Akai introduced AKsys some months ago, providing a USB‑driven, computer‑based control interface for recent S‑series samplers. Now at v1.7, it is becoming indispensible for anyone fed up with managing their samplers via an LCD...
Although loyal fans of Akai, Emu, Yamaha, Roland and Ensoniq will argue until they are blue in the face about the relative merits of their preferred sampler's filters or time‑stretching algorithms, even the most die‑hard samplist will probably agree that no sampler worth its salt is actually easy to use. Once you stray beyond the realms of simple one‑shot audio manipulation and get creative with multisampling, layering, modulation and so on, you need to spend considerable time under the bonnet of an operating system before you can drive each machine at speed in the direction you want to go.
Over the years, manufacturers have adopted various solutions in the quest to make sampler operation a little less involved. Roland, for example, were early pioneers of the idea of attaching a monitor, keyboard and mouse to their samplers so that at least you didn't develop a squint and sore fingers trying to work with a tiny LCD and a row of multi‑function buttons. Even my venerable Cheetah SX16 was equipped with an output for a TV monitor, though admittedly this only served to make the obtuse operating system more visible rather than inherently easier to use! Another approach, adopted this time by Emu, has been to demystify sampler operation by mimicking computer‑style graphical user interfaces, complete with icon‑driven menus and computer operating system‑style filing conventions. We've also seen a number of dedicated software controller/editors that give you the ability to transfer files between sampler and computer for detailed tweaking.
Akai's AKsys software for Mac and PC borrows from all of these ideas, to give you total virtual control of your sampler from your computer desktop. Intended for use with S5000 and S6000 samplers, it probably represents the most ambitious attempt yet by any manufacturer to give you the best of both the hardware and software sampling worlds.
While the idea of interfacing samplers and computers is nothing new, previous systems have usually employed SCSI as the means of communication — with all the joys that brings in terms of speed, and all the tribulations in terms of being careful how you set up complex chains of devices. AKsys, however, relies on the much more idiot‑proof Universal Serial bus (USB). This means that before you can contemplate using AKsys, you'll need to shell out £89 to equip your S5000 or S6000 sampler with a USB expansion board. The board comes bundled with the AKsys software, but the various releases of the program are also available as free downloads from the Akai web site, where future upgrades will also be posted.
Of course, you'll also need a computer equipped with USB which conforms to the minimum specs as outlined later in this review. For the record, my review setup consisted of a 500MHz G3 iMac connected to an S5000 running Akai's v2.11a operating system software. In fact, the latest version of AKsys (v1.7) isn't compatible with anything less than OS v2.10, so for some users, the move to AKsys may also involve updating the system software (see the 'OSmosis' box elsewhere in this article for more on the latest version of the S5000 and S6000 OS). Again, all the updates are available from the web site. To ease this process, the AKsys CD‑ROM contains an OS loader utility that allows you to use USB to dump new versions of the operating system to your sampler or samplers.
Installation of the AKsys software proper is pretty straightforward. For Mac users, it's a simple matter of double‑clicking on the Installer icon. Following the customary reboot, it's then a question of plugging in the USB cable, powering up your sampler and waiting for the Akai OS to fully load. Open up the AKsys application and hey presto — we have contact. Windows is a slightly different matter, in that after installing the AKsys software, you then need to install a USB driver. This is done with sampler and computer connected and the sampler powered up, at which point Windows announces it has found a new piece of hardware. You then install the driver just as you would a printer or scanner.
The AKsys software is made up of six components — the Browser, a Virtual front panel, dedicated editors for Multis, Programs and Effects (the latter for those machines with the optional Akai EB20 effects board installed) plus a highly useful sample search engine.
On first loading the application, it's the Browser you're confronted with (shown on the next page), which on the Mac looks similar to a folder contents display window. Initially, this contained just one icon, that of the sampler I was using for this review. However, had I been using more than one sampler — AKsys will support up to 32 machines — these would also have been shown. Clicking on a sampler icon causes AKsys to scan the system and then display the current 'inventory' — in other words, the contents of the sampler's memory, internal floppy and hard drive (if you have one), plus any directly attached SCSI devices, such as external hard disks or CD‑ROM drives. As in Mac OS or Windows, the Browser window allows you to carry out top‑level file management activities, such as naming, renaming and deleting files, creating new folders and so on. You can also rename your machines for ease of identification. New to version 1.7 of AKsys is the facility to batch‑rename files, as is the handy ability to audition the currently selected sample just by hitting the space bar.
