We try out Akai's first synth in absolutely ages — and discover a monster in sheep's clothing.
In recent years, Akai have put most of their engineering firepower into samplers and hard disk recorders, leaving the traditional synth market to others — but their new range of aggressively‑priced modules looks set to change all that. So far, three have been released: a vintage analogue synth, a general MIDI box with built‑in computer interface, and a dedicated piano module. In some ways, these products are Akai's answer to the latest Roland Sound Expansion Series Modules, and judging by the interest in Roland's Vintage synth module in particular, Akai have made the right choice in bringing their vintage model to the market first.
For years now, I've been banging on about the merits of a preset‑based instrument that offers the user a simple means to edit just a few key parameters, while Akai's Steve Howell has been expressing similar views to Akai UK's design gurus. Obviously, the boffins in R&D have been listening, because the Akai SGO1v is exactly that.
The SGO1v is a half‑width, 1U‑high instrument, finished in Akai's traditional creamy‑grey livery and powered via the ubiquitous external PSU. It offers 256 vintage synth sounds, most of which sound like old analogue instruments, and apparently the sound generation technology is related to that used in the S‑series samplers. Sampled waveforms, and in some cases short loops, are fed through a digital, 24dB/octave resonant filter, and an envelope shaper with quite sophisticated modulation routing. Unlike most true analogue synths though, the all‑digital SGO1v has 16‑part multitimbrality and 32‑voice polyphony — although the polyphony apparently falls to 30 voices if the internal reverb is used.
Where the SGO1v really scores, other than the seriously low price which I haven't even mentioned yet, is in the way the presets can be modified. There are three parameters called Shape, Tone and Special which affect the envelope, filter cutoff and one other patch‑specific setting of the currently selected sound. These are changed not by a knob, as you might wish, but by up/down buttons, and the effect they have varies from patch to patch. For example, Shape may change just the attack time, just the release time or both; Special, on the other hand, seems to affect the filter resonance on most of the obviously filtered sounds, but occasionally finds other work to do on less filter‑oriented patches. In most instances though, the parameters you can change are the ones you'd most likely want to change, and I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of timbral variety available from just three controls.
Getting the hardware out of the way first, the SGO1v has a very simple user interface based around a three‑digit LED display, seven buttons and a volume knob. The rear panel features a full set of MIDI connectors, the power supply input, a mains switch and two quarter‑inch jacks to carry the stereo output. There's also a stereo mini jack that will accept headphones, and the synth voices may be panned left and right within a multitimbral mix using MIDI Pan data.
Operation of the unit is pretty straightforward, with dedicated buttons for Shape, Tone, Special and Level. The Select Program button doubles as a shift key to enable the aforementioned buttons to access the MIDI Channel, Multi, Tune and FX Level parameters, and all parameter changes are carried out using the Up/Down Data buttons. There are also two drum kits tucked away in the operating system, but on this early production model, they were both loaded with suspiciously Roland TR808‑like sounds.
There are two ways to use the SGO1v: Single mode and Multi mode. In Single mode you lose the multitimbrality, but gain the advantage that any edits you make to Shape, Tone, Level, Special and FX Level remain as you set them, even if the machine is switched off or changed to Multi mode and then back. In Multi mode, you get 16‑part multitimbrality, but all the patches come up with their preset default values, and any edits you subsequently make to a preset are lost when you change patches. Of course, when you go back to Single mode, any edits you previously made while in Single mode will still be intact. In Multi mode, you can use all 16 parts to provide synth voices, or set part 1 to deliver one of the two drum kits.
The ability to tweak the envelope and filter settings without having to enter some surreal editing nightmare world makes all the difference
It's easiest to call up your patches using MIDI program change information, and if you have a suitable software sequencing package, you could also set up software sliders to access the Shape, Tone, Level, Special and FX Level parameters. All these can be reached using various combinations of the front panel buttons, but setting up all 16 parts can be tedious.
The manual also provides MIDI information for addressing parameters that you can't reach via the front panel, and it turns out that there are actually 16 different reverb effects to choose from. You can also get at the envelopes, the LFOs, filters and the portamento switch as well as being able to save and reload edits via SySex dump. More routine things such as the pitch bend range, various pedals, pan and MIDI volume are implemented via MIDI; the pitch bend range defaults to two semitones.
All the sounds in the SG01v are arranged in two banks of 128, and though it's sometimes difficult to characterise analogue sounds, a useful attempt has been made to put them into meaningful groups. Bank 1 covers synth, bass, piano and pad sounds with bank 2 offering more pads, a handful of digital timbres, brass, organ bell, string and lead sounds as well as the inevitable (and mercifully small) selection of gratuitous effects. Some of the synth bass patches work in mono legato mode as appropriate, but most sounds are polyphonic, and I have to say that Steve Howell (who voiced the SG01v) has done a really first class job. Perhaps most impressive are the bass sounds, which cover the classic deep drones, fizzy filter sweeps and hard‑hitting techno thips, blips and squips. There seems to be a lot of velocity‑responsiveness — the harder you hit, the sharper the sound, and being able to vary those three magic parameters means that just one patch can become a whole family of sounds.
Also well represented are the soft, warm pads, and I was surprised by how close some of these are to the sounds produced by my Oberheim Matrix 1000. The string patches aren't quite so silky and lush as those on the Roland module, but then the fact that Roland have onboard chorusing as well as reverb might have a lot to do with that. Akai's reverb is actually better‑sounding than I expected, and if you add external chorusing, you can get some very rich pads going. Unless you want to call up different reverbs over MIDI, you're stuck with the default SG Room 1 setting, but in most contexts, it's all you need.
I have to admit to not being a great fan of cheesy piano and organ sounds, but if you need them, they're here — as are the mandatory lead line patches, including some suspiciously ELP‑sounding stuff. In fact, the only distinctly non‑impressive facet of this little marvel is the demo song collection. About the most charitable thing I can say is that I'll assume Steve didn't program them. If you can imagine the interlude music that you used to get when the telly broke down, these tunes are what you might expect when the interlude music breaks down. If you played them in a lift, it would probably grind to a halt between floors.
The drum sounds are suitably vintage, to match the synth patches, and reassuringly clean, with plenty of in‑yer‑face kick. As kit number two hasn't been added yet, I've no idea how good it will be — or indeed, what type of sounds will be in it.
If the SG01v sounded as plain as its hardware looks, it would be truly underwhelming, but the reality is that Akai have created a brute of a synth, and if getting it in a cream‑coloured Oxo tin is the price you have to pay for not having to pay a price (if you get my drift), then that's okay by me. After all, you're going to listen to it, not look at it. Even as presets, the sounds are fine, but the ability to tweak the envelope and filter settings without having to enter some surreal editing nightmare world makes all the difference. Most synths with complicated editing systems end up being used entirely for playing presets or library sounds, so it's arguable that a far simpler system such as this one is more likely to encourage experimentation.
What I can't put over in print is just how analogue the sounds are — the filters really are convincing, and the bass sounds are seriously fat. At under £300, this little synth puts the highly inflated, second‑hand TB303s to shame, and for my money, it's every bit the equal of the newer analogue monosynths doing the rounds. There's nothing for it — I shall have to get one!
- Huge range of presets with simple editing.
- Sounds like the real thing!
- Unattractive, non‑rackmounting packaging.
At this price, buy one first and think of a use for it second! Great for all types of antique sounds, from ELP to Satsuma Nightmare [or Tangerine Dream, as you may remember them — Ed], dance, techno and new age.
£299 including VAT.