Akai's new flagship sampler, the Z8, is the latest in a long and popular product line. The Z8 comes loaded for bear with its 60 GB internal hard drive, SCSI and USB connectors, and the capacity to hold 512 MB of RAM. That's enough to toss some pretty big samples around, and the Z8 needs all the space it can get; it enters the audiophile stratosphere by offering 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling.
The 2U rackmount Z8 is top vented and fairly heavy and deep. The front-chassis-mounted power, volume, and record-level controls are big and friendly; the rest of the front-panel controls are on a removable panel that connects to the Z8 with a cable. That lets you access the sampler's controls from a comfortable position while the unit sits in a rack.
The removable panel includes eight primary-mode buttons that determine the sampler's current function: saving or loading programs and samples, recording and editing samples, creating programs and multiprogram configurations, editing and adjusting real-time DSP effects, and accessing utilities (see Fig. 1). The details are displayed on a 248 × 60-pixel monochrome LCD. An array of six soft buttons provides access to the most important functions without requiring excessive scrolling or searching through multiple menus. The well-designed matrix of mode and function buttons lets you work quickly and efficiently.
To the right of the display, four cursor keys surround a jog dial. These controls are used primarily for data entry, and they're a bit awkward to use. The buttons are narrow, and the dial takes some getting used to. A nearby Window button opens and closes dialog boxes, and a Shift key, when used with the function buttons, provides access to additional parameters.
Three buttons along the bottom left of the panel provide additional functions: Play triggers the currently selected sample or program, Clipboard lets you copy material to a temporary location for A/B comparison and undo functions, and Q-Link lets you map program parameters to a series of eight knobs for real-time tweaking. The knobs are large and take up the rest of the left side of the panel. Despite their size, however, they don't feel quite as solid as I'd like.
Rounding out the front panel is one of the Z8's two USB ports. That port is designed for USB-based devices such as CD-ROM drives, Zip drives, hard disks, and computer keyboards for typing in sample names.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
The Z8's rear panel is a study in digital connectivity (see Fig. 2). It includes coaxial S/PDIF I/O, a 50-pin SCSI connection for external hard-drive storage, another USB port for connecting to a Mac or PC, and a BNC connection for word clock. Dual MIDI I/O provides MIDI control of 32 separate programs simultaneously, which is quite useful in a sampler with this RAM capacity and polyphony. An option slot accepts I/O cards providing either eight additional analog outputs or two inputs and eight outputs over ADAT Lightpipe.
The TRS inputs and outputs are -10 dBV balanced, but I discovered a global parameter that lets you set the default output level to -12 dBV. Setting the level to 0 dBu gave the Z8 enough juice to work with a +4 dBu system. Be aware, however, that as you increase polyphony, the increased number of voices may overdrive the output. The lack of AES/EBU I/O is unfortunate on a product that will clearly find its way into high-end studios.
Lifting the cover of the Z8 reveals two PC100 DIMM slots along with 16 MB of RAM soldered to the motherboard. One of the slots is loaded with a 256 MB DIMM. The other slot is tantalizingly empty, waiting for a 256 MB off-the-shelf DIMM to max out the Z8 at 512 MB. A 60 GB internal hard drive comes with a juicy starter set of samples: strings, brass, drum kits, Minimoog, orchestral and ethnic percussion, a 256 MB grand piano, and much more. The hard drive inevitably makes some noise, but fortunately, it's not that obtrusive.
SAMPLE MY WARES
The Z8 organizes samples within a fairly familiar hierarchy: groups of related samples are organized into Programs, which can be thought of as instruments, such as trombone or orchestral percussion. A sample's region on the keyboard is known as its Keygroup. Adjacent Keygroups can overlap and crossfade, moving smoothly from one sample to another as you play up the keyboard. Each Keygroup offers up to four separate Zones that can contain different samples. You can trigger samples in Zones through Velocity or play them simultaneously when a key is struck. Drum programs don't use Keygroups but simply assign samples to individual notes. You can adjust parameters such as filter cutoff or LFO depth at the Program, Zone, or Keygroup level.
