Akai S2000

Digital Sampler

Published in SOS November 1995
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Reviews : Sampler

Come on down, Akai's new low-cost sampler! Astonishing value for money at a mere £999, the basic S2000 is expandable to a top-of-the-range spec by means of add-on cards. PAUL WHITE spins the (data) wheel of fortune to see whether Akai have played their cards right this time...

 

Every once in a while, a piece of gear comes along that attracts a huge amount of interest, not because it offers anything really new in the way of facilities, but because its enables a lot of people to buy something that they couldn't previously afford. The S2000 falls squarely into the 'more for less' category -- for under £1000, it offers a huge amount of sampling power and, equally importantly, upgradability.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Technically, the S2000 is closely related to the S3000; it's a 16-bit sampler, mono or stereo, and comes with 2Mb of memory upgradable to a maximum of 32Mb using standard computer SIMM chips. Resonant low-pass filters give the instrument synth-like capabilities, and in acknowledgement of the importance of CD-ROM sample libraries, a SCSI interface comes as standard. What's more, sample CD-ROMs intended for other machines can be loaded in, though there may still be a little tweaking required in some cases.

As you might expect from a modern sampler, the S2000 features full 32-voice polyphony, up to 16-part multitimbral operation, and a choice of 44.1kHz or 22.05kHz sampling rates. All the usual sample editing features are implemented, including crossfade looping, assisted looping via the Find function, reverse and timestretch (see the 'And... Stretch' box elsewhere in this article). For Mac users, there's the bundled MESA sample editing software (of which more later), and for those not yet working with hard drives, the internal floppy disk drive accepts both standard DD and HD disks. It all sounds too good to be true, so what's the catch?

Firstly, some of the facilities found as standard in top-end samplers come as options in the case of the S2000. For example, the audio outputs are stereo only, and if you need assignable outputs, you have to buy a plug-in card option which has eight outputs plus digital I/O. Similarly, the basic memory provision of 2Mb will only give you around 12 seconds of stereo (or 24 seconds of mono) sampling, and as most CD-ROM material requires more memory than this, buying more memory SIMMs is almost mandatory. In addition, there are two internal slots to take Flash RAM cards which retain their data when the power is switched off. At the moment, 8Mb cards are available at around £500 each, but it's rumoured that 16Mb cards will soon be on the market. The obvious benefit of using Flash RAM is that you can keep your favourite samples in the machine, so you can simply switch on and play. Finally, you can also buy a powerful on-board effects processor card. For more details on the options, see the box later on in this article.

Some of you might consider the optional extras a bit of a con to make the price look artificially low, but I actually think expandability is the right way to go, and the only thing the S3000 really has over the S2000 is the separate outputs as standard. There's very little that this sampler can't handle when compared with its more costly cousins, and unlike my old S950, the operating software comes on disk, so that when upgrades do come along, you simply get a new boot disk.

USER INTERFACE

A degree of compromise is evident when you check out the user interface; the most obvious economy is the two-line, 16-character LCD display -- but in practice, I didn't find this too much of a problem.

Physically, the S2000 is distinctively Akai, though its slim 2U front panel belies the huge depth of the machine, which measures over 16 inches front to back. The front panel is extremely simple -- there are individual buttons to provide access to the key areas of the machine, and a familiar Play button for playing back samples while editing if you don't happen to have a keyboard connected.

A dual-concentric Data/Select wheel takes the place of up/down buttons in certain situations; the inner part of the wheel is used to increased or decrease values, while the outer ring is used to select items for adjustment. In some instances, this makes getting around the S2000 easier, but the system is marred slightly by the fact that the inner wheel has a poor tactile response. This is one rare case where I'd have preferred the old up/down buttons -- and I never thought I'd say that!

Because the user interface has been streamlined, the inevitable menus are quite long, but to make moving from one section to the next more intuitive, the control panel includes both Page and Group buttons. The Group button is used to skip from one logical set of related pages to the next without having to scroll through the whole list. Two 'soft' buttons beneath the display double as both cursor buttons and 'enter' type buttons, their function being evident from the screen display.

One nice touch for those seeking instant gratification is the inclusion of envelope templates covering piano, string, brass, percussion and similar sound types, but you can ignore these by moving onto the next page down, where the rate and level parameters may be edited conventionally. These same templates are available for both the level and filter envelopes.

RECORDING AND EDITING

Sampling may be carried out in mono or stereo via the line inputs, and these will also take a mic if you don't expect to need vast amounts of gain. You have a choice of just two sampling bandwidths -- 10kHz or 20kHz. Sampling may be initiated manually, via MIDI or automatically using the user-adjustable trigger threshold, and the sampling time can be set to any value up to the maximum available memory. A front panel knob sets the record level, and a second control sets the level of the stereo outputs, though it has no effect on the separate assignable outputs if these are fitted.

