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Akai DPS16

6/1/2001

With so many fresh, feature-laden alternatives vying for yourattention, all-in-one portable digital studios continue to growmore numerous and powerful. Akai is no stranger to thedigital-audio world and certainly familiar in the recording world;Akai tape decks have been available for decades.

For the DPS16, Akai combined powerful recording and mixingcapabilities in an easy-to-use package. The DPS16 offers 16playback tracks with as many as 10 simultaneous uncompressedrecording tracks. It features a robust 26-channel mixer, loads ofeffects, extensive editing capabilities, support for 24-bit and 96kHz operation, and the ability to gain access to external SCSIdrives (including CD-R and CD-RW drives). My review unit had a 10GB internal hard drive, but models now ship with a 20 GB drive.

The DPS16 sports an attractive and professional-lookingexterior, with lots of dedicated buttons, faders, and knobs (seeFig. 1). Measuring roughly 20 inches wide by 14 inchesdeep, the DPS16 packs a lot of functionality into its smallfootprint. A 6-inch diagonal, 320-by-240-pixel LCD offers plenty ofgraphic information, and a contrast control makes it easy to see.The LCD tilts to further improve visibility.

Six analog inputs have ¼-inch TRS jacks, and two more havenifty combo jacks that accept XLR or ¼-inch TRS plugs. On theback panel, an RCA jack provides stereo S/PDIF input. Master stereooutputs are available on analog and S/PDIF RCA jacks, and there arefour aux sends on unbalanced ¼-inch TS jacks (see Fig.2).

A separate monitor output routes to dedicated RCA jacks and tothe ¼-inch stereo headphone jack, each with its own levelcontrol — a nice touch. The monitor signal is usuallyidentical to the master output, but as expected, soloed channelsare heard only in the monitor signal. The master signal alwayscontains the complete mix.

Rounding out the DPS16's back panel is a 50-pin, half-pitch SCSIconnector; a footswitch jack; and two MIDI ports. You can configureone of those for MIDI Out or MIDI Thru.

FIT AND TRIM

Each analog input has a trim control and overload indicator. Theoverload indicator makes level setting effortless. Just crank upthe knob until the LED starts flashing and then back it off a bit.Inputs 1 and 2 — the ones with the XLR connectors —have switchable phantom powering, and Input 8 has a high-impedanceswitch for use with electric guitars.

Sixteen fader groups on the DPS16 correspond to the 16 availablerecording tracks. Each fader group contains a nonmotorized fader, apan control, and Track Select and Record Select buttons. You usethe Track Select buttons often, primarily when you change settingsand route signals. The Record Select buttons let you arm tracks forrecording; they glow red when recording is enabled.

Input Select buttons for the ten input channels are above thefirst ten fader groups. Those buttons are used in much the same wayas the Track Select buttons. Their positioning gives the impressionthat each input records to the corresponding track (Input 1 toTrack 1, for example). That is by default normally true, but youcan configure the Input-to-Track mappings.

To the right of the fader groups are the Master fader, theMaster Select button, and a host of other buttons that give accessto the DPS16's features. There are also transport controls, cursorcontrols, and a Jog/Shuttle wheel. The LCD panel has its own set ofsoft buttons for access to its settings. In addition, six softknobs called Q-Link knobs provide quick adjustment of the settingsthat appear onscreen.

If you get the feeling that the DPS16 has plenty of buttons topress and knobs to turn, you're right. That's what I like aboutthis thing: when I need to gain access to a setting, I do itquickly and intuitively, and I never have to dig through pages ofnested menus.

ON THE BIG SCREEN

Each DPS16 screen is accessible by its own dedicated button. Youspend most of your time on the Main screen, which features peak andlevel meters for every track and every input (see Fig. 3).Left and right master meters are also furnished. The currentlocation is displayed in SMPTE time code and bar:beat:tick formats,and the recorded audio material is presented in piano-roll format(horizontal bars for all 16 tracks). There are also indicators fordisk activity, the available recording time, and the currentProject. A Project contains a recording's audio and parametersettings.

Along the bottom of the Main screen are commonly used functions,which map to the six soft buttons below the display. There you canenable punch-ins and looping, modify sync and time-displaysettings, zoom the track view in and out, set the metronome, andchange the meter-display characteristics (pre-versus postfader andmaster versus monitor signals).

