disk that any sampler uses. (Compare that with the price of an Ensoniq disk!). Two sounds can be stored per disk which might not seem a lot but is on a par with the Emu 1.
Using the disk drive is simple. Once you're happy with the sound you press Save once and the LED display on the sampler flashes a 'D' to indicate that the drive is connected. (It flashes 'C' when the cassette is being used.) You press Save again and the drive leaps into action. After that you'd be well advised to verify it. If the save is good, then the display flashes 'G' for a few seconds and the sampler is returned to normal action. As you will no doubt have surmised, the Load procedure is much the same. Any of these actions take about 5 seconds to complete, making the Akai the fastest sampler on the market and viable for live performances. All parameters on the front panel, with the exception of the input level controls and the output volume are programmable. These include all the looping modes, the settings of the looping sliders, the LFO controls, the filter and decay controls and, very importantly, the Tune and Key Transpose functions so you can rest assured that your sound will be in tune with rest of your gear. As with a normal synth, any adjustment of the controls overrides the save version so you can change sounds but any edits you make need not be stored unless you want them to be.
In conclusion then, the production version of the Akai S612, when used in conjunction with the MD280 is probably the easiest to use sampler in the world. No messy looping, comprehensive editing facilities, speedy storage and retrieval of sounds and excellent sound quality to boot. It's MIDI spec is very impressive in that it can receive Omni on/Poly on or Omni off/Poly on with a Mono option. It receives pitch bend and sustain pedal information as well as LFO commands. It also has separate voice outs on a special 13 pin DIN. Some would argue that its lack of filters and ADSR envelope generators are a big limitation as is its inability to multisample. In reply I would say that I, for one can live without filter swept piano or whatever (although I would like to see more in the envelope shaping department) and, with a few notable exceptions, most instruments sample pretty well without multi-sampling. Besides, multi-sampling is a slow and tedious affair and can cost you dearly in studio time. You must remember that you are paying for a good, no-nonsense high quality sampler with the Akai and whilst it may be lacking some of the facilities of the Emu 2 or the Mirage, so do the Emu 1, the Synclavier and the Fairlight!
I enjoyed using the S612 when I first had it. Now, with the software and hardware updates and the new disk drive it's even better: I'd almost say it's a new model! I like it so much that I have put my money where my mouth is and bought one and very happy I am with it too. Since I've had it, I have effectively acquired a MiniMoog, an RX11 drum machine, a Korg Super Percussion, a TR707 all with tuneable drum sounds, a polyphonic ARP 2600 modular system and a whole lot more, such as pan pipes, orchestral strikes (no sampler is complete without one of those!), various percussion things like Coke cans and so forth and a variety of choirs - and I'm looking forward to getting a lot more. Used in conjunction with my newly acquired MSQ700 I can have powerful multitrack sequencing. I can either use a 'natural' sound or, if I need DX bass and DX marimbas simultaneously, I simply sample the marimbas and run them off the MSQ. What I'm trying to say, in short, is that it has proven to be a good investment. Akai are due to release a selection of preset sample disks with a library of sounds for the S612. Over 100 samples ranging from orchestral sounds like strings, brass, etc. are included along with various percussion and drum sounds and a variety of 'ethnic' instruments. Price, as yet, is not fixed but is likely to be £59.00 or so for a set (presumably of ten disks which means 20 sounds) and will be in the shops quite soon.
"...the sampled sound is virtually as bright as the original."
How sales will compare with the Ensoniq remains to be seen but, for what it's worth, I much prefer the Akai. The sampling is, to my ears, of a much higher quality.
All I recommend is that you try it out for yourself. It features things only found on very much more expensive units like the Emu 2 such as Auto-loop, the Alternating Looping mode and Loop-in-Release and, to my knowledge, is the only sampler that allows you to overdub into it.
I can't really fault it, especially for the price. Need I say more?
Further information is available from: Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Steve Howell
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