SOUND ON SOUND REVIEWS
SOUND ON SOUND magazine Vol.12 No.9. July 1997
Review by Chris Carter
YAMAHA A3000 DIGITAL SAMPLER
(see also: YAMAHA A3000 v2 Update review)
Do you ever wonder how all these marvellous machines that we use are designed ? I do, all the time. Are there a lot of tech heads in lab coats, or nerdy net-head types in pizza stained T-shirts, sat around telling the company exec's all these great ideas they have, 'Yeah we'll include 64 note polyphony, unlimited samples, 54 different effects, editable parameters for everything, tons of output options, a sequencer, masses of storage and it will have lots of red and green flashing LED's and we'll include a really cost effective display' and the marketing manager says 'but won't it be a bit difficult to use', 'no' they say 'we'll include a REALLY BIG instruction manual!'. A possible scenario I suppose and in the case of something like the A3000, very likely.
Apart from the diminutive SU10 mini sampler the only other sampler I can remember from Yamaha in recent memory was the poorly received TX16W back in 1988. But what a way to re-enter the market, at last a machine that's affordable and powerful, a turning point in sampler evolution, however it's not all roses in the garden, the A3000 is both amazing and infuriating in equal measures, read on...
Before we get down to the nuts and bolts of using the A3000 let me say that for £1299 it has some pretty mind boggling features. Yes, most of those rumours you may have heard about it are true. The standard model is 16 bit stereo, 64-note polyphonic, comes with 2 Mb of onboard memory and is capable of accommodating an additional 128 Mb of sample RAM using four standard SIMMs and with enough memory installed there is no upper limit to the number of samples it can hold. As if that wasn't enough each sample has its own, envelope generator, LFO, single-band equaliser and resonant, multi-mode filter (VCF), while the main stereo mix also has an additional 4-band, parametric equaliser. There are three effects banks, with 54 extremely versatile, editable effects patches in each bank (see list), with a 'feed through' feature for real-time effects control of external audio sources. It also incorporates a AWM2 tone generator, a basic MIDI sequencer and can load SMF sequences, AIFF, EMU and Akai samples. It has space for an internal SCSI hard drive (no size limit) and can directly control (automatically or manually) the playback of an audio CD from an external CD ROM drive, while most of the front panel knobs and function buttons can also be used as MIDI controllers for internal and external MIDI functions.
The A3000 is presented in a 2U rack mount case almost as deep as it is wide. To the left of the neat blue/grey front panel there are two audio inputs sockets and an input level knob, the inputs are capable of handling microphone or line level. Next is a (very loud) headphone socket and the main stereo output volume control for the rear left/right output jacks. Below the basic, two line yellow LED display, there are what look like five rotary controls, these also double as push buttons. Each knob has an LED arrow above it, which when lit means the button can be pushed to execute an action or function, simple but effective. On the right hand side are eleven illuminated selector buttons arranged in a 5 X 6 matrix configuration (6 'Function Keys' and 5 'Mode Buttons') with a printed list of modes beneath. There are three other buttons labelled COMMAND (usually for accessing the disk drive) , AUDITION (for triggering samples) and ASSIGNABLE (see MIDI Play), below the 'Mode Matrix' is the floppy disk drive. Around the back (on the base machine) are the usual AC in, MIDI in, out and thru, left and right main outputs and left and right assignable outputs plus a little SCSI-2 connector (see box: SCSI-1 or SCSI-2 it's up to you.) and last of all is a small fan.
IN THE DRIVING SEAT
When the A3000 is switched it runs through a little performance with all the LEDs dancing around for a few seconds, you are then presented with the default screen PROGRAM PLAY. Worryingly, the switch on default mode doesn't produce any sound, even though the sampler loads up with a nice selection of raw synth waveforms, courtesy of the internal AWM2 Tone generator. To hear anything you must first access SAMPLE EDIT mode to perform a procedure called 'ToPgm' (to program). This 'selects' a sample (or waveform) and makes it available to the currently selected program.
The sampler uses an unusual system for arranging programs, there are always 128 of them resident in memory and although you can rename them you can't have any less or any more than the default 128.
