Akai samplers, in their familiar off‑white rackmount cases, have become fixtures in studios all over the world. Their latest models may use the same colour scheme, but they offer an entirely new user interface and a host of powerful new features.
Akai samplers may not always be at the cutting edge of technology, but their familiar user interface combined with good third‑party support from sample CD‑ROM manufacturers has undoubtedly helped them retain their Industry Standard tag. However, Akai's designers knew that the company couldn't rest on past glories forever, which is why they put so much effort into creating the new S5000 and S6000. Rather than upgrade what's gone before, the S5000 and S6000 feature a totally redesigned user interface based around a huge screen designed to operate much like a modern computer environment. Up to 256Mb of standard computer RAM can be fitted (that's over 25 minutes of full‑bandwidth stereo sampling) and the polyphony is a generous 128 voices as standard on the S6000, or 64 voices upgradable to 128 on the S5000.
The main difference between the two machines is that the S6000 comes with a full set of bells and whistles as standard while the S5000 is slightly simplified, leaving you to buy the extras as options if you need them. Also, the S6000 has a removable front panel — useful for remote editing — while the S5000 uses the same screen in a fixed‑panel format and omits the three user‑assignable keys of the S6000. As the operating systems are essentially the same, this review will focus on the S6000; the 'Specifications' box (see article end) lists the main differences between the two machines.
The S6000 is big and it's impressive — I wouldn't like to have to load one into a rack single‑handed. A floppy drive is provided with a second bay for another drive, though you have to buy your own (internal or external) SCSI hard drive. This isn't a penny‑pinching move on Akai's behalf, though; it's simply that hard drive prices are always falling, so allowing the user to fit their own is the cheapest option all round. And you will want to fit a hard drive, because the S6000 can record direct to hard disk as well as to RAM. Hard disk samples are single‑voice, but can be assigned to keygroups, just like RAM samples, and may be processed, modulated and filtered in the same way as the RAM samples. No CD‑ROM drive is fitted, though the S6000 worked fine with a D2 CD‑ROM drive that my S2000 has always refused to speak to. Apparently the SCSI is much improved over earlier models.
I'm a little surprised that the base memory is only 8Mb, considering how cheap RAM is at the moment, though this can be upgraded to 256Mb via four regular SIMM slots. Whether this will still seem adequate in a couple of years' time is hard to predict, but at the time of writing, 256Mb seems pretty attractive.
Other key features include a comprehensive filter section with 26 different resonant filter types, powerful 20‑bit internal effects, and up to 16 analogue outputs. SCSI is also standard on both models (with dual ports) and two sets of MIDI I/O ports are provided for 32‑part multitimbral operation (though users still running version 1.00 of the operating system will need to upgrade to v1.01 to get this to work properly!). Word‑clock sync is standard on both machines and a dual ADAT interface option is already available, providing a stereo digital input plus 16 channels of digital output via two TOSLINK lightpipes. This is clearly good news for those basing their systems around digital mixers.
Looking beneath the impressive front panel and display, the most fundamental change to the architecture of these machines is that Akai have adopted the PC WAV file format as the standard for storing samples and disk recordings. This makes a lot of sense as it allows conventional computer‑based WAV file‑editing systems such as Sound Forge or Wavelab to be used to manipulate samples. But what happens to that library of Akai‑format CD‑ROMs you've collected over the years? You shouldn't have to worry, as S1000‑ and S3000‑format samples may still be used — the sample format is converted directly to WAV during loading, though in this current release, any separate output assignments stored within in a multi are lost. I tested this with several of my own CD‑ROMs and everything worked fine without any obvious translation delays, though the current version of software won't read Roland‑ or Emu‑format discs. Akai say both these shortcomings will be addressed in a forthcoming software revision. I also found that the S6000 was unable to read WAV‑format samples via the CD‑ROM drive — a Creative Essentials sample disc simply registered as an unrecognised format, though I'm told that this is being looked into for future revisions. Similarly, there's no support for dragging samples from audio sample CDs, (though you can, of course, use a separate audio CD player with a digital output) — at present, the CD‑ROM drive can read Akai‑format CD‑ROMs, and nothing else!
