Time for some more inane mouthing about my favorite subject….vintage analogue synthesizers. Next up the mighty Akai VX600.
As touched on in my previous post about the Akai VX90 Module, Akai were not really known for their synths. Most people associate them for making sampling affordable and bringing it to the masses. This is a shame because they made some lovely machines like the AX60, AX80, and the last in the line, the VX600.
The VX600 is a bit of an enigma. It was released in the Netherlands as a prototype by Akai back in 1986, which is quite late for a machine based around the Curtis 3340 VCO chip-set that had been doing the rounds since the late 70′s. It’s the same VCO that you’ll find in things like the Sequential Circuits Prophet 600, Oberheim Matrix synths, Roland Jupiter 8 and so on. Due to its complexity, and reports of its tuning instability, it never actually went into full production. Because of this, good examples are becoming harder to find. I got mine about 6 years ago from the Netherlands and it is in full working order thankfully.
Judging by its synthesis architecture, it appears to be based on the awesome Oberheim Xpander and, to my ears atleast, sounds very similar. I know a lot of people will disagree with that but there you go. It is an extremely capable machine and has the power of a top-flight poly synth. It is easily in the same league as your big polyphonic Rolands.
Unusually for a poly synth, it can do big fat lead sounds and powerful basses, as well as the subtle spooky pads and noises etc. Most multi-oscillator poly synths are rubbish at bass sounds. The VX600 eats them..It’s is also multi-timbrel with six outputs so you can use it as an analogue beat-box.
That wasn’t the point of the machine however. It was designed to be used with the now rare EVI 1000 and EWI 1000 wind controllers so that you could play it like a reed instrument. This was pioneering and financially risky stuff for Akai because the synth came out at a time when people wanted (not me) realistic sounding impersonations of real instruments and the Yamaha DX7 was selling like hot cakes. This meant that music shops were virtually giving away lovely analog kit which is when I got most of my stuff..The VX600 was released only 2 years before the Korg M1 workstation which had realistic piano and such like (yawn), making it one of the last truly analogue poly-synths ever made. At least until Alesis made the frikin awesome Andromeda A6 in 2000 – 14 years later!
The irony is that neither the Yamaha DX7 or the Korg M1 are particularly collectible but analogue stuff is with some machines fetching silly money but that’s another story.
So what is it actually like to use musically? Well I have a love/hate relationship with mine. The synth can produce some really ‘expensive’ analogue sounds. By that I mean it can do stuff that things like the truly awesome Yamaha CS80 (think Vangelis & Bladerunner) or the Roland Jupiter range can do but with better modulation in the case of the Rolands. The downside is that I hate programming it because it uses parameters. No lovely knobs and sliders. You can’t even use an external programmer because there is no MIDI sysex support. It just isn’t an inspirational machine like the Jupiter 6 or 8.
I’ve got some truly amazing sounds out of it but they are never the sounds that I want at the time. It doesn’t do what you expect it to do. Having said that, I use it as my master keyboard and it features in most of my tracks in one form or another these days. Check out the solo at the end of ‘I don’t know what is acceptable anymore’ or the gated choir sound in ‘Nothing lasts forever’…
I’ve found that the best way to use it is to just spend a few hours programming it and seeing what comes out rather than saying ‘right I need a resonant sweep sound in the middle 8 ‘cos the chances are you wont get a resonant sweep sound for about 4 hours of tweaking by which time you’ve forgotten what you were trying to do in the first place..
To sum up then, the Akai VX600 looks horrible, feels horrible and is horrible to program and is rather over-engineered. It has to be tuned every half-hour and the screen emits a nasty whining noise constantly. However, I wouldn’t part with mine because when it feels like coming up with the goods, you can build an entire track around it and that’s what counts. It is a powerful and complex beast and definitely not for the faint hearted….or lazy.