One summer I achieved to open my digital 3rd eye & realized how simple #ableton live truly is. It could easily be its own religion. And I would follow ⚪️ #akai #ax80 #microKorg #roland #hs10 #synthplus10
I strongly believe that every electronic musician faces an ongoing dilemma regarding the acquisition of new gear. While not inherently unhealthy, if not kept in check the quest for the next new thing can easily become far more important than the actualuse of the gear one already has at hand. This is a pit into which I’ve fallen and climbed out of only to repeat the process again and again. However, thanks to current developments regarding a certain machine that I never thought I’d even see much less be the owner of… Well, the cycle is winding down, and coming to as near a close as it ever has. I’m sure that I’ll always have one eye peeled for interesting and unusual things, but the importance I’ve placed on the quest itself is something I will endeavor to reduce.
Having said all that, one of the few pieces of gear that I’ve always been on the lookout for is the AKAI VX90. I had an AX80 for a while not that long ago, and quite liked it. 4 LFOs on a synth of that age and price range? Nearly unheardof. But space issues and redundancy led me to part ways with it. A long time ago, probably 1990, I found an AX73 in a pawn shop for like $75. I didn’t think to ask them to hold it for me, but a few days later when I went back to buy the thing, you guessed it, it was gone already. I mean, in those days, nobody freaking wanted any of that stuff, so why bother asking for it to be set aside? Yeah, I learned a bitter lesson that day. In any case, the AX73, or its step-brother the VX90, have sort of always been on my wish list, although I hardly ever see them at all…
This one was another auction find. The starting bid was $10. The shop listed it as “Working, but generally crackly/static-filled overall. Condition is C. Sold as-is. Auciton for item shown in photo only, no extras.” So, the power cable wasn’t included, and it was a bit banged up (just dents in the upper case). I was a little apprehensive, to tell the truth. But I decided to say fuck it and put a rather large bid down and just wait to see what happened. I ended up winning the auction for like $20 less than my big ass bid. Before the auction ended, I had a look on eBay and Perfect Circuit is (was?) selling one for damn near a fucking thousand bucks!? With shipping included, I barely broke half of that. People are goddam crazy! It irritated me to think that some goofballcollector would outbid me, only to put the fucking thing in storage or something instead of actually using it. What the hell is wrong with these people? Grrrrrr.
Well anyway, after ghetto engineering a power cord from a dead soldering iron, I tested it out and the thing works fine. The Value slider is probably in need of an overhaul, as towards the ends the value jitters, but otherwise, there is no static or crackling in the audio path, and aside from the dented top panel (which can easily be hammered out), it doesn’t look all that bad for its age.
I wasn’t aware that the VCOs in this synth are the same as the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak (and the AX60, AX73, Doepfer A111-2, the original Dark Energy, the Sequential Multi-Trak, MAX and Split-8, the Simmons SDS-9 and SDS-1000, etc.)… Hmmmm. Interesting. Talk about an odd extended family.
So after testing was done, I installed a standard three-prong IEC socket and replaced the soldered-to-the-PCB battery with a new, socketed one. I was surprised that the LCD works fine and is still bright (although in the photo at top, thanks to the contrast setting the letters didn’t photograph well). I was a bit concerned that I’d have to hunt all over hell’s half-acre to find a compatible replacement LCD unit.
I discovered some interesting things about this particular VX90. First of all, there is only a mono output jack on the rear panel. Photos I’ve seen online all show stereo jacks. What? Also, there is NO chorus option in the editing menu. Further investigation was needed! I found a photo on sequencer.de that showed the innards of a VX90, and the daughterboard PCB for the outputs is completely different! The one in my VX is like half the size of an iPhone, while the one in their photo is probably the size of uh, hmmm, a paperback book? I wanna say a bankbook, but since only people in Japan would get it, what else can I compare it to? Anyway. Yeah. So that PCB is crazy different. Probably the whole goddam chorus circuit is on that particular PCB, thus mine doesn’t have it. No big deal. Second, I found that while there are spots on the PCB for jacks for sustain pedal, and program up and down, they were not used. Whaaaaaat? This is crazy. I think AKAI had a habit of releasing products before they were quite all the way finished (sounds like Windows.. blecch). I’ve seen a few AKAI items floating around in shops here that were somehow different than ‘normal’ versions (a VX600 that had NO memory backup circuit, and I mean not even on the PCB, for example). Odd. So it seems I’ve stumbled upon a rather special unit I guess.
So how does it sound? Hmmmm. AKAI makes interesting, unusual synths, that’s for sure. Structurally speaking, it’s a one-VCO synth, with the usual waveforms, envelopes and LFO. Might seem pretty boring. Here’s where AKAI’s curve ball gets thrown in. First, VCO waveform can be set to sawtooth plus triangle, for a richer result than either alone. You can also change the width of the waveforms, and put PWM on any waveform. Aside from the Alpha-Junos, I can’t think of any other synths that can do this without resorting to some crafty modulation routing or other such trickery. BUT… Maybe because it’s the synth-on-a-chip CEM3394, but the PWM is weird. It seems to always go past the max/min range at those points in the cycle, kind of like a through-zero flanger, which makes for some interesting effects but is a bit different from the PWM I’m used to. “It’s PWM, Jim, but not as we know it.” LOL. What other oddball features does it have? The VCF can be modulated directly from the VCO waveforms. FM! It has two envelope generators, which can be creatively assigned. You have your typical choice of one each for VCF and VCA, or you can use one for both the VCF & VCA and the other for the VCOs. The LFO is a bit lacking, in that although it has a variety of waveforms (saw down, saw up, square, triangle, and random compared to no choice whatsoever on the Alpha Junos or Junos for that matter) it can only be routed to one destination, period (VCO, VCF or VCA). I should mention that the PWM LFO is separate. There are also nifty key assign options: Poly, Dual and Unison. Poly is your standard polyphonic deal, with Dual halving the polyphony but allowing you to stack 2 VCOs, and Unison delivering monophonic 6-VCO fatness. Dual and Unison allow detuning. Anything else? VCF and VCA have independent velocity-sensitivity, so that alone puts it ahead of just about any other VCO polysynth from the 80s.
All in all, this is a strange, interesting, unique synth. I’ve only spent a minimal amount of time programming it, and I can see that it’ll probably take me a while to get used to its peculiarities. But even so, it’s got a nice, different flavor from the usual synths of the era. AKAI made some weird synths. I wonder whatever happened to the people who developed these…
The year is 1984, and Akai released their first professional synthesizer. The AX80. It’s simply magical. #akai #ax80 #analog #synth #synthesizer #80s #retro #vintage #hidden #gem #beast #1984 #toysforboys