Given the wide range of studio and synthesis equipment Yamaha make, it's perhaps odd that there's been no serious sampler in their catalogue for almost 10 years. Now, after putting a toe in the water with the well‑received SU10 mini‑sampler, they're taking the pro sampling plunge once more with the A3000. Chris Carter finds that still waters run deep...
Do you ever wonder how all these marvellous machines that we use are designed? I do, all the time. Are there a lot of tech‑heads in lab coats, or nerdy net‑head types in pizza‑stained T‑shirts, sitting around telling the company execs about their great ideas? "Yeah, we'll include 64‑note polyphony, unlimited samples, 54 different effects, editable parameters for everything, tons of output options, a sequencer, masses of storage, and it will have lots of red and green flashing LEDs and we'll include a really cost‑effective display." And the marketing manager says "but won't it be a bit difficult to use?". "No," they say, "we'll include a REALLY BIG instruction manual!". A possible scenario, I suppose, and in the case of something like the A3000, very likely.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, the A3000 is not the first serious sampler Yamaha have ever made. Their TX16W was launched way back in 1988, and was pretty uniformly received as being very powerful but also unnecessarily hard to use. Of course, since then Yamaha have made the successful SU10 mini‑sampler (reviewed in SOS March 1996), but what a way to re‑enter the pro sampler market: at last, a machine which is both affordable and powerful, a turning point in sampler evolution. However, it's not all lovely in the garden: the A3000 is amazing and infuriating in equal measure. Read on...
Before we get down to the nuts and bolts of using the A3000, let me say that for £1299 it has some pretty mind‑boggling features. Yes, most of the rumours you may have heard about it are true. The standard model is 16‑bit stereo, 64‑note polyphonic, comes with 2Mb of on‑board memory and is capable of accommodating an additional 128Mb of sample RAM, using standard SIMMs. There is no upper limit to the number of samples it can hold, subject to how much memory is installed. As if that wasn't enough, each sample has its own envelope generator, LFO, single‑band EQ and resonant, multi‑mode filter (VCF), while the main stereo mix also has an additional 4‑band parametric EQ. There are three effects banks, with 54 extremely versatile, editable effects patches in each bank, and a 'feed‑through' feature for real‑time effects treatment of external audio sources. It also incorporates an AWM2 tone generator and a basic MIDI sequencer, and can load SMF (Standard MIDI File) sequences, AIFF, Emu and Akai samples. It has space for an internal SCSI hard drive (with no size limit) and can directly control (automatically or manually) the playback of an audio CD from an external CD‑ROM drive, while most of the front‑panel knobs and function buttons can also be used as MIDI controllers for internal and external MIDI functions.
The A3000 is presented in a 2U rackmount case almost as deep as it is wide. To the left of the neat blue/grey front panel there are two audio input sockets and an input level knob; the inputs are capable of handling microphone or line levels. Next is a (very loud) headphone socket and the main stereo output volume control for the rear left/right output jacks. Below the basic, 2‑line yellow LED display there are what look like five rotary controls, which also double as push buttons. Each knob has an LED arrow above it, which, when lit, means that the button can be pushed to execute an action or function — simple, but effective. On the right‑hand side of the front panel are 11 illuminated selector buttons arranged in a 5x6 matrix configuration (six 'Function Keys' and five 'Mode Buttons'), with a printed list of modes beneath. There are three other buttons, labelled Command (usually for accessing the disk drive), Audition (for triggering samples) and Assignable (see 'MIDI Play' section, later). Below the Mode matrix is the floppy disk drive. Around at the back (on the base, unexpanded machine) are the usual AC in, MIDI In, Out and Thru, left and right main outputs, and left and right assignable outputs, plus a little SCSI2 connector (see 'SCSI1 or SCSI2' box). Finally, there's a small fan.