I'm told there are no plans for a MESA‑style computer sample editor for the S5000 and S6000, but the new operating system should make that unnecessary. Oh yes, and the Undo function doesn't work yet either — but as you are always presented with a choice of what you want to keep after doing an edit, you don't really miss it.
If it seems Akai have missed a few tricks, you have to keep in mind that this is the first version of a brand new operating system — it's not a rehash of earlier systems, so there are bound to be a few bugs, and most have already been identified. Thanks to the units' flash ROM‑based operating system, upgrading the software is simply a matter of inserting the appropriate floppy disk. An upgrade is already available (see 'OS Upgrade' box) to fix two of the most serious bugs in the initial version 1.00 — the unit's initial tendency to improvise impressionist industrial music whenever a sustain pedal was used, and timing problems which effectively prevented the use of the second set of MIDI ports. This upgrade will be installed as standard from December '98 onwards, and hopefully we can expect further upgrades soon to fix some of the other shortcomings I've mentioned.
One potential problem which hasn't been fixed yet concerns the file naming system, though this one is easy to work around. Although long file names are supported, when samples are transferred to a Mac via PC Exchange, only the first eight characters are actually used to identify the sample. This means that if you have several names of over eight characters that are differentiated only by a number at the end, they'll be interpreted as being multiple copies of the same file. The workaround for now is either to use completely different names, or put the number at the front. Mac users also need to be aware that there's a maximum size to the PC‑format hard drive that can be recognised by PC Exchange, and it's apparently under 2Gb. (Of course the S5000/6000 itself can address any size drive up to the maximum supported by DOS). So much for the teething bugs — now it's onto the good stuff, and there's plenty of that.
The tedium of menu cruising associated with earlier samplers has always been a source of frustration, but the new operating system, combined with the six‑inch screen, makes things a lot easier. To avoid the menu slog, a row of eight buttons has been placed down each side of the screen and in many windows, function tags appear next to the buttons (not unlike a cash dispenser), allowing them to be accessed instantly rather than searching for them in a menu list. The familiar data‑entry wheel and left‑right cursor buttons have been retained, and extensive use has been made of waveforms and icons to make the interface friendlier and easier to operate, particularly when doing tricky jobs such as looping samples. Akai have also included a PS/2 port for a standard computer keyboard, allowing samples and programs to be named more easily. In spite of all the changes, though, the overall philosophy of the operating system is close enough to that of previous models that existing Akai users should be able to adapt very quickly.
Often it's not the revolutionary features that make a product special, but the sensible implementation of something that already exists. Certainly that's the case with Standard MIDI File playback, which allows sequences to be replayed live direct from a floppy disk — but why no super GM sound set multi bundled with the machine? It's the same with the new folder structure — computers have used folders for years, but being able to organise your samples and programs within folders really helps keep track of what's on the hard drive. Unfortunately, there is as yet no easy way to move programs from one folder to another — you either need to do this via your computer or load a program, then physically save it in a different folder.
Individual samples may be auditioned direct from hard disk or CD‑ROM without loading them, and while this isn't quite as convenient as hacking through patches on a synth, it is infinitely better than the old 'load then listen' system. In fact, for intensive CD‑ROM users, it's probably one of the most significant benefits of the new system.
Some features have been borrowed from other Akai machines. For example, the phase‑coherent time‑stretch algorithms come from the DD1500 workstation, while the waveform edit display has appeared in different guises in earlier Akai samplers, as well as on numerous computer‑based audio editors.
