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Raising The Standard

Akai S3000 and S2800 Samplers

Article from Sound On Sound, March 1993


From the S900 to the S1000 and S1100, Akai samplers have set the standards for others to match and found widespread popularity in studios of every size and kind. Now the company's next generation of machines is upon us — David Mellor looks at the new kit on the block.


Power to the people, that's what I say. The power, I mean, to tell manufacturers how they should improve their products to make them better and more usable. As can easily be seen in any dealer's high tech showroom, many new products seem to be more operationally complex (that means 'fiddly') than their predecessors, and the value of any increase in capabilities is often reduced by the difficulty of actually using it. Not so with Akai products. Since they first got into musical instruments and samplers they have consistently produced fully usable gear.

Everything is done for the convenience of the user and what they don't get right this time they probably will the next. If there is any slight drawback, it's that their design team seem to work on a higher level of brain function to most humans and they still sometimes don't realise how simple we would like our equipment to be. But they are getting there, and the two samplers I have in front of me — the S2800 and S3000, both 16-bit stereo machines — demonstrate this quite clearly. (Experienced Akai users will particularly appreciate the fact that the inputs are now on the back and the headphone socket is on the front!).

WHAT'S NEW?



The first question you are asking, I should imagine, is whether the S3000 (on which I am going to concentrate) is a totally new and revolutionary device, one which will change the face of sampling forever. No it's not — and that's not a bad thing at all because what we samplists need is a machine that will fulfil a particular niche in our activities, and Akai's incremental improvements are taking us in the right direction. The S3000 is very much a development of the S1000 and in virtually every feature you can see the evolution of something good into something better. In May or thereabouts there will come the S3200 which will replace the S1100 for those who need that little bit extra, and I would expect to see incremental improvements in a similar way.

As far as the outward appearance of the S3000 goes, the colour is the same — thank goodness they haven't yet changed to hi-fi black. Strangely, however, the legending is less clear than the older models because Akai have chosen to use grey print on a metal finished control panel. Users will spend a lot of time here, and the legend really does need to be absolutely as clear as possible. A major change involves the replacement of the cursor wheel with a 4-section keypad. It's difficult to assess the impact of something like this without several weeks serious use, so I am reluctant to comment. I do miss the old positioning of the data wheel and Mark and Jump keys (which are used for swapping back and forth between two cursor positions, perhaps on different pages). On my S1100 I can set up a Program very quickly with one hand, changing between operating the cursor wheel and then using my fingers on the data wheel and thumb on the Mark/Jump keys. To achieve the same speed with the S3000 was a two hand job, which is twice as tiring when you are working on material in bulk.

The rest of the front panel is pretty much the same as the S1000, albeit more modern looking. The LCD is a touch brighter and clearer, and there is a backlight on/off switch combined with the Display Contrast control. This apparently helps preserve the longevity of the LCD. Around the back you'll find two inputs and two outputs, available on balanced XLRs and jacks, and eight individual outputs. Professional users always like to see XLR connectors, but I do have to award Akai a minus point for their adoption of pin 3 of the XLR as their hot connection, contrary to the recommendations of standards-setting AES and EBU. As well as audio connections there is the usual trio of MIDI sockets, and three blanking panels.

Expansion options for the S3000 include a SCSI card, which you will need if you want to store your samples on hard or optical disk (and you will, very soon after purchase), a digital interface card allows digital input and output and also storage of Programs and samples on DAT. The final slot is for a SMPTE card which will be necessary if you want to use the Cue List function to play back samples synchronised to timecode. You can also fit an internal 105MB hard disk.

While I'm inside the S3000 I should also mention that memory expansion is available from the standard 2MB up to 32MB. If the S3000 was a bathtub, 2MB would be about enough to get your feet wet, so I think you'll soon be investing in more memory. Unfortunately, Akai have made the unwise decision to use a proprietary card rather than standard SIMMs modules which are cheap and easily available.

That covers most of the physical differences between the S1000 and S3000. Other changes include — of course — improved audio specifications and capabilities, for example phase-locked stereo sampling and playback, and new software features and enhancements.

MORE, MORE, MORE...