The programs themselves don't deal with the parameters you would normally associate with synth or sampler programs instead they are just empty slots for placing banks or individual samples into. Only one program can be active and to use the A3000 multi-timbrally involves setting MIDI channels for each individual sample or bank of samples in SAMPLE EDIT mode.
To sample, first involves going to the RECORD MONITOR page and setting the parameters so you can hear the input signal and set a monitoring level, you can also set up a metronome click if you need one, then it's off to RECORD SET-UP mode. Here we can specify sampling frequency (5k LoFi, 5 kHz, 11 kLoFi, 11 kHz, 22 k LoFi, 22 kHz or 44.1 kHz), sample pre-trigger time (0ms-500ms), stereo or mono sampling, analogue or digital input, 'Auto Normalise' (to get an optimum level for a sample), manual trigger or auto sampling and sample 'Key range'. Next we visit METER mode, here you can adjust trigger levels for sample start and sample stop and visually monitor the input signal on a bar graph meter, unfortunately you can't stay here while you sample because you now have to go into SAMPLE RECORD mode, which doesn't have an input meter to check the signal level. So far we have been in four different modes and not a sample in sight. On the only page in SAMPLE RECORD mode you have two options 'Go' or 'Optimize'. Maybe I should briefly explain the 'Optimize' feature. The A3000 doesn't handle memory too well and if there are a lot of samples and you've been editing, trimming and deleting them, the sample memory gets fragmented with bits of unused memory floating about unable to become part of the mothership memory, well you know what I mean. Anyway, press 'Optimize' and all are one again, aahh. Are you still with me, right because now we press 'Go' and the sampling begins and while the A3000 does its stuff you have the option to 'Abort' or 'Finish' the process. Once the sample is in memory you then have to go to SAMPLE PLAY mode and select the sample to audition it, because you can't hear it from the sample RECORD mode. What a drag, this has to be one of the slowest, most convoluted sampling procedures I have ever come across. The only part of this process I like is the fact that you can hear, in real-time, the affect the different sampling frequencies have on the input source. This is a useful feature if there isn't much memory available as you can decide whether a sound can take being sampled at a lower bandwidth or not.
TRIM THAT LOOP !
Once you have some samples in memory (and apparently, if there is enough memory there's no upper limit to the number of samples) you must first assign them to a program to hear anything, as the A3000 doesn't allow monitoring of raw samples.
A lot of parameters you would normally associate with program editing are instead handled in SAMPLE EDIT mode, unconventional but I suppose you would get used to it, eventually. Sample key span, output destination, LFO depth, effect send, filter setting, envelope shape, pan, MIDI channel and more, are all handled at a sample edit level. Unfortunately this imposes some creative restrictions on how the samples can subsequently be used and grouped into sample banks and programs (see next section).
The A3000 uses three types of samples:
The first two are pretty self explanatory, the third however is the equivalent of what would usually be regarded, in synth or sample terms, as a program. When you have edited the parameters in a sample (key span, ADSR settings, pan, tuning , LFO depth etc.) you can make a NEW SAMPLE BANK and begin ADDING samples, a bit like filling a folder full of documents. This SAMPLE BANK is now treated as a sample and can be placed within programs as if it were a normal mono or stereo sample. It sounds like a good way of organising a lot of samples into manageable chunks until you try to edit one of them because you can't edit individual samples within banks, bah! First you have to go through the REMOVE SAMPLE process, which takes it out of the bank, then you can edit the sample and finally you, ADD SAMPLE to get it back into the bank again. What a palaver!
Taking into account the pretty central role editing and looping takes in any sampling process Yamaha have tried to give some thought to making the most of the limited display. In SAMPLE TRIM/LOOP mode you can view sample waveforms in five ways, by the obscurely named 'End Address Type', by 'Length', by 'Time' and by 'Beat'. If 'Beat' display is selected the A3000 calculates the BPM and shows it with the number of beats in the loop. The fifth option is 'Graph', which is just a wavy line that bears no relation to the actual sample. The best method I found and none are what you might call easy or intuitive, is to edit the loop by ear and eye switching between the different display options until you get the results you want.
