Prior to taking over the sampling world, Akai launched a hybrid analogue/digital synth with a unique interface.
The early '80s — those were the days: Maggie Thatcher, New Romantics, Ra-Ra skirts, and bands like Kajagoogoo in the charts. Well, perhaps not. But fashion blackspots aside, the early '80s was probably one of the most important periods in the evolution of the keyboard-based synthesizer. "The monophonic synthesizer is dead! Long live the polysynth!" was the mantra of the day as keyboard players all over the world abandoned their beloved analogue monosynths in favour of a new generation of instruments.
Looking back at the magazines and press releases of the day, it seemed that hardly a month went by without another manufacturer entering the marketplace with a range of impressively specified digital keyboards, most of which offered a new and esoteric form of sound synthesis to whet the programmer's appetite. Casio, Seiko, and Technics, to name but a few, all launched products into the professional instrument arena, and only the most cynical would suggest that this was simply an attempt to jump onto the bandwagon Yamaha had set in motion with the DX7.
Into this heady melange came another contender, Akai, a company better known for its domestic hi-fi systems and some affordable reel-to-reel tape recorders. Their first generation of products were grouped under the collective banner of The Micro Studio System and formed an integrated suite of products, with the AX80 polyphonic synthesizer heralded as the flagship instrument. Other instruments released under the Micro Studio banner included the MG1212, a self-contained 12-track mixer and cassette-based recorder, the MR16 Drum Voice Generator (or 'Rhythm Oscillator Bank' in Akai-speak), and the MS08 MIDI sequencer. From the specifications alone it was readily apparent that Akai were clearly not just attempting to cash in on the success of Yamaha's baby — they had moved into the professional audio marketplace in a big way!
Enter The AX80
The first few AX80s hit the shops in early 1985 with a retail price of around £1400, placing the instrument in the same league as the DX7. Indeed, the AX80 was touted as an ideal companion to the latest generation of hot new digital keyboards, with the warmth and depth of its analogue filters seen as an ideal complement to the apparent sterility of digital sounds.
Sadly, it was all a different story a year later. The marketplace for professional musical instruments had changed dramatically and Akai's Micro Studio was but a distant and rapidly fading memory. Interest in the seemingly ubiquitous DX7 had started to wane, sampling had reached the masses in a big way, and instruments like the Ensoniq Mirage and Emu Emulator series were now in pole position. As for analogue synthesizers: well, they were just old-fashioned.
Akai's initial foray into the hi-tech world had perhaps failed to live up to the company's expectations, which is slightly surprising given its specifications. An eight-note polyphonic synthesizer with rock-solid digital oscillators, the AX80 offered some interesting tonal possibilities thanks to its real analogue filters, five-octave, touch-sensitive keyboard, and intuitive method of editing sounds. It seemed to have all the right credentials to be a major success, but it wasn't: although Akai aren't able to provide a figure for the number of AX80s sold in the UK, it can't have been that many judging by their apparent rarity on the second-hand market.
When I acquired my AX80, I have to admit that my initial impressions of the instrument were not positive. I'd played with an early machine in a local store about a year before, and, although I'd liked what I'd heard, I simply couldn't afford the fairly hefty asking price. Some time later, with a new job and a handsome pay cheque burning a hole in my pocket, I found an AX80 as an end-of-line special and ordered the heavily discounted machine by mail order.
Straight out of the box, and listening with nothing more than a pair of headphones, I felt that the instrument sounded dull, flat, and completely lifeless. To be truthful, I felt angry and annoyed at having apparently thrown away so much money on an instrument that clearly wasn't up to the job, even though I'd paid less than half of the original retail price. Somewhat fed up, I abandoned the instrument where it had been unpacked and sought solace in the comfortable surroundings of the local licensed hostelry.
Several pints of Scrumpy Jack later, I hooked the instrument up to the rest of the studio and discovered what I'd missed the first time around. Having hooked up a modest effects unit and spent an hour or so tinkering with the presets, I came to the conclusion that the AX80 sounds fantastic. It's a real powerhouse of fat and aggressive synth basses, bright piercing percussive sounds, and screaming frequency-modulated solo voices.