Whoever thought up the saying "less is more" obviously didn't have a great deal of experience of life in the real world. What every synthesizer and sampler user is crying out for, among other things, is to have more voices. 16 voices seemed like a fair provision on the S1000 but it's amazing how quickly they can get used up, especially when you have extra memory installed. The S3000 has doubled the provision to 32 voices, although you have to be aware that using the chorus or pitch shifting effects (yes, the S3000 has on-board digital effects) will entail a reduction to 27 voices, and using delay means a reduction to 30. Still not a bad number though. Multi-timbralists will revel in the possibilities here, and even those who use their samplers on just one musical part at a time will enjoy a new freedom in layering up Programs or Samples to achieve sounds of previously unknown thickness and complexity.

You also get more Samples, Keygroups and Programs. The S1000 could cope with only 400 such items; the S3000 offers 1,022. A combination of 400 Programs, Keygroups and Samples sounds like a reasonable number — and indeed it is — but I still found myself running out on occasion. Will anyone run out now, I wonder? While I'm on the subject of specifications, I'll add that A-D conversion is now 16-bit/64-times oversampling. Output is 20-bit/8-times oversampling on the left and right outputs, and 18-bit/8-times on the individual outputs. Having extra bits on the outputs is useful because internal processing can increase the dynamic range of the signal beyond 16 bits.

Among other improvements which I'll mention in due course, the S3000 now has a digital effects section with stereo flanging, chorus, multi-tap delay, delay and pitch shifting. Reverb is notable by its absence, but you'll see it on the S3200.

GUIDED TOUR



Operation of the S3000 revolves around the eight named buttons and eight function keys below the LCD display. The named buttons are Select Program, Edit Sample, Edit Program, MIDI, Disk, Tune Level, Utility and Help. I'll go through the first three, the most important ones, in turn.

SELECT PROGRAM



Assuming you have managed to load some material (not too much of a problem I think), then this is the place to arrange for its performance. The main screen will tell you the name of the disk volume, if it has one, and show you the Programs that are available together with their MIDI program numbers. Rotate the data wheel to select the one you want. Of course, you'll want to be more adventurous than this. Perhaps you need to renumber the Programs, either to get them into a more logical order or to give some the same number so they can be active simultaneously. Press the RNUM (Renumber) function key. This page is slightly different to the older range with function keys labelled All, Slip and Set. 'All' allows you to quickly set every Program to the same Program Number (useful for multi-timbral MIDI sequencing). With 'Slip' you can adjust one Program and all higher number Programs will be offset by the same number. 'Set' allows you to renumber Programs individually. The improvement here over what was previously available is that you never forget to press the Go button (there isn't one!) and lose all your carefully made settings.

The Mix page (similar to the S1000 v3.0 and S1100) is something I rarely use personally, but I can well see why it's there. If you are building up a sequenced composition within the S3000 then this is where you can set the levels, panning, individual output and effects level for each Program. If this were a physical device, it could be a console with an awful lot of faders. I think it's more practical the way it is. I hardly use the MIDI page either, but once again I can see why many find it important. It allows control over the MIDI channel of each Program, the key range it will respond to, the number of notes available for polyphony, the priority it has over other Programs, and a transposition interval. Multi-timbralists would probably be turning to this page all the time to make the necessary compromises if there were only 16 voices available. With 32 voices, they probably won't have to.

The Disk function key under the heading of 'Select Program' offers a load only function. I find that it's convenient to use this with my optical disk library because it saves me pushing the Save or Delete buttons by mistake. I have lost valuable data in the past because the only protection mechanism available is the little slider on the disk. Any update to the S3000 software really should include a 'Protect Program and Sample' or 'Protect Volume' function.

S1000 and S1100 users will have noticed that if they want to delete one unused Program from several currently held in memory that it often takes quite some time. In fact an inordinate amount of time with an expanded memory. My tests with the S3000 showed that deletion of Programs and Samples is instantaneous. A significant improvement.

The provision of digital effects on the S3000 is interesting. Effects 1 to 20 all have names suggesting reverb of some kind (Large Room, Plate etc.) but they all sound like a triple repeat echo. Of course, the reason for this is that reverb is not provided on the S3000 (only on the S3200), but the FX page doesn't take any account of this. It could be confusing to someone who doesn't have access to the manual. The last of the function keys under the Select Program heading is the Mute key which simply turns off the effects.

EDIT SAMPLE



The opening screen presents you with information about existing Samples and offers two recording and three editing pages. Reel is the Record Setup page where you will decide matters such as whether your new Sample should be mono or stereo, how sampling should be initiated, whether the bandwidth should be 20kHz or 10kHz, and other important details. As far as I could tell, the second record page, where recording actually takes place, is identical to the S1000. A meter to the left of the screen shows the incoming level, and a graph of the level is drawn out as the signal comes in.