Files are automatically organised and presented according to their location and type, with separate sub‑folders for Multis, Programs, Samples, MIDI files and Scenes. Following the style of the sampler OS itself, each file type has a specific icon which helps you easily identify exactly what you're dealing with. As you move files from, say, the sampler's hard disk into its memory, AKsys will intelligently sort out which sub‑folder they are supposed to be in, which saves a lot of time, particularly when you are moving groups of files around. Along with the icon and file name, the AKsys Browser window also displays appropriate reference information about that file such as file size, sample length and rate, playback mode and so on. In early versions of AKsys, this was 'read‑only' information. But now a contextual menu allows you to bring up a window displaying a sample's so‑called 'Properties', from which you can then edit basic parameters such as loop type and tuning, without having to launch an external sample‑editing package.
The development of AKsys has also seen improvements in other basic areas of file management. For example, originally the program had no facility to convert Mac AIFF files. Now you can simply drag such files directly from the Mac to the sampler. Another improvement is that you can choose to load an item with or without its dependents. That is, when you load a Multi, you now have the option of automatically loading the associated Programs and their samples along with it. Also worthy of a mention for anyone who has older files created with MESA (Akai's dedicated software editor for older machines — see SOS November '95 or https://web.archive.org/web/2015..." target="_blank) — is that these files can be simply dragged into AKsys. You can also nominate MESA as your preferred sample editor. However, users of older Akai hardware might be disappointed to note that the facility to drag and drop S2000, S3000 and S3000XL files from the sampler and desktop drives (introduced in AKsys v1.5) has now been ditched due to problems with reimporting them. Instead you now have to load them into the S5000 or S6000's memory, where they are converted to S5/6000 format, and then move them to the computer desktop from there.
Right‑clicking on the sampler icon at the top of the browser window launches the virtual remote control panel, which as the name suggests, gives you a desktop replica of the S5000/S6000 front panel display (see screen shot below). There's not really that much to comment on here, except that it all works beautifully. My only quibble is that because it is a replica of the hardware display (ie. not much bigger, even at low screen resolutions), it doesn't necessarily make operations like finding loop points in complex samples any easier than using the sampler's own screen.
With certain functions, there's also a slight time lag between any actions on the computer, the execution of the actual operation on the sampler and the subsequent updating of the computer display. Similarly, there is a slight delay in terms of updates to the virtual panel display when using the sampler's buttons and switches. This may frustrate power users, though for really speedy editing, it is possible to work with one hand on the sampler, one on the mouse and both eyes on the computer screen.
Probably one of the most tedious elements in working with samplers is not so much recording and editing individual sounds, but in assembling them into groups, assigning them to MIDI notes, creating layers and crossfades, applying global performance parameters, assigning them to the various outputs and so on. Attempt all this on the S2000's two‑line LCD and you can understand why the majority of samplists tend to go in for early retirement as jazz musicians. The S5000 and S6000 are equipped with generous‑sized displays and a relatively intuitive hardware user interface, but nevertheless, AKsys really does prove its worth here. The Program editor, for example (see the opening pages of this review), allows you to drag samples directly on to the keyboard, automatically creating a keygroup in the process. To change or expand the note range of that keyboard, it's a simple matter of clicking and/or dragging on the appropriate keys. Having set up your basic sample assignments and keygroup structures, a tab system allows you to quickly jump around to fine‑tune them individually. As with most virtual instrument control, parameters are changed by dragging on the appropriate pot, or, in the case of the filter envelopes, by dragging the handles on the graphic. As you make changes, the screen on the sampler also updates, though again there is often a small, though noticeable delay. Much use is made of contextual pop‑up menus: for example, for selecting different modulation inputs or for housekeeping functions, such as creating, deleting, copying and duplicating keygroups.
Version 2.0 of the Akai S5000/S6000 operating system saw the company responding to requests to present the Multi window so that you could see parameters for 10 parts at a time. The AKsys take on this is to represent the Multi editor in the form of a virtual mixer (see below), giving you visual control of level, pan, output assign, effects assignment and level, tuning, MIDI channel and note range. You can also group channel levels for ease of operation.
Presented as a rack of four virtual effects boxes, the AKsys effects editor gives you direct access to all the parameters on the EB20 effects board (see screen grab, below right). Unfortunately, not having this installed on my review machine, I couldn't try this out for real (without the effects board installed, the AKsys effects editor will not open) but judging from the manual and screenshots, operation is straightforward, as you would expect from the rest of the program. The interesting thing here is that whereas the S5000 and S6000 only save effects settings as part of a Multi, the AKsys version enables you to store effects settings separately, thus enabling you to apply them to other Multis.
