Sweetening the pill
Three big names, but which one’s the best?
The vices of digital audio have often been overlooked, due to its other undeniably good qualities. Ben Duncan hosts an engineers' breakfast club to discuss the relative merits of three widely-used samplers...
Many readers will have been led to believe that digitally generated or processed sound is 'perfect'.
It may be true that digital data isn't subject to gross decay when copied about, unlike analog tape. But it's also well established that ordinary, supposedly 'perfect' CD players and DAT machines are poor retrievers of nuance and spacial clues, compared to more solidly engineered, dedicated transports with separate D-to-A convertors.
Maybe it's because this type of measure isn't so easily quantifiable, that digital technology manages to sweep the board for performance. But if you're prepared to acknowledge their shortcomings in this department, then the results of our study of digital samplers won't surprise you.
Our listening panel listened to three top units:
1. Akai S3000
2. EMU 3X
3. Roland S760
Before judging, it's worth looking at the manufacturers' pedigrees: Akai originally made reel-to-reel tape machines, a sort of poor man's Revox. EMU's background was in synths & keyboards. And Roland were historically a maker of FX boxes!
The Akai accepts a digital input directly from a CD player. The other two had analogue inputs. On listening, the team (all experienced live sound engineers getting into recording) thought that the Akai had a rather flat sound stage, one that 'went away from you'. Compared to the others, the bass was rather thin and lacking. It sounded 'toppy' - as if it had lots of HF, but it later became clear that it was really grittiness, or 'digital crunch'.
The EMU had the advantage over the other two that the signal was going through only one set of convertors (D/A or A/D). Its soundstage was very good all round, our only reservations concerned the high HF. Bass was solid and tight. Talking ergonomics for a moment, the crew also noted that the EMU was designed to be driven mainly from a Mac keyboard. It would certainly be needed for any anything beyond the simplest editing or manipulation. There were also glitches and problems when the machine was demo'd to them - hardly reassuring.
The Roland was the all round favourite however. It had very smooth HF, and bass that if it erred, veered on the soft, warm side. Plus it maintained any 3D spacial cues in the original. Building on this, it was found that it could also smooth and tame the harsh, glazey sound from an ordinary, nondescript CD player.
In other words, if you can't presently afford to upgrade your CD player or DAT with an outboard D/A, and can't afford a player that is reasonably pleasant sounding, you can at least employ this unit as a 'digital source sweetener'!
The Roland may not have been perfect - it missed some sonic details - but it sounded at least as good as the EMU despite having the handicap of two convertors in the signal path. At least it didn't add anything nasty. In these circumstances, the Akai may be faced with stiff competition in the near future.
Gear in this article:
Feature by Ben Duncan
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