When the A3000 is switched on, it runs through a little performance with all the LEDs dancing around for a few seconds. You're then presented with the default screen, Program Play. Worryingly, the switch‑on default mode doesn't produce any sound, even though the sampler loads up with a nice selection of raw synth waveforms, courtesy of the internal AWM2 tone generator. To hear anything you must first access Sample Edit mode and perform a procedure called 'ToPgm' (to program). This 'selects' a sample (or waveform) and makes it available to the current program.
The sampler uses an unusual system for arranging programs: there are always 128 of them resident in memory, and although you can rename them, you can't have any less or more than the default 128. The programs themselves don't deal with the parameters you would normally associate with synth or sampler programs: instead they're just empty slots for placing banks or individual samples into. Only one program can be active, and to use the A3000 multitimbrally involves setting MIDI channels for each individual sample or bank of samples in Sample Edit mode.
Sampling involves first going to the Record Monitor page and setting some parameters so that you can hear the input signal; here you also set a monitoring level and get a metronome click going, if you need one. Then it's off to Record Set‑up mode, where you can specify a sampling frequency (5kLoFi, 5kHz, 11kLoFi, 11kHz, 22kLoFi, 22kHz or 44.1kHz), sample pre‑trigger time (0ms‑500ms), stereo or mono sampling, analogue or digital input, Auto Normalise (to achieve the optimum level for a sample), manual trigger or auto sampling, and sample key range. Next, you visit Meter mode, where you can adjust trigger levels for sample start and sample stop, and visually monitor the input signal on a bargraph meter. Unfortunately, you can't stay here while you sample, because you now have to go into Sample Record mode, which doesn't have an input meter to check the signal level. So far we've been in four different modes and not a sample in sight.
On the only page in Sample Record mode there are two options: Go and Optimize. Maybe I should briefly explain the Optimize feature. If there are a lot of samples in memory and you've been editing, trimming and deleting them, the sample memory becomes fragmented, with bits of unused memory floating about and unable to become part of the mothership memory — you know what I mean. Anyway, press Optimize and all are one again. Are you still with me? Choosing Go starts sampling, and while the A3000 does its stuff you have the option to Abort or Finish the process. Once the sample is in memory, you then have to go to Sample Play mode and select the sample to audition it, because you can't hear it from Sample Record mode. This has to be one of the slowest, most convoluted sampling procedures I have ever come across. The only part of the process I like is the fact that you can hear, in real‑time, the effect the different sampling frequencies have upon the input source. This is a useful feature if there isn't much memory available, as you can decide whether or not a sound can take being sampled at a lower bandwidth.
Once you have some samples in memory (and, apparently, if there's enough memory on board there's no upper limit to the number of samples) you must first assign them to a program to hear anything, as the A3000 doesn't allow monitoring of raw samples. Now, I know I just said a moment ago that you can audition a sample in Sample Play mode, but all this option does is temporarily assign a sample to the nearest free program location, so that you can hear it.
Many of the parameters you'd normally associate with program editing are instead handled in Sample Edit mode. This is rather unconventional, but I suppose you'd get used to it. Sample key span, output destination, LFO depth, effect send, filter setting, envelope shape, pan, MIDI channel, and more, are all handled at the Sample Edit level. Unfortunately, this imposes some creative restrictions on how the samples can subsequently be used and grouped into sample banks and programs (see the next section for more).
The A3000 uses three types of samples:
- Sample Banks
The first two are pretty self‑explanatory; the third, however, is the equivalent of what would usually be regarded, in synth or sample terms, as a program. When you've edited the parameters in a sample (key span, ADSR settings, pan, tuning, LFO depth, and so on) you can make a new Sample Bank and begin adding samples, a bit like filling a folder full of documents. This Sample Bank is now treated as a sample, and can be placed within programs as if it were a normal mono or stereo sample. It sounds like a good way of organising a lot of samples into manageable chunks until you try to edit one of them, because you can't edit individual samples within banks! First, you have to go through the Remove Sample process, which takes it out of the bank, then you can edit the sample, and finally add it back into the bank again. What a palaver!
