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Akai S3000XL

Long‑time Akai sampler user Paul Ward tries to stop his credit card from leaping out of his pocket as he gets to grips with the tempting additions to Akai's mid‑range sampler.

Those of us who jumped aboard the Akai sampler bandwagon with the S1000/S1100 found ourselves blessed with a darned fine sampler. The lack of any real depth of 'synthesis' features was not a great concern at the time, since everyone was more concerned with improving the fidelity of raw samples rather than the capacity to process them beyond all recognition. Akai stole a jump on the market with products that delivered just such fidelity at the right price.

Nowadays, with high quality sampling taken almost for granted, manufacturers have turned to the provision of more synthesis features to give their machines an edge. With Akai's S3000 series of samplers came resonant filters and modulation options that brought significant synthesis capabilities into the Akai sampling world, but by this time other companies, such as Kurzweil, Emu and Ensoniq, were also making similar headway. Where next? How about the capability to take up to 8Mb of Flash RAM, a new 'Multi' mode to make multitimbral configurations a much easier proposition, the ability to expand up to 32Mb with standard 72‑pin SIMMs (rather than custom Akai boards) and an optional multi‑channel/multi‑effects processor board? Enter the S3000XL.

First Impressions

On removing the S3000XL from its packaging I had a moment of doubt as to whether Akai had sent me the correct machine! The S3000XL owes much more to the physical appearance of the S2800 than its namesake, the S3000. Indeed, the front panel of the S3000XL is near identical to the S2800, with the exception of some of the legending! To the far left are the (shrouded) power switch and the standard quarter‑inch headphone socket. The display contrast control also doubles up as a push‑button to switch the display backlight on and off in order to extend the life span of the LCD. Just below the 3.5‑inch high‑density floppy disk drive are the eight 'Mode' buttons. These take the S3000XL through its basic operating modes, such as playing single programs, defining multitimbral setups, or accessing disk functions. The centre of the S3000XL's front panel is dominated by the backlit 40‑character x 8‑line LCD. Just below this display are the eight 'soft' function keys that access various pages and functions depending on the options available on the currently selected page. Unfortunately, in keeping with Akai's previous track record, the function keys still do not line up under the function names displayed on the screen. This is often frustrating, and also slows down operation. It really is about time Akai managed to crack this one.

Cursor navigation is managed by four direction keys, and parameter values are altered either by the data input knob or the numeric keypad (which also doubles up for alpha‑numeric naming duties). To the right of the keypad are the 'Mark' and 'Jump' keys for fast page access, the 'Name' key for naming of objects such as programs, samples and effects, and the 'Enter' key, which also allows the triggering of programs or samples from the front panel when editing or confidence checking.

The rear panel hosts eight separate polyphonic audio outputs, in addition to the master left/right. The audio inputs are of the balanced quarter‑inch jack type, which represent a reasonable compromise alternative to the provision of a separate pair of XLR connectors — although an adaptor will be necessary for the direct connection of a standard balanced microphone cable. A pair of digital in/out phono connectors are provided, though I feel slightly uncomfortable about being deprived of the option of using optical connectors. A SCSI socket opens the S3000XL to the world of external storage devices such as hard disks, magneto‑optical drives, CD‑ROM or a similarly equipped computer. Finally, there's the expected MIDI In, Out and Thru.

The S3000XL is compatible with library material for the S900, S950, S1000, S1100, S2000 and S3000 sampler series, although effects files from these earlier machines cannot be handled, due to fundamental differences in their make‑up. My S1100 was unable to read the S3000's disks (Akai are making a software update available), but I had no trouble dumping programs and samples over MIDI in S3000 format, complete with sample name and loop points. After one or two minor tweaks, everything behaved well, although the lack of filter resonance and some of the other more sophisticated synthesis techniques often left the results sounding bland in comparison.

Samples & Editing

Sampling is a reasonably straightforward exercise, following familiar Akai principles, although the ability to save all the recording parameters is very welcome. Recording can be set to start automatically as the input level crosses a user‑defined threshold, or on receipt of a MIDI note message. In either case, an override feature allows for initiation by pressing a function key. Mono or stereo recording is possible from either the analogue or digital inputs.