The two remaining soft buttons determine the functions of thesix Q-Link knobs. The screen's far right shows six virtual knobs inthe same arrangement as the Q-Link knobs. Labels and values for thevirtual knobs are displayed, so it's easy to see what you're doingwhen you grab a knob.

The Q-Link knobs control EQ and effects parameters. Fourauxiliary and effects sends and a 3-band parametric EQ areavailable to each track and input. To change a setting, bring upthe appropriate knobs page using the soft buttons, press a TrackSelect or Input Select button to indicate where you want to makethe change, and then turn the knob. That scheme isn't as easy ashaving dedicated knobs for every track and input, but it'sclose.

MIX 'N' MATCH

Another commonly used screen is the Mixer. Like the Main screen,the Mixer features peak and level meters and position indicators.The same virtual knobs appear here too, but the rest of the screenprovides access to the settings for the tracks and inputs. (Thefunctionality of the Mixer is the same whether you're dealing witha track or an input, so I'll use the more general termchannel.)

Using the soft buttons in the Mixer screen, you can select twoviews of the channel settings. One view lets you see a selectedparameter's value for all channels, and the other view shows agiven channel's settings. You can change values using the TrackSelect or Input Select buttons, the cursor controls, and theJog/Shuttle wheel. Like the channel strip in an analog mixer, eachchannel has settings for level, pan, and EQ, and four controls thatdetermine the amount of signal routed to the four sends. The screenprovides control for some of the same parameters as thosecontrolled by the Q-Link knobs and track faders. No matter how youchange a setting, the correct value is displayed onscreen.

When you change EQ settings for a given channel, the DPS16 showsa frequency graph of the adjustments you make. In this case, apicture is definitely worth a thousand words. A graph of high- andlow-EQ shelving — and the width, frequency, and amount ofmid-level EQ — is much more informative than a graph showingonly Hertz and decibel values.

The Mixer screen has other settings as well. You can disable achannel or send its signal to the ping-pong bus. You can treat theaux sends as two stereo or four mono signals, and you can configureeach send as prefader, postfader, or insert. A send can be prefaderin one channel and postfader in another, but if you configure asend as an insert, that send is unavailable in the otherchannels.

PATCHWORK

The DPS16 includes comprehensive signal-routing capabilitiesthat you can configure with the Quick Patch screen (see Fig.4). In this screen you can make any of the ten inputsavailable for recording or send them directly to the mixer when youplay live or mix down live signals (such as sequenced MIDIinstruments) in tandem with previously recorded tracks.

The Quick Patch screen also lets you take advantage of theping-pong bus, a stereo audio bus separate from the master andmonitor signals. Use the ping-pong bus to mix down several channelsto one pair of tracks — including effects, if you like.

In the Quick Patch screen, inputs that route directly to themixer are connected with thick black lines. The remaining inputs,send signals, or the ping-pong bus can be patched to any track forrecording. Making a patch is as simple as pressing a Record Selectbutton while holding down a Track Select button. When you do that,the Quick Patch screen shows a connection between the source youselected and the track you patched to. The Quick Patch screen isintuitive and easy to use.

You can patch outputs as well. Each of the ten outputs —left and right for the master, monitor, and digital outputs, andaux-send outputs 1 through 4 — can carry 1 of 26 signals. Youcan send the right master signal to the left master output or usethe four aux sends as dedicated outputs for four selected tracks.The digital output always carries the same signal as the analogmaster outputs; otherwise, you can completely reconfigure theoutput routing, a capability that provides a lot offlexibility.

A NEW RECORD

I have described numerous buttons and screens, but you're stillwondering how to record, right? Recording is easy, but first youshould create a new Project. That establishes your sample rate andbit resolution and lets you associate a name with the audio you'reabout to record. Assigning a name to your Project lets you recallit intact after you move on to other Projects.

A quick word regarding sample rate and bit resolution: thehigher they are, the less audio you can record and play backsimultaneously. At 16 bits and as high as 48 kHz, you can have tenrecording tracks and 16 playback tracks, but at 24 bits and 96 kHz,you only get six recording and playback tracks. You also get fewersends and fewer channels with EQ at the higher audio rates.

When you're ready to record, set your levels using the InputTrim controls and overload indicators, and then make sure you'repatched up correctly in the Quick Patch screen. Then press theRecord Select buttons to arm the tracks you want to record, holddown the Record button, and press Play.

