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electronic MUSICIAN


By Alex Artaud | November 1, 1999

It's been close to four years since Akai updated its S-series samplers to the S3200XL, the last in a series based on an operating system that debuted in 1988 with the S1000. Since then, Akai has maintained a loyal base of users and secured a strong reputation in the worldwide community of sound manglers and beatheads-all without any major product introductions.

So early last year, when the company announced the S5000 and S6000, with a new operating system (1.21) and a larger graphic interface, people stood up and took notice. The first units were delivered in fall 1998, and several months later some irritating early OS issues were resolved. Now the new samplers seem to be on a solid track. Was it worth the wait? Take a look.

BASICSAlthough the cosmetics of the units are slightly different, the S5000 and S6000 are essentially identical in function. I looked at the S6000, so I'll refer to that model from here on, noting any significant differences between the two samplers as we go.

The S6000 fits in a 4U rackspace and sports a detachable front panel that includes all the main controls. (The S5000 occupies 3U of rackspace, and its front panel is not detachable.) The control panel's centerpiece is a 3.5 5 4.5-inch monochrome LCD screen-huge by any sampler's standards.

Eight function keys are located on either side of the screen. Along the bottom, eight backlit buttons correspond to screens for Multi, FX, Edit Sample, Edit Program, Record, Utilities, Save, and Load-features that should be familiar to S3000-series users. (On the S5000, these keys are located to the left of the display.)

The function keys correspond to labeled buttons on the screen and provide an excellent alternative to wading through various screen menus. You're generally only two or three keystrokes away from any parameter on the machine, so getting lost or distracted is not an issue. In addition, sounds are kept in folders that can include subfolders, which helps you organize them. Fortunately, the screen font is large enough to endear it to the squinting musicians of this world (see Fig. 1).

The front panel also includes a data wheel for scrolling values, a numeric keypad, and L/R cursor buttons, in addition to Window, Undo, Exit, Enter/Play, Mark, and Jump buttons. Three user-definable keys let you jump to frequently used screens. (The S5000 does not provide these user keys.) A very welcome PS2 keyboard input lets you name things with a QWERTY keyboard.

The remaining front-panel features (which are not on the detachable part) include main-volume and headphone-volume knobs, a 11/44-inch stereo headphone out, and balanced 11/44-inch left and right inputs for sampling. A 3.5-inch floppy drive comes with the unit, and there's space for another storage device, such as an Iomega Zip or Jaz drive or a fixed hard disk. (The S5000 has no space for a removable drive but can accommodate a fixed drive.) I experienced no playback glitches when my unit was accessing its Zip drive.

The back panel (see Fig. 2) features 16 unbalanced 11/44-inch outputs that you can configure as 8 stereo pairs or 16 mono outs. Also, there are separate balanced stereo input and outputs that use XLR connectors. (The S5000 has balanced inputs on the front panel and unbalanced outputs on the back.)

The AES/EBU input and output (software switchable to S/PDIF) use 11/44-inch TRS connectors instead of XLR; optical digital I/O is also available. A BNC word-clock connector allows digital audio synchronization. Two 50-pin SCSI-2 connectors are provided, making it easy to daisy-chain SCSI devices, and a handy termination switch lets you put the sampler in the middle or at the end of a SCSI chain.

Two complete sets of MIDI In/Out/Thru ports allow 32-channel operation. That means you can play the S6000 from two different controllers at once. The internal MIDI file player eventually will be able to control external sound modules, although that feature is not yet implemented.

The S6000 provides three internal slots for optional circuit boards. Currently available are an ADAT board ($299), offering 16 digital outputs, and the EB20 effects board ($399). Other options are currently in development, but information was not available at press time.

Of course, one of the key features of the S6000 is that it doesn't force you to stand in front of your rack all the time. For this review, the control panel lived comfortably on a table top next to my mixer. By adding a 9-pin serial extension cord, I could have moved it to another work area, if necessary.

The S6000 comes standard with 64-note polyphony and can be expanded to 128 notes. Its stock 8 MB of RAM is expandable to an impressive 256 MB. The A/D converters are 18-bit, with a 20-bit D/A stage, and sampling frequencies are selectable between 44.1 and 48 kHz. The unit holds the OS in flash ROM, so it can be easily updated.

BEHIND THE VEILThe S6000 provides three basic operational modes: Sample, Program, and Multi. I'll start with an overview and cover some of the important features in more detail shortly.

As you might expect, Sample mode lets you capture and edit samples using functions such as Normalize, Rescale, Trim, Chop, Loop, and Fade Up/Down. Other digital signal processing features include BPM Match, Timestretch, Pitch Shift, and EQ. Once you're satisfied with a sound, you can assign the sample to a Program.