The manual informs us that, when making samples from the digital input, the S3000XL "has difficulty recording at 48kHz (ie. from a DAT machine)" and suggests that to do so is "inadvisable"! The machine itself will attempt the task, but shows a warning message when it detects a 48kHz carrier signal. I feel I can't let Akai get away with this one so easily. I believe that the ability to sample at any of the 'standard' digital rates should now be taken for granted in a sampler of this league and pedigree. Some of my own DAT archives contain recordings made at the 48kHz 'consumer' sample rate and I would be unhappy to consider them out of bounds for digital transfer. Hmm...

Samples may be trimmed and looped, with the machine doing its best to help you in the latter case by providing a zero crossing point search function and the ability to create crossfade loops when all else fails. I've often found Akai's method of defining loops to be a singularly painful experience, due to their 'position/length' concept (ie. the user defines a point from which the sample is to loop back and then sets the length of the loop), and nothing much has changed here. I'd much rather set a pair of independent start and end loop points, with the option to move the whole loop forwards or backwards if required (the Ensoniq EPS, for example, works in just this way). It can be infuriating to be hunting for the ideal end loop point only to find that you cannot shift the pointer because the loop length is set too long to accommodate the movement. No doubt other users will disagree with me. Pairs of samples may also be spliced and mixed — with or without cross‑fading.

A couple of S3000XL sample editing features I found highly desirable (having often wished they had been implemented on my ageing S1100) are sectional editing and volume normalising. Sectional editing permits a portion of an existing sample to be extracted and copied to a new sample location and name (the original sample is left intact), cut (sample is 'zeroised' over the selected range) or 'chopped' from an existing sample and given a new sample name (selected range is removed from the sample and the range start and end points are butted together). Examples of obvious candidates for sectional editing include individual drum beats you'd like to extract from a rhythm loop, and coughs/other unwanted noises which need removing from a section of vocals.

What greater pleasure can be enjoyed by mortals than sampling and synthesis in a single well‑integrated package?

Volume normalising is an extremely useful feature since a sample will usually be recorded at less than maximum level to prevent the onset of digital distortion. The S3000XL will examine the sample to find the highest volume peak and turn the whole sample level up until the peaks are at the maximum level possible before clipping. The cost here is that the underlying noise floor will be similarly boosted along with the signal material, but at least you can be sure that you are making the most of your sampler's bit resolution.

Stretching A Point

Off‑line DSP functions which can be inflicted upon a sample are timestretching, re‑sampling and equalisation. Timestretching is ingeniously simple to perform, although some understanding of the underlying principles will help in deciding the optimum settings. The manual is particularly helpful in this respect, offering useful tips and examples in a clear and concise manner. While we're on the subject I ought to point out that the manual as a whole is extremely good, including plenty of screen shots, tips, suggestions and real‑world examples to get you up and running quickly.

Re‑sampling is equally painless. I have often found myself using this process to avoid compromising sample quality at the time the recordings are made — I always sample at 44.1kHz and then try different rate conversions later to reach a sensible compromise between audio bandwidth and disk space requirements. The S3000XL will automatically make the necessary transposition to keep the newly‑created sample at the correct pitch.

Off‑line equalisation takes the form of a single EQ type that can be set up to perform low/high shelving or wide/narrow band‑pass with a generous 24dB of cut or boost. It's a pity that both low and high shelving EQ can't be performed simultaneously in one pass, but a sample can be reprocessed as many times as necessary.

Filter Tips

The S3000XL's digital filter is a resonant 12dB per octave low‑pass affair. Whilst not equalling the warmth and complexity of an analogue filter, the range of tone and colouration is pleasant, and I'd describe its character as 'sweet' rather than 'aggressive'. Modulation is possible from a variety of sources, including envelopes, velocity, LFO1/2 and a user‑defined MIDI controller number.

The review model came endowed with the optional IB304F filter, which appears in the operating pages as 'filter 2'. The use of this additional filter costs two notes of polyphony, which seems a little stingy, but increases the range of tonal variation tremendously. Besides a second 12dB per octave resonant low‑pass filter (which can be used in series with the standard filter to achieve a Moog‑ish 24dB per octave cut‑off slope), filter 2 can also provide high‑pass, band‑pass and EQ filter types. Selecting the 'EQ filter' turns filter 2 into a 1‑band equaliser with sweepable frequency and variable (positive or negative) resonance. A further 'tone' page also becomes available with the second filter option installed, featuring frequency, slope and attenuation parameters. Finally, a third envelope generator is provided that, although it is primarily linked as a control source for filter 2, may be used as a modulation source across any of the S3000XL's standard functions.

