Sep 30

Akai S1100 vs. software sampler

Category: Music   — Published by goeszen on September 30, 2016 at 9:06 pm

Today I had the brief chance of comparing an AKAI S-1100 hardware sampler with what's become the norm in today's studios, a software sampler, usually in the form of a VSTi or Plugin.

AKAI S-1100

In my case, for the software side, I used the free and excellent TX16W sampler plug-in, which is pretty much the software incarnation of a generic hardware sampler, and in terms of interface is very similar to DirectWave - which is sometimes bundled with Fruity Loops/ FL Studio.

Hooked up to the mixer was the hardware side of things, the "S-Line" Akai S1100 which in its days was sold for about 5k, is built like a tank with roughly 14kgs and when you have one sitting in your rack it is probably just as capable as some 30 years ago. (Eat this, software.)

For the comparison, I've loaded 4 single-shot samples, two vocal phrases and two drum sounds. I've transferred the 16-bit mono WAV files via MIDI SYSEX into the hardware sampler by using the very useful wav_akai98 (outdated, but I got a version somewhere which did its job - 150Kb transfer in ~2 minutes).

Please excuse me not offering recordings of the results I'm going to describe in words here.

My results:

On the base note, played as just a single note (monophonic), hardware and software are - to my ears - indistinguishable.

The software sampler, just after you dropped a sample in, has a slightly different "default" setting for playback treatment. The AKAI defaults to "normal" mode, pitch shifting - that means the sample is played at higher/lower pitch when you play a higher/lower note. The software sampler started out like a drum machine, and has to be switched into "normal" mode to do the pitch shifting.

The pitch shifting is where the two machines/samplers begin to differ. Slightly. It's very (!) subtle. On the low end, samples sounded the same to me. On the high end, the AKAI produces a brighter, well, harsher/grittier impression than the software sampler. Also, the AKAI-hardware's sound was less detailed on the upper notes, I think. The software retained more of the softer aspects of a sound. But again, that's very subtle, subjective, and I found it only on two of my brighter samples, and saw virtually no difference with the other samples which had an overall less bright sonic vibe. So it might be my ears being less sensible to lower end rumblings on the spectrum.

One more note on settings and "defaults". The Akai's default release time seems to be around 100ms - no matter how long your sample is. While comparing hardware vs. software this can make a huge difference in first impression. The TX16W software sampler defaults to playing the sample fully, while the AKAI chops playback off instantly after key release. This can make the AKAI sound cold or less expressive without parameter tweaking - so make sure to adjust release time in case you do a similar comparison yourself (I adjusted the TX16W's software knob).

Back to sonic impression: Now, when pitch shifting and polyphony come into play, the samplers begin to differ again. I hesitate to say "...differ more" as the actual difference is really small. I think the software sampler's rendition of my chords and intervals can be described as 100% faithful. Then the AKAI's polyphonic playback is probably just as mathematically correct - yet it sounds different. I wouldn't say necessarily better, but different. I'm not sure if that's a result of the the S1000 platform's eight-point windowed sinc interpolation, but the pitch shifted samples of a three or four note chord sounded different to what the software sampler produced. The AKAI produced a brighter sound on high pitched notes, more mechanic in character, while being nearly identical to the software on the lower end if I remember correctly. And again very very subtle, like 99.5%, and only noticeable on some samples, brighter samples.


This is a very unscientific report of my comparison. And with lacking actual sound examples may even be pointless for some readers. This is just what I found on a quick test. Feel free to comment.

From what I know, a lot of the AKAIs' quirks and character comes from their built in envelopes and filters - which I did not compare. Also, a unique sonic character of the 16-bit "S-Line" AKAIs was probably only evident in a short window, somewhere between the S-950 where quirks in hardware had the added "distortion" of the 12-bit internal processing and either the step up to first generation S2800/S3000 or the second (new generation) S2000/S3000XL (the "new gen" are the ones with PC SIMMs. Don't know about hardware generations of the actual mainboards.). Well, this small corner is where the S1000/S1100 sits.

I don't know if this sonic character (the slight difference I found) justifies hunting down a S1000. Also, it could quite possibly be that the first generation S2800 I had sitting on the rack (but did not compare, arg!) produces the same (tiny) quirks I found on the S1100 here. The bit crushing of the earlier 8 and 12 bit machines is probably more recognizable. Later AKAIs have an image of being very truthful bread-and-butter samplers which lost a bit of their character while audio-reproduction quality went up.

Yet, all of the AKAI samplers share their strong filters, which remained strong throughout the "S-Line" (to my knowledge). So if your sound design relies on them you're set. Also, the AKAIs' built-in waveforms - available on power-up (think of these as init programs) - are well used and loved.

In terms of "why would you use one today?" you might have found one or two reasons to keep your AKAI already while reading my ramblings above. It's not so much about saving CPU cycles - software samplers are low on CPU in comparison with VST synths.
In studio, if you can live with the added hassle of having something outboard, you might use an AKAI for the old-skool workflow: a disk (HD, Floppy or USB/Flash) full of your preferred workstation programs and samples and you're ready to roll. But the AKAIs really shine in a live and on-tour scenario. Who cares about how heavy that tour rack is. You want that white thing up there. Who cares how dim that LED is, it's OFF anyway (hint: click the contrast knob). And you've probably upgraded your unit with a multi-gig flash drive already, and with that noisy/faulty SCSI drive gone your trusty workhorse will probably never let you down in a million years.