Taking into account the pretty central role of editing and looping in any sampling process, Yamaha have tried to give some thought to making the most of the limited display. In Sample Trim/Loop mode, you can view sample waveforms in five ways: by the obscurely named End Address Type; by Length; by Time; by Beat; and by Graph. The first four display options show the sample in numerical form (if the Beat display is selected, the A3000 calculates the bpm and shows it with the number of beats in the loop). The last option, Graph, is a wavy line that bears no visual relationship to the actual sample. The best method I found — and none are what you might call intuitive — was to edit the loop by ear and eye, switching between the different display options until I got the results I wanted.
There are also a number of DSP effects available for applying to samples. Resample, for example, is actually time‑stretching and pitch‑changing and, while it's considerably faster at stretching a sample than an Akai S3000 or something like the Alchemy sample editor, the results can be a little lumpy and distinctly flammy‑sounding, even at the best setting.
There's an interesting feature called Expand in Sample Edit mode. This has Detune, Dephase and Width parameters, and can thicken a mono sample or widen the image of a stereo sample. This is a really useful feature if you want to add a chorus effect to a sample and all the effects banks are being used. Another useful featurette is the Random parameter (found in Sample Edit Pitch mode). This applies an adjustable, brief, random pitch variation at the start point of a sample. Using the Expand and Random features together is a great way of adding some movement and life to individual bland‑sounding samples.
Yamaha say that a free software package, called Wave Editor, will be available soon, and support from Steinberg's ReCycle is also imminent. This kind of software should help to strengthen the A3000's acceptance in the sampler market because although in terms of features it has everything needed to achieve impressive results, sample manipulation, editing and looping are definitely an uphill struggle.
Samples are arranged in programs in a fairly unusual way on the A3000, because although a particular sample can be used across more than one program (up to and including all 128 programs, if needed) any parameter settings that have been applied to the sample, such as keyboard span or effect assignment, remain with that sample when it is used in any other programs. So parameter changes made to any individual sample will have a knock‑on effect for other programs using the same sample. One solution is to apply any new settings to a duplicate copy of the sample, but this is a memory‑ and time‑consuming process. Another solution is to use the so‑called 'Easy Edit' feature, which overrides the original parameter settings for a sample in a new program. But there are some annoying limitations to this 'solution'. For instance, you can't exceed a sample's original key span: if it was set at C2‑B3 you can't extend it to C2‑B4. Also, if the original sample is panned hard right and you try to 'Easy Edit' the pan to the left, it will only pan as far as the middle. The list goes on, but I'm sure you get the idea. Both solutions are inelegant, and it's a shame that Yamaha couldn't have come up with a more versatile arrangement.
This sampler is full of little surprises, and one of these is Panel Play and its associated 'Assignable' function. This mode allows most of the front‑panel buttons and knobs to be used as MIDI controllers for either A3000 programs or external MIDI gear. The six 'Function' keys can be programmed to play MIDI keyboard notes — with adjustable velocity, and on different MIDI channels if you wish — while the five rotary knobs can be programmed to transmit MIDI controller information such as pan, volume and portamento time. This is a really handy feature (originally seen on the Emu ESi32) and, once set up, is a quick and easy way of triggering samples and loops and altering a few basic MIDI parameters, without delving too far into the inner workings of the A3000.
The A3000 features a basic, single‑track notepad sequencer for trying out ideas, but it only has Record, Pause, Continue and Playback controls, so don't expect too much from it. There are no restrictions on the number of sequences you can record, and you can load in banks of previously saved sequences or MIDI files (from DOS floppy) recorded on an external sequencer. The sequencer also includes a speed control to vary the playback between half and double the original tempo but, annoyingly, once the sequencer is in play mode the rest of the sampler is locked out to you, until you press Stop.