This is perhaps one reason why the Akai AX80 failed to excite many potential purchasers on its initial launch. Without even the most basic of effects units, the instrument does little to impress and, with only two or three exceptions, the factory sounds are plain dull and uninspiring. Those exceptions are, most notably, P4, a harpsichord sound to die for (think 'Golden Brown' by The Stranglers), P22, a delicious church organ (instant Bach), and P13, a stunning oboe patch that's all the more remarkable when you realise you're not listening to a sample-based instrument. There is no smoke and mirrors — this is all done with basic oscillator waveforms and a decent filter!
The AX80 weighs in at around 15kg, so it's no lightweight. As you might expect, given the principal competition in the marketplace at the time, the instrument bears more than a passing resemblance to the DX7, being another in the series of black wedge-shaped cases that were more or less standard for the period. There are the usual pitch-bend and modulation wheels for adding musical expression to a performance, and the five-octave keyboard is touch sensitive, although slightly heavier to play than most I've encountered through the years. There's also a wealth of colour-coded program selection buttons across the entire width of the front panel.
The instrument is also blighted by 'digital parameter access', which is the bane of synthesizer programmers the world over, with only a data wheel, increment and decrement buttons, and a two-character LED to grant access to the latent capabilities within. I've always found programming synths with digital parameter access is something of a chore. Squeezing new and innovative sounds out of such a polysynth usually involves hours of squinting at a poorly illuminated seven-segment display, and looking up parameter numbers in a table screen-printed onto the front of the instrument. However, the AX80 has a very significant trick up its nylon sleeve: a solution that, in my humble opinion, set this instrument head and shoulders above all of its competitors of the day. And it's a feature you won't even see until you switch the instrument on.
Akai's innovative solution to the nightmare of digital parameter access was a huge array of fluorescent bar graphs that run along the entire width of the instrument, and almost every available parameter is visible simultaneously. You really have to see an AX80 in the flesh to appreciate just how truly astonishing this looks, and these machines could easily be used to decorate Oxford Street at Christmas!
This simple solution means that editing sounds is no longer a painful process — in fact, it's simplicity itself. And perhaps more importantly, it's fast, with no menus, no complex options, no foraging through the painfully thin manual looking for an explanation of various terms. Select a program, push the Edit button and that's it.
Sadly, my own AX80 has been the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent years. I was never able to get the tape backup and restore operation working reliably, and this had some fairly disastrous consequences when the instrument's power supply blew and trashed all of my programs a couple of years ago. However, to make matters worse, according to the repair shop, service manuals for the instrument appear to be very thin on the ground, so getting a broken AX80 fixed could present some difficulties if the problem is more complex than just a worn-out voltage regulator. On the positive side, according to Akai technical support, the AX80 very rarely presents any kind of major problem, and certainly nothing that couldn't be fixed by a competent repair shop.
The Grand Tour
Starting at the left of the main panel there are two knobs for affecting the overall tuning and setting final output level. I like instruments where the tuning knob is easy to get to, but a central notch indicating concert pitch A would have been a useful addition. Moving to the right, we find the main data entry wheel, which is sadly just an ordinary potentiometer and not a continuously adjustable alpha dial. Changing a voice parameter with the data entry knob results in the chosen parameter immediately jumping to the current value of the data knob, which can result in some very coarse and ugly transitions.
Still, this was the '80s, and alternative knob modes such as 'pass through' and 'relative' were a long way off. You can still accomplish fine adjustments using the increment and decrement buttons but the data wheel is the more convenient option. Ergonomically, it's in the best possible place and I've found that you can use the data entry knob as an alternative controller, a technique that was nicknamed 'Moogaerobics'. This is especially effective when you're changing the filter cutoff frequency on the fly, for example.