AKsys does not include its own software sample editor, which some might see as a disappointing omission. However, Akai's reasonable counter‑argument is that there are so many third‑party sample editors around, there's no need for them to waste time reinventing the wheel. Instead, AKsys claims to offer a high level of integration with any sample editor of your choice, the obvious candidates being programs such as Steinberg's Wavelab, Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge and Propellerhead's Recycle (support for which was introduced in AKsys v1.5). As mentioned elsewhere, you can also opt for MESA, Akai's older sample‑editing software. Linking AKsys with your desired program of choice is quickly done through the 'Choose Sample Editor' menu item. The latest version has seen an improvement to this function for PC users, in that you can now override a file's default association with a program in Windows, so that you really do get the editor of your choice!
Once you've done this, the sample editor will launch whenever you double‑click on a sample in the AKsys Browser, or whenever you click Edit in the sample search window or the sample name field of a keygroup zone. At this point the sample is automatically transferred via USB from the sampler to the computer program. Once you've finished your tweakings, clicking Save will transfer the edited sample back to the computer — theoretically, at least.
I've added the latter qualification as there have been known compatibility problems with various editors, particularly on earlier Mac versions of AKsys. This was because the Akai software used Quicktime to handle the conversion of AIFF files to WAVs, which resulted in loop and note number info being ignored. This has now been replaced by a proprietary transfer/conversion process.
As always, it pays to check out the small print regarding issues with specific pieces of software. For example, to successfully transfer loops made in Sound Forge back to the sampler, you need to select the Sustaining loop mode. Whereas with Wavelab, you won't be able to store loop points at all, because this program uses a proprietary file format. Judging by the various release notes, the programming team behind AKsys are clearly aware of these issues, providing solutions or workarounds wherever they can.
Those who remember the clunkiness of Akai's MESA software (as detailed at humorous length by Paul White back in that November '95 SOS S2000 review) could be forgiven for not wanting to rush to see what AKsys has to offer. But believe me, this is a different package altogether. AKsys is a slickly implemented program that will prove particularly valuable for musicians looking to integrate their sampler more tightly into a computer‑based audio setup. For existing S5000/S6000 users, who are of course already well‑versed in the Akai operating system, the decision to upgrade with a USB/AKsys package seems to me to be something of a no‑brainer. Once you've moved your file management and editing operations on to your computer monitor, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. And if you haven't done this already, it'll also force you to step up to the latest version of the Akai operating system, which now seems to deliver the goods in terms of stability and robustness (see the 'OSmosis' box, below, for more on this). For the same reason, I would also recommend the USB/AKsys package as an essential optional extra for any first‑time purchaser of an S5000 or S6000.
If you're deliberating the pros and cons of all the hardware samplers currently on the market, the availability of AKsys should certainly be added to the list of factors you should be considering. The important thing to remember is that while AKsys doesn't actually add anything to the S5000 or S6000's inherent functionality — in other words, you don't suddenly get access to any major hidden features — it does make the standard features considerably easier to use.
Of course, hardware samplers are not the only viable option these days. Indeed, the word on the street Stateside is that sales of hardware samplers (and indeed other hardware instruments) have already started to decline thanks to the growing popularity of virtual instruments. Ironically, AKsys provides a very good advert for the benefits of software‑based sampling. You find yourself thinking, 'if I need a computer and software to make my hardware easier to use, then why bother with the hardware at all?'. This argument is all the more persuasive due to the fact that virtual samplers also tend to be better integrated with digital audio and sequencing programs, many of which are themselves capable of carrying out basic sampling‑style functions. At this point, we begin to stray into weighing up the relative merits of a software‑ or hardware‑based approach to sampling — overall strain on the CPU, hardware holding its value better than software, the fact that hardware is easier to take on the road, and so on. In fact, in pure and simple economic terms, the argument is not so clear‑cut. The Akai S5000 I had for review has a retail price of £1099, and the top‑of‑the‑range S6000 currently retails for £1999. To get anywhere near the hardware specification of these machines, you'd have to spend at least half the cost of the S5000 on a decent audio interface for your computer, plus nearly the same amount again on a software sampler — and this assumes you've already bought a computer! In the end, the price differential is relatively small.
I'll leave you to ponder that issue for yourself, as your feelings on the pros and cons of both approaches will depend on your personal circumstances. In the meantime, I give AKsys a thumbs‑up, and sign off with a general request that one day all samplers should be controlled in a similar way.
AKsys can handle up to 32 samplers at a time, though I would imagine that anyone in the position of having 32 samplers to worry about could probably afford to employ a small army of people to manage their samplers for them! However, there are many studios and professional users who will have two, three or four machines, perhaps keeping one or more permanently wired into their racks while reserving a roving machine for live or external session work. In a scenario such as this it would make a lot of sense to use AKsys as the means of networking them all, with a central computer as the hub for all file‑management operations. Not only does this make it easier to track just what files are where, it also makes backup and archiving easier.