Two of the A3000's most impressive redeeming features are its effects and EQ. The effects are nicely diverse, excellent in quality, and all have a dozen or more editable parameters. There are no restrictions on how they're used, either. You can have three different effects in series, or three of the same effect type in parallel and, unusually, effects banks can also be configured so that the front‑panel audio inputs are routed through them for real‑time monitoring. Indeed, so flexible and sophisticated are the effects that there's no reason why the A3000 couldn't be used as a very capable stereo multi‑effects unit. Tied in with the real‑time effects monitoring feature, and assuming you have enough memory, is the ability to record effects with samples, in mono or stereo. These effected samples can then be assigned to individual or paired outputs, leaving the effects banks free to work with other, un‑effected, samples. This is a very versatile arrangement that, given enough memory, allows you an almost unlimited number of effects for your samples and programs.
Some effects, such as the Digital Scratch, Voice Canceller, Digital Turntable and Auto Synth, are a little gimmicky, and the reverbs have a definite 'love 'em or hate 'em' Yamaha‑ness about them. However, there are lots of positives: the 'Beat Change' effect is actually a powerful number‑crunching, real‑time, MIDI‑controllable time‑stretch feature that works almost as well as the 'Resample/Time Stretch' feature in Sample Edit mode, and although it's optimised for rhythm loops it has enough editable parameters to cope with almost anything. (See box on page 209 for full effects list.)
Although the effects banks contain some very good filter and EQ setups, the A3000 has another trick up its sleeve: separate multi‑mode VCFs (Voltage Controlled Filters) for each sample. These babies can do some seriously extreme filtering, from radical bass cutting and boosting to ear‑bleeding resonant shrills. The filter modes available are Low Pass 1 and 2, High Pass 1 and 2, Band Pass, and Band Eliminate. Each filter mode offers control over cutoff frequency, gain, Q/width, filter sensitivity and filter scaling. In addition, each VCF has its own envelope generator, LFO depth and separate single band, +/‑12dB equaliser, with a range from 32Hz to 16kHz. And this isn't all, because the main stereo output also has its own, entirely separate 4‑band, +/‑ 12dB parametric equaliser. Phew! What a line‑up.
When it comes to importing samples, the A3000 has pretty much got all the popular formats covered. It can read DOS‑format (or PC disks formatted on a Mac) DD and HD floppy disks containing WAV, AIFF, Yamaha A7000 and TX16W samples and, although it doesn't say so in the manual, you can import Emu and Akai samples from floppy disk (unfortunately, Roland sampler users have been left out in the cold). My first attempts to load Akai samples from an Akai floppy were a little problematic, because although the A3000 cannot read Akai keygroups and programs, it refuses to recognise an Akai sample unless it's part of an Akai program. Strange. In the end I managed trouble‑free loading of Akai samples, complete with intact loops. Also supported are MIDI SDS (Sample Dump Standard) files, and MIDI SMF (Standard MIDI Files) type 0 files, for playing back sequences. Unfortunately, the A3000 won't save data onto PC, Emu, Akai or other non‑Yamaha format disks. Apparently, the A3000 can also read WAV, AIFF, Emu and Akai sample data from an external hard drive or CD‑ROM, and can control the playback functions of an audio CD mounted in a CD‑ROM drive, which is a rather neat feature.
About two thirds of the space inside the A3000 is occupied by the power supply, floppy disk drive and the main PCB, with a sizeable area left free for an optional internal hard drive. Detailed instructions are included on the type of SIMMs the A3000 can use, how to install them, and also how to install the optional AIEB1 I/O board. If this expansion board is fitted, an additional pair of digital input and output ports (S/PDIF optical and co‑ax) and six assignable audio outputs are made available. The digital input allows recording at 48kHz, 44.1kHz and 32kHz, and playback at 44.1kHz. The cost of this board is a very reasonable £149 including VAT, and it's likely to be an essential purchase.
All these DIY options are a nice change from the usual 'No user serviceable parts, contact your dealer' sticker, and I think it's about time that manufacturers started to treat their customers like adults. After all, many of us are quite capable of upgrading our PCs with new drives and memory, and a sampler is a lot easier to deal with than a PC. Nice one, Yamaha.
The A3000 sounds great. When sampling from CD it's impossible to tell the difference between source and sampler. Stereo samples are rock solid, with no phasiness, and samples imported from other machines sound as good as the originals.