Program parameters include typical subtractive synthesis tools. Two LFOs provide half a dozen waveshapes. Of the three envelopes, one ADSR envelope is hard-wired to amplitude. The dedicated filter envelope offers four rates and four levels, as does an assignable auxiliary envelope. A whopping 36 filter types include a triple filter that gives you three individually configurable 2-pole filters simultaneously. The filters are quite flexible, albeit a bit polite sounding; they didn't grab me on a visceral level. The resonance is ringy rather than squelchy. For certain applications, the Z8 would sound great running through an analog filter box.
The sampler reveals its programming depth at the Matrix Modulation screen, where you can find dozens of modulators, ranging from envelopes to MIDI controllers, that you can assign to 30 Program parameters. You can modulate all Keygroups in a Program or have different controls for individual Keygroups.
A Multi can hold up to 128 Programs, each of which can have its own MIDI channel assignment with individual control over level, pan, and effects send. That's a great way to set up an entire orchestra in a single box with a maximum 64-note polyphony. Multiple Programs assigned to the same MIDI channel will all sound when notes are sent on that channel. You can assign Programs to occupy adjacent key ranges to create splits or splits and layers. However, there is no Velocity split or crossfade programming at the Multi level.
The Z8 is compatible with a large number of sample formats, including Akai's S1000, S3000, S5000, S6000, and MPC2000XL and E-mu's Emulator III. Akai expects to add compatibility with the Emulator IV and Roland's S-700 series shortly. The Z8's native file format is WAV, which means it is also compatible with WAV-format CD-ROM libraries.
Sampling with the Z8 is a straightforward and streamlined process. Selecting the sampling mode brings up a page with a level meter and recording parameters. You can select analog, S/PDIF, or ADAT inputs (if you have the ADAT card); or you can select the main outputs as an input source, allowing you to resample the Z8 itself. A recording setup window lets you specify the sample's resolution and whether to automatically normalize the sample. A Pre-Recording Time feature lets you specify a length of sampling time before the recording is triggered, ensuring that the attack of the sample is captured correctly.
Once you specify mono or stereo recording and set the recording time and input level (peak level and headroom indicator displays help with this task), pressing the Record button begins the sampling process. You can sample in one of three ways: manually triggered instantaneous recording, threshold recording when the signal reaches a certain trigger level, or recording when the Z8 receives a MIDI Note On message. After you make your recording, the Z8 lets you audition the sample and determine whether to keep it or try again. If you keep the sample, the Z8 can automatically bring you to a page where you can add the sample to a Program and then determine the original note and key range for the sample.
An Auto-Sampling feature allows you to automatically record and add a series of samples to a Program. Once you begin recording, the Z8 creates and maps a new sample whenever the amplitude falls below the specified threshold. That's a quick, hassle-free way to pull a number of samples from audio-sampling CDs.
The Q-FX feature lets you route the input signal through the built-in effects processor before sampling. You can specify the standard effects (such as chorus or reverb) or a number of exotic “command” effects (preprogrammed groups of effects using phasing, flanging, or compression), which have such names as “Power,” “Robot,” and “Undersea.” These are great fun for creating instant weirdness. You can also resample your sounds through the effects after you record them.
Every system has disadvantages. In the case of the Z8, selection of regions for sample editing is a major weakness. Editing the start, end, and loop points for your sample can involve twirling the jog wheel until your thumb falls off. You can speed up the process by holding down Shift and moving the cursor keys to raise or lower the resolution of the wheel, but any way you slice it, this aspect of the user interface is clunky and could stand improvement. Editing samples in the computer is still the way to go.
Other than the awkward region editing, the Z8's sample-editing features are complete and easy to use. Sample-editing amenities include trim, sampling-rate conversion, copy, insert, and merge-type processes as well as silence, reverse, pitch-shift, time-stretch, normalize, and change gain.
