Using computers with old music gear gets harder and harder over time. I built a large sample collection over the years for my hardware samplers, both by sourcing sample CDs as well as creating my own sample collections. I have three old hardware sampler machines that I still use today: An Akai CD3000XL, an Akai S5000, and an Emu e6400.
I tried to make the shift over to software samplers that are available now, like Kontakt or Gigasampler. But for whatever reason, I still prefer the old way of using those hardware boxes. Sometimes I think it’s the way they sound, and other times I think my fingers just know how to program those front panels faster than I could do the same thing on a computer with a mouse. Perhaps I just like the tactile interface.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard for me to let go of those old samplers. And of course, I want to efficiently get sounds into and out of them so the sample library isn’t static. I definitely do not want to edit the waveforms themselves in the sampler; this is one place where a large screen and mouse blows away working on the hardware.
That’s where the friction begins. Of course I’d love to be able to plug in any of these devices to my computer via USB (more on that in a minute), but the older devices like the Emu and the CD3000XL don’t have USB. Instead, they used the SCSI bus to get sounds in and out of their memories. And if any of you out there have used SCSI before, you know what a pain it can be. Is the chain terminated? What IDs are in use? Do I have the right driver? Can I hot-swap devices?
I spent a lot of time troubleshooting this part of my studio, how the samplers communicate with a modern computer. I’d like to share what I learned, in case any of you out there are also gluttons for punishment: you love your old samplers, but you want to use modern computer hardware with them. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, the following worked for me. Let’s tackle each piece on its own, shall we? We have the rough structure of the setup, then each sampler to deal with.
In my studio, my main writing and recording workspace is an Apple Macintosh computer. I use either Cubase or Live for tracking, and these programs live on my main monitor. On the second, smaller monitor, I usually keep a few windows open, like a spreadsheet that contains my routing cheat sheets and so forth. When I’m using a sampler, I will also open the sampler’s host program on this second screen as well. What this means in practice depends on the sampler I’m using.
Over in the racks, I have a Windows 7 computer with a SCSI card connected to an Iomega Jaz drive, a Plextor CD-ROM drive, and a Glyph 3-way SCSI switch. The switch is, in turn, connected to each of the three samplers. I really only need to use the computer with the CD3000XL and the e6400, and it’s nice to have a CD-ROM and Jaz drive for reading and writing programs, samples, and so forth connected to each machine.
For SCSI adapters, I recommend some variant of the Adaptec AHA-2940. Windows 7 doesn’t officially support the 2940, but since Windows 7 and Windows Vista are close cousins as far as drivers are concerned, you can install the Windows Vista drivers, and it works. I use the AHA-2940UW, the “ultra wide,” single-channel PCI card.
The next issue we need to address is that the samplers in question use what is known as the ASPI Layer for SCSI on top of the SCSI buss in order for host software to communicate with the samplers. This too is no longer supported in Windows 7, but you can coax this into working as well. After downloading, unzipping, and installing the ASPI layer, reboot and it should be up and running.
Now that the computer is up and running with a SCSI adapter, driver, and ASPI layer we are ready to get the samplers talking to host software. Let’s begin with the Akai.
AKAI S2000 SERIES
The steps in this section pertain to the “S2000″ series of Akai samplers. Akai made many devices that used the same logic generation, all based around the S2000 chip. These are the S2000, S3000XL, S3200XL, CD3000XL. These are great-sounding machines, and one can fit some option boards in them for adding effects and a second filter. The filter card is exciting, because you get a second multimode filter for each voice! Akai produced a piece of software for this series called MESA that allows you to transfer samplers to and from the machine and to program voices, multis, etc. from the computer. It turns out that MESA II still runs on Windows 7, and this is what I did to get it running.
Turn on the sampler before the computer. Make sure the sampler is running the latest version of the operating system, which is OS 2.14. If you don’t have OS 2.14, you can find it online by searching for it. Place this on a floppy using the appropriate tools, and put it in the sampler’s floppy drive before booting.
When the computer starts, ensure that you see the sampler listed during the SCSI card’s post screen. For my computer, it looks like this:
If you don’t see the sampler in the list, that means that there’s no way the host software will see it, either. Check for SCSI ID collisions, and make sure your SCSI chain is properly terminated. Cables go bad, too, so replacing the cable is another option to try if yours isn’t working.