When I first saw the S1000 I was curious about the inclusion of a Meter Off button. I now know that even though this is what it is called in the manual, and that even though it does actually switch the meter off, its purpose is this: in normal use, you can monitor the incoming signal through the S3000 and when a Sample is taken it will switch over to the recorded version so you can play the Sample back from the keyboard immediately. If you don't like what you hear, press the Meter On button and you will be able to hear the source signal again — the button should be called Monitor On. I think I see the point, but I still wish they would change it to a 'quick save' button so you can protect your Sample's precious existence without having to go to the disk page.

There are now three Sample edit pages, rather than two, with some interesting extra functions. I should skip over the Trim and Loop pages because they are almost exactly the same as before (but you only have four loops per Sample rather than eight), and still with no undo function for the crossfade loop. Maybe Akai should be checking out the competition on this point.

Note that I said almost exactly the same, for if you delve a little deeper you will notice that as you trim, the screen scrolls to follow the start and end cursors — a small point, but what a big improvement it makes toward ease of operation! You'll find more such tweaks as you make your way through the S3000's various functions.

The extra edit page is a goodie. Many are the times I have had a Sample which needed a little bit taking out to make it perfect. How often have I wanted to sample a whole length of material and snip out the good bits? Wouldn't life be grand if you could sample a section of vocal and silence the coughs and splutters while leaving the rest intact? The good news is that with the S3000 you can do all of of these things. And you can overwrite a Sample, so you no longer have to waste time typing in a new name even if you are confident about what you are doing. What you do, in abbreviated terms, is this:

Select your Sample and go to Edit page 3.

Set a start and end point for the section you wish to modify. These points are temporary and will not change the original Sample permanently. Press EXEC (Execute).

Press Chop (remove the section), Cut (silence the section) or Extract (get rid of everything other than the section).

There seems to be a slight discrepancy between the three options as to whether you can hear the results of your handiwork immediately, which you should be able to, but I'm sure the Akai engineers are working on this already. (It might be nice if they can work on some automatic naming system to so you don't have to fiddle about with names so much on something which might only be in use for a short time anyway).

Other new goodies include a normalising feature so you can bring all your samples up to a consistent level (or you can adjust the level manually by 'rescaling' if you wish). The Fade function provides either a fade in, fade out, or both. You can do this when editing the Program, but this will be very handy particularly when you know you will be setting a Sample to always play right to its end. Well-known and well-liked features from the S1000 and S1100 are repeated here, such as Time Scale, Resample, and Reverse playback.



EDIT PROGRAM



The graphics have been tidied up to a considerable degree here. Whereas the old Program editing pages were cluttered and difficult to work your way around, these are much friendlier and enticing to the eye. Let me go directly to the major areas of change, one of which is the filter. The old 18dB/octave fixed-Q filters are out and new 12dB/octave resonant filters are in. Ordinarily, I would say that lessening the slope of the filter is a bad thing, but for some reason I never did like the sound of the old Akai filters anyway, and the new ones, whether or not the slope has changed, sound a whole lot better — and they're more versatile too.

One of the first things you will notice is that you will need a much greater numerical change to achieve the same degree of filtering. The second thing is that the resonance control is wonderful. This makes the S3000 into a synthesizer in its own right, using your Samples as source material. In fact, you can achieve a much wider range of sounds from a smaller sample library than with Akai's older products. In the manual, Akai print a diagram showing how the S3000 would appear if it were a synthesizer with a knob or switch for each function (see page 76). It's certainly very impressive and makes you realise what you can do with this beast. (Let's have a Cubase MIDI Mixer Map from someone quickly, please!).

If the S3000's Edit Program pages were translated into a synthesizer front panel with real hardware, this is what it would look like!


Finding your way around the undoubtedly powerful functions takes a little effort. With an old fashioned knobs 'n' sliders synthesizer it was usual to have one hand on the filter frequency control and the other feverishly manipulating the envelope. You have to swap between two pages here, although I do admit that the Mark/Jump buttons make life a little easier. Another slight change is that if you assign something like key velocity or pressure to the filter, then you can hear the change straight away. Before, you had to bring down the filter frequency to a value that would become starting point for any changes.