There are also a number of DSP effects available for applying to samples. 'Resample' is actually time stretching and pitch changing and while it is considerably faster at stretching a sample than an Akai S3000 or something like Alchemy (the sample editor) the results can be a little lumpy and distinctly flammy sounding, even at the best setting.
There is an interesting feature called EXPAND in SAMPLE EDIT mode, this has 'Detune, Dephase and Width' parameters and can thicken a mono sample or widen the image of a stereo sample. This is a really useful feature if you want to add a chorus effect to a sample and all the effects banks are being used. Another useful featurette is the RANDOM parameter (found in SAMPLE EDIT , 'pitch mode'). This applies an adjustable, brief, random pitch variation at the start point of a sample. Using the EXPAND and RANDOM features together is a great way of adding some movement and life to individual bland sounding samples.
Yamaha have told us that a free software package will be available soon from Tiny called 'Wave Editor' and support from Steinberg ReCycle is imminent. Support from products such as these should help strengthen the A3000's acceptance into the sampler market because although feature wise it has everything needed to achieve impressive results, sample manipulation, editing and looping are definitely an uphill struggle.
EASY ON THE EDIT
The A3000 arranges its samples within programs in a fairly unusual way, because, although a particular sample can be used across more that one program (up to and including all 128 programs if needed) any parameter settings that have been applied to the sample, such as keyboard span or effect assignment, will be the same for any other programs that contain the sample. Therefore, parameter changes made to any individual sample will have a knock on affect to other programs using the same sample. One solution is to apply any new settings to a duplicate copy of the sample, this is a memory and time consuming process. Another solution is to use the so called 'Easy Edit' feature, which overrides the original parameter settings for a sample in a new program. But there are some annoying limitations to this 'solution'. For instance, you can't exceed a sample's original key span, if it was set at C2-B3 you can't extend it to C2-B4. Also, if the original sample is panned hard right and you try and 'Easy Edit the pan to the left it will only pan as far as the middle, the list goes on but you get the idea? Both solutions are inelegant and it's a shame Yamaha couldn't have come up with a more versatile arrangement.
The A3000 is full of little surprises and one of these is 'Panel Play' and the associated 'Assignable' function. This mode allows most of the front panel buttons and knobs to be used as MIDI controllers for either A3000 programs or external MIDI gear. The six 'Function keys' can be programmed to play MIDI keyboard notes, with adjustable velocity and on different MIDI channels if you wish. While the five rotary knobs can be programmed to transmit MIDI controller information, such as pan, volume, portamento time etc. This is a really handy feature (originally seen on the Emu ESi32) and once set-up is a quick and easy way of triggering samples and loops and altering a few basic MIDI parameters without delving too far into the inner workings of the A3000.
The A3000 features a basic, single track, note pad sequencer available for trying out ideas but it only has RECORD, PAUSE, CONTINUE and PLAYBACK controls, so don't expect too much from it. There are no restrictions on the number of sequences you can record and you can load in banks of previously saved sequences or MIDI SMF files (from DOS floppy) recorded on an external sequencer. The sequencer also includes a speed control to vary the playback between half and double the original tempo but annoyingly once the sequencer is play mode the rest of the sampler is locked out to you, until you press STOP.
Driving In The Twilight Zone
The A3000 sounds great, when sampling from CD it is impossible to tell the difference between source and sampler. Stereo samples are rock solid with no phasiness and samples imported from other machines sound as good as the originals.
After using the A3000 for a week or so I developed a strong love hate relationship with the it, there are still elements of the machine that continue to mystify and infuriate me. Its refusal to recognise or format perfectly good (branded) floppy disks, its sluggish and sometimes puzzling response when changing modes and the way parameter values don't keep up with knob rotations, it sometimes feels like running through treacle with Wellies on and because of the limited display I constantly had the feeling I wasn't getting the whole picture because navigating your way around the system is like working with tunnel vision in the twilight zone.
One of the problems with the A3000, considering the basic display, is that Yamaha have given it too many features and an arcane interface. Yamaha themselves admitted that the ill fated TX16W suffered from 'over engineering' and the A3000 is undoubtedly suffering from the same malady.