Once Windows boots, we need to make sure that Windows can see the sampler. This is a layer on top of the SCSI adapter. Open Computer Management and then open the device manager. You should see an entry for the Akai when you expand the “Other devices” tree node.
If you don’t see the Akai listed there but you did see it in the SCSI card screen, that means the ASPI layer isn’t installed correctly in Windows. Try it again!
Assuming the Akai entry is there, you’re ready to begin using whatever software you want with the sampler. MESA is great for programming patches and transferring samples. You might also want to use Recycle, Sound Forge, or Wavelab to transfer samples to the machine.
EMU EIV SERIES
In the 1990s, Akai and E-mu Systems had similar offerings in the sampler market. Akai had its S2000 series, and E-mu had its EIV series, descended from the Emulator line of products that brought sampling to the masses more cheaply. Okay, maybe not “the masses” (Ensoniq’s Mirage keyboard was probably the best example of that), but E-mu certainly broke the market open with the Emulator.
The E-mu sampler I have is the e6400, which is based on the EIV engine. Before E-mu was bought by Creative Labs and ceased making hardware samplers, there was one more revision of the Emulator line: the Ultra series. These had the option of adding USB communication, like Akai’s S5000 and S6000. But since the version I have doesn’t have USB, I’m relegated to the SCSI bus again.
Getting the e6400 to work with the computer is similar to the above section for the Akai. Make sure the device is present in the adapter card’s BIOS screen:
Windows will attempt to install a driver for the E-mu 8 times – each time, just tell Windows not to install a driver and to leave you alone. You should then see 8 Emulator IVs in the device manager under “Other devices.”
At this point, the computer should be able to communicate with the sampler from whatever software you want. Of course, the software needs to support the Emulator IV series for this to work. Recycle, Sound Forge, and Wavelab all should work.
One fun piece of software I don’t use that much but surprisingly still works on Windows is called EOS Link. This software was created by E-mu, and it provides a way to see what the device’s display reads and to program the device from your computer. It is a literal translation of the front panel of the device, though, so it’s not as nice as Akai’s MESA.
The last sampler I bought new was the S5000, and to me this was a huge step forward. It had a USB option card on the way, a nice big screen, many filters, and more good options for expansion. It also uses the Microsoft FAT file system as its standard, which means that instead of messing around with custom disk formats, one can just drop files onto a regular drive and read it on the Akai. My solution for the S5000 right now is to use Akai’s Ak.Sys program from my Macintosh over USB. I’m running Snow Leopard, and generally this works just fine. However, Ak.Sys is an application compiled for the now-defunkt PPC instruction set.
With the new Lion version of Mac OS X, Apple dropped support for Rosetta, which is a machine code translation layer that lets Intel Macs run PPC-compiled software. This means it’s the end-of-line for Ak.Sys on the Mac. However, it still runs on Windows 7, so if I ever want to upgrade the operating system on my Macintosh I’ll move the USB connection over to the Windows machine.
The S5000 series dropped support for programmability over SCSI, so the MESA option is gone. But that’s not so bad, after all. Ak.Sys is better, and the front panel is actually not that bad on the S5000. Transferring samples isn’t that bad either, since it reads and writes a commonly-spoken file format.
All right, so now we have all the samplers talking to computers. How do we deal with the samplers’ files? I use Remote Desktop from my Macintosh to connect to the PC over wireless. When I do this, I can also map parts of my Mac’s file system to appear on the PC. So as long as I keep the files together on my Mac, I can transfer them over to the sampler of choice pretty easily. If I’m using big files, I might put them on a CF card from the Mac and read them on the PC. This doesn’t happen very often, though.
NOTES ON SOFTWARE
I mentioned that you can use Wavelab, Sound Forge, and Recycle over SCSI to these samplers. That’s true, and there are more pieces of software you can use than just those. But unfortunately many of those pieces of software have dropped SCSI sampler support along the way. The last version of Recycle to support SCSI transfers is version 2.0. I don’t recall the last versions of Sound Forge and Wavelab that support SCSI transfers, so you might have to do some digging if you want to use those.Posted: September 21st, 2011 | Tags: akai, emu, gear, mesa, samplers, windows | 2 Comments »