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SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
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An edited version of this text also appears in
SOUND ON SOUND magazine
Vol.12 No.9. July 1997

Review by Chris Carter

AKAI S20 MIDI DIGITAL PHRASE SAMPLER

SUPER LOOPER
In an interview some years ago I was asked what I thought was the most essential piece of gear in my line of work and without a second thought I said 'a sampler'. Ahh , he said but aren't they instruments of the Devil, don't they put musicians out of work and wasn't a sampler responsible for that awful NNNNineteen record. Okay guv, it's a fair cop I admit everything, except the bit about NNNNineteen.

For the hard up musician (aren't we all?) who can't afford banks of keyboards, a sampler is invaluable and with a decent sample library it can take on the guise of almost any instrument or sound and I still stand by my answer then. Give me a sampler, an effects unit and a DAT machine and I will give you a CD, or a gig, or both if your pushy enough. I've done it before and I know plenty of others who have and I think it's something to be proud of. Death to the Luddites, long live the RAM chip!


S01+R16=S20
Good quality samplers, on the whole, have never been what you might call, affordable. Till now, that is, because along comes Akai with an expandable, 8 voice, 16 bit, stereo sampler, plus a few novel features, for only £499. The Akai S20 is essentially a repackaged hybrid of the original mono, Akai S01 with some REMIX 16 in there also. It has the typical Akai look (unlike the Remix 16), and is compact but chunky with a footprint a little smaller than the magazine you are holding.

Editing is achieved with the minimalist edit matrix approach, first seen on the original S01. This arrangement uses two rows of LEDs, 6 X 7, with printed columns showing which mode is current and four cursor buttons to navigate around the matrix. There is a large 4 digit display with two plus/minus buttons for entering parameters and a coarse button to speed things up. A further 8 buttons, REC, ERASE, HOLD/LOOP,STOP, ALL STOP, REVERSE, SEQ, EDIT, cover the real-time playback, record and sequencer functions. The large TAP button is for repeat triggering of samples or for entering the BPM of a sample loop manually in BEAT mode. Lastly, there are 16 BANK buttons, unfortunately not velocity sensitive, that are used to trigger the samples. The stereo inputs and outputs are line level phono sockets and there is a 1/4" headphone socket. Power is supplied by a small 12V DC unit, thankfully not a wall wart type.

Before I go into too much detail about the S20 I should briefly explain a a little about Akai's use of the term BANK. Each of the 16 BANKS contains one sample and a VCA, that's it, nothing else. If you have used other Akai S samplers before then these BANKS are the equivalent of a single keygroup containing a single stereo or mono sample. If they only contain one sample why didn't Akai call them SAMPLES instead of BANKS, who knows? Anyway, from now on for BANK, read sample.


THREE STEPS TO SAMPLING
Out of the box the S20 is loaded with only 1 Mb of RAM, enough for only 14 seconds of mono sampling at 32 kHz, but it can accept an additional 4 Mb or 16 Mb SIMM. With 17 Mb installed the sampling time jumps up to 131 seconds in stereo at 32 kHz and the memory is dynamically allocated, so any BANK can use as little or as much as it needs, in theory you could have a single stereo loop over two minutes long at 32 kHz, or even a sample over 17 minutes long, in mono, at 4 kHz.

Sampling on the S20 is a piece of cake and at its default settings has one of the simplest procedures I have ever used, on any sampler. To sample and play back a stereo loop from a cold start involves only three button pushes, no parameters to set no pages to wade through just switch on and sample. It's easy, here's how.

Assuming you have already connected a CD player or record deck to the inputs the first thing to do is press the REC button which puts the S20 in RECORD standby mode, this starts the REC LED flashing. You can hear the audio signal and see how loud it is, as the left hand row of EDIT matrix LED's now act as a input meter, you can adjust the audio level (with the REC LEVEL knob) and choose whether to sample in mono or stereo. You can also select a sample rate (8 kHz, 16 kHz or 32 kHz) and whether to use auto-triggered sampling. However to begin sampling at the default settings (32 kHz, stereo) just press a BANK button and the REC LED glows steadily to let you know that you are now recording into that BANK. There are two ways to stop sampling, depending on whether the sound is to loop or not. Normally pressing any button other than a BANK button ends the sampling and the sample will play back by pressing the same BANK button again, however things get more interesting if you want to sample a loop. To stop, while sampling a loop, involves hitting the HOLD/LOOP button at a point where the sound is to start looping from. Doing this, seamlessly ends recording and starts playback of the sample, which is now in LOOP mode, so you can hear the results immediately, with only three button pushes. This is a really fast and efficient way of achieving decent loops, of any kind, short or long and although it may sound a little bit tricky, it ain't necessarily so.