The MIDI implementation on the AX80 is, sadly, somewhat basic. Note on, note off, program change, and controller information such as pitch-bend and modulation wheel data is supported, but modern-day essentials such as System Exclusive dumps and the transmission of real-time parameters are missing. Consequently, recording parameter changes into your favourite sequencer on the fly isn't possible, and even swapping voice information with other AX80 owners is limited to exchanging backup cassettes. These MIDI features were already commonplace on many instruments of the day, so their omission came as an unwelcome surprise.
Below the MIDI button is the key transpose feature, and there are no prizes for guessing what this does! The adjacent M.Wheel Osc and M.Wheel VCF buttons independently toggle the routing of the modulation wheel to the oscillators and to the filter, which is a nice feature that's useful when soloing.
As you might imagine, the Tape button drops you into tape backup and restore mode, while the Write button copies the contents of the edit buffer to the specified programmable memory.
The Chord Memory and Hold buttons appear to be Akai's only concession to the home keyboard market, and they certainly look out of place on a professional keyboard. The Hold button is fairly useful when you're creating atmospheric drones, but perhaps a better idea might have been to implement this feature as an optional foot pedal connection on the rear panel. When you're holding a big impressive chord with both hands, having to lift a finger off the keyboard to press the Hold key actually defeats the object of the exercise. Furthermore, the stiff and unresponsive nature of the membrane switches means you can't even poke the button with your nose or any other useful appendage, and head-butting the button simply isn't sensible and doesn't work anyway — I know, I've tried!
The remaining 32 touch membrane switches run across the full width of the machine, and are colour-coded according to the synthesizer function and factory preset group. There are six factory preset groups covering keyboards, brass, woodwinds, strings, organs, synths and effects.
The rear panel of the machine gently slopes away from the player, a design feature I would like to see adopted in modern instruments. It's very easy to hook the AX80 up to external equipment, and there's no fishing around behind it on a darkened stage for that elusive MIDI socket. The rear panel contains the MIDI interface, a hardware memory protection switch, and the tape interface for backing up and restoring voice data to an audio cassette. I've never liked this method of data storage — it brings back memories of frustrating evenings spent trying to load programs into my BBC Micro home computer.
There are also connections for two foot pedals, the first of which increments the current program number, while the second is a standard sustain pedal. Lastly, there are monaural connections for headphones and the main audio out. The mains connector is one of those 'kettle plugs', which I think never feels as though it fits properly in the socket.
Programming The Instrument
The AX80 is an eight-voice monotimbral polysynth, which may seem a bit modest when 64 voices are now considered the norm. However, it's worth remembering that 17 years on, analogue heavyweights such as the Alesis Andromeda still only offer 16 voices.
At first glance, the voice architecture seems pretty impressive, boasting two digitally controlled oscillators offering square and sawtooth waveforms, a sub-oscillator, a mixer, 24dB low and high-pass filters, a voltage-controlled amplifier, two envelope generators, and no fewer than three LFOs per voice. The internal configuration is pretty standard, with the oscillators merging into the mixer before being routed to the filter and the VCA.
Taking the factory sounds as a basic (if somewhat uninspiring) starting point, it's well worth setting aside some time to play with the AX80 and get to know its facilities. Firstly, the twin digitally controlled oscillators are very precise, and they don't drift out of tune at all. However, the difficulty here is that the richness and random nature normally associated with voltage-controlled oscillators is clearly absent, and the AX80's oscillators sound a bit thin and nasal on their own — 'weedy' is another word I'd use. To make matters worse, the oscillators have a cold, cyclic feel that's most apparent when you're trying to create warm string-like pads, and it's probably for these reasons that Akai thought to include a sub-oscillator.
The sub-oscillator really does improve the overall depth and bottom end of the basic sound considerably. Furthermore, the oscillator sync options, which Akai call 'cross modulation' for no obvious reason, add some very interesting and usable colourations to the otherwise bland square and sawtooth waveforms.
