When Yamaha launched the A3000 a year ago their approach won quite a few fans, and now they're demonstrating their renewed commitment to sampling with a comprehensive upgrade. Chris Carter's movin' on up...
Exactly a year since the original was launched, Yamaha have released the new improved A3000 Version 2 sampler, plus an upgrade kit for existing A3000 owners. Current users have been waiting with breathless anticipation for this upgrade to arrive, judging by the comments on the net newsgroups.
The original A3000 had an impressive 'off the shelf' specification: 16‑bit stereo sampling; AWM2 Tone Generator; 64‑voice polyphony; 16‑part multitimbrality; 64 digital filters; three multi‑effects blocks; four individual audio outputs (expandable to eight); capacity for 128 Mb of RAM; external SCSI 2 interface (and space for an internal hard drive); real‑time assignable control knobs; and a sequencer.
To briefly recap my original review (SOS July 1997), the A3000 is a monster of a sampler capable of some awesome sonic acrobatics, due to the impressive line‑up of of features above. The audio quality couldn't be faulted, and there were more than enough editing and modifying options to please anyone. What it offered compared to the competition was value for money and features galore; where it fell over, for me, was in detailed sample editing and looping, due to its small, low‑resolution display and quirky operating system.
Version 2 is purely a software upgrade and doesn't change the hardware or any of the above features. However, it adds some interesting new sample and program editing options and some new filter types, tweaks some of the disk and general housekeeping functions, and addresses some issues in the operating system (see box for a list of features).
To begin with, the handy and often‑used 'Easy Edit' feature has been given a face lift — it now displays more parameters per page and is grouped on to eight pages for easier accessibility. A new Program LFO has been included which allows modulation of all samples within a program and can be synced to an external MIDI clock, and you can now set pan, filter frequency and filter Q to vary at random with each new MIDI note received. MIDI note numbers can now be used as standard controller sources to vary parameters according to the keyboard pitch. The number of controllable parameters for varying the LFO, envelope generator, filter, sample level and so on has been greatly increased. In fact, almost anything in the A3000 can now be controlled or adjusted by a staggering number of internal or external MIDI sources and controllers.
In Version 1 you could only direct the effects to the main stereo output; with Version 2 there are no routing restrictions — you can send the effects banks, which also have two new configurations, through any output, including the digital outputs. A useful inclusion (although not implemented as fully as it could be) is the new Reset Value function. This allows you to instantly reset a parameter to 0 by pushing the relevant knob; pushing it a second time reinstates the previous setting. It's also possible to set Knob 1 either to turn pages or to select samples.
An overdue addition, and something that really should have been included in Version 1, is an input level meter on both the Recording‑Standby and Recording‑in‑Progress pages. There's also a new Map function that will automatically map a series of recorded samples across a keyboard or place them into a bank.
Sample management has been further improved with the Stereo‑to‑Mono option, which allows you to mix down both A3000 channels or just one channel to a single mono sample. The Move feature allows you to move samples from one program to another, or from a bank to a program, and the Freeze option allows you to transfer a program's Easy Edit settings directly into a sample, while Copy allows the copying or merging of parameters from one sample to another or one program to another. A new Arrange command will automatically remap samples within a program or bank to consecutive keys on your MIDI keyboard.
Divide Loop and Remix Loop are brilliant sampling tools for breathing new life into over‑used, old and tired loops.
Divide And Rule
The new Divide Loop is an interesting, if slightly unpredictable feature. It splices an existing loop into bite‑sized samples and automatically maps them across the keyboard as a new sample bank. The number of new individual samples produced is adjustable, from just two samples to a maximum of 32, and the length of each new sample is variable between 10% and 800%. At a default value of 100%, each consecutive sample slice exactly follows the previous one without any gaps in coverage of the original sample loop. At higher values (above 100%) each divided sample overlaps any consecutive samples, while values smaller than 100% will leave gaps in coverage of the original full‑length sample. In practice it works a bit like Steinberg's ReCycle, but it's not quite as controllable, because the division points are always equally spaced and not individually adjustable, and unless your original looping points are spot‑on you may find each new divided sample to be off the beat.
However, the Loop Remix function, with only two programmable parameters, is a whole lot more usable, and fun. Although Yamaha say it works best on accurately looped, rhythm‑based patterns of only one or two bars, don't feel you are restricted to bass 'n' drums, as anything can benefit from this feature — I found it great for producing experimental voice cut‑ups.
Loop Remix uses "intelligent but random" remixing parameters, called Type and Vari, to create a new sample loop made from rearranged chunks of the original loop and seamlessly spliced back together again. Depending on the parameter settings, a remixed loop will contain slices of the original sample that are reversed, duplicated or just rearranged, and each time you activate the Remix function you get a different remixed loop (which is placed in a temporary memory buffer). Depending on the type of material you're working with, this process can take a little while, but most of the time the new loops emerge sounding pretty good. As soon as you find a remixed loop you're happy with, press the Create button and your new funky looping sample is placed into RAM.
Divide Loop and Remix Loop are brilliant sampling tools for breathing new life into over‑used, old and tired loops; a bonus is that, if you have enough memory, they perform their magic on stereo sample loops as well.
The Need For Speed
One of the most often‑heard gripes from A3000 users is the painfully slow hard drive and floppy disk access. Version 2 promises faster loading but, to be honest, loading and saving to floppy disk appears to have changed little since Version 1. I had words with Yamaha last year about supplying review models without a hard drive (or a SCSI 1 adaptor for an external drive) but my words seem to have fallen on deaf ears, as this A3000 also came sans hard drive or SCSI 1 adaptor, though hard disks of up to 8Gb, with a maximum partition size of 1Gb, are now supported. However, the lack of hard drive or SCSI 1 adaptor with the review model means that I can't tell you what sort of improvements have been implemented with SCSI transfer speeds.