The Z8's Q-Link system provides a series of eight control knobs for real-time expression. Each knob can adjust Program parameters and effects settings or send MIDI continuous controller messages to another device. When adjusting Program parameters, such as filter cutoff or amplitude, you can assign a knob to a single Program or to all Programs within a Multi. When controlling effects settings, such as delay time, you can only control one of the four effects from a single knob.
A Scaling feature makes the Q-Link knobs even more powerful. Twisting a knob can either replace the programmed value of the parameter it is controlling or offset the value by a selectable amount. Each knob can also send MIDI continuous controller information in addition to or instead of Program parameter data. That's useful for controlling other devices or sending real-time expression control to a sequencer for playback. The eight little knobs are easy to configure, and they greatly enhance the expressive capabilities of the instrument.
The Z8 comes with four mono channels of 96 kHz effects processing. The 61 types of effects are fairly standard but comprehensive, including chorus, flange, compression, EQ, delay, auto-pan, wah-wah, pitch shift, and reverb. The effects are clean and perfectly useable garden-variety algorithms, though they lack the character of a dedicated Lexicon or Eventide processor. You can edit any effect's most salient parameters, although the process is easier and more immediate from the computer than from the front panel.
The Z8's effects routing is quite flexible. Each of the four effects channels has a mono input and stereo outputs that you can route to hardware outputs or into other effects channels. In addition, you can link channel pairs for true stereo input operation. Four effects-send buses route different Programs to different effects within the Multi screen. For example, you can route a drum set to a plate reverb, strings and brass to a hall reverb, and a guitar part into a distortion and then chorus, all simultaneously. That flexibility goes a long way toward making the Z8 an all-in-one box for a recording date or for live performance.
JUST ASK THE AK.SYS
One of the Z8's strongest features is its tight integration with computers, made possible by the included software program, ak.Sys (Mac/Win). Compatible with the Z4, Z8, MPC4000, S5000, and S6000 samplers, ak.Sys provides a clean, easy-to-use remote front end. Its finderlike opening window displays the Z8's internal structure, including samples loaded into RAM, Programs, and Multis, as well as the contents of all storage devices connected to the Z8 (see Fig. 3).
You can drag samples from your computer's hard drive and onto the sampler's memory icon, and they will load right into RAM. I've been designing sounds on a tight schedule for an adventure game, and dragging sounds from my library into the Z8 for quick manipulation has been a fluid and effective way of working; it has produced some great-sounding results. Whole folders of data can be dragged from the internal hard drive to your computer's hard drive for storage and vice versa. That's incredibly powerful and a terrific time-saving feature.
Ak.Sys also behaves like a traditional editor-librarian in that it offers editing windows for Multis and Programs. The windows look nice, are well thought out, and speed up programming quite a bit. Double-clicking on samples in the Z8's RAM opens them for editing in your favorite sample editor, and saving the files loads them right back into the Z8. A virtual-Z8 mode mimics the Z8's front panel flawlessly. The computer reflects any changes made on the physical front panel in real time and vice versa — that's great stuff.
Ak.Sys is not free of flaws. Though the software is up to version 2.53, it's missing some key features, and it can be fragile. Every time you boot the software, the program greets you with a dialog box that cheerily informs you that “No S5000/6000 samplers are found.” You can dismiss that annoyance by striking the Enter key or removing the drivers for those units from the ak.Sys folder, but it shouldn't come up at all.
As mentioned earlier, Z8 samples are in WAV format, but you can upload AIFF files from your computer by dragging them into ak.Sys. The software converts files from AIFF to WAV on the fly, creating a temporary file on your hard drive. However, if you try to drag an AIFF from a CD-ROM, ak.Sys complains that the disc is write-protected, and it won't let you do it. The software should have a temporary storage area specified on your system drive for that purpose.