If the Yamaha R&D dept. had given half as much thought to the human interface as they did to the amount of features they have poured into this sampler then the machine would be unstoppable. As it is, the balance may be way off for some people, particularly professional samplists. As a fairly short term user/reviewer my biggest problem with it was productivity, or lack of it. It's a bit like going from a Apple Mac to a DOS PC, you feel as if there must be an easier way to do this or that simple task but there isn't. Working with the A3000 and an Akai S3000XL side by side it became apparent that what I considered fairly speedy everyday tasks, like sample editing, looping, arranging samples into key groups, putting samples into various programs and setting up multi-timbral programs, took at least three or four times longer to get the same results on the A3000. Even taking into account my familiarity with Akai machines I still think I would outrun a seasoned A3000 user doing similar tasks, with ease. Some may not see this as much of an issue but believe me if your doing a remix or some other fast turnaround work you need the speed, not faffing about looking for such and such submenu. But there's the rub, if the A3000 was my only sampler then I think I could live with it. On sound, features, expandability and price the A3000 is miles ahead of the competition and if it was your only sampler purchase then I'm pretty sure most users will eventually be content with their acquisition. Just be prepared to invest some time for the steep learning curve and mind the bend...
ADDITIONAL TEXT / INFO BOXES
64 note polyphony.
3 multi-effects banks (54 effects in each bank).
AWM2 Tone generator.
Multi-mode VCF, per sample.
16 part multi-timbral.
4 Band parametric EQ.
2 Mb of memory (11 secs @ 44.1 kHz stereo).
Expandable to 128 Mb using standard 4 Mb, 8 Mb, 16Mb or 32 Mb SIMMs in pairs.
Maximum sample time 64 Mb (6' 20" @ 44.1 kHz stereo).
Import samples from: Akai, Emu, WAV, AIFF, TX16W, A7000, MIDI SDS and MIDI SMF.
1 X CD ROM, 5 X demo floppy disks.
Internal HD connecting kit.
Price: £1299 inc. VAT.
AIEB1 I/O board. 6 X Audio outputs, coax digital in/out, optical digital in/out. Price £149 inc. VAT
With slightly too many 'idiosyncrasies' for comfort the A3000 could give you a fair few headaches, but the condition isn't chronic. On sound, features and price the picture is a lot more appealing and seductive. This sampler is going to stir up a nest of trouble with the competition and should be taken very seriously indeed because even with it's faults it is a formidable beast. Even though I may have given the impression I don't like it I would like one.
64 note polyphony
Unlimited number of samples
Lots of on board effects and EQ.
Unprecedented features in this price range.
Good compatibility, including Akai, Emu, WAV and AIFF.
Can be used as a MIDI controller.
Cheap, practical expansion options.
Limited and sometimes inscrutable display.
Arcane operating system.
No waveform display.
Unconventional and frustrating sample/program implementation.
Inaccurate and 'jumpy' control knobs.
Only 2 Mb in base configuration.
Non standard, 'standard' SCSI 2, 50 pin, Amphenol connector.
IMPORT EXPORT DEPT.
When it comes to importing samples the A3000 has pretty much covered all the popular formats. It can read DOS format (or PC disks formatted on a Mac) DD and HD floppy disks containing WAV, AIFF, Yamaha A7000 and TX16W samples and although it doesn't say so in the manual, you can import Emu and Akai samples from floppy disk, unfortunately Roland users have been left out in the cold. My first attempt to load Akai samples from an Akai floppy were a little problematic because although the A3000 cannot read Akai key groups and programs it refuses to recognise an Akai sample unless it's part of an Akai program, strange. Eventually I had no trouble loading Akai samples complete with loops intact. Also supported are MIDI SDS (Sample Dump Standard) and MIDI SMF (Standard MIDI Files) type 0, for playing back sequences. Unfortunately the A3000 won't save data onto PC, Emu, Akai or other non-Yamaha format disks. Apparently the A3000 can also read WAV, AIFF,Emu and Akai sample data from an external hard drive or CD ROM and can control the playback functions of an audio CD mounted in a CD ROM drive. Unfortunately, because of the SCSI problem mentioned elsewhere I can't verify how well these features work.