Moving onto the envelopes, of which there are two (one for level and one for the filter), Akai have provided some very useful envelope 'templates'. If you can't be bothered setting the attack, decay, sustain and release times by hand, just dial in a template and make adjustments from there. The templates available include Piano, Clav/Harpsi, Electric Organ, Pipe Organ, String/Vox, Slow String, Woodwind, Panpipe, Brass, Brass Swell, Short Percussion, Dry Drum, Long Drum, Ambient Drum, Cymbal/Gong, Tuned Percussion, Guitar/Bass and three synth bass settings. Although a number of these are rather similar, they do offer a good short cut to getting exactly the sound you want, or for making new sounds from old.

Envelope 2, for the filter, instead of having ADSR characteristics has four rate and four level settings which appear to be more appropriate for filter envelopes. For the record, selecting Samples for the Keygroups is the same as the S1000. You can have up to four Samples per Keygroup, divided into four velocity zones. Samples can track the keyboard or play at constant pitch, they can be tuned in semitones and cents, adjusted for loudness, filter, pan and individual output, and set to play: as sampled, with the loop in the release phase, loop until release, with no loops or all the way to the end.

For more information about Program editing, consult the panel entitled Assignable Program Modulation — there's something interesting going on!

DOES IT DELIVER?



The further we get up the stairway to sampling heaven, the more demanding we become; well, I do anyway, and I'm very picky. The S3000 is a very thoroughly refined version of what has gone before and most people will very much appreciate the new features and streamlined operation. Going back to the S1000 and S1100, one area where they were not perfect was in the way they switched sample playback on and off. Often a Sample would play back with a slight but noticeable click at the end which could only be removed by setting a long release time or by tricky manipulation of the filter and envelope. I am pleased to report that this problem has been cured and Samples which click on my S1100 behave perfectly when transferred to the S3000.

Another problem with the old machinery was a similar sort of click, but this time when operating multi-timbrally, due to note-stealing. If a voice had to be brought to an abrupt end to enable another note to play, there would be a slight but audible click. I have to say that this hasn't changed, but fortunately since there are now 32 voices it is much less likely to occur.

All in all, the S3000 is a very sweet sounding instrument, and if I didn't have an S1100 already I would certainly be putting it on my acquisition list (maybe the forthcoming S3200 will make it — I'll have to wait and see). Akai deserve every credit for listening to what musicians and engineers want, and then giving us exactly that — and more.

Further information

Akai S3000 £2,999 inc VAT.
Akai S2800 £2,199 inc VAT.


Akai UK, (Contact Details).

AKAI S3000/S2800 SPECIFICATIONS

Polyphony: 32 voices
A-to-D conversion: 16-bit stereo/64-times oversampling
D-to-A conversion (L/R outputs): 20-bit/8-times oversampling
(18-bit/8x on S2800)
D-to-A conversion (ind. outputs): 18-bit/8-times oversampling
Internal processing: 28-bit accumulation
Sampling rates: 44.1kHz/22.05kHz
Phase locked stereo sampling and playback
Internal memory: 2MB expandable to 32MB (up to 16MB on S2800)
254 Programs/255 Samples/1022 items
Sampling times 2MB — 11.14 seconds stereo/44.1kHz
32MB — 2.97 minutes (stereo/44.1 kHz)
Internal effects: Stereo flanging, chorus, multitap delay, delay, pitch shifter
Inputs: 2 balanced XLRs (not S2800)
2 balanced jacks
Data Storage: 3.5" HD floppy drive, optional 105MB hard disk
Outputs: Left/right balanced XLR (not S2800)
8 assignable jacks (2 assignable jacks)
Stereo headphone output
Program editing functions: Assignable Program Modulation, resonant filters, 2 envelope generators, 4 way velocity switch/crossfade, 2 LFOs, panning, single trigger legato playback mode, held pitchbend node, microtonal tuning
Filters: 12dB/octave resonant
Envelope generators: 2 (1 multi-stage)
Assignable Program Modulation control sources: Envelope 1, Envelope 2, LFO 1, LFO 2, Mod wheel, Pitchbend, Aftertouch, Velocity, Key number, definable external MIDI controller
Assignable Program Modulation destinations: Filter cutoff frequency, Amplitude, Pan position, Pitch, LFO rate, LFO depth
Sample editing functions: Trim, Chop, Cut, Extract, 4 loops, Crossfade looping, Auto looping, Join, Merge, Crossfade between Samples, Gain rescale, Gain normalise, Reverse, Time stretch, Resample
Program editing functions: Assignable Program Modulation, Resonant filters, 2 envelope generators, 4 way velocity switch/crossfade, 2 LFOs, Panning, Single trigger legato playback mode. Held pitchbend node, Microtonal tuning
Options: IB-302D AES/EBU digital interface
Q-list generation using IB-304 interface (not S2800)


ASSIGNABLE PROGRAM MODULATION

Although I have alluded to the synthesizer-like functions of the S3000 in the main text, there really is a lot more to it that could stand a little explanation. On the S1000 you would see things in the Program editing pages such as...