After using the A3000 for a week or so, I had developed a strong love‑hate relationship with it. There are still elements of the machine that continue to mystify and infuriate me — its sluggish and sometimes puzzling response when changing modes, and the way parameter values don't keep up with knob rotations sometimes made me feel as though I was wading through treacle, and the limited display prevented me from getting the whole picture. One of the A3000's problems, especially considering the basic display, is that Yamaha have given it so many features and an arcane interface with which to access those features. Yamaha themselves admitted that the ill‑fated TX16W suffered from 'over engineering' and the A3000 is undoubtedly subject to the same malady. If the Yamaha R&D department had given half as much thought to the human interface as they obviously have to the wealth of features they've poured into this sampler, it would be unstoppable. As it is, the balance may be way off for some people, particularly professional samplists. As a fairly short‑term user/reviewer, my biggest problem with it was productivity — or lack of it. It's a bit like going from a Apple Mac to a DOS PC: you feel as if there must be an easier way to do this or that simple task, but there isn't. Working with the A3000 and an Akai S3000XL side by side, it became apparent that what I considered fairly speedy everyday tasks, such as sample editing, looping, arranging samples into keygroups, putting samples into various programs and setting up multitimbral programs, took at least three or four times longer on the A3000. Even taking into account my familiarity with Akai machines, I still think I would outrun a seasoned A3000 user doing similar tasks, with ease. Some may not see this as much of an issue but, believe me, if you're doing a remix or some other fast turnaround work, you need the speed.
Having said all that, if the A3000 was my only sampler, I think I could live with it. On sound, features, expandability and price the A3000 is miles ahead of the competition, and if it was your only sampler purchase, I'm pretty sure you'd eventually be content with your acquisition. Just be prepared to invest some time negotiating the steep learning curve.
In the A3000 manual there are occasional references to an instrument called the Yamaha A7000: apparently the A3000 can load and convert A7000 disks containing drum voices, normal voices and programs. Hmm... We at SOS had never heard of an A7000 and initially thought it might be a new, as‑yet‑unannounced, Yamaha sampler. Not so: a call to Yamaha UK elicited the information that the A7000 was a development prototype/super synth/sampler that Yamaha were thinking of producing a couple of years ago, but decided against and instead came up with the A3000.
- 64‑note polyphony.
- 128 programs.
- Three multi‑effects banks (54 effects in each bank).
- AWM2 Tone generator.
- Unlimited number of samples (dependent on memory).
- Multi‑mode VCF per sample.
- 16‑part multitimbrality.
- 4‑band parametric EQ.
- 2Mb of memory (11 seconds at 44.1kHz stereo).
- Expandable to 128Mb using standard 4Mb, 8Mb, 16Mb or 32Mb SIMMs in pairs.
- Maximum sample time with 64Mb (6 minutes 20 seconds at 44.1kHz stereo).
- Imports samples from: Akai, Emu, WAV, AIFF, TX16W, A7000, MIDI SDS and MIDI SMF.
- CD‑ROM, five demo floppy disks.
- Internal HD connecting kit.
- Options: AIEB1 I/O board with six audio outputs, co‑ax digital in/out, optical digital in/out.
Noisy Mod Delay
Flanging + Pan
Noise + Ambient
Auto Wah + Distortion
Auto Wah + Overdrive
Touch Wah + Distortion
Touch Wah + Overdrive
Amp Simulator + Gate
Compressor + Distortion
Pitch Change 1
Pitch Change 2
2 Way Rotary Speaker
Delay + Auto Pan
Despite the enormous number of features and editable parameters in the A3000, there are a few frustrating omissions and oversights. As I said elsewhere, once the sequencer is in playback the A3000 refuses to let you do anything else until Stop is pressed (even the dinky Akai S20, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, lets you edit samples while its sequencer is running). In addition, samples can't be split and saved across more than one floppy disk, so unless you have a hard drive don't use any single samples longer than 1.4Mb. The A3000's envelope generators are difficult to program, because of the limited display and because the parameter values seem to work in reverse, but this situation is exacerbated by the fact that there no preset envelope shapes, even basic ones. Finally, I could find no mention anywhere in the manual of direct‑to‑disk recording. Surely if you can connect massive internal and external hard drives this facility should be provided. Almost every current SCSI‑based sampler I can think of has a D‑to‑D option.