 
COMPLETELY LOOPY
Successful looping, on any sampler, is an art and that old idiom 'practice makes perfect' is just as true on the S20 as it is on an S3200XL. There is also often a 'knack' involved and for the first few days of using the S20 I had it. It seemed as if I had magic fingers because almost every loop I attempted worked first time, no matter what the tempo or style of music was. Then I got flu for for a couple of days and nothing would loop properly and it wasn't the fault of the S20, along with a woolly headed feeling I had lost my sense of timing and the knack of hitting those buttons just right was gone (I feel a lot better now, thank you).

Even though it may be considered a basic sampler there are enough parameters available to perform pretty decent loops, with SAMPLE START and LENGTH and LOOP LENGTH (all with fine and coarse adjustment) but because of the simplistic 4 digit display, manual loop adjustment on the S20 can be quite laborious. It's worthwhile trying to get a loop right while sampling, even if it means attempting a loop two or three times. Also, achieving a good loop through careful timing means you can move on to grabbing and looping more samples a lot quicker, because you don't need to get side-tracked into LOOP EDIT mode to tidy things up, which can be a slow and frustrating process.

Other options available in EDIT mode are SAMPLE TUNE, TRANSPOSE, LOOP/ONE SHOT and RELEASE. Unfortunately there isn't any ADSR control just RELEASE so there aren't many options for shaping a sample once it's inside the S20. An annoying quirk is that if you attempt to transpose or tune a sample that has been adjusted with the BEAT LOOP function, it goes out of sync.

 

BEAT THE BEAT
While I'm on the subject of looping, now is probably a good point to mention the BEAT LOOP FUNCTION, because you can't really have one without the other in the S20. By using the BEAT parameters you can match loops with different BPMs to each other, there isn't any fancy time stretching going on here, just raising and lowering the playback speed of the sample, so loops can sometimes sound out of tune, but all the adjustments are calculated for you by the S20. To achieve this trick you need to enter a beat count figure (anything from 1 to 64) and the S20 measures the length of the sample,calculates the BPM and displays what it thinks the current sample BPM is, instantaneously. You then enter a NEW BPM either manually or by using the TAP button and the loop is instantly recalculated to that amount, pretty impressive. Well it would be if it came up with the right BPM, but the S20 often displays a slightly different BPM , a loop at 128 BPM for instance would be calculated as 127.1 or 128.9, not by much but enough to make things run out of sync, over time. Apparently these discrepancies are due to how accurately you have edited the sample length and although a loop may sound fine by ear the S20 may not agree. After a lot of annoying (and unnecessary) loop adjustments and sample editing , it occurred to me that if the S20 insisted on telling me that a loop was 127.1 BPM when I knew for a fact that it was 128 then I should set a NEW TEMPO for my other loops (which were 120 and 135 BPM) to 127.1 BPM also, voila! Everything was now in sync, happy, happy, joy, joy... If the BPM needs further adjustment then it's just a matter of changing the MASTER TEMPO setting, which shifts the tempo of all the loops relative to each other, while still keeping them in sync.

It's a shame the manual doesn't explain the BEAT LOOP function as well as it could (less than one page), considering it is such a big selling point, because although it isn't foolproof, it is possible to get some impressive results if you are aware of it's quirks.

 
REAL TIME
Although the S20 real-time sequencer spec looks good on paper, with 30,000 notes across 4 tracks, it is a bit of a mixed bag and is only really useful as a musical scratch pad, the word basic would be an understatement. Apart from only having RECORD, PLAY and STOP, if you try to get clever with your paradidles, it tends to throw a wobbly and its timing flies out the window. It also had a strange tendency to leave some samples muted when ALL STOP was pressed. It does record the BANK HOLD and REVERSE functions but it doesn't record the neat repeating effect from pressing the TAP button and unfortunately it doesn't receive or transmit MIDI start, stop or clock signals, although the front panel buttons can be controlled by a MIDI sequencer or keyboard. However, it does transmit MIDI note data, so you can transfer any sequences tried out on the S20 to another sequencer for more sophisticated editing.

