Howl & Maul: the Akai Wolf Series

The Story of Rhythm Wolf, Timbre Wolf, and Tom Cat

Robin Vincent · 06/18/24

Wolf (wulf), noun.

  1. 1. A wild carnivorous mammal, it is the largest member of the dog family.
  2. 2. Used figuratively to refer to a rapacious, ferocious or voracious person or thing.
  3. A series of synthesizers from Akai that are arguably the most hated in history.

It seems desperately unfair that a couple of reasonably interesting analog synth boxes should come in for such ire. On paper, they seem to tick all the boxes, channelling the zeitgeist of the time and at a price point that should have had them at the top of everyone's gear list. And yet, something was off. Maybe there's a fault line running through the thread of DNA that connects these machines. Maybe it was lackluster marketing, or perhaps the scorn from the growing platform of influence that was YouTube. Let's revisit these now legendary machines to see if we can fathom why the Akai Rhythm Wolf, Timbre Wolf, and Tom Cat rubbed so many people up the wrong way.

2010, the Decade of Analog

The Wolf series dropped into a decade of analog resurgence. The first decade of the new millennium preoccupied itself with exploring virtual worlds in both software and hardware. VST plugins and virtual analog synths promised a universe of never-ending sounds. But by the time we hit the 2010s, the VST revolution had gotten a grip on itself, and musicians were starting to wonder whether doing everything in the box was all it was cracked up to be. The MIDI Controller to Virtual Instrument connection never seemed to feel real, and we found ourselves wanting to fiddle with things away from the computer.

However, synths had gotten big and expensive. They were almost overladen with features in order to combat the tendency for the computer to replace everything, and offer something big and exciting that was harder to replicate. Once the excitement of having every synth in the world in software wore off, we started to remember what we loved about '90s and ‘00s dance music. It was the immediacy of the TB-303, the hands-on fills of the TR-808 and 909 and pulling together tracks from cheap, playable bits of gear.

The 2010s brought that sense of playfulness back into focus and that was something that Korg understood right away. In 2010, Korg introduced a couple of toy-like pocket synths based on circuitry from their 1970 MS-20. With just a ribbon controller and a couple of knobs, the cheap and cheerful Monotron was a huge hit. This led to the little MonoTribe groovebox, an analog nod to the Electribe, that then spawned a whole series of great value, playable synths and drum machines called Volca.

By this time, the classic Roland machines had been largely destroyed by overuse or were exchanging hands for ridiculous sums of money. The Volcas were a great remedy to that but what we needed was something a bit more substantial, that would open us up to tactile sound design and the warm reality of analog tones. Arturia picked up the call with the Minibrute, a cool little low-cost analog synth that harked back to the Roland SH-101. Then, in 2013, Akai Professional showed up.

Akai didn't have a whole lot of experience with analog synthesizers. They had the AX range in the 1980s, but then went headfirst into the fabulously successful S-Series samplers and MPC-Series workstations. However, by 2010, the computer had pretty much killed off hardware samplers, so it seems reasonable to assume that Akai thought it was time to do something different.

Enter the Wolf

The Akai Rhythm Wolf first emerged at the 2014 Frankfurt Musikmesse show. It has one heck of a name and looked very striking in its bold colours, knobby interface, MPC references and wooden cheeks. The specs were absolutely on the money. It was a four-channel all-analog drum machine and bass synth. It was a compact smash-up of the 303 and 808. You had individual control over each of the four drum voices for kick, snare, percussion and hi-hat.

The bass synth had a choice of sawtooth or square waveforms, and a 12dB low pass filter with resonance and decay. The fabulously named Howl knob was on hand to pile on the fierceness and distortion. You could play each part with the MPC-style pads, each with three levels of velocity, and you could pour that into the 16-step sequencer. The sequencer had an A/B variation, so your patterns could be 32 steps and if you included the Fill patterns, it was potentially 64 steps.

