Remember when a $200 budget used to buy you a metronome and flight case, if you were lucky? Now, you have a range of great synths you can choose from. And now it’s Akai’s turn.

The Rhythm Wolf is an integrated analog groove box – a 32-step sequencer, an analog drum machine, and a bassline synth in one. And it’s just $199 street. We’ve got all the details on the box, and should have more hands-on impressions later this week.

The drum machine

Along the bottom are six “genuine MPC pads” – the important thing being that they are, Akai confirms with CDM, velocity sensitive. (Though sequencing those velocities is greatly simplified. “Genuine” seems to apply to things that are pads, are suare, and are made by AKAI – but this is still way more than most drum machines give you even at higher prices.)

There are tune knobs for each part, too.

Kick, snare, hat (open/closed), and “percussion” parts. Percussion covers the “metallic” range – sadly, no clap here, techno/house fans. (Akai does promise “hip hop”-inspired sounds, so … well, we’ll have to hear that.)

The synth

The synth bass doesn’t give you too many controls, as it’s wedged into the side of the drum machine. But you do get a square or saw wave, plus a “classic filter design,” with cutoff and resonance, plus tuning and envelope controls.

The pattern sequencer
32 steps with swing. Select patterns, adjust tempo. You can also program in steps via an x0x-style layout.

In fact, all in all – and I want to look more into the functionality here – it’s really the sequencing functions that appear to set the Rhythm Wolf apart. Akai has gone with simplified MPC-style programming, with performance and step recording and even a copy function. That’s not in itself unprecedented, but it’s pretty eye-opening on a $200 box that’s both a drum machine and synth. Add in velocity sensitivity, and you can do things with this box that most inexpensive drum machines can’t (or certainly not without an external input device).

The I/O:

MIDI in, MIDI out (nice to see that, absent on the low-end KORG range apart from mods – meaning you can plug in other inexpensive gear, too, like, oh, say a volca or a MeeBlip)
A gate trigger, so you can connect analog gear
Two separate mono outputs – one for the drum machine, and one for the synth

Howl at the moon…

There’s also a knob-controlled analog distortion. Effects and so on you’ll have to provide yourself (though having separate synth and drum outs should help), but distortion could be a nice touch as far as adding character.

I asked Akai Germany to clarify some features – and it turns out that the pads and sequencing really do add a lot.

CDM: Can you sequence external hardware with the 32-step sequencer? (either over MIDI, USB, or both?)
Akai: Yes. USB and MIDI.

Are the pads velocity sensitive?
Yes, the five pads below the instruments are velocity sensitive. The internal sequencer is able to handle three different layers (values).

There’s one mono output from the drums, one mono output from the synth?
Yes. But if you want to lose your warranty you might want to modify it to get more outputs 😉

Ed.: I’m assuming that last bit is unofficial, but… erm… yes, I will make sure we get generous loan terms from AKAI when CDM gets ours to test.

“Howl” knob – this is a sort of overdrive?
Diode based distortion (preliminary – might change). All analogue as well.

Stay tuned…

No word yet on whether I can chain these together into a Three Wolf Moon. In fact, I’m not sure even how much we get to see in person as there were none in the AKAI booth yet as they were setting up (though I will get hands-on with the new APCs, which are stunningly small). But we have a supply of alcohol near the AKAI/InMusic booth and several days, so who knows what I’ll get out of the product reps by the end of the week.