 
MIDI CONTROL
This brings me nicely to using the S20 as a multitimbral sampler module. Funnily enough Akai don't seem to be as interested in emphasising this aspect of it as much as promoting it as a DJ tool, which they insisted on telling me it was at least five times, in a recent phone call. Setting up the S20 to receive MIDI on multiple channels is just as easy as everything else on the S20, I managed it without referring to the manual, which can't be said of many samplers. Under MIDI control the S20 takes on a different personality altogether. For a start, it now responds to velocity and MIDI note numbers (across 10 octaves) on all 16 banks. Each BANK can receive on different MIDI channels or share the same channel, with the facility to assign samples to specified ranges on a keyboard. So for instance, with an external sequencer and keyboard connected, you could have, on MIDI channel 1, a sample (not a loop) playing a bass line in the lower octaves and another sample playing a melody higher up, with loops and percussion samples playing on other MIDI channels. Important samples such as drum loops can be given higher priority over others so there aren't any embarrassing gaps if you exceed the 8 note polyphony.

 
KILLER HURTS
At the 32 kHz sampling rate the S20 sounds pretty damn good. I loaded some Akai S3000XL loops into the S20 for a side by side comparison and found little subjective difference, even the loop points played back perfectly. On the S3000XL, samples sounded a little more full, particularly in the sub bass area and had slightly more sparkle in the upper regions but I think most everyday users would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them. However, with the S20 at 16 kHz, sounds aren't nearly as bright and have a distinctly digital graininess about them, but are still acceptable for things like bass samples/loops, kick drums and SFX. At 8 kHz things get dirty and grungy, great for Lo-Fi loops and frankly at the 4 kHz setting things become a pretty unusable mess.


CARRY ON SAMPLING
I haven't had so much fun sampling and looping for ages and using the S20 is a piece of cake even for a newcomer to sampling. After using it for a day I knew where most of the deeper edit sub-pages were without needing to refer to the manual, an example of this was when my 15 year old son got his hands on the S20. Within ten minutes and without any help from me and not a peek at the manual, he was triggering, looping, reversing and layering samples. It took me another half an hour to get it back so I could carry on with this review, kids, huh! Most users will be flying this machine with ease after a week or so, because even at its most complex editing level the the S20 is very easy to get to grips with. From switching on to sampling takes a mere 8 seconds and is perfect for quickly grabbing samples and assembling ideas that can't wait, seasoned S20 users are sure to become sampling speed demons.


AND FINALLY
The S20 is undoubtedly a wolf in sheep's clothing and a wolf wearing two hats, at that. On the one hand it is presented as a phrase sampling, live DJ tool, for grabbing loops and matching BPMs, which it does extremely well. On the other hand and if it is expanded to the full 17 Mb memory and connected to a MIDI keyboard, I found it to be a perfectly capable 8 voice, 16 part multitimbral sampler. Some may find the 4 digit display a limitation, an obvious cost cutting move and the editing facilities may be a little on the basic side when compared to more expensive samplers but this is compensated for by the ease of use and the sound quality, which at 32 kHz is superb.

There are a few other sub £500 samplers on the market, notably the dinky Yamaha SU10 at £299 and the Roland MS1 at £399 but neither of these offer Akai compatibility, which could be a deciding factor, considering the overwhelming amount of Akai compatible sample libraries available on floppy disk (see box).

Whether your a DJ or musician thinking of entering the wonderful world of sampling, the S20 offers a pretty convincing combination of power and price and could be a rewarding and productive addition to any set-up, be it turntable or desktop, just make sure you budget for some extra memory.

 
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES

AKAI S20 MIDI DIGITAL PHRASE SAMPLER

Specification:

Akai S20 MIDI Digital Phrase Sampler

16 bit Stereo, with 64 times oversampling DAC.

Sampling rates: 4 kHz, 8 kHz, 16 kHz or 32 kHz.

16 banks, 8 note polyphony, 16 part multitimbral.

Beat mode. BPM adjustable from 000.1 to 999.9.

Memory 1 Mb, expandable to 5 Mb (+4 Mb SIMM) or 17 Mb (+16 Mb SIMM)

Sampling Times: 1 Mb @ 32 kHz: 7 sec, stereo. 14 sec, mono.

1 Mb @ 16 kHz: 14 sec, stereo. 28 sec, mono.

17 Mb @ 32 kHz: 131 sec, stereo. 262 sec, mono.

17 Mb @ 16 kHz: 262 sec, stereo. 524 sec, mono.

Floppy disk drive: 3.5" DD/HD

Connectors: L+R audio In and Out (all phono's)

MIDI in and out(soft thru)

Stereo headphones socket

Size: 11.5" X 8" X 3.25"

 

PROS:

Good quality, 16 bit, stereo sound.

Expandable memory.

Fast, fun and easy to use.

16 Part, multitimbral.

Simple, logical layout, great for live use.

Small, well built and rugged.

Good price/power ratio.

 

CONS:

No playback while sampling, saving or loading.

The 4 digit display is a bit skimpy.

