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Akai AX vs Sequential Circuits Max


Max AX60

OK, so AX vs. Max is not a very fair comparison (the Max being programmable via MIDI only), but it sounded cool. I currently have an AX60 in the shop with what I initially thought was going to be voice chip issues, so I was doing some research and was reminded that the AX60 and its siblings (AX73, VX90) share the same “synth on a chip” Curtis voice chips (CEM 3394).

While the CEM3394 genesis seems to be anecdotal (commissioned by Pizza Time/Chuck E Cheese pizza chain for custom video games), it’s usage in video games and the synth lines of both Akai and Sequential Circuits is well established. That rabbit trail led me to wonder, which is the more versatile synth, since both Akai and SC lines are sonically similar.

Meet the Akai AX Family

AX80 AX73 AX60

What? Akai made synths? Yes, around the time Akai was testing the waters of the sampling market with the S612 (well before the market dominating S1000), they put out a few synths. The Akai AX family members are functionally similar, but the AX60 has an arpeggiator and is bitimbral, while the AX73 and VX90 are velocity sensitive and have more flexible envelope routing to pitch. Physical differences are UI (single slider/keypad for the AX73/VX90 vs. dedicated sliders/buttons on the AX60) and form factor (AX60: 61 keys, AX73: 73 keys, VX90: 2U rack).

Note: The AX80 is the AX60’s predecessor and a very different beast (dual oscillators, different filters, etc).

Meet the Sequential Six-Trak Family

Six-Trak Multi-Trak Split-Eight

The Six-Trak family members are also functionally similar, but not identical. The Six-Trak and the Max are almost functionally identical, except the Max loses the arpeggiator and is mostly a preset synth (20 editable presets are only programmable via MIDI). The Multitrak adds an octave (61 keys vs. 49) and velocity sensitivity. The Split-Eight adds a couple voices (8 vs. 6), but is only bitimbral (vs. multitimbral) and loses the pitch envelope and sequencer.

Meet the Other Contenders

Poly-61 Poly-800 Juno-106

Yes, this article is primarily about CEM3394 based synths, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the competition of the period … While Yamaha began to dominate the synth industry with the digital DX line, Roland and Korg still had entries in the “budget” analog synth market. The Roland Juno family shares architecture and features of the AX and Six-Trak families (single oscillator, 24dB filter, single LFO), including a high-pass filter, like the AX family, but adds a sub oscillator. As usual, Korg was doing their own thing, offering a Poly-800, with additive square waves and all voices sharing a single filter (the Poly-61M has more similarities, but adds a second oscillator). However, the Roland Junos and the Korg Poly-61 do not have the second envelope or filter FM of the AX and Six-Trak families (the Roland Jupiter/JX and Korg DW families are more versatile, with dual oscillators and envelope generators, but had an MSRP over $1000).


Both the AX and the Six-Trak families were produced at about the same time (Six-Trak/Max: 1984, Multitrak/Split8: 1985, AX60: 1985, AX73/VX90: 1986) as budget synths (under $1000 MSRP).

Signal Path

Both families have the same signal path (single oscillator saw, triangle, and/or pulse waveforms to 24dB filter and amp), thanks to the CEM3394. However, the AX family adds a sampler input (early Akai samplers could have their individual voices routed through AX filters) and a high-pass filter (similar to a Roland Juno family). All family members are 6 voice (with unison), except for the Split-Eight, which has 8 voices. All members of both families have chorus, except the Six-Trak and Max.


Both families have dedicated ADSR envelopes for filter (with polarity) and amp, but the Six-Trak family goes a step further with a dedicated pitch envelope and glide (AX family shares the filter or amp envelopes with pitch). Also, both families have a single LFO, but the Six-Trak family can route the LFO to pitch, PWM, AND/OR filter, while the AX family LFO routes to pitch, filter, OR amp. However, the AX family compensates by offering more LFO waveforms (up/down saw, triangle, square, or random) than the Six-Trak family (triangle or square) and delay, along with a dedicated PWM LFO. Finally, both families offer filter modulation via VCO (triangle wave) and keyboard tracking.


The Split-Eight and AX60 both have 64 presets, while the rest of the family members on both sides have 100 presets (although only 20 are editable on the Max). The AX60, Six-Trak, and Max also have arpeggiators, but are not velocity sensitive (other members have no arpeggiator, but are velocity sensitive). All Six-Track family members (except the Split-Eight) also have a sequencer.


While all members of both families have it, they were built in the mid-80’s when MIDI was in it’s infancy, so while the Sequential Circuits synths have full MIDI support, including SysEx (Dave Smith helped create the MIDI spec), the Akai synths do not support SysEx, so they can not be edited remotely. Additionally, the Six-Trak family is fully multitimbral (except for the Split8, which is bitimbral, like the AX60).


This race is too close to call, since both families are very capable, with identical sound paths and similar modulation capabilities, so preference depends on the musician.

AX vs. Max Personal Opinion

For me, the modulation features of both families are a bit of a wash. I don’t care about a lot of features, like multitimbral, arpeggiator, sequencer, or chorus, since these days outboard gear is far more flexible. I do like velocity sensitivity, which would narrow the list to the AX73/VX90 and Multitrak. I do like the HPF (high pass filter) and sampler input of the AX family. So, that narrows it down to UI … I would normally gravitate to the VX90 (velocity support in a rack), but the lack of SysEx support kills the usability for me (I can’t use an external editor), so that leaves the AX60 as the accessible Akai choice. On the Sequential Circuits side, none are particularly usable without an external editor, but at least they can support one, so really any choice is probably fine, but I’d lean toward the Multitrak, just because it adds velocity sensitivity. In reality, we currently have the AX60, AX73, and Max, so I don’t really need to choose, but I’d trade the Max for a Multitrak, but only if the prices were comparable.

AX/Max vs. Competition Personal Opinion

Multiple envelopes and filter FM make the AX and Max (Six-Trak) families more versatile than a Juno or Poly-61 (the Poly-800 is too different for a direct comparison), but preferences usually come down to the filter sound. Since Roland and Korg use custom filters (not CEM), they sound quite different, which is why we currently have at least one of each.