If you're not satisfied with a take, you have 250 virtual tracksat your disposal, and each can have a unique name. You can storesuccessive takes as virtual tracks and assign only the best tophysical tracks for playback. You also have 250 Undo levels, but tokeep things simple and to conserve disk space, I set the maximumUndo level at 1.

There are comprehensive punch-in capabilities as well. You canstart and stop recording during playback (for manual punch-ins)using the transport controls or any standard footswitch. At thepunch point, the signal you hear switches from the track source tothe live input, as expected. Automatic punch-ins and looping aresupported also, and rehearsal mode lets you practice your puncheswithout committing anything to disk.

A typical recording session usually requires quick moves fromone part of a recording to another. The DPS16 provides 100 Locatepoints with titles, 26 “quick” Locate points, and a fewspecial locations used in editing and punch-ins.

To mark a spot in your recording, you can use the Record Selectbuttons to enter time directly in SMPTE time code or inbar:beat:tick format, or you can enter Locate points on the fly.(Numbers are silk-screened beneath the Record Select buttons forentering data.) You can also use the Jog/Shuttle wheel to move inbig or small steps. Furthermore, the Play, Fast Forward, and Rewindbuttons let you get to points within your recording.

To be precise with your Locate-point placement, open theWaveform screen. There you can zoom in on your audio data and movethrough it sample by sample. When the Waveform screen is open, theJog/Shuttle wheel serves as a scrubbing tool to help you find theexact point you're seeking.

Once you find the right spot, mark it with the Memory button.Then you can name it and add it to a list of locations or store itwith an Input Select or Track Select button. You can return tomarked locations using the Goto button. Locations can be specifiedduring playback, but the process requires two button presses. Whenyou need to mark many points in a hurry, a single button-pressoption would be easier.

Two special points labeled In and Out are used for punch-ins,looping, and editing. Those points have their own dedicatedbuttons, and they define the range that will be edited, looped, orrecorded over. I especially like the three playback buttons thatwork with the In and Out points. One plays the time range definedby the In and Out points, and one starts playback a few secondsahead of the In point and stops when it gets there. The thirdbutton plays from one to ten seconds, beginning with the Out point,to help you establish the editing or recording range you want.Using those three buttons, I found it easy to get my punch andediting points just right.

THE EDITING SUITE

The DPS16 has plenty of editing capabilities, which you invokefrom an Edit screen. You can cut, copy, insert, overwrite, delete,stretch, and move audio as needed. Multiple tracks can be processedsimultaneously. You can copy or move audio from track to track byusing buttons to draw connections between source and destinationtracks. The DPS16 covers all my basic editing needs.

The time-stretching algorithms are particularly impressive. Thestretched or compressed audio isn't always free of artifacts, butas long as I don't try to stretch things too far, I usually obtainsatisfactory results. Several stretching presets are offered, withnames that convey the intended source material, such as Male Vox Aand Lfreq Rhythm B.

You can also use the DPS16's real-time effects processing toalter and enhance your tracks as you record or afterward. You canassign any of 52 effects to one of the four sends. Only one effectcan be used in a send at a time, but many channels can use thatsend if none of them configure it as an insert effect. You canconnect your own effects to the DPS16 using the four aux-sendjacks. There are no aux returns, however, so you have to use thechannel inputs to route an externally processed signal back to themix.

Each effect type has a dedicated page with the effect's diagramand editable parameters. The variety of effects offers a huge arrayof parameters, so the explanatory diagrams come in handy. For eacheffect, the settings you're most likely to modify are madeavailable using the Q-Link knobs, letting you easily change valuesfrom the Main and Mixer screens.

The DPS16 features most effect types found in a modernmulti-effects unit: reverbs, choruses, flangers, phasers, anddelays are all present. A couple of surprises are included as well,such as a rotary-speaker simulator with MIDI speed control andreal-time vocal-pitch correction.

Overall, the effects' quality is excellent. The reverbs aresmooth, and the choruses are silky. The distortion effect is betterthan I've heard in other all-in-one studios but not as good as adedicated guitar processor. The pitch corrector is fun, though itdoesn't perform miracles with my lousy singing voice.