Programs are composed of up to 99 Keygroups, each of which can contain up to four stereo samples. Keygroups let you map your samples across a keyboard with a lot of flexibility. Each sample is assigned to one of four zones, which you can layer or Velocity-switch or -crossfade.

Program mode is where you apply all detailed synthesis parameters. These parameters include 26 distinct resonant filters, two ADSR envelope generators and an auxiliary envelope, two LFOs, and assignable program modulation (APM) with up to 17 destinations. APM should be familiar to users of Akai samplers, and a similar feature is found on most high-end samplers. It provides modulation routing from MIDI controllers, LFOs, and envelopes to destinations such as pitch, filter, amplitude, and panning (see Fig. 3).

Once you've tweaked your Programs to perfection, you can assign them to Parts within a Multi. The S6000 can simultaneously play up to 32 Parts from a MIDI sequencer in Multi mode, and each Part's level, output assignment, effects send, fine-tuning, and MIDI channel can be adjusted. Incredibly, up to 128 Multis can be loaded into memory at a time.

SAMPLING MADE EASYRecording a sample into the S6000 is a quick and painless process. The main Record screen displays all relevant items: manual start, threshold start, length of sample (including length in real time as well as number of samples), source selection (analog, digital, or ADAT), and mono/stereo setting. A progress bar scrolls during sampling, and you can abort or complete a process at any time. Once you're finished, you see a waveform, and a screen prompts you to either keep or trash what you've recorded. If the sample clipped, you are prompted to keep or discard. Sample names can be typed in from a computer keyboard or scrolled in with the sampler's data wheel.

One of the best features on the Record screen (and in the S6000 as a whole) is the Record To option, which lets you select whether the sample is recorded into RAM or directly to a hard disk. This opens up the possibility of triggering long samples from a hard disk without being dependent on sample RAM.

Even better, you can apply the S6000's powerful editing and modulation capabilities to such a sample. Imagine playing a six-minute sample while filtering and applying LFOs in real time, and you get the idea. There are some drawbacks, however. Samples that are not in RAM require longer edit times, and-brace yourself-you can't loop them. (Maybe in the next OS update?)

Once you have a sample to work with, the Edit Sample screen allows you to navigate to a number of subpages. The main screen indicates the length, sample rate, and sample type (RAM or disk); the loop status; and the mono/stereo status.

In the Edit Sample subpages, a large waveform display lets you zoom in for precision trimming, chopping, and looping. There are some particularly good features here. For example, you can extract smaller samples from larger ones and use the Play To and Play From soft buttons to fine-tune an edit. Both of these functions help you isolate materials for looping.

The Loop page itself is quite thorough (see Fig. 4), with scrollable start and end points, crossfade functions, and Auto Find for loop points (which is cool, if only to see what the box spits out). The Play mode determines whether the loop is one-shot, repeated until released, or repeated in release (the loop continues as long as the associated envelope is in its release phase). This feature is good for avoiding abrupt endings and creating seamless layers. Play Loop is great, although it occasionally sticks if you move either start or end points too quickly in sequence. This does not cause a crash, but Akai should fix this bug soon.

Other looping functions include Loop Lock and Loop Direction. With Loop Lock, the start and end points span a fixed length of time, and both points can be moved together through a sample to isolate the loop you want to use. Loop direction can be forward, reverse, or back and forth for truly weird results.

Samples can be faded up or down, with a choice of linear, sine, or logarithmic curves. You can also crossfade or mix two samples together. All changes can be auditioned before they become final, so you won't replace a great sound with a useless belch.

The Timestretch and Pitch Shift functions are well implemented and contain a curious group of presets that actually work fairly well, generating very few sonic artifacts. The BPM Match function does what its name implies, but you have to know the tempo of your source material to use it. A tempo finder is critical on a sampler of the S6000's caliber, and Akai should have included one. In addition, there is no way to assign start or end points for these functions.

On the plus side, resampling works very nicely to provide that low-bit crackle for those who need it. The three-band EQ is excellent, with high- and low-frequency shelves at 6 dB/octave and 12 dB/ octave, as well as adjustable Q for the mids (500 Hz to 10 kHz).

Over time, I found I could edit samples on the fly with increasing speed. The Edit Sample page is designed for smooth operation.

FROM PROGRAM TO MULTIAs I mentioned earlier, Edit Program lets you assign and modulate samples within a Program. There are far too many parameters to cover in detail here, but we'll look at a couple of key features that relate to performance and synthesis.

Within the Output subpage, you can adjust level and Velocity sensitivity. Various modulators can affect amplitude and panning, allowing auto-pan effects. The MIDI/Tune page enables you to select Programs remotely through MIDI commands, tune the Program, and select from eight different tuning templates (for example, just intonation). You can also create your own tuning templates and save them. Pitch-bend range is adjustable, and you can even select which notes will bend. In addition, the S6000 responds to both Channel and Polyphonic Aftertouch, and Aftertouch can bend notes up or down, as well as perform many other types of modulation.

