Click to see the full front panel

The Akai XE8 was way ahead of its time offering a wide range of 16-bit drum samples in a 1U rack mount unit for triggering from a keyboard or a sequencer or by the Akai ME25T pad-MIDI converter.

Released around 1988, the Akai XE8 preceded other similar drum modules such as the Roland R8M, the Alesis D4 and D5 and the Emu Procussion modules by many years.

It came with 16 internal drum sounds which could be augmented using (optional) ROM cards. Up to two cards (Ext 1 and Ext 2) could be used simultaneously. Sounds (internal or external) could be extensively edited and modified. You could adjust pitch, pitch modulation, amplitude envelope, amplitude modulation and more. Sounds could be assigned to any note and the unit also had eight individual outputs to which any drum sound could be assigned for outboard processing and manipulation.

The sounds themselves were OK for the most part and some of the samples were (for the time) luxuriously long and detailed - long cymbals and closed, medium and open hi-hats. However, bandwidth was limited which made some of the sounds a bit 'muddy' but nothing that couldn't be rectified with judicious EQ.

So ... What more could you want? Loads of editable drum sounds in a compact, portable and convenient format with individual outputs.... an almost perfect drum module you'd have thought and by all accounts, the XE8 should have been a huge success for Akai. But it wasn't.... in fact, it almost disappeared without trace.

Why? What went wrong?

Well, although there was a lot to like about the XE8, there was a lot that was wrong with it too.

Firstly (as a quick glance at the front panel will reveal), it had 2 x 2-digit LCD displays. One of these was reserved for showing the program number (or data value when editing) and the other showed the selected sound number. No names... just numbers! So you either had to remember which sound was which or you were constantly having to audition the sound first before proceeding with any edits.

The PLAY/EDIT SELECT rotary switch was also a bit cumbersome to use and you had to remember to switch it back to PLAY all the time to prevent accidentally messing a sound or program up.

The biggest problem, however, was the combined, dual-concentric DATA/SOUND SELECT control. The outer control selected the sound to be edited and the inner control changed the data for the selected parameter. Unfortunately, whilst neat and compact, it was all too easy to accidentally change the sound you were editing when adjusting the inner DATA control. For example, in use, what could happen is that you'd carefully select Sound #3 and you'd select a parameter to tweak... as you moved the inner DATA control to adjust that parameter, you could accidentally catch the outer SOUND SELECT control, select a different sound without realising it and apply the changes to that sound! So.... you'd be modifying the parameter and banging away on the keyboard wondering why the sound wasn't changing.... then you'd look closer at the module and discover that you had accidentally selected Sound #4 (or whatever) and you were actually editing that sound and not Sound #3 as you thought. The net result was that you hadn't changed the sound you wanted to ... you had inadvertently messed up a completely different sound. And then you'd realise that you couldn't remember what the original value was for that parameter on that other sound... the whole process could be very frustrating.

Then there was another issue... the ROM cards. Or rather, the ROM card slots! There were two... one on the front panel and another ..... wait for it ..... on the REAR panel!!! I mean... what use was that when the XE8 was neatly tucked away in a rack? It meant that unless your XE8 was free-standing out of a rack, one card had to be pretty much regarded as 'internal' meaning that you could only (in practice) interchange one card.

And as I recall as well, the cards weren't exactly cheap (and they weren't exactly in abundance either).

It also has to be said as well that some of the key sounds (kick and snare in particular) were, frankly, a bit dull and failed to capture the imagination of prospective customers.... people would go to the shop to try out the XE8 and whilst they might have marvelled at the lovely, long cymbals, the detailed hi-hats and diversity of sounds, etc., they were less than impressed with the kicks and snares which were... well.... a bit 'ordinary'.

So, all in all, despite being an inspired concept (especially at the time), the XE8 was a disappointment. Which was a shame. I guess the thing was built to hit some magic price point (it was originally £499 in the UK I believe) and compromises had to be made.

The XE8 also suffered a bit of an identity crisis. Who was the product aimed at? Drummers? Maybe but they also needed to buy the ME-35T trigger unit and that made the whole system a bit expensive. Keyboard players? Maybe but they could achieve the same (and more) with an S900 (albeit at greater expense).

In spite of the above comments and criticisms, however, there are many good and usable sounds to be had from the XE8 that you might find useful in your work and one person's flabby kick drum might be another's inspiration for exciting new ideas!

The raw source samples and the photos are from denhaku.com, a Japanese website devoted to drum machines.

All sample editing and programming by Hollow Sun.