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Akai Rhythm Wolf

Analogue Drum Machine & Synthesizer
Published March 2015
By Paul Nagle

Akai Rhythm Wolf

Akai break from tradition with their new all–analogue lupine groove–maker.

Akai have recently unleashed several low–cost, multi–purpose gizmos designed around MPC–style drum pads. Even so, it was something of a surprise when the next item from the assembly line turned out not to be a sample player but a five–voice analogue drum machine and bass synth. With knobs and buttons galore, separate outputs for synth and percussion, plus a custom distortion effect, could the Rhythm Wolf be poised to take a bite out of the low–cost analogue drum-machine market?

Leaving The Pack

After unboxing, the Rhythm Wolf is revealed to have a fashionably slim metal body with plastic, wood–effect end–cheeks, 23 comfortably sized knobs and half a dozen of Akai’s familiar rubber pads. No menus are required thanks to those positive–action buttons and informational tri–colour (red/green/amber) LEDs. The red, grey and black panel is a spacious 31.5 x 22 cm and all buttons, plus associated shift functions are clearly labelled. A small manual is included, but I doubt anyone will need it.

Further optimism is generated by the two quarter–inch outputs that facilitate individual processing of the bass synth and drums. There’s no headphone socket, but the main output can be used for private jamming if necessary. It carries the drum and bass signals mixed together unless a lead is inserted into the synth jack. Particularly welcome, in these times of extreme cost–cutting, are the full–sized MIDI In and Out ports, the Out doubling as a Thru if necessary. MIDI also sprouts from the USB port, enabling instant connection to a PC or Mac without need of an interface.

Connectivity extends to analogue gear too, via a pair of 3.5mm gate sockets (in and out). These comfortably drove the clock of my trusty Roland SH101 or permitted the Rhythm Wolf to slave to its sequencer. Power is sourced from a 12V adapter and a few moments after hitting the button and admiring the awakening LEDs, you’re ready to go. Tempo is adjustable by an encoder adjacent to the small three–digit display, its range 20–300 bpm. A dedicated tap tempo button can override this at any time.

Making Tracks

The Rhythm Wolf, which I’ll refer to as Wolf for convenience, holds just 16 patterns, a total that looks less miserly when you realise a pattern consists of two variations (A & B) and two fills. The variations can run consecutively to form a single pattern of up to 32 steps or you can switch between them manually in performance, preceded by a fill if you wish.

Fills used to be common on drum machines and I think it’s a shame the idea has mostly fallen out of fashion. Typically, to introduce a new section of a song you often have to cobble something together involving repeated notes or effects. It’s therefore refreshing to see an old–school implementation such as this in which fully half the available pattern space is reserved for fills. If thoughts of home organs and their satanic auto–accompaniment fill you with dread, fills could be viewed instead as additional pattern variations. My only regret is that there’s no means of triggering them by a footpedal, but perhaps this is a candidate for MIDI control via a future OS tweak?

The mute and solo functions operate on the pattern’s programmed triggers, so muting voices is never in conflict with manual finger drumming. The pads flash red as their voices are triggered while, at the same time, a green chase LED indicates the pattern’s progress. It’s a very traditional approach all the better for the injection of dynamics. To capture your inspiration, activate ‘performance recording’ (shift and step key 10). Now whatever you play on each pad is recorded, quantised at the pattern’s resolution. Recording is deactivated by another shift combination, after which you can continue to jam alongside the recorded material.

Notes weren’t always triggered reliably at low velocities but, with no means of adjusting the pads’ sensitivity, I found hitting harder to be the best workaround. However, given Akai MPCs are heavily associated with the phrase ‘playable pads’, it seems incongruous that the six chunky rubber squares only generate three discrete velocities.

Recording the bass synth is a slightly different process. Bass lines (with the possible exception of genres such as psy–trance) regularly feature more than a single note. Therefore the synth’s pad is less useful than the rest. Instead, bass parts are recorded using the step keys, helpfully laid out like a mini keyboard. The keyboard can be transposed by an octave (up or down) but lacks velocity sensitivity. Your fledgling bass lines can be improved immeasurably by introducing a few legato slides courtesy of the button reserved for the purpose, Tie.