Nine LFO waveforms are available, including sine, triangle, variations on square and sawtooth, and random. You can synchronize LFOs and modulate their rate, delay time, and depth. LFO2 mirrors LFO1, with two notable exceptions. You can specify whether LFO2 will retrigger with each Note On, and you can synchronize LFO2 to MIDI Clock from your sequencer. In that case, a Clock Division parameter sets the number of beats for each LFO cycle. The S6000 performed this function without a hitch when receiving from Emagic Logic Audio.

Within the Keygroup and Keyspan subpages (see Fig. 5), you can spread your samples across the keyboard and assign different samples to different Velocity ranges within a zone. Each Keygroup's pitch and amplitude can be modulated, and its overall level can be adjusted. A strange quirk in the nomenclature (going back to the S900) is that you select Copy to create a Keygroup. This may confuse Akai novices until they browse the manual, which is quite good.

The S6000's resonant filters are superb; they include an assortment of lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and peak filters in addition to a phase shifter and a bizarre Vowelizer that simulates vowel formants. The filter envelope includes an assortment of templates for various acoustic instruments. Filter and envelope shapes are all displayed graphically within these screens. The amplitude envelope controls overall amplitude, and you also get an auxiliary envelope to use wherever you want.

As mentioned earlier, up to 128 Parts (and the Programs assigned to them) can play back within a Multi (see Fig. 6). Parts and Programs have the same edit features, but you can't scroll through Programs in the Edit Part screen, as you can in the Edit Program screen; you assign Programs to Parts in the Multi screen. You can automatically load Multis on power-up-a helpful feature for live performance.

Fortunately, the S6000 can read all S1000 and S3000 files. You can convert older Akai stereo samples to interleaved WAV files and even convert older Multis.

FX TO BURNThe S6000 accepts an optional EB20 effects board that replaces the EB16 board. It has four effects sections, called FX1, FX2, RV3, and RV4. Algorithms within FX1 and FX2 include ring modulation/distortion, EQ, modulation (chorus/flange/pitch shift), delay, and reverb (see Fig. 7). Several of these include templates and graphics. RV3 and RV4 are dedicated reverbs. I'm quite familiar with Akai's effects, and these are the best I've heard so far-most likely because of the S6000's 20-bit D/A converters. In particular, the extensive EQ functions alone are worth the price of the effects card. However, there are some limitations: for example, you can't modulate parameters in real time through MIDI, nor can you save effects settings. But your effects settings are saved within a Multi file.

GROWING PAINSAkai leapt into the fire pit when it released version 1.0 of the S6000's software. Many users encountered unstable machines and had to wait for features to be implemented. The list of desired improvements grew, and to its credit Akai responded, overhauling the operating system with five updates in the past year. (The company is making an updated manual available on its Web site as a PDF file.)

Now, a year since its introduction, the S6000 is reasonably stable (I did have a mysterious crash that could have been related to my sequencer), and users are getting work done-although perhaps not entirely in the way they expected (see the sidebar "Making WAVs").

There is one unfortunate design element that isn't likely to change any time soon: if a sample is used in more than one Program or Multi, the sample itself is duplicated on the hard disk. This is a waste of storage space, but Akai reasons that having multiple copies fits well into its folder-based organizational model by keeping your compositions' sounds grouped together with little chance of loss. Nevertheless, I hope Akai implements pointers to overcome this.

The S6000 has made great strides in the venerable Akai lineage with an intelligent, intuitive interface and powerful features. It's basically a well-designed machine that's gone through some growing pains. With a great foundation and engineers who care enough to respond to users' needs, it should only improve with age.

Alex Artaud is the editor of the Spanish-language edition of Mix.

Akai has chosen WAV files as its standard audio-file format. This is a blessing for PC users, although Mac fans will groan and wonder why it couldn't have been AIFF. However, this is the least of a computer user's concerns.

It is possible to connect a Mac or PC and the S6000 to the same external SCSI hard disk, but doing so could be courting disaster. If the computer and S6000 try to access the drive at the same time, nasty SCSI crashes could corrupt the disk. Akai discourages users from sharing drives with a computer, but it offers tips to those who care to brave these waters.

In addition, Akai provides no means to perform SCSI transfers to and from programs such as Steinberg ReCycle or BIAS Peak. The company will move in this direction with a future version that should be available when you read this. In the meantime, Akai suggests a work-around involving two Iomega Zip drives (or any other removable-media device). This method is safe but painfully slow, breaking up any working rhythm you might have established. Watch for future developments.

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