Z8 Specifications Analog Inputs(2) balanced 1¼4" (-10 dBV)Analog Outputs(2) balanced 1¼4" (-10 dBV); (1) 1¼4" stereo headphoneDigital I/Ocoaxial S/PDIFOther Connectors(2) MIDI In/Out; (2) USB; (1) 50-pin SCSI; (1) BNC word-clock inSampling Resolution16-bit, 24-bitSampling Rates44.1, 48, 96 kHzRAM272 MB (expandable to 512 MB)Hard Drive3.5" 60 GB IDE driveMaximum Sampling Time96 minutesPolyphony64 notes (44.1 or 48 kHz), 32 notes (96 kHz)OptionsIB48P 8-channel analog output board; IB4ADT 2-in, 8-out ADAT optical I/ODisplay248 × 60-pixel LCDDimensions19.0" (W) 5 3.6" (H) 5 16.3" (D)Weight14.1 lb.
Dragging a folder of samples from the Z8's hard drive to my computer's drive for backup caused the program to crash. An attempt to drag an audio-CD track from the computer's CD-ROM drive onto the Z8's hard drive brought ak.Sys down. Likewise, dragging AIFF files with fairly long names into ak.Sys also crashed the program. Crash problems aside, ak.Sys absolutely rocks. Akai needs to test its software thoroughly and sew up a number of holes in the code. A dedicated effects-editing screen would be a welcome addition, but the basic idea is great.
The Z8 is a fine-sounding sampler with an extremely low noise floor. Samples that I recorded at 24-bit, 96 kHz captured the subtle dynamism of the source material in detail, and sounds with sharp transients retained their punch. Many of the samples that came with the unit exhibited crisp highs and tight lows at the expense of warm mids; with my new samples, the entire frequency spectrum was well represented. As a sound designer, I was pleased that sound effects kept their sonic character and crisp shape instead of dissolving into mush when pitched down.
I had heard that perhaps the greatest aspect of the Synclavier was its 100 kHz sampling rate: recording very bright sounds with high-end equipment and then transposing them down brought previously inaudible frequencies into the range of human hearing. So I eagerly set the Z8's sample rate to 96 kHz and ventured into territory I had not previously explored. I grabbed a Neumann KM184 microphone, ran it into a Millennia HV-3D mic pre, and sent the signal to the Z8.
I sampled sounds with lots of high-frequency energy: Tibetan prayer chimes, jingle bells, wine glasses clinking, and long pieces of metal clanking against each other. I then played the samples back three octaves lower. The results were quite beautiful; the chimes turned into unearthly bells and gongs, and the jingle bells turned into sounds reminiscent of steel drums.
I routed a Q-Link knob to control pitch and lowered the sample pitch smoothly as I played back the sample. I could hear the previously inaudible higher harmonics slide into the audio range as I lowered the pitch. I then reset the system to 44.1 kHz and tried the experiment again. This time the results were brittle, harsh, and nasty. This was a clear example of the CD-standard sampling rate's inability to accurately capture high-frequency energy.
AN EXEMPLARY SAMPLER
In my book, the most important criteria for choosing a good sampler are sound quality, ease of use, programmability, storage and playback capacity, and sample-library base. The Z8 just nails them all at a price that is half of what I would have expected. If Akai fixes a few bugs in the ak.Sys software and releases a bunch of great-sounding new 24-bit, 96 kHz libraries to take advantage of the pristine audio format, I'd say that Akai has a big winner on its hands.
Nick Peckcreates sound for film and games and plays jazz on a 75-year-old piano with no MIDI port.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: any USB-equipped PPC; 8 MB available RAM; Mac OS 8.6; USB Manager 1.21
PC: USB-equipped Pentium/200; 32 MB RAM; Windows 98
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0AUDIO QUALITY5.0VALUE4.5
PROS: Has excellent-sounding high-resolution audio. Comes with removable control panel. Reads Akai, E-mu, and Roland sampler formats. Has comprehensive sample programmability.
CONS: Audible, though fairly quiet, hard drive. No analog XLR I/O. No AES/EBU I/O. Sample editing with jog wheel is difficult.