Alternatives at this price are decidedly thin on the ground. The Akai S3000XL looks thoroughly under‑specified compared to the Yamaha, but is a lot easier to operate, and you do get the bonus of the superb MESA sample editing software package. What lets the whole Akai range down is the price of upgrade options — almost double what Yamaha are asking. Other alternatives could be the Emu ESi32 or the highly respected Roland S760: both use nice resonant filters, and the S760 has an RGB output. All the above alternatives have Akai compatibility, and are a lot easier to get to grips with than the A3000. However, they're also more expensive than the Yamaha, though dealers are beginning to discount some of these samplers and some offer freebies (such as extra memory or CD‑ROM). It has to be said that, for its price, the A3000 has a very generous feature set, which would be hard to replicate from another manufacturer's range without spending more money.
Originally, the A3000's SCSI connector was to be an optional extra. However, at the last minute Yamaha decided to include it in the base machine specification — which was nice. The instruction manual gives very detailed instructions (six pages) on how to install your own internal hard drive, and the A3000 even ships with a useful hard drive connection kit, consisting of internal SCSI and power leads. The manual describes the type of drive you should buy in great detail, and specifically says, on page 334, that it should be a SCSI1‑compatible type. However, the SCSI2 connector is a small half‑pitch, 50‑pin type, so if you're going to use an external hard drive, optical drive or CD‑ROM drive with the A3000, make sure it has a compatible connector or budget for an adaptor.
It's a shame that Yamaha haven't learned from the mistakes they made with their first sampler, the TX16W. Some of the terminology used in the A3000's manual is downright confusing. Sometimes a sample is described as "waveform data", sometimes not. At the beginning of the manual "start, end and loops" are described as having "points" (naturally), but the manual later insists on calling them "addresses". Try this: "Each end address is shown by distance from the corresponding start address, in address increments". Or "End and loop end addresses are indicated by their absolute address values on the waveform". What? This sounds like techno‑babble from the 1980s. Why? Are Yamaha intentionally trying to confuse people or has the manual been badly translated?
I thought Roland and Akai manuals were long, at 200 pages or so, but the A3000 instruction manual is massive, at over 370 pages. Admittedly, the sampler needs one this big because there are so many features and functions, and if you don't read it through at least a couple of times you'll be banging your head against a wall within hours of turning the A3000 on. On the bright side, once you get used to the style, layout and arcane terminology, it is readable, and to help you along there are two very good indexes and lots of explanatory diagrams. There is also a basic 'Starting Out' section meant for the sampling novice, and all users would be well advised to start there anyway, as it eases you gently into the Yamaha mind‑set and prepares you for the rest of your journey through the manual and eventually the A3000.
- Sounds excellent.
- 64‑note polyphony.
- Unlimited number of samples.
- Lots of on‑board effects and EQ.
- Unprecedented features in this price range.
- Good compatibility, including Akai, Emu, WAV and AIFF.
- Can be used as a MIDI controller.
- Cheap, practical expansion options.
- Limited and sometimes inscrutable display.
- Arcane operating system.
- No waveform display.
- Unconventional and frustrating sample/program implementation.
- Inaccurate and 'jumpy' control knobs.
- Fan hum.
With slightly too many 'idiosyncrasies' for comfort, the A3000 could give you a fair few headaches, but the condition isn't chronic. On sound, features and price the picture is a lot more appealing and seductive. This sampler is going to stir up a nest of trouble with the competition and should be taken very seriously indeed, because even with its faults it is a formidable beast. Even though I may have given the impression I don't like it, I would like one.