SAVE THAT SCENE

The mixer and effects settings can be saved to one of 16 MixerScenes, which you can recall with a few keystrokes. Mixer Scenesare useful for putting the mixer into a known state before youstart working on a particular part of your Project, but youprobably won't find them useful for quick mixer changes duringmixdown. For those, save mixer snapshots and controller movementsto an external MIDI sequencer or use Akai's MESA IIsoftware.

Although the DPS16 supports snapshot and real-time transmissionof its mixer controls through MIDI, not all the mixer and effectssettings can be sent directly from the unit. In fact, you'relimited to only level and pan controls for each mixer channel.

If you want to automate other settings, such as EQ or sendlevels, and you have a Windows-based PC, you're in luck. Akaioffers MESA II as a free download for its samplers andrecorders. MESA II provides virtual channel strips for all26 mixer channels. It's quite helpful to see all the DPS16 mixercontrols on one screen.

DPS16 Specifications

Recording Media internal IDE hard disk; external SCSI hard disk
Physical Tracks 16
Virtual Tracks 250
Simultaneous Recording Tracks 6-10
Simultaneous Playback Tracks 6-16
Analog Inputs (2) XLR/¼"-TRS combo; (6) ¼" TRS
Analog Outputs (2) RCA main; (2) RCA monitor;
(4) ¼" unbalanced aux sends;
(1) ¼" stereo headphone
Digital Audio I/O S/PDIF coaxial
Additional Connections 50-pin SCSI; MIDI In, Out/Thru; ¼" footswitch
A/D and D/A Converters 24-bit, 128× oversampling
Sampling Rates 32, 44.1, 48, 96 kHz
Sampling Resolution 16-bit, 24-bit
Synchronization sends/receives MTC; sends MIDI Clock and Song PositionPointer
Effects 52 types: reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, phaser, pitch shift,pitch correction, compressor/limiter, distortion, wah, pan, rotaryspeaker, noise gate, expander, enhancer
Main Display 320 × 240-pixel, backlit LCD
Dimensions 20.28" (W) × 5.02" (H) × 14.11" (D)
(with LCD tilted down)
Weight 14.11 lbs. (without hard disk)

MESA II also provides a virtual transport control, abeat-map editor, MIDI synchronization support, and access to 20mixer snapshots. You can record level and pan changes from theDPS16. Using your mouse, you can draw changes to those events andother settings, such as EQ parameters and send levels. You can alsouse the mouse to revise previously recorded automation data;however, you can't create real-time changes to the effectsparameters.

Even without MESA II, the DPS16 provides plenty ofsupport for MIDI synchronization. It can act as a master or slaveto MIDI Time Code, and it transmits (but doesn't receive) MIDIClock and Song Position Pointer messages. You can create beat andtempo maps so that the DPS16's bars and beats line up with yoursequencer's. (You'd probably create those maps anyway, especiallyif you use the metronome.) There's even a variable pitchcontrol.

I'LL TAKE IT

The DPS16 is a machine packed with features. Additionalcapabilities include backup to external devices and the ability toburn CD-Rs. Unfortunately, because my CD recorder is not MIDIMachine Control compliant, I was unable to test the CD burningfeature.

The audio quality is as good as or better than similar devicesI've heard. I conducted an unscientific A/B comparison between theDPS16 mic preamps and others I own, and the DPS16 held up well; Iheard crystal-clear highs and solid lows.

Because the DPS16's operating system can only be upgraded withSCSI, you need a CD-ROM or another portable SCSI drive. The unitships with a comprehensive Operator's Guide, and Akai offers plentyof Web support, with software updates and documentation. You almostdon't need documentation or support with this device. The userinterface is incredibly intuitive, and helpful hints are oftenpresented right on the LCD.

I can't find much I don't like about the DPS16: it's portable,flexible, easy to use, and it sounds great. If you're in the marketfor an all-in-one portable digital studio, check it out.

Allan Metts is a musician, software and systems designer,and consultant in Atlanta, Georgia.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Akai DPS16

portable digital studio
$2,795

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
AUDIO QUALITY 4.5
VALUE 3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Intuitive user interface. Excellent signalrouting. Capable recording and editing tools. Loads of effects.Downloadable front-end software (PC only).

CONS: Not enough inputs. Some effects are limited.Effects parameters can't be automated. Mixer scenes and markerplacement aren't efficient for quick use.

Manufacturer

Akai Musical Instrument Corporation
tel. (800) 433-5627 or (817) 831 9203
Web www.akaipro.com

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