There are many curiosities in the audio production world these days, but one always has a sneaking suspicion that the Japanese are using stuff that never sees the light of day in the Northern Hemisphere. Strange toys and boxes that they keep to themselves.
The Akebono is one of these boxes, a suitcase style synthesizer designed to reporduce the sound of the traditional koto, and much more besides. The original machine is a little shrouded in mystery and difficult to track down. Fortunately, Icebreaker Audio have done the job for us and now the mysterious little world of the Akebono is available to all. What lies within this initially drab looking machine, with its decaying canteen wall colour scheme and cheap, Radio Shack style controls?
The first patch is a Percussive one. This lo-fi little box essentially combines samples of the instruments with a little bit of digital synthesis. The percussion patch includes instruments familiar to all Japanese percussion conoisseurs, such as the taiko, shime daiko, surigane and others. They have a charmingly unconvincing quality, mainly due to the sampling quality of the original machines. That charm is reminiscent of many classic 80s drum machines and samplers – there’s very much a Emulator feel to the sound for me, which is great.
Controls include switching between the mod wheel and velocity to control the dynamic range of the instruments and also pitch bend (which is essentially on or off). There’s also a curious button that allows you tune down the drum samples by a full scale, Although there is also a tune option where you can tune the sound both up and down. Where the controls become really intersting is with the Suitcase Speaker section. Icebreaker Audio have sampled the Akebono from a number of different mic positions (including close, medium and far options).The Suitcase Speaker section alows you to choose which mic sound you prefer and then also blend it with how much of the direct line recording you want. So, for instance, you can blend the direct line recording with the Live Room mic option to create some added space to each drum sound.
The Plucked patch has much the same controls as the Percussive one. The instruments here include kotom bass koto, shamisen, guqin and biwa. Now, obviously, none of them sound terribly authentic, that’s not the point. The samples are suitably lo-fi and digital sounding, but one can imagine that at the time they probably blew many people’s socks off. Oh how spoiled we are now! Having said that, there’s much to be admired in the tone. Certainly many of these digitised versions of the originals would stand a greater chance of standing out in a dense mix. Doubling them up with the real thing might be an intriguing prospect. Or, quite simply, if you’re working on something that’s supposed to have a retro synthy feel but also demands ian injection of exotic Asian sounds, this would be a great option for retaining the retro vibe. A really great option.
The Wind patch is a lot of fun. Here you will find recreations of the shakuhachi, shinobue and kokyu, amongst others. A particular highlight is hichiriki, which the Akebono’s sampling methods has rendered in such a way as to leave it sounding like a child playing a mute trumpet. Again the GUI controls are almost identical to the other patches, the only real difference being that there is a mono/poly option rather than the pitchwheel one. Don’t expect terrifyingly realistic legato sounds to be achievable in mono mode. But again, that really isn’t what this library is about.
Where the sound design aspect of this library can truly come alive is in the effects section. Each of the three patches has a tab for Master FX. There are four sections Amp (with drive, toone and high gain controls), EQ (with bass, mid and treble), Mod (with depth, rate and amount), and Echo (with time, feedback and level). You can really begin to sculpt the sounds with these controls. No mind-bending warping or ethereal exoticness, but some lovely combinations of subtlety that create a more dynamic whole. For instance, some of the wind instrument samples really come to live with a blend of the Echo and Mod effects (the Mod effect essentially being chorus). And adding some distortion via the Amp controls to thedrums is a nice touch too.
In the Master FX section there are also three buttons: Bypass, Punch and Squish. These are dynamics/compression settings, with the Punch button amplifying the transients of the instrument, whilst the Squish button gives an overall effect of some hard compression, focused on the sustain qualities of the instrument. I’d have also liked to see some envelope controls and also filters for some further tweaking, but that’s just the sound designer in me I guess!
The Akebono was a strange little box of tricks and Icebreaker Audio have provided a carefully crafted reproduction of it, with a few extra options to spare. It’s cool, it’s charming, it’s retro and it’s obscure. If somewhat niche, if you find the right project for it, it will add a whole new dimension of lo-fi, understated fun.