EXPANDABLE IN EASY STAGES
About two thirds of the internal space is taken up by the power supply, floppy disk drive and the main PCB with a sizeable area left free for an optional, internal hard drive. Also included are detailed instructions on the type of SIMMs the A3000 can use, how to install them and also how to install the AIEB1 I/O board. If the optional AIEB1 expansion board is fitted an additional pair of digital input and output ports (S/P-DIF optical and coax) and 6 assignable audio outputs are made available. The digital input allows recording at 48 kHz, 44.1 kHz,32 kHz and playback at 44.1 kHz. The cost of this board is a very reasonable £149 incl. VAT and likely to be an essential purchase considering the features.
All these DIY options are a nice change from the usual, 'No user serviceable parts, contact your dealer' and it's about time manufacturer's started treating their customers like adults, after all many of us are quite capable of upgrading our PC's with new drives and memory etc. and a sampler is a lot easier to deal with than a PC, nice one Yamaha.
ATTACK OF THE MASSIVE MANUAL
Because Yamaha sometimes seem to live in a different dimension when it comes to writing operating systems and designing instruments some of their gear has a reputation for having a steep learning curve and the A3000 is no exception. Enter the instruction manual.
It's a shame that Yamaha haven't learnt from the mistakes they made with their first sampler the TX16W. Some of the terminology used in this manual is down right confusing. Sometimes a sample is described as 'waveform data' sometimes not, at the beginning 'start, end and loops' are described as having 'points' (naturally) but then they insist on calling them 'addresses'. Try this: 'Each end address is shown by distance from the corresponding start address, in address increments', or 'End and loop end addresses are indicated by their absolute address values on the waveform' what! This sounds like techno babble from the 1980's, why? Are Yamaha intentionally trying to confuse people or has it been badly translated?
I thought Roland and Akai manuals were long at about 200 pages or so but the Yamaha A3000 instruction manual is massive, it's over 370 pages long! Admittedly, it needs one this big because there are so many features and functions and if you don't read it through at least a couple of times you'll be banging your head against a wall within hours of turning the thing on. Looking on the bright side, once you get used to the style, layout and the arcane terminology it is readable (just) and to help you along there are two very good index's and lots of explanatory diagrams. There is also a basic 'Starting Out' section meant for the sampling novice and all users would be well advised to start there anyway as it eases you gently into the Yamaha mind set and prepares you for the rest of your journey through the manual and eventually the A3000.
SCSI-1 OR SCSI-2 ?
Originally the A3000 SCSI connector was to be an optional extra, however at the last minute Yamaha decided to include it in the base machine specification, which was nice. The helpful instruction manual gives very detailed instructions (6 pages) on how to install your own internal hard drive and the A3000 even ships with an internal hard drive connection kit, consisting of SCSI and power leads. The manual usefully describes the type of hard drive you should buy, however, Yamaha have decided to include a tiny 50-pin Amphenol, SCSI-2 connector on the rear of the A3000 so if you intend using an external SCSI hard drive, optical drive, CD ROM drive, Zip etc. bear this in mind and make sure the unit has a compatible connector or budget for an adaptor.
THE SAMPLER THAT NEVER WAS
In the A3000 manual there are occasional references to an instrument called the Yamaha A7000, apparently the A3000 can load and convert A7000 disks containing: drum voices, normal voices and programs. Hmm... We at SOS have never heard of an A7000 and initially though it may be a new, as yet unannounced, Yamaha sampler. So I called Yamaha UK and they hadn't heard of it either, however the following week while speaking to someone else at Yamaha I dropped "A7000" into the conversation. "Ah, that was a development prototype 'super synth/sampler thing' that Yamaha were thinking of producing a couple of years ago but decided against it and instead came up with the A3000" said my unnamed source. I asked how come the A3000 supports a 'super synth/sampler thing' that has never been manufactured or available to the public. Stony silence. I think this is a case for Mulder and Scully.