Once a sample has been recorded, it can be 'topped and tailed' then looped or reversed if necessary. Samples may also be normalised to bring their peak level up to maximum, and it's possible to resample sounds at a lower bandwidth to conserve memory. All this will be familiar territory to existing Akai users, and indeed, as an S950 user, I managed to find my way around the S2000's menus with very little help from the impressively thick and clearly written manual.

In common with Akai's other lower cost samplers, the S2000 supports only a single loop, and this may either be set to continue looping during the sustain portion of a sound, or set to revert to the original sustain part of the sample once the key is released. It's also possible to set a maximum looping time of up to 10 seconds if you wish, after which the sound automatically enters its release phase. It could be useful for emulating the maximum note length of a Mellotron tape, I suppose...

As with my old S950, the loop start point and loop length are specified in samples rather than in seconds and milliseconds even though the latter, to me, would have been infinitely more sensible. If I can work out the times on a calculator, I'm pretty sure a box full of DSPs and processors could do it for me... Despite this minor quibble, looping sounds that have a reasonably even sustain is quite easy, and once you've set up nominal loop start and length values, you can get the S2000 to help you find the nearest points of equal amplitude, so that any level changes at the loop point are minimised. However, sounds that are heavily modulated or have a constantly decaying level are very difficult to loop convincingly whatever method you use -- something that's true regardless of which sampler you use.

Once your samples have been recorded and tweaked, they are placed into Programs, which can comprise up to 99 keygroups with four zones per keygroup to accommodate layering, velocity cross-switching or crossfading. It pays to appreciate that layering or crossfading samples uses up two voices, whereas simple velocity cross-switching uses only one voice a time. There are various trigger modes to allow the one-shot triggering of samples, mono legato for emulating monosynths and suchlike, and of course you can set up drum sounds so that (for example) open hi-hats are cut off by closed hi-hats.

IN USE

After waiting 30 seconds or so for the operating system to load in from floppy, I found the S2000 as easy to use as most other Akai samplers, and there's little new to learn other than the introduction of a new 'Multi' mode of operation which brings the S2000 more into line with its contemporaries. On older Akai machines, multitimbral operation was achieved by loading several programs, all with the same program number, then allocating these to different MIDI channels, which often involved a degree of tedious renumbering and channel changing. You can still work this way in Single mode, which is an obvious advantage if you have existing library material in the old format, but in Multi mode, you can slot in any 16 programs, regardless of their program numbers. This has the advantage that if you want to call up a new program part way through a mix, you can do it using a program change, just as you would with a multitimbral synth. You can also change the pan positions of programs within a Multi; these override the pan settings of the original programs. Perhaps the biggest creative value of Multi mode is that you can make adjustments to things like envelope settings in context -- for example, while a sequence is running, or when two or more sampled sounds are being used as layers.

The manual admits that there is a bug in this current software version which prevents you from saving Multis properly, so you have to save the whole memory, including any samples you have loaded that are not included in the current Multi. I suppose this could cause difficulties if you are short of storage space, but I didn't find it a huge problem, and Akai do promise that it should be fixed by the next software revision.

 

"...the S2000 is sensationally good value. As a straightforward sampler, it's easy to use, sounds exceptionally good, and its SCSI interface provides direct access to a huge range of existing library material on CD-ROM."

 

Creating your own samples from scratch is quite easy, though I did have problems watching the display at the same time as trying to play a sustained digeridoo note! A bargraph creeps across the screen as sampling takes place, so you can see at a glance how much longer you need to blow, twang or hit. I found that looping the digeridoo sample was quite easy, and once I'd picked a reasonable ball-park loop point, the Find command improved upon it. A crossfade loop completed the job, but it was here I discovered an immense irritation, namely that once you've done a crossfade, you can't undo it -- you have to reload the sample and try again. I mentioned this to Akai, who say that the existing hardware can't cope with undoes, so don't expect miracles in the next software upgrade -- of the available options, loaves and fishes are not included!

I finished off by making some more samples, tuning them, and slotting them into keygroups. I then saved the whole shooting match to disk, just to prove that it would load up properly. It did.

The only real operational frustration was the slowness of CD-ROM access, which is compounded by the uncertain nature of the data entry wheel. It appears that instead of the S2000 loading up the entire list of contents from the disk (which would let you see at a glance what was available), it looks for the items on disk one at a time, so if you turn the wheel too far, you can end up several items past the one you're looking for before the display registers the change. Akai are now aware of this, and will see what can be done in the next software upgrade. The other thing the S2000 can't do is create Multis that will automatically load in the appropriate sounds from CD-ROM for you -- this would make life much easier, and surely shouldn't be too much of a challenge for today's technology.