A peek round the back of the Rhythm Wolf reveals a  main output and a  synth output, both on quarter–inch jacks, MIDI I/O ports, 3.5mm gate trigger I/O, a  USB port and a  socket for the external power supply.A peek round the back of the Rhythm Wolf reveals a main output and a synth output, both on quarter–inch jacks, MIDI I/O ports, 3.5mm gate trigger I/O, a USB port and a socket for the external power supply.If you switch to step recording, the pads gain an extra purpose — voice selection. Hit each pad in turn and the voice’s active triggers are shown in red. From there you can clear them or add new triggers at will. Modifying a step’s velocity involves holding the Velocity button and repeatedly pressing the key. The values toggle through green, amber and red representing low, medium and high velocity. If your bass lines sound limp and unaccented, this is a quick method of perking them up.

The interface is so logical it leaves little to add and almost no learning curve. Wolf patterns may lack complication, but they’re not necessarily dull or unadventurous. For a start, you can modify the default pattern length from 16 steps down to a single step. But if you set the A and B variations to play consecutively, the range for your pattern is now 17–32 steps. This invites weirder time signatures than the average drum machine (or a new Electribe) can handle. A pattern can run at double, half and quarter speeds and triplets are an option for every division except double speed (1/32). Similarly, Akai’s swing is waiting in the wings to blow some loosening smoke over proceedings. With a range from 50 (no swing) to 75 (maximum), swing tells the pattern’s even steps they needn’t hurry.

A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing?

Every analogue voice has a top–level volume knob, plus other controls judged relevant underneath. The first voice, the kick, has a distinctive boxy thump and sounds great! Its pure, raw tone has some similarities with the rounded and woolly TR808 kick, especially when tuned as low as it will go. The range is around five semitones either way, which is enough to find a match for most song keys, even if it won’t make radical sonic transformations. Attack adds a hard transient edge that becomes almost aggressive at its maximum and ensures the kick hits home like a cannon ball covered in grit. Finally, decay begins at ‘clicky’ and eventually reaches a boomy 1600ms, according to my measurements.

The snare’s components are a gush of white noise and a tunable body ‘thump’, with decay affecting the noise component only. Decay varies from short and spit–like to over two seconds but with no punchy ‘blip’ stage in between bosh and whoosh. Turn down the noise and you’re left with a body that can serve as a tom or conga, although a wider tuning range would have added much–needed versatility. While I was struggling to sum up the snare meaningfully, my wife, who rarely comments on new gear, innocently nailed it. Unaware of any possible canine connection, she remarked that it sounded uncannily like our dog, Jasper, sneezing.

The percussion voice comprises two tonal components and a fairly characterless noise burst pitched below that of the snare. If you remove noise from the equation (I preferred it that way) you’re left with two tones that can be tuned separately to produce claves, rimshots, woodblocks and other hits with vaguely Latin aspirations.

Next, there are separate pads to trigger open and closed hi–hats, but otherwise their controls are shared. If both voices are triggered simultaneously, the closed hat’s harder bite takes precedence. There’s a rather subtle tune control that, at its fullest extent, thins out the combined hats somewhat. The decay knob sets the base amount from which both voices are derived, not that there was a vast difference between them on the review model. When I wound decay up to maximum, the Wolf emitted a strange, metallic whine that, with some imagination, could serve as a slightly broken ride cymbal. In the end, the hi–hats, limited though they are, aren’t bad; with added swing and dynamics, they contribute vital feel and movement to any pattern.

Last and very possibly least, it’s tempting to judge the bass synth as a TB303 wannabe. Its tie/legato function, choice of sawtooth or square waves and simple envelope beg the comparison, yet in reality it bears little resemblance to Roland’s silver box, as a few notes soon demonstrate. It’s not just that the decay’s maximum setting becomes an endless release (I found this quaint and good for drones), but it’s the neutered 12dB filter that really does the damage. Low levels of resonance are suitably acidy but once you approach the half–way point, resonance shaves off so much bass and volume that the whole synth practically disappears.

Accent makes only a minor contribution to the tone. Of the two waveforms, the square has the most presence and with the filter nearly closed and the decay short, the Wolf can produce a passable sub–bass. Nevertheless, the bass synth was an instant disappointment.