Akai samplers always seem to come in very deep boxes, and these new models are no exception. Other than the mains switch, the main volume and the phones volume knobs, all the controls necessary to operate the S6000 reside on the removable front panel. Removing the front panel is simply a matter of undoing a couple of thumbwheel screws and pulling the panel away from the sampler. Electrical connection is a via a short multi‑way cable — you'll need to buy a longer one for remote use unless all you want to do is lay the panel flat directly in front of the sampler. The floppy disk slot is located on the far left of the machine next to an empty bay (S6000 only) that can be used to accommodate another SCSI removable‑media drive, such as the optional 1Gb Jaz (£299).
The removable panel is dominated by the large 320 x 240‑pixel backlit LCD display, and there are eight buttons down each side of the screen which relate to onscreen functions. Beneath the screen are eight further buttons that directly access the main operational modes of the instrument. These are: Multi, FX, Edit Sample, Edit Program, Record, Utilities, Save and Load. When a function is selected, the relevant button illuminates. There's no separate multi or single mode any more — all programs are played from within a multi, whether they are single, layered or arranged as multitimbral sets. A small thumb control is located at the top of the panel to adjust the display contrast.
To the right of the screen is the data entry wheel, a pair of cursor left/right buttons, a numeric keypad section, and dedicated buttons for Window, Undo, Exit, Ent/Play, Mark, Jump plus three more User keys (S6000 only). The User keys may be assigned to screens used on a regular basis for instant access, while Jump allows the user to skip back and forth between any pair of screens. Window accesses the Window function which allows access to a greater depth of editing when required.
The rear panel is pretty busy, with balanced stereo ins and outs on XLRs as well as 16 individual outputs on unbalanced jacks that can be used in mono or as stereo pairs. There are two sets of MIDI In, Out and Thru to support the 32‑part multitimbral sound engine plus two 50‑pin, half‑pitch SCSI connectors (the small fiddly ones!) allowing the S6000 to be used within a SCSI chain. A terminator switch is included to save having to buy a separate terminator. There's also digital I/O with AES‑EBU and S/PDIF, either of which can be accessed via balanced jacks or optical connectors. This isn't quite conventional but it's flexible, and a phono‑to‑jack lead works for connecting gear that uses the co‑axial S/PDIF format. Word clock input is via a BNC socket — useful when using the sampler as part of an all‑digital system running from a common clock — and both the S5000 and S6000 can take one optional ADAT interface card to provide 16 digital outs and one stereo digital input.
When the S6000 is switched on, the operating system automatically loads quickly from flash RAM, which means future upgrades can be installed from floppy disk. The startup screen bears a certain resemblance to a computer desktop, with icons representing hard, floppy and removable disks as well as showing what options are installed. For example, the EB20 effects board shows up as an icon, as does the 64‑voice expansion board, with any uninstalled options being shown crossed out. Pressing a key next to a parameter enables that parameter for editing, while double‑clicking the key or pressing the Window button opens up a deeper level of editing with more variables. Values are tweaked using the data wheel, and the cursors can be used to set which digit of long numbers is to be adjusted. On/Off functions display a tick or a cross to show their current status, and as with most computer software, the currently selected parameter is highlighted.
Most of the options, with the exception of the folder system of file organisation, will already be familiar to Akai users and the voice architecture is essentially the same. A program can comprise one or more samples, where each sample can be single‑shot (play until release or play all the way through) or looped. There are two loop modes: the first continues to play the looped section during the release of the sound, while the second plays, on release, that part of the original sample that came after the looped section. Only one loop per sample is supported, so files imported from earlier samplers that supported multiple loops will have any subsequent loops omitted.
Samples are arranged in the familiar keygroups where each group may include up to four samples that can be layered, cross‑switched or crossfaded (usually via velocity). Samples may be processed via a filter (26 types are on offer) and via a multi‑stage level envelope generator with additional control coming from two LFOs, mod and bend wheels, aftertouch, keyboard tracking, velocity and external MIDI control. A comprehensive controller routing system known as APM, or Assignable Program Modulation, allows any of the 128 possible MIDI controllers, the LFOs, or the envelopes to be routed to pitch, filter, amplitude, pan or back to the LFOs. This enables samples to be treated just like the oscillators in a conventional synth, for the production of radically changed sounds.