Velocity > freq: +00
Pressure > freq: +00
Envelope-2 > freq: +00

These were all fixed assignments and all you could adjust was the numeric value. The equivalent on the S3000 looks like this:

Velocity > freq: +00
Lfo2 > freq: +00
Env2 > freq: +00

Not much different, you say? Well, what you will find is that the cursor can land on the controller as well as the value, so instead of velocity controlling frequency you can choose from among these:

  • No Source
  • Mod wheel
  • Bend
  • Pressure
  • External
  • Velocity
  • Key
  • LFO1
  • LFO2
  • Envl
  • Env2
  • !Mod wheel
  • !Bend
  • !External

The exclamation mark shows that the controller value is only registered at the moment of note on reception. These types of assignment are dotted all around the edit Program pages. Seck and ye will find — there is limitless scope for all kinds of creativity. But will you ever find time to take any samples?


ON-LINE HELP

One neat new feature of Akai's new sampler range is on-line help. If you don't know how to use the current page, just hit the Help button and the display will now tell you what it does — a simple but very welcome feature that offers a third choice apart from a) finding the manual, or b) staying confused.


AKAI S2800 - AN S3000 FOR LESS MONEY?

Yes, sort of — as long as you can do without a few of the peripheral features. The S2800 has almost everything the S3000 has; differences include...

Only 2 individual outputs
No XLR connectors
Expandable memory only to 16 Megabytes
No SMPTE option, therefore no cue list

As far as I can see, that's it. Sounds like a bargain to me!


S1000 AND S1100 - OBSOLETE?

High tech musicians always welcome progress — except when their expensive state-of-the-art equipment is suddenly turned into last year's thing by the introduction of an even more sophisticated model. S1000 owners, and S1100 owners in particular, will no longer be able to say that they have the latest and the best now that the Akai S3000 is out and the S3200 is imminent. Of course if you have an older model you can always sell it and upgrade. But what if you have added a SCSI card, a DAT interface and extra memory? You'll have to order replacements since your old accessories are not compatible. Trading up to a newer model might be a costly procedure.

Life is change, however, and I think most of us welcome these new developments even if we are going to have to shell out a little cash to stay at the leading edge. But what about those people who find their S1000s and S1100 perfectly adequate for their needs? Will the introduction of the new models have any effect?

As I mentioned elsewhere, the S3000 series uses a new disk format so that more 'items' (Samples, Programs and Keygroups) can be stored within the available space. This is done by modifying the directory area of the disk. Of course, all the new models can read any of the old Akai formats so new purchasers will never have any problem. The problems come when you want to add to your sample library. If the new format takes over on floppy disk, removable hard disk, optical disk and CD ROM, then it is apparent that S1000 and S1100 users will be left out in the cold and will have to start sampling for themselves. So what of S3000 libraries?

Akai obviously want the CD ROM format in particular to take off — there will shortly be a version of the S3000 called the CD3000 that omits any sampling inputs and instead has an onboard CD-ROM drive/CD player. But will there ever be much in the way of library available on CD ROM if third party developers have to choose between S1000 and S3000 formats? They are not going to issue one of each, that's for sure.

The good news is that Akai do intend, within the next 12 months, to update the S1000 and S1100 operating systems to allow the 'old' machines to read S3000-series disks. Of course, compatibility will not be 100% — changes to the filter alone ensure that — but it will mean that third parties can go ahead and create S3000 libraries safe in the knowledge that they can also sell to S1000/1100 owners. Conversely, S1000/1100 owners can rest assured that they are not about to run out of new sound sources.


Also featuring gear in this article


Featuring related gear



Previous Article in this issue

Software Survey

Next article in this issue

Drum Programming


Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
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Sound On Sound - Mar 1993

Gear in this article:

Sampler > Akai > S3000

Sampler > Akai > S2800


Gear Tags:

16-Bit Sampler

Review by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Software Survey

Next article in this issue:

> Drum Programming


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