Akai AX80 "Simply... Awesome!" full page colour advertisement from page 44 in the November 1984 issue of Keyboard Magazine.
It's always a crap shoot when a company tries to break into a new market. It usually takes a lot of money and a lot of balls. I think its fair to say Akai had both in 1984 when they decided to start up their new electronic instruments division known fondly by many as Akai Professional.
Gordon Reid probably said it best in the introductory paragraph of his 1996 AX80 retrospective:
"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."F*ck yeah! Excuse my language, but that's how you start a retrospective! Man, if I had written that paragraph, I would have just clapped my hands, ended the blog post right there and walked away from my computer. I love the look of the AX80 almost as much as Gordon Reid - even without any knobs.
But, I didn't write it, and now you have to read the rest of this meandering post. :D
Readers of Keyboard were first introduced to the AX80 through the magazine's Spec Sheet section in the September 1984 issue of Keyboard - a month or two before the ad started to appear. The promo provided readers a good little "tease" that included the basics of the machine. It actually shared promo space with the MG1212, basically an analog ADAT, so I've left that part out:
"Akai Synthesizer. The AX80 synthesizer features a 5-octave keyboard, pitch-bend and modulation wheels, and 8-voice polyphony. Each voice has two oscillators a VCF, an envelope generator, and a VCA. The instrument also has 32 preset sounds along with 64 user-programmable memory positions. MIDI in, out and thru connectors are provided. Panel functions are displayed on five fluorescent bar graphs. The rear panel is angled to make connecting cables easier. Distributed by IMC, Box 2344, Fort Worth, TX 76113."I'm always a little disappointed when the Spec Sheet promo doesn't provide price information. Makes me pout a little bit actually. But luckily we have the InterWebz today, and according to Wikipedia's incredibly well-written AX80 page, this synthesizer jumped onto the scene with a retail price of $1,695 US.
According to the page, the AX80 was Akai Professional "first venture", and part of what Gordon Reid described above as the "Akai Music Studio System" that included a sampler, drum machine, sequencer and even a multitrack tape recorder. The page provides a lot of great detail about the voice architecture and sound programming, and the knowledgable author(s) actually compare it roughly to Roland's JX3P. Interesting.
I am glad that the Spec Sheet did reference the fluorecent bar graphs. To me, that's the best thing about this beast. MATRIXSYNTH has a good little photo of OSC 1's graph from a 2007 auction post. The AX80 must look gorgeous in the dark.
Tech writer David Hughes included his thoughts on the fluorescent graphs in a June 2002 Sound on Sound AX80 retrospective titled "The Return of the Axman":
"Akai's innovative solution to the nightmare of digital parameter access was a huge array of fluorescent bar graphs that run along the entire width of the instrument, and almost every available parameter is visible simultaneously. You really have to see an AX80 in the flesh to appreciate just how truly astonishing this looks, and these machines could easily be used to decorate Oxford Street at Christmas!"Purrrrrdy.
There are a number of other good references on the Web that point out all that is good and bad about the AX80. Vintage Synth Explorer has a good little write up and compares its sound to the Chroma Polaris or Juno 106.
That Sound on Sound magazine I mentioned above also compared the AX80's sound to a number of other synths.
"It can sound like any number of synths of that era: the richness of the Prophet series, the depth and punch reminiscent of the Minimoog, the sterility of Roland's Juno series, and the digital 'wanginess' of the PPG family."Poor thing - getting compared to all it's cousins. You think it would have developed some kind of psychological complex after all this time. :D