The first thing I tried was loading a program from an Akai‑format sample CD‑ROM. Each volume on the CD shows up in the file hierarchy as a separate disk icon within the list of potential sources, much as the different partitions on a computer hard drive show up as separate drive icons on the desktop. Within the partitions are folders, and inside the folders you'll find one or more programs plus the samples to which they relate. Samples have a waveform icon, whereas programs have a keyboard icon and Multis look like small shopping lists. The normal way to work would be to load the entire folder and then select the required Program, but as with earlier samplers, you have the option to load just the programs or samples you want if you don't need the whole lot. Multis that you've saved to the hard drive may also be loaded in much the same way.
Once a few programs have been loaded, it's very simple to assign them to the parts of a Multi using an easy scroll‑and‑choose system. A Multi may comprise up to 32 parts, and even if you only want to use a single program, it it still loaded into a Multi first, though you can play single programs direct from the Edit Program screen. Alternatively, several parts of a Multi can be set to the same MIDI channel for simple sound layering or to create keyboard splits.
A total of four different effects may be used within a Multi — any part may be assigned to any one of the effects channels, and each part has its own send level. Effect settings are stored as part of a Multi: for more on the effects section, see the Effects box. Parts within a Multi may also be routed to the individual outputs so that external effects can be added via a mixer. Up to 128 Multis may be stored in memory at once.
Recording a sample (either mono or stereo) is done from the Record page, where the process can be initiated automatically (once a signal has exceeded a threshold set by the user), manually, or triggered by a MIDI Note on. The recording source may be mic, line or digital, with the level adjustable from within the software. A level meter is included as part of the Record screen display. Once recorded, a sample can be resampled with its effects if required, and sample rates of both 44.1kHz and 48kHz are supported. If an ADAT board is installed, it is also possible to sample from ADAT track pairs.
Conventional samples are recorded to RAM, named and saved in the usual way, but it's also possible to sample direct to disk, in mono or stereo, when you need to play back long samples such as significant sections of songs. In this instance, you have to select the folder in which you want to make your recording, though the basic mechanism of recording is essentially the same as for RAM recordings. Virtual samples appear just like regular RAM samples and can be treated in much the same way, except they can't be played polyphonically or looped. However, the time and pitch algorithms used to edit RAM samples may also be used to process virtual samples. As I understand the system, short sections at the start of each virtual track are stored in RAM during use to ensure a instant playback start. Recordings may only be made to DOS‑formatted drives — older S‑series sampler disk formats won't work. Because hard drives are slower than RAM, editing virtual recordings can be pretty slow and messy (though the system will let you work this way if you want to), so it's best to convert them to RAM recordings, edit them, then convert them back again. A conversion option is provided as part of the system and is easy to access.
Sample looping is done with the aid of two waveform displays, one showing the whole sample and the other zooming in on the waveform either side of the loop point. These displays aren't as big as the ones on the S3000, though they're still big enough to get the job done effectively. At any stage where a sample will be permanently changed, you're asked whether you want to keep the original or overwrite it. Loop lengths may be locked and the the loop 'slid' along the sample as you audition for best results, but crossfade looping is still a destructive process, so you can't tweak and listen at the same time. However, the process is fairly quick, and the option to keep or discard the looped version makes it easy and quick to go back for another try if it didn't work out. An auto‑looping mode is included, but manually looping invariably produces better results.
Another useful editing feature is 'chop', which allows a section to be removed from the middle of a sample. This could be useful when trying to remove a single drum beat from within a drum loop, and the manual mentions a fade facility so that the transition to and from the silenced section can be softened. Chop works fine, but the fade function is not yet implemented. If you're going to time‑stretch a sample, this needs to be done before looping as doing it afterwards nearly always messes up the loop.
It is possible to use the S6000 at one end of a SCSI chain and a computer (Mac or PC) at the other, but you have to be careful when doing this as both the sampler and computer think they are in charge of the buss. Providing neither accesses the buss at the same time as the other, things should go smoothly, but Akai recommend that where possible you should connect the hard drive either to the sampler or to a computer — not both together.