Keygroups are where samples are mapped across the keyboard, set to respond to velocity switching or cross‑fading, and given real‑time processing features such as filtering and envelopes. Keygroups can be assigned to mute groups to prevent more than one sample playing at a time. As well as the most obvious example of forcing a closed hi‑hat to mute an open hi‑hat, this feature can also be used to produce more realistic snare or tom rolls.

In addition to all the other 'per‑keygroup' features, I was most pleased to see the option to send any keygroup to any of the four effects processors (or none of them) with its own send level. This will save a lot of time and trouble. In a typical drum kit program, for example, it would be possible to have dry hi‑hats, flanged cymbals, a kick with a touch of room ambience, toms with gallons of room ambience and a snare playing in the Albert Hall! Such flexibility is often difficult to achieve with several instruments, let alone one!

A LA Modes

'Single' mode is what anyone with experience of Akai samplers would consider to be normal 'program' mode. The useful Mix page has been retained in the S3000XL, to ensure compatibility with older library material. Programs may be re‑numbered in a variety of ways, although Multi mode makes this a far less critical operation than it once was.

...after the briefest experience of Akai's new Multi mode I will find it extremely difficult to go back to the old method of working!

Multi mode is what every Akai sampler user has been waiting for! (Well, many of them, I'd dare to suggest.) The business of setting up an Akai sampler for use in a multitimbral environment has always seemed a bit scrappy. Programs had to be re‑numbered to allow them to share a common program number, and their MIDI channels then had to be set accordingly. This was often laborious work when compiling banks of sounds from numerous disks. Akai have obviously recognised the need to provide a more flexible arrangement, and have come up with a very neat and sensible operating mode to provide an answer. It must be pointed out that should users want to keep working in the good 'old‑fashioned' way, the S3000XL is quite happy to go along — this should ensure compatibility when loading in volumes created on the older machines. However, after the briefest experience of Akai's new Multi mode I will find it extremely difficult to go back to the old method of working!

It may have taken Akai a while to bring us a friendly multitimbral environment, but the result here is very good. Operation is simplicity itself. There are 16 available slots in a Multi mode configuration, each of which can be assigned a MIDI channel and any program, regardless of program number. The same MIDI channel can be assigned to multiple programs, or multiple MIDI channels can be assigned to a single program. Each slot has its own assignable key range, volume, panning, transposition, detuning and priority level for note 'stealing'. Additionally, with the EB16 effects option installed, each slot can access any of the four effects processors, with a programmable send level. All of these settings in a Multi configuration override those set for any program. But — joy of joys — any overrides defined for a keygroup are retained. This means that specific keygroups requiring different effects (or none at all) can still be accommodated within the Multi configuration without having to create a new program for them. It could be argued that this is not always desirable (maybe the option should be switchable?), but I think that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. The only suggestion I would make is that the number of Multi slots be increased. If you tend to keep your drum sounds in individual programs you'll find yourself running out of slots alarmingly quickly!

Global mode, as well as hiding all those typical housekeeping functions such as tuning, basic MIDI channel and DAT backup facilities, also plays host to the 3000XL's SMF (Standard MIDI File) playback feature and direct‑to‑disk recording pages.

Hard Times

First introduced in an operating system upgrade to the S1100, hard disk recording is similarly implemented on the S3000XL. Use of this feature drops available polyphony to 26 notes, as opposed to the usual 32, but that seems a reasonable compromise. Only one 'take' may be played back at any point, so crossfades are unfortunately not possible, but normal sampler functions are unaffected — even during recording.

Recording a take is similar in many ways to recording a normal sample, with the process initiated manually, from input threshold, a MIDI note message or a MIDI Song Start command. The recording source may be analogue or digital. Once safely recorded, takes may be edited, copied and named. On playback, takes can be processed by the optional effects units (if fitted) and assigned to appear at any individual output. Advanced take parameters include panning level and fade in/out times. A 'Song' list allows takes to be compiled for sequential playback or MIDI triggering, with the ability to repeat steps, insert new steps or delete unwanted ones. Songs may be named and saved to disk, much as any other RAM object, and takes backed up to DAT to free up valuable hard disk space for further recording.

Multi Story

The S3000XL I was given for review came with the optional EB16 multi‑effects processor installed. This option is very impressive — indeed, I'd go as far as to say that anyone buying an S3000XL ought to consider the EB16 as near essential!