No panning of mono samples.

No ADSR envelope editing.

No metronome.

Saving and loading a fully expanded S20 will mean buying floppies in bulk.

 

SUMMARY

A versatile, quality sampler only let down by the 1 Mb basic memory and the miserly 4 digit display but for this sort of price there is little to complain about. If you can live with these points the S20 makes an ideal and reasonably priced introduction to desktop sampling and if you are a DJ looking for a fast easy to use looping machine with some useful dance oriented features then the S20 is a good choice.

 

IT'S STORAGE, JIM...
The S20 is a fast machine to work with and ideas can be developed and worked out very quickly. The only fly in this speedy ointment is the S L O W saving and loading to floppy disk. If you're sampling with the full 17 Mb, in full flow with tons of great loops and sequences and you want to move on to another song or try out some new ideas you can't do anything until you've spent nearly ten minutes shunting a dozen disk's in and out of the S20 to back-up your work. This tends to stop the creative juices dead in their tracks and I thought it seemed a bit short sighted of Akai not to have at least included the option to add either a battery back-up, flash RAM or a SCSI connector, this machine is crying out for something like a Zip drive. However after voicing my opinions to Akai they told me that the S20 is mainly intended for the DJ market, hence the inclusion of the BEAT LOOP function and the sample pads and they see it more as a live looping tool, where saving and loading won't be an issue. They also anticipate that most people will go for the 4 Mb upgrade rather than the full 17 Mb, in which case saving and loading will be a lot faster. Also offering any of the above solutions (even as upgrade options) would have meant additional chips and a more detailed and expensive display, this would have added too much to the cost of the unit.

I don't entirely agree with this, for a start I think many people will be tempted to go for the full 17 Mb upgrade, particularly with the current price of RAM (approx. £75 for 16 Mb SIMM, if you shop around). Being multitimbral, the S20 is ideally suited for the GM/DTM market, which Akai do (rather half heartedly) admit. Also, after seeing my son's reaction to it (oohh... this is really cool Dad!) I can see a lot of up and coming, electronic dance bands buying S20's and connecting them up to MIDI keyboards as a cheap way into quality sampling. I just hope they work out how to get a whole set into the memory, or they will be waiting around for 10 minutes between songs while it loads up.

As is usually the case in this industry, there will probably be a mark 2 or an XL version in a couple of years time, lets hope it includes some better external storage options. In the meantime have fun.

 

MESSING ABOUT
While researching (messing about) with the S20 I came across something even Akai UK weren't sure of, the S20 supports MIDI Sample Dump Standard, well, after a fashion. I managed to transfer samples to the S20 from an Akai S3000XL and from Cubase, it was a little slow but it worked, strangely it wouldn't accept MIDI SDS files from Passport Alchemy or Steinberg ReCycle and I couldn't persuade it to work in reverse, I couldn't get a peep out of it. Akai couldn't help but they did say that some older Akai S01 editors and mixer maps may work with the S20 as it has a lot in common with the earlier machine, hmmm.

 

ADDITIONAL FEATURES
The TAP button repeat effect can be sped up slowed down using the + & - increment keys.

Although sample editing on the S20 is hampered by the meagre display there are still a quite few options available.

In TRIM mode you can edit the start and length of a sample, to the minutest amount if needed, by using the coarse and fine parameters. DISCARD mode allows you to permanently remove areas outside the start and end points of a sample, the bits you can't hear. It's always good practice do this as it frees redundant information and makes the most of the available memory.

A sub-page of this mode is COPY, which allows you to copy one BANK to another. Copy is also useful for making a temporary back-up of sample prior to editing and is a lot quicker than backing a sample up to disk.

There are two other sub-pages here, REVERSE which does what it says and INITALIZE which erases the sample and resets the parameters in the current BANK.

Other editing parameters available are, sample LEVEL, fine tuning, constant pitch, MIDI velocity response, MIDI BEND amount and mono or multiple triggering.

There is also a RESAMPLE mode, which can progressively downgrade a sample to a lower bandwidth to conserve memory, 4 kHz is the minimum RESAMPLE rate.

 

CD INCLUDED
Included with S20 are 4 HD disks of various loops and samples to get you started. In addition, with the UK package you get a free sample CD compiled by AMG that includes hundreds of samples and loops from a dozen or so of the best AMG CD releases. There is so much stuff on it that it could take you a week to get through it all, everything from dub to disco, SFX , vocals, beats, bops and blaps, licks and loops and all with listed BPMs, icing on an already fine cake.This article also appears in SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.9. July 1997

This article also appears in SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.9. July 1997


Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.

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