As an S2000 user, I found the interface of the S6000 sheer luxury, and it's possible to figure out the majority of operations without even looking at the manual, especially if you are familiar with the Akai way of working. With the exception of the known bugs mentioned earlier, everything worked pretty smoothly, and though a couple of my S3000‑owning friends thought the looping page had a less clear waveform display, I had no problem using it. However, a vertical‑scale zoom would have been useful for samples with quiet sections.
The implementation of the virtual tracks feature is generally good, and because you can use the filters, envelopes and LFOs in the same way as on a regular RAM sample, there are lots of creative possibilities. Editing is easiest by first converting the virtual sample to a RAM sample, and in the case of a long recording that you need to split into phrases, this is the only way to do it effectively. There's no audible delay when triggering virtual samples.
I really like the Mac/Windows‑style graphic display (including progress bars when off‑line editing is taking place), while the folder structure for organising samples helps make the virtual world a tidier place. At present there's no proper search function or a way to move data directly from one folder to another, but these may come on board as the system matures. I'm still not sure how I feel about there being no effects library. To be fair, it's easy to set up effects as needed or to copy them from one Multi to another, but I can't help thinking a separate effect library with a user memory section would have been helpful.
The new time‑stretch algorithms are kinder to the audio than previous versions, though I'm told that existing Akai owners have already complained because they can't get that grungy S3000 sound, so perhaps this will reappear later as an effect? The stretch range is from 50 percent to 200 percent, and if you do a 50 percent shift followed by a 200 percent shift, the sound you get back has clearly deteriorated. However, for more sensible amounts of shift, the results are generally excellent — and the processing time isn't too scary either.
From a philosophical point of view, there's little that's really new in the S6000, though for little more money than you'd have paid for a fully stuffed S3000 a couple of years back, you now get eight times the memory capacity, a superb new user interface, more voices, more polyphony and better direct‑to‑disk sampling. Virtual samples are single‑voice, but you can play back as many different virtual samples at the same time as your hard drive can keep up with, which means six or more for removable drives and around double that for conventional fixed hard drives. Those who've previously needed two or more samplers to get a job done will probably be able to manage using a single S5000 or S6000, and because the virtual sample system is so flexible, it's possible that a conventional multitrack recorder will become unnecessary, at least for dance music and similar genres.
With any new operating system, it is inevitable that there will be flaws, but none of those still present in the upgraded version 1.01 should prevent the user doing serious work. The sampler still has some way to evolve, but looking at present needs rather than future‑gazing, this new series from Akai looks to be just what everyone wanted — easy to use, powerful and sensibly priced.
Control Panel: Removable (S6000 only) with 320 x 240‑pixel backlit display. PS/2 keyboard input.
Polyphony: 128 voices (S5000 has 64 voices, expandable to 128 voices with VOX64 expansion board, £349).
Memory: 8Mb, expandable to 256Mb via four SIMMs.
Assignable Outputs: 16 (S5000 has eight outputs as standard, with a further eight available using optional IBS508P expansion board, £249). 16‑channel ADAT interface (IB1616A, £299) optional for both models.
Sample Rates: 44.1kHz and 48kHz.
Converters: 18‑bit A‑D converters with 64 times oversampling (Delta Sigma), D‑A converters are 20‑bit 128 times oversampling (Delta Sigma).
Digital I/O: S/PDIF and AES‑EBU (ADAT optional).
Effects: EB20 effects board (four effect channels) built in on S6000, optional on S5000 (£299).
MIDI: Two sets of In, Out and Thru; 32‑part multitimbrality.
SCSI: Two ports (50‑pin miniature) with termination switch.
Word Clock: Input on both models.
Filters: Resonant, 26 types.
LFOs: Two, offering nine waveforms.
ADSR Generators: Two (multi‑stage aux envelope generator).