The structure of the effects implementation takes the form of four parallel stereo effects busses, two of which are capable of up to six simultaneous effects, with the other two each dedicated to a single stereo reverb. To take the simplest first, the two stereo reverbs, RV3 and RV4, can access up to 50 reverb presets. These presets are fully user‑definable, utilising the basic reverb types of hall, room, gated or reverse. Typical parameters include reverb time, pre‑delay and high/low‑frequency damping. FX1 and FX2 are the multi‑effects processors, where a series of ring modulation, distortion, equalisation, modulation effects, delay and reverb are utilised. Fifty user‑definable FX presets are available. The RV1 and RV2 reverb processors sit immediately after the delay effect on the FX1 and FX2 effects chain and have access to the same 50 preset reverbs as used in RV3 and RV4. The effects can be routed to appear at any pair of outputs. This is a global setting for all effects — so you can't have RV3 appearing at outputs 3 and 4 and FX1 at 5 and 6, which I found a little disappointing.

So much for the quantity — what of the quality? Pretty good, generally. I would like the distortion to be a little less 'fizzy' for my Hammond organ simulations, and some of the longer reverbs arguably lack the depth and richness of an outboard device. The shorter, ambient reverbs are superb and the rotary speaker simulator is subjectively amongst the best I've heard, onboard or outboard.


I love sampling — it's fun. I love synthesis — that's fun too. What greater pleasure can be enjoyed by mortals than sampling and synthesis in a single well‑integrated package? (Well, OK, maybe there are one or two others...)

The more I worked with the S3000XL, the harder I fought to keep my cheque book under control. In its most basic, unexpanded form I doubt that I would have become quite as excited about this machine, though the new Multi mode is still impressive enough to warrant a thumbs‑up on its own. But with the EB16 effects board installed, the S3000XL becomes a very powerful production tool indeed. In the past I have managed to produce several CDs with no more than two outboard effects processors. Faced with a sampler capable of accessing two stereo multi‑effects processors (including reverb) and two stereo reverb devices before the sounds even appear at the audio outputs, the number of compromises involved in using a multitimbral machine suddenly dwindle dramatically.

If the S3000 series was not sufficient to make you trade in your S1000/S1100, the XL series may now just change your mind — it's certainly changed mine!

Dear Editor, when Akai come to collect the S3000XL I won't be in. Love, Paul...

Samples In A Flash

The use of 'Flash ROM' is an enticing prospect, allowing 8Mb of samples to be retained when the power is switched off. This effectively makes the S3000XL into a very flexible S+S synthesizer with customisable waveform memory. Similarly, the supplied MESA Macintosh editing software that comes bundled with the S3000XL is to be applauded, although not having a Macintosh I was unable to test its efficacy — come on Akai, there are an awful lot of us out here who run PCs and Ataris!

Raising The Standard: MIDI File Playback

SMF playback is a wonderful feature for a gigging musician. Simply record your backing tracks on a computer‑based MIDI sequencer, save them as a Standard MIDI File and then load them into the S3000XL for playback on stage. The S3000XL will play both internal sounds and pass on the necessary data from the MIDI out port to control external synths and devices. Astute readers will realise that this is also an ideal way to store and transmit System Exclusive data.

The Akai's disk drive will read standard MS‑DOS formatted disks for the purpose of loading SMF files. What a pity that Akai did not take the opportunity to also allow the S3000XL to read/write programs and samples to/from
MS‑DOS disks too — maybe even to load and convert .WAV files. Speaking as one who regularly hunts down sampled material over the Internet, the legacy of a proprietary PC‑incompatible disk format is now harder to accept than ever.


  • Familiar, tried and trusted user interface.
  • High‑quality sampling and playback.
  • Takes standard SIMMs for cheaper RAM upgrades.
  • Excellent new Multi mode.
  • Optional EB16 effects board.
  • SMF playback.


  • Simple tasks can still take an awful lot of button pushing.
  • No onboard effects with standard machine.
  • Will only accept other manufacturers' samples when read from CD‑ROM.
  • The perpetuation of Akai's proprietary disk format.


A valuable studio tool with a much friendlier method of multitimbral use than seen previously in an Akai sampler. But this machine really begins to earn its keep once the optional EB16 effects board is in place — budget for one if you can.