Hoping I’d missed something, I sniffed around Akai’s web site and spotted a downloadable calibration routine. Figuring it could do no harm I ran it and, without scientific tests of any kind, I’d swear that, afterwards, the bottom had been fleshed out a fraction. We’re still miles away from bootilicious territory, but I’d recommend the procedure, especially if you are struggling to get reliable tuning over the synth’s full range. Before running it, remember that the Wolf takes around 20 mins to fully warm up.

The more I searched for sweet–spot combinations of envelope amount and decay time, the more I became convinced that the decay was part of the problem. Closer examination showed it to have an initial hold phase followed by a linear fall–off. This renders it impossible to achieve the kind of sharp, zappy blips required to reproduce a classic synth bass. Incidentally, the Wolf trumps the TB303 in one respect: its tune control is notched so you can use it as a pitch bender and find your way back afterwards.

Finally, I almost forgot the Howl function. This may be because it’s a nasty, noisy overdrive that fouls the main output. If confined to the kick drum, Howl can be ripping and mildly impressive, but once you introduce other voices, especially the ringing hi–hats, it would take a more loved–up hippy than I to name any redeeming qualities.

MIDI & Sync

When serving as master clock, be aware that the Wolf also sends the notes generated by its patterns and pads. Drum voices are fixed at MIDI channel 10 and the synth part at channel 1. Even when the pads are played manually, the velocities are confined to three values (42, 84 and 127), limiting the scope as a drum controller. It could be a valid option to trigger an external synth or set of drum samples from the patterns though, boosting or replacing some of the onboard voices. It occurred to me that Akai’s own MPX8 could accommodate the latter easily, while vying for the role of the former, there are many squelchy monosynth suitors. The knobs, being entirely analogue, neither send nor receive MIDI CCs.

The Rhythm Wolf’s front panel measures a  generous 22 x 31.5 cm. The Rhythm Wolf’s front panel measures a generous 22 x 31.5 cm. By setting the MIDI output to function as a Thru, everything received at the input passes to it, although the USB port maintains its output role regardless, which seems a sensible decision. However, not everything makes as much sense. For example, the Wolf’s transport controls are completely disabled when sync’ed to an external MIDI clock — received at either the USB or regular 5–pin input. If sync’ed to an incoming clock pulse, the transport does continue to work but the available time divisions are restricted to 1/8 or 1/16 — half or normal speed.

Cry Wolf

It’s been difficult to avoid the online outpourings of hate that have dogged the Rhythm Wolf almost since its first (non–working) appearance at the Frankfurt Musikmesse, but I think some perspective is in order. This is an affordable, full–sized analogue drum machine that’s solidly constructed and arrayed with easily accessed knobs and pads you can hit. Unfortunately, the chosen voices aren’t instantly inspiring and it’s difficult to see the bass synth as anything but a mistake, especially when the Wolf is crying out for an extra percussion voice such as a clap or tom.

But it’s not all bad news. If you’re prepared to offer a little assistance, guitar overdrive and distortion pedals can turn even the most mundane synth into an aggressive, toothy monster. The drums should be processed too but even before doing so, one voice at least has plenty of oomph. The kick is the pick of the litter but, of the rest, the hi-hats are serviceable, the percussion usable and if the snare isn’t the last word in drum synthesis, it’s still more flexible than that of my first drum machine, the Boss DR55. Whichever way I look at it, the Howl effect is too noisy and unpleasant to be of any value — but I remember saying the same thing about the Sex Pistols once upon a time. Apparently I was wrong back then and, with luck, creative individuals will prove me wrong again.

Judged as a live accompaniment machine, the Rhythm Wolf has much to recommend it. It’s friendly and fast, both to program and to play. The best rewards, though, could be reserved for anyone able to dig in and perform hardware modifications; there’s plenty of room for individual voice outputs, to offer the most obvious DIY example. When you then factor in drum pads, MIDI, gate sync and that handy fill feature, the Rhythm Wolf starts to look much more tempting.

Alternatives

Inexpensive analogue drum machines aren’t exactly thick on the ground and the Wolf is sturdier than any Roland TR606 you’re likely to find (and pay silly money for). Acidlab have a TR606 clone in the pipeline, although again at many times the price of Akai’s looping lupus. Otherwise, Korg’s Monotribe is the obvious main competition, assuming you don’t mind a single output for synth and drums. In its favour, the Monotribe has a funky sequencer and a wider range of synth tones.

Published March 2015