Internal drive: Internal 1Gb Jaz drive available as an option on S6000 only, £299.
All prices include VAT.
The effects section comprises two multi‑effects blocks and two dedicated reverbs, though the multi‑effects blocks also include reverb. The multi‑effects blocks are structured in three stages, with distortion, EQ and ring modulation coming first, followed by a block dedicated to the usual mod and pitch effects such as chorus, flange, panning and pitch shift. There's a delay at the output of this block, after which the signal feeds into a reverb block. These blocks may be rearranged to a limited extent so that, for example, the reverb can be used in parallel with the modulation block rather than after it. Effects setups are now stored as part of a multi, so the older Akai concept of separate effects files does not apply. There's no effects library as such, though there are numerous preset effects blocks to choose from as starting points when programming.
Effects may be edited in similar depth to those found in simpler programmable stand‑alone multi‑effects units. Entering the edit mode is as simple as pressing FX, then following the 'tabs' corresponding to the buttons down either side of the screen to get to the section you want to change.
Effects settings may be copied from one Multi to another, where each part within a multi can access any one of the four effect paths at a user‑adjustable level. Though it isn't possible to apply more than one effect send to each part, there is a facility which allows the FX3 reverb to be added to FX1 and FX2 if a more dense reverb is required.
Compatibility is now a major consideration for musicians, as more and more different standards emerge for digital audio storage. Although there have been various ways (SCSI, SMDI) to ferry digital audio between a sampler and computer for further editing, Akai have made things a lot easier by allowing their new models to read WAV files directly, and in using the PC FAT32 format for hard disk storage.
One big improvement with FAT32 is the removal of previous restrictions in Akai partition size, and in the maximum size of hard drive supported. Another advantage, with true PC compatibility, is that you should be able to use PC disk utilities for general housekeeping (such as defragmentation) that may not be available as options within the Akai operating system itself. Martin Walker
While the S6000 is an impressive beast, sampling still has a long way to go, and already computer‑based systems give us a clue as to what to expect in the next few years. Formant‑corrected pitch‑shifting should allow us to use a sample over a wider keyboard range without the result sounding unnatural, while improved automatic looping algorithms should enable instruments to be looped more successfully, taking account of regular pitch and amplitude modulations as well as the shape of the waveform. We may also see synths and samplers converging even further with the facility to resynthesize sampled sounds, or combine sampled and synthetic sounds, becoming a standard feature.
Samplers may also replace more hard disk recording functions, and I'm also expecting to see hardware samplers streaming their polyphonic samples direct from hard disk or CD‑ROM in the near future, in the same way as Nemesys' Gigasampler currently does on the PC. Not only will this bypass any RAM limitations, it should also allow programs (and not just samples) to be auditioned directly from disk using MIDI Program Change commands, though the S6000's ability to audition individual samples is a huge step forward. Once samplers can access patches as quickly as synths can, conventional ROM sample‑based synths will be obsolete — just slip in a new CD‑ROM and you have a whole new library of sounds with the instant‑access convenience of a synth. Something that present samplers should already be able to do (though most don't) is to allow WAV files to be loaded directly from WAV sample CD‑ROMs or audio samples from regular audio CDs.
And finally comes my personal favourite piece of future technology — the 'point and press' sampler as outlined in this month's Leader. You set it to record, play the highest note from the instrument you want to sample, followed by the lowest note and the sampler does the rest. It reads the pitch and envelopes of the recorded samples, separates out the formants, calculates all the in‑between notes, sets the envelopes and presents you with a patch all ready to play.
In what must be one of the fastest software revisions in music‑technology history, Akai have already released a second version (v1.01) of the S5000/S6000 operating system. This fixes two of the most serious problems with the samplers, allowing use of a sustain pedal and both sets of MIDI ports. Upgrades will appear free on the Akai web site, from which they can be downloaded to Mac or PC; anyone not yet on‑line can get upgrade disks via their dealer. All samplers sold after the end of November 1998 should have version 1.01 installed either by Akai or by their dealers.