THE ALTERNATIVE CIRCUIT
Sampling alternatives, there aren't any at this price, well a few possibly. The Akai S3000XL looks decidedly under specified compared to the Yamaha but is a lot easier to operate, and you do get the added bonus of the superb MESA sample editing software package. What lets the whole Akai range down is the price of upgrade options, almost double what Yamaha are asking. Other alternatives could be the Emu ESi32 or the highly respected Roland S760, both use nice resonant filters and the S760 has an RGB output, all have Akai compatibility, regular SCSI connectors and are a lot easier to get to grips with than the A3000. Unfortunately they are also a couple of hundred smackers more expensive than the Yamaha, however, dealers are beginning to discount some of these samplers and some offer freebies (extra memory, CD ROMs etc.), this is either in anticipation of the the Yamaha A3000's arrival or a sign that other manufacturers are rising to the Yamaha challenge and have something up their sleeves also. Shop around for a deal and if you can't decide then I'd recommend you seriously consider the Yamaha A3000.
PLEASE PLEASE ME...
Considering the enormous amount of features and editable parameters available there are a few frustrating omissions and oversights. As I said elsewhere, once the sequencer is in playback the A3000 refuses to let you do anything else until stop is pressed, even the dinky Akai S20 lets you edit samples while its sequencer is running.
Also, samples can't be split and saved across more than one floppy disk, so unless you are using a hard drive don't use any single samples longer than 1.4 Mb, c'mon Yamaha, if Akai can do it why can't you? The envelope generators are difficult to program anyway, because of the limited display and because the parameter values seem to work in reverse, so why are there no pre-set envelope shapes, even basic ones? Also I could find no mention anywhere in the manual of direct to disk recording, surely if you can connect massive internal and external hard drives there should be this facility, almost every current SCSI based sampler I can think of has the option of D to D.
EFFECTS and EQ
The A3000 does have a couple very impressive redeeming features, lots of effects and EQ. The effects are nicely diverse and excellent in quality and and all have at least a dozen or more editable parameters. There are no restrictions on the way they are used either, you could have three different effects in series or three of the same effect type in parallel and unusually the effects banks can also be configured so that the front panel audio inputs are routed through them for real-time monitoring, there is no reason why the A3000 couldn't be used a very capable stereo, multi-effects unit. Tied in with the real-time effects monitoring feature and assuming you have enough memory is the ability to record effects with samples, in mono or stereo. These effected samples can then be assigned to individual or paired outputs leaving the effects banks free to work with other, unaffected, samples. A very versatile arrangement that, given enough memory, allows you an almost unlimited number effects for your samples and programs.
Some effects, such as the Digital Scratch, Voice Canceller, Digital Turntable and Auto Synth are a little gimmicky and the reverbs have a definite, love it or hate it, Yamaha-ness about them. The 'Beat Change' effect, is in reality, a powerful number crunching, real-time MIDI controllable time stretch feature that works almost as well as the 'Resample/ Time Stretch' feature in SAMPLE EDIT mode and although it is optimised for rhythm loops it has enough editable parameters to cope with almost anything. (See box for full effects list)
Although the effects banks contain some very good filter and EQ set-ups the A3000 has another trick up it's sleeve, separate multi-mode VCFs for each sample. These babies can do some seriously extreme filtering, from radical bass cutting and boosting to ear bleeding, resonant shrills. The filter modes available are Low Pass 1, Low Pass 2, High Pass 1, High Pass 2, Band Pass and Band Eliminate and each mode offers control over: Cut-off frequency, Gain, Q/Width, Filter sensitivity and Filter scaling. In addition each VCF has it's own envelope generator, LFO depth and separate single band, +/- 12 dB equaliser, with a range from 32 Hz to 16 kHz. And this isn't all, because the main stereo output also has its own entirely separate 4-band, +/- 12 dB, parametric equaliser. Whew! what a line-up.
The A3000 Effects List - In Full:
Noisy Mod Delay
Flanging + Pan
Noise + Ambient
3 Band EQ
Auto Wah + Distortion
Auto Wah + Overdrive
Touch Wah + Distortion
Touch Wah + Overdrive
Amp Simulator + Gate
Compressor + Distortion
Pitch Change 1
Pitch Change 2
2 Way Rotary Speaker
Delay + Auto Pan
Copyright © 1997 Chris Carter / SOS Publications.