ANOTHER FINE MESA?

Bundled with the S2000 and S3000 is a software package called MESA. Currently available for Mac only, MESA provides a more visual means of organising samples into keygroups and sorting out envelopes and filter settings, as well as zones, modulation, pan and so on. MESA also allows you to load AIFF or Sound Designer II files for use as samples, and a zoomable graphic waveform display helps you find the best sample loop points. Sadly, MESA doesn't let you do your crossfade looping on the computer, and you can't splice bits together from different samples or even remove a chunk from the middle of an existing sample.

Overall, MESA is probably far too powerful in areas you're never likely to need, and noticeably underpowered in the sample editing department, though its graphics are attractive and fairly clear. The operating system is more than a touch cryptic, and though the on-line help does a reasonable job of guiding you through it, my initial impression was that it made about as much sense as Morris dancing!

Initially, I expected to see a nice friendly box saying 'load sample from sampler', but no, that's too easy. Instead, you have to open something called the Toolbox, which shows you a postage stamp-sized picture of a computer and a sampler. You then have to interrogate the sampler to get a list of samples and programs up on the screen. Then (and this is the good bit) you have to open the sample edit window, go back to the sample list window, grab the sample you want to work on, drag it to a letter box icon on the sample edit page, and post it!

Once you've done this, the sample finally comes up in the computer window. It's rather like finding your way around one of those mindless adventure games where you come across a sheer brick wall, only to be told that you can't go any further because your troll isn't carrying the right type of fish to trade in for a magic anti-gravity belt! When you finally do sort out your loop points, you have to post the result back into the original sample list to send it back to the sampler before you can deal with any crossfading. What's more, I couldn't find any means of using my MIDI keyboard via the computer to check out the results of my editing. There is a floating window containing play and stop controls which lets you hear the sample at its original pitch, but you really need to know how things sound at different pitches, or when played as chords.

During my tour of MESA, I found countless references to something called 'scripting', and on trying to open some of the scripts provided, I was told that I needed AppleScript. At first, I wondered whether this might be some form of elven calligraphy performed on fruit that needs to be picked up earlier in the game! However, it turned out to be an extension (pre-installed on all System 7.5 Macs, but also available separately to Macs with earlier system versions) which allows you to automate tasks you perform regularly. However, I saw little point in being able to construct my own faders and buttons (which is part of what 'scripting' is all about) when what I really wanted was for the program to be a damn sight simpler and to help me sort out my crossfades. At this point, I sheathed my magic sword and headed for home.

If you have access to AIFF or SDII files, then MESA will be useful in transferring these to your sampler, and I'm sure the program creation features will be wonderful when you finally get used to them, but if you want to do serious sample editing, then you still need a dedicated program to do the job for you. In MESA's favour, because samples are transferred back and forth using SCSI rather than MIDI, the sound you're working on is still likely to be in fashion by the time you get it loaded. Transferring samples via MIDI is about as slow as trying to back up a digital recording by writing the 1s and 0s on a sheet of paper by hand!

SUMMARY

Even taking into account my minor criticisms, such as the rather non-tactile data wheel and the inscrutability of the bundled MESA software, the S2000 is sensationally good value. As a straightforward sampler, it's easy to use, sounds exceptionally good, and its SCSI interface provides direct access to a huge range of existing library material on CD-ROM.

Even if you go for all the options, which will more than double the price of the basic unit, you still have a very cost-effective sampler. The only real limitations are in the sample editing department, where you're restricted to a single loop, and can't graft different bits of different (or even the same) samples together. The use of SIMMs makes it far more cost-effective to add more memory (though I don't know why 8Mb SIMMs are taboo), and being able to add outputs, effects or filters when you can afford them is a good way to spread the cost of buying a really first-rate machine.

Existing S3000 owners (especially those who use multiple machines in live performance) can use the S2000 as a very cost-effective expander module, where two samplers can share a single hard drive. This has the obvious advantage that editing can be done in the slightly more friendly S3000 environment.

I suppose the ultimate question is, would I buy one? The answer is that I've just sold my S950, and decided to reinvest the money in an S2000. It's not quite perfect -- but it's as perfect as you get for the price! Now all I need to do is find the enchanted chalice of Ethelrond and the mighty sword of Grothrud that allows my troll to activate MESA's MIDI interface -- if it has one!

