Last update: 8 April 2010
The Akai AX80
When Akai turned up at the 1984 Frankfurt Music Fair, they had many people wondering what a hi-fi manufacturer was doing at a show aimed squarely at performing and recording musicians. A new range of speakers perhaps? Maybe an amplifier or two? What the world wasn't expecting was the 'Akai Music Studio System' - an early attempt at a complete MIDI studio that comprised a fully fledged polysynth, the AX80, the MG1212 combined 12-track mixer/recorder, the MR16 drum machine, and the MS08 sequencer. Of the four, it was the synth that garnered the most interest. It was sleek, black, beautifully designed, beautifully finished and, if looks could kill, was set to become The Terminator of its generation. Indeed, if high quality castings, slick plastic mouldings, and a highly polished wooden finish that wouldn't look out of place on a Steinway turn you on, the AX80 is still the synth for you.
In some ways the Akai was a true analogue instrument, with sixteen oscillators and a maximum polyphony of eight notes. The oscillators were VCOs (voltage controlled oscillators) rather than DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators) thus making the AX80 more closely related to classics such as Sequentials and Oberheims than to rivals like the Roland JX-series. Indeed, the chips were made by Curtis ElectroMusic (CEM) - the same company that produced the oscillators used in later Prophet 5s. On the other hand, secondary sound creation facilities such as the envelopes were calculated digitally. This 'hybrid' arrangement was identical to that of, for example, the Prophet 600.
The AX80 offered 32 preset sounds, plus 64 memories that you could freely edit. The keyboard was five octaves wide and velocity-sensitive, although it lacked the responsive feel of its contemporaries the Roland JX8P or the Yamaha DXs. Yet despite its analogue heritage, the AX80 employed a novel implementation of digital parameter access editing, and part of its high quality design was to make this often obtuse editing system clear and easily understandable. It did this by echoing Yamaha's £9,500 monster, the DX1. Each parameter had a fluorescent blue LED bar-graph that responded to the editing controls. Since, when you selected a patch, all the parameter values lit up, it was almost as easy to 'see' the sound on an AX80 as it was on a knobby synth such as a Roland Juno 106 or Jupiter 6.
On the 'minus' side, the Akai was not multi-timbral, had a primitive MIDI implementation that was unable to dump or load patches, featured neither an arpeggiator nor a sequencer, and was not pressure-sensitive. But despite these limitations, it was in many ways quite an advanced synth. For example, whereas many of its low-cost contemporaries were struggling by with a single low frequency oscillator, the Akai's four LFOs independently controlled the pitch of oscillator 1, the pitch of oscillator 2, the cut-off frequency of the low-pass filter, and the rate of oscillator 1's pulse width modulation. Similarly, whereas many competitors offered just a single ADSR envelope, the AX80 incorporated two envelope generators (EGs) for each of its eight voices. These were implemented in an odd arrangement in which EG1 and EG2 controlled the VCA and VCF respectively (the volume and the tone of the sound) or EG1 (in its VCA/VCF mode) controlled both aspects, much as the envelopes of a more limited synth would do.
The oscillators themselves produced sawtooth, squarewave, and mixed saw+square waves. They offered a sub-oscillator on OSC1, detune and two types of cross-modulation on OSC2, independent volumes, and the ability to modify the pitch of OSC2 by applying either the VCF envelope or the VCA envelope. Each voice also incorporated a traditional low-pass filter that offered the basic controls of cut-off frequency and resonance, and that could track the keyboard so that higher pitched notes were brighter than lower pitched ones. This, of course, mimics the responses of many natural sounds such as those produced by guitars and pianos. You could also modify the filters' cut-offs using their dedicated envelopes, and by the velocity with which you struck each key. There was even a simple high-pass filter, and this removed bass frequencies and thinned the sound if desired. It all sounds like gobbledygook? Unfortunately, a long list of features often does, but it meant that the AX80 was, in principle, a very flexible synthesiser indeed.
On the performance side, the AX80 sported twin pitch-bend and modulation wheels, but also allowed you to limit the maximum amount of bend or wobble applied to the sound. Other plus points included a chord memory that reduced the synth to monophony but enabled you to play chords with one finger, and a pedal input that allowed you to step through the programs in a bank.
So how did these facilities fit together? Offering 54 parameters per patch, the AX was capable of some neat tricks. For example, the velocity with which you hit a key could control the pitch of OSC2. You set this up by making one of the envelope generators velocity-sensitive and routing it to the oscillator. Then, if you selected one of the cross-modulation options, the tone of the note - rather than its pitch - became velocity-sensitive. You could conjure further sonic oddities by winding up the resonance until the filter itself began oscillating. Since the filter tracked the keyboard unevenly (unlike for example, that of the Roland Juno 60) you couldn't use it as a scaled sound source, but if you mixed it with the conventional oscillators it produced some off the wall sounds that changed timbre dramatically as you played different parts of the keyboard.
So the AX80 was a highly flexible, gutsy synth with bags of character? Unfortunately... no. Although it was easy to obtain synth-y sounds and effects (unwanted ones often came about by accident) this was one of those rare instruments in which the total was definitely not equal to the sum of the parts. OK, so it was reasonably good at piano, harpsichord, and Clavinet style sounds, and had an interesting line in bell-like percussion. But, much like Yamaha's FM and Casio's PD digital instruments, the AX80 was quite incapable of lush or thicker sounds, and sported a truly gutless bottom end. Consequently, its strings and brass patches were uniformly thin and weedy. Later Akais were to offer a two-speed chorus that thickened things up considerably, but the AX80 simply didn't have what it takes. Even applying external effects and boosting the bass end on the mixer couldn't replace what wasn't there to start with. Consequently, the list of famous names who used the instrument was... nobody. I'm not aware of a single renowned player who used or endorsed the AX80.
The history of the future
There was a time when Akai produced only black instruments. The first was the AX80 itself, and the second was the S612 rackmount sampler. The third and final one was the AX60 - a much simplified little brother that Akai didn't even release in the UK. Launched in 1986, this was in many ways an even more 'retro' synth, with just one oscillator per voice, no velocity-sensitivity, fewer memories, but lots of knobs and sliders.
The next stage in Akai's evolution, and the one that led directly to the company we know and love (?) was to paint everything ivory. The AX60 got the make-over, metamorphosing into both the AX73 keyboard synthesiser and the VX90 rackmount module. And six S612 samplers ended up in a keyboard called the X7000 that had its own rack-mountable sibling, the S700. But the still black AX90, which would have been an enhanced version of the AX80 had it been launched, never made it past prototyping and into production.
So why look back at a synth of such demonstrable undesirability, especially when there are so many Moogs and Oberheims out there to drool over? Well, ask yourself how a manufacturer can waltz into a fiercely competitive market, offer an unremarkable range of instruments, and in a few years contribute to the death of several well-established brands. It wasn't because the AX80 sounded better than, say, the many revered Oberheims or Sequentials. It wasn't because early Akai synthesisers were fashionable items used on dozens of hit records. It was because, despite their shortcomings, the AXs were well designed, well built, user-friendly, cheap, and extremely reliable synthesisers. If Akai had stood still, no doubt a better established company, or even another newcomer, would have squeezed them out of the market. But nobody, not even Akai, expected to get everything right first time, and with hindsight we can now see that mighty Akais can indeed from little AX80s grow.
Copyright ©1996, Gordon Reid.