The solution to the inherent weaknesses of the oscillators lies in the filter and the low-frequency oscillator section, which are both excellent. The filter circuits are based around Curtis CEM 3372 chips, as found in instruments such as the Oberheim Matrix series and the Prophet 600. For my tastes, the filter sounds excellent: it's very full and musical, and will self-oscillate when pushed, so creating big, fat, rich and aggressive sounds is easy. Moog-like basses are a speciality, with good sharp attacks and with a certain 'twanginess', for want of a better word, which can easily hold up a flagging mix. Brass and woodwind patches are one of the major strengths of the machine and, I've found that by using P4, the Harpsichord preset, the AX80 can conjure up some really rather convincing imitations of PPG's Wave series, albeit without the wavetable pyrotechnics that were typical of those instruments.
The low-frequency oscillators deserve a special mention and really give the AX80 some character of its own. There are three per voice, one each for the oscillators and another for the filter cutoff frequency, and all offer four waveform shapes, modulation depth, speed, and delay parameters. This makes it possible to squeeze some truly remarkable synthetic textures out of the instrument. Patience is the key — try detuning the main oscillators very slightly and then modulating each with slightly differing LFO rates and depth. It's possible to create some truly jaw-dropping synth pads that help mask the deficiencies of the basic oscillators, and equally, some really abstract tonal sweeps are possible by dropping the LFO rate down to about one or two percent.
The envelope generators are the usual ADSR flavour and can independently modulate the filter cutoff frequency, the output level or both at the same time. You can also modulate the pitch of oscillator two with either the VCA or the VCF envelope generator, a combination that I've found most useful when used in conjunction with the cross-modulation facilities.
The instrument is fairly expressive although some users have complained about the dynamic range available. Its response to light and heavy playing styles definitely takes some getting used to.
It's interesting to look back at the original reviews of the AX80. Sound On Sound's very own Paul White, writing in the December 1984 issue of Electronics & Music Maker magazine, felt the AX80 lacked any real character of its own, and I'd agree with this opinion. The instrument doesn't do anything earth-shatteringly original or possess a sonic feature that makes it unique. To many musicians, this lack of individuality can be a weakness, but to my ears, at least, it's a strength. The AX80 is something of a chameleon — it can sound like any number of synths of that era: the richness of the Prophet series, the depth and punch reminiscent of the Minimoog, the sterility of Roland's Juno series, and the digital 'wanginess' of the PPG family.
Where the AX80 really shines is in its sheer user-friendliness. The machine is a doddle to program and a joy to play, thanks mainly to the huge fluorescent display. Why Akai didn't follow up on this approach in some of their later products is as mysterious as the whereabouts of Lord Lucan.
At a time when major-league artists such as Keith Emerson, Jan Hammer, and Joe Zawinul were queuing up to add their endorsement to the competition's products, Akai had no major name to boost the profile of the Micro Studio series. Crippled by an uninspiring set of factory sounds and lacking even a decent effects unit, the machine dropped out of sight within a couple of months. Its potential was largely unrecognised, and within a year it had started to appear in the bargain basement.
Sadly, this wonderful instrument couldn't be described as the success story that Akai might have hoped for. It certainly gave Akai a foothold in the marketplace, and they subsequently moved onto bigger and better things in the form of their sampling-based instruments. However, like the other products in the Micro Studio series, the AX80 remains a forgotten prodigy, an early experiment that didn't quite measure up to the hype.
The last few years have seen a return to ergonomic user interface design, and instruments like the Clavia Nord Lead 3, with its illuminating V-Pots, demonstrate the merits of Akai's innovative system. Had Akai persisted with this approach in the first place, or had the AX80 been a hit, perhaps we'd have got there a little sooner.
Despite the fact that, according to dealers, the AX80 remains a much admired and therefore desirable keyboard, this isn't reflected in the current trade prices. If you're buying or selling a machine in good condition, it may only fetch around £300 to £400, which is a shame given the very analogue nature of the sound and its sheer user-friendliness.