 

BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY

I tried loading my old Akai S950 samples from floppies, and though these took a short while to convert, they survived the trip with no problems. However, I had less success when I tried to read my old S950 Syquest disk; the S2000 refused to talk to it. Akai revealed that this is because S950 disk directory structures are so different from the ones on all their samplers from the S1000 onwards. For the same reason, an upgrade to correct this is unlikely, which means that all transfer of S950 samples will have to be done via floppy disk... groan!

 

EXPANSION OPTIONS

EB16 MULTI-EFFECTS PROCESSOR
This is a 4-channel processor which can handle two channels of basic reverb and two channels of simultaneous multi-effects. The effects available include distortion, 3-band EQ, ring modulation, modulated delays effects (chorus, flange and so on), pitch-shifting, rotary speaker effects, stereo delay and reverb. Cost £399 inc VAT.

IB208P S/PDIF AND ASSIGNABLE OUTPUTS
The existing stereo output can be supplemented by eight assignable outputs if you fit the IB208P expander option, which also includes digital I/O on phono connectors. Samples can be loaded directly from CD or DAT machines with S/PDIF compatibility, but working with sample rates of 48kHz is not recommended. Cost £399 inc VAT.

IB304F FILTER BANK
The internal 12dB/octave, low-pass filters may be augmented by an optional second bank comprising high-pass, low-pass, band-pass and EQ filter modes. An additional envelope generator is included as part of this option. The price is not yet confirmed, but is expected to be under £500.

MORE MEMORY
Memory is expandable using standard computer SIMM chips (2, 4 or 16Mb SIMMs only), to a maximum of 32Mb, which translates to almost six minutes of mono sampling time at 44.1kHz, or three minutes of stereo. There are two SIMM slots, and you aren't restricted to using two SIMMs at once or SIMMs of the same capacity. If the the full 32Mb is fitted, the 2Mb of on-board RAM cannot be used. SIMMs currently cost around £35 per Mb.

Akai kindly provided an extra memory SIMM, and this gave me an excuse to take the lid off the machine. Nearly everything is one large circuit board, and the SIMMs slots are easily accessible. SIMMs will only fit into their sockets the right way round, so there's no problem with accidentally reversing them, though you do have to take precautions against static electricity. Removing the lid is a simple matter of taking out five crosshead screws, and the whole procedure takes less than five minutes.

EXTRA STORAGE
Though there is no provision for an internal hard drive, the standard SCSI interface means that any SCSI hard drive, Syquest, magneto-optical or similar drive system may be used to store sample, program and multi data. The architecture of the S2000 can only address 500Mb per hard drive, though more than one SCSI drive may be used.

Once formatted, a hard drive may be partitioned. Each partition can contain up to 128 volumes, and each volume (which can be thought of as being similar to an Atari ST or Mac folder), can hold up to 510 items, which may be programs, samples, multis or effects settings. According to Akai, Iomega's new low-cost Zip drives have been checked out with the S2000 and work fine.

Two internal Flash RAM card slots are provided so that frequently used programs can be held in memory, even when the power is off. This leaves the conventional RAM memory free to be used as normal.

 

'AND... STRETCH!'

Those interested in the Timestretch function may be pleased to know that it's exactly the same system as used in Akai's S3000. This means you can change a sample's length by up to five or six percent without altering the pitch before the sound quality starts to suffer too much. There are various settings for different types of material, and what works for drums won't produce the best results with a sustained tone. Some experimentation is in order, and because the process isn't all that fast, expect to spend some time working with it before you get the best possible result. If you need to do a lot of pitch or time changing, or if you want a greater range than Timestretch can provide, the only truly satisfactory option is to use a dedicated hard disk editing system in conjunction with a program such as Steinberg's Time Bandit.

 

AKAI S2000 £999

PROS
• Great features for the price, including SCSI as standard.
• Reads all Akai S-series CD-ROMs, as well as CD-ROMs designed for Emu and Roland samplers.
• Expandable (see box).
• Bundled Mac MESA editing software.

CONS
• Data wheel not entirely satisfactory, especially when accessing CD-ROM programs.
MESA software too complicated and insufficiently powerful in the area of sample editing.
• Unnecessarily deep box makes rackmounting awkward.

SUMMARY
For less than £1000, this represents a very powerful basic sampler that can be expanded to a fully professional spec by means of plug-in options.

 

info

£ Akai S2000 (basic 2Mb model) £999 inc VAT. For prices of the expansion options, see the separate 'Options' box elsewhere in this article.

A Akai UK, Haslemere Heathrow Estate, The Parkway, Hounslow, Middx TW4 6NQ.

T 0181 897 6388.

F 0181 759 8268.

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