Perhaps the biggest concern that power users might have here would concern the speed limitations of USB. After all, in a professional environment, time is money. It's true that load times from the computer to the sampler via USB are slower than the sampler's native load operation, be it from an internal or external hard disk. However, save times are very much faster, which is good news when it comes to dumping large numbers of files from the computer to the sampler. Judging by the experiences of existing AKsys users (as expressed on various on‑line bulletin boards) general file‑transfer operations between different machines linked by a central computer are, overall, favourably comparable with SCSI, with 200Mb of files taking about 10 minutes to upload from sampler to computer.
To my way of thinking, whatever disadvantages there may be in terms of speed are far outweighed by the convenience of being able to take advantage of two non‑competing protocols (ie. USB and SCSI) to configure your various bits of gear for maximum efficiency and convenience. Indeed, AKsys provides considerable flexibility in how you organise your peripherals within the network. For example, if you're working mainly with WAV‑format sample CD‑ROMs, your computer CD‑ROM drive can become the central resource to distribute files via USB to all the attached samplers, plus, of course, any other software programs that might also draw on WAV files. If you're working with older Akai‑format material, such as CD‑ROMs for the S1000 and S3000 which may not be recognised by the computer, you can work these into the system by attaching your SCSI CD‑ROM drive to one of the samplers. Older‑format material can then be loaded into the sampler's memory via its native load mode, at which point it becomes drag‑and‑droppable to your computer and/or to other machines via AKsys.
- Akai S5000 or S6000 with v2.00 OS or better (v2.1 for AKsys v1.7).
- USB interface board.
- Any Power PC Mac with USB (either internal or via an add‑on PCI board).
- Mac OS 8.6 or higher.
- 8Mb of RAM.
- 15Mb of disk space.
- 800 x 600‑resolution monitor.
- USB Manager v1.21 or above.
- Pentium 200 or above.
- 32Mb of RAM.
- Windows 98.
- 20Mb of disk space.
- In case you were wondering, this spec rules out older Akai samplers such as the S1000 series, S2000 and S3000, as they can't accommodate the USB board.
By virtue of the fact that the current version of AKsys will only work with the latest version of the S5000 and S6000 operating system (now up to v2.1), working with AKsys gave me a chance to check out the current state of play with the samplers' OS as well.
As you may or may not be aware, there's a bit of history here. After the S5000 and S6000 were launched back in late 1998, it quickly became obvious that the OS that came with them was somewhat flawed. The fact that it didn't do much of what it said on the tin was not a happy position for Akai, who up to then could genuinely claim to be manufacturers of the industry‑standard samplers. This feeling was made considerably worse by the fact that the cost of the machines on launch was well over half as much again what it is today. Ouch!
After three years of continuous development of the OS, Akai now claim that those dark days are long past. Certainly, I'm happy to report that my review machine remained completely stable. Indeed, my only problems were the two occasions on which AKsys crashed, but I suspect that even these hiccups were because of my internet browser (also open at the time), which has given me problems with other programs.
For the record, the main developments introduced in v2.0 and beyond include:
- New screen layouts and enhanced functionality for Multis, Keygroup Zones and Keyspan, making them easier to use.
- Implementation of portamento and mono legato play mode.
- A MIDI song file player with set list for automatic association of Multis with songs.
- Support for Emu EIV SCSI disks and Roland CD‑ROMs.
- Support for formatting of FAT32 drives.
- More SysEx, faster screen redrawing and improved treatment of voice stealing.
The most recent OS v2.1 release has mainly comprised improvements to Roland and Emu sound library compatibility, to the Standard MIDI File player and to data sorting. Alongside this, there have been a number of fixes designed to treat known bugs and generally improve performance all round.
- Review sampler: Akai S5000 running Akai OS v2.11a.
- Review computer: 500MHz Apple iMac G3.
- Forget those early Akai S5/6000 OS blues — AKsys works!
- File management is totally transparent.
- Use of USB avoids those SCSI chain headaches.
- A big improvement in ease of use for the price.
- The Universal Serial Buss connection may be a little slow for power users, or if you're managing lots of machines at once.
- No built‑in sample‑editing facilities.
This is a powerful piece of software that sets a new standard in terms of computer/sampler integration. Although you have to pay to obtain the USB board for your sampler, the software comes free with the card, and AKsys alone is actually worth at least half of the cost of the software/board package.