A welcome improvement is a safer disk saving routine that always confirms the destination when saving to disk, just in case you're about to accidentally overwrite or erase an important file. Also, you can now save the contents of the A3000's RAM (samples, banks, programs, and so on) across more than one floppy disk. I found that this worked fine as far as saving went, but I couldn't always load multiple floppy saves back in again.
Exporting AIFF‑type samples onto PC‑formatted disks is now fully supported, and version 2 will at last recognise Roland and Emu sample disks and CD‑ROMs. Better Akai compatibility means Akai program velocity ranges and samples not grouped within programs are now correctly recognised, and native Akai S20 sample disks can also be read. The A3000 still insists that imported WAV or AIFF files adhere to the 8.3 DOS naming standard, so if you have a lot of Mac AIFF samples to load this could become a chore.
Filtered Or Plain?
Yamaha have thoughtfully included an additional 10 dynamic, assignable filter types (see 'New Features' box), which now brings the total number of digital filters to 16. Seven of the new filters are dual types, with two filters running in parallel and a Distance parameter to set the tracking offset between them. All the filters are perfectly usable, but they sound a trifle cold for my liking, and I still find them a little too easy to overload.
Hits & Misses
I haven't covered every improvement or addition Version 2 offers — just the major ones. In fact, there are so many system changes that Yamaha have produced a second instruction manual. This is not as gigantic as the one supplied with version 1, but it still runs to 50 or so pages.
For existing A3000 Version 1 users this upgrade is going to be pretty essential, as it will undoubtedly make using the instrument easier and quicker. If you're producing dance music, in particular, the new loop‑creation tools were made for you.
For existing A3000 Version 1 users this upgrade is going to be pretty essential.
Personally, I'd like to have seen a few new effect algorithms and oscillator waveforms included. I also feel that sampling can still be a slow process if Auto‑Normalize is active, and you still can't edit a loop while pressing the Loop Monitor button. Waveform editing hasn't been improved at all, and trimming and looping can still be a little 'suck it and see'. But the inclusion of the input‑level meter on the Recording Standby and In Progress pages is gratifying, and improves the sampling process no end.
There are extensive system tweaks in V2 that definitely make the instrument easier to use than the original version, but I still can't bring myself to call the A3000 exactly user‑friendly, though this is mainly down to the inadequate display — at least, inadequate for a sampler with so many programmable parameters.
Until recently, the A3000 was beginning to look a little over‑priced (only 2Mb of RAM and no digital in/out). However, anyone who keeps a keen eye on dealer ads should have noticed that sampler prices (including that of the A3000) have been falling lately, and a canny buyer could snap up an original A3000 for a knock‑down price (as low as £949, if you look at the right ads). So there's a choice of ways to go — either buy a V2 off the shelf, at the same £1299 price as the original, or track down a discounted V1 A3000 and add the V2 upgrade kit for an extra £100, probably saving yourself some money in the process. But there's no doubt that potential A3000 purchasers should go for V2, however they choose to do it — it offers so much more than the original.
Those New Features In Full...
- 10 Additional Dynamic Assignable Filters: Lowpass 3; Peak 1; Peak 2; 2 Peaks; 2 Dips; Dual LPF; LPF + Peak; Dual HPF; HPF + Peak; LPF + HPF.
- Easy Edit: includes more parameters per page.
- Key Limits: can be set to original key.
- Assignable button: can now be used to toggle MIDI>Smp on/off.
- MIDI‑controlled Program LFO: can also sync to MIDI clock.
- Additional effect routings: each effect can be routed to any output.
- New Create Oscillators function.
- More sequencer options.
- System: numerous system‑wide changes and additions.
- Additional sample loop options: Loop Remix (automatically rearranges loops into new variations); Loop Divide (automatically slices and maps loops across a keyboard).
- New sample management features: Arrange Program or Sample Bank (maps all samples in a program to successive keys); Move Program or Sample Bank (automatically builds a bank from a program or vice versa); Copy Sample Parameters (copy from sample to sample); Freeze Sample Bank (writes bank offsets directly to samples).
- New Disk Features: safer disk saving routines (always confirms destination); Quick Format option; improved Akai and Roland compatibility; AIFF export; multiple floppy save (you can now save data across multiple floppy disks); larger SCSI disks (you can now use hard drives up to 8Gb); SCSI disks partition offset (allows an offset of the first partition); improved SCSI and floppy speed; improved SMIDI transmission.
- New loop creation tools give the A3000 a whole new lease of life.
- Easier and quicker to use than the original.
- Reads Roland and Emu sample disks and CD‑ROMs.
- Improved Akai compatibility.
- Saves across multiple floppy disks.
- Exports AIFF files.
- Improved SCSI transfer speeds (unconfirmed).
- No new effects or oscillator waveforms.
- No improvement in waveform display.
- Wave and loop editing still a bit hit‑and‑miss.
- Floppy disk access still slow.
A worthwhile upgrade that irons out quite a few shortcomings in the original and throws in some juicy new features. The new loop‑creation tools alone will be worth the cost to anyone producing dance music. If you're currently using Version 1, the V2 upgrade is a 'must have' purchase. If you were considering buying an A3000, make sure you get V2.