The Rhythm Wolf was very groovy, had everything going for it and generated quite a bit of interest. At Musikmesse, the problem for Akai Pro's product manager Dan Gill, was that the Wolf wasn't working. So, all he could do was talk about it. It launched later that year and came with promo videos from Richard Devine and Jonathan Bates, who both talked about the analog character and individuality of the machine. And with that, the Rhythm Wolf was released into the wild.

The pushback can be traced back to a very entertaining rant from a rather disgruntled customer that appeared on YouTube in early 2015. The YouTuber's name was Faxi Nadu, and his two-part rant was succinctly entitled "Akai Rhythm Wolf SUCKS". The video blew up, chattering engulfed the internet, and all sorts of people came out of the woodwork in agreement that the Rhythm Wolf was several sandwiches short of a picnic.

What’s Up with This?

So, what were the problems? Having read a number of reviews and watched far too many videos, I think I can best sum up the issue as being that the knobs don't really do very much. Analog circuitry should give you a wide range of tonal and musical possibilities, whereas the palette on the Rhythm Wolf was shallow and uninspiring. The Snare and Percussion channels sounded largely the same, the kick lacked substance, and the bass synth disappeared under the turn of the resonance and had no envelope to speak of. The tuning was off, you only had about a 3-octave range and there was no LFO or other form of modulation. All the much anticipated Howl knob seemed to do was boost the volume into bad distortion and introduce a whole field of noise.

It's also interesting how different reviewers had different issues. Some liked the snare, some hated it, some thought the kick drum was its one saving grace, whereas others found it limp and pathetic. It's fascinating reading reviews from usually level-headed sources such as Peter Kirn's CDMand Paul Nagle in Sound on Sound magazine as they try to find positives and reasons to be cheerful about the device. It seems that the promise of Rhythm Wolf was as disappointing as the wooden cheeks that turned out to be "real simulated wood grain" plastic. One thing that was universally praised was the combination of the pads and step-sequencer. Some bright sparks even suggested it would be good purely as a sequencer for other gear.

Timbre Wolf: More Voices

Akai was undeterred and followed it up about nine months later with the Timbre Wolf. This was a low-cost, four-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer with a delightfully unusual architecture. The idea was that you have four independent monophonic mini-synths. These could be played individually as monosynths, stacked up in a Unison mode or polyphonically in a sort of round-robin voice selection.

Each note could sound different in poly mode as it used a different mini-synth which could have completely different settings. The sequencer made full use of the synths with a separate track for each one so you could run four competing synth lines. They even had individual outputs so you could mix and affect them elsewhere.

The Timbre Wolf was well-built, cheap, and full of innovation. So, what went wrong this time? The fundamental flaw of the Timbre Wolf was that it was based on the Rhythm Wolf. The bass synth from the Rhythm Wolf was uninspiring, weak and out of tune, but now we had four of them. Akai had taken steps to sort out the tuning, but it was still very hit-and-miss. The tuning knobs were only any good for detuning the oscillators and didn't have the range to dial in intervals or octaves for instant chords. The Howl knob also did the same unpleasant boosting but you felt oblidged to use some of it, or there was no power to the sound.

But the other problem was the bizarrely terrible job Product Manager Dan did of demoing it, this time at the 2015 NAMM show. He seemed to lack any ability to play the synth, and it felt like he had been drained of all enthusiasm.

Coupled with the less-than-favourable reception of the Rhythm Wolf, the Timbre Wolf seemed destined to fail. Perhaps something could be salvaged from the Wolf series, so Akai gave it one more go with the Tom Cat.

Tom Cat

The Tom Cat looked just like the Rhythm Wolf but dressed up in some new colours. This time there was a dedicated Clap and some Disco Toms rather than the Percussion and Bass Synth sections. Same idea, the same genuinely interesting sequencer but with some more diverse sound sources. The Howl knob had been replaced with the Maul, which was the same idea again, but it had been radically overhauled to be not quite so nasty. Even so, the sounds were still very quirky and lacked tonal variation. The open/closed hi-hats were, in particular difficult to tell apart.

The Tom Cat was a good attempt at a save, but in the end, it just felt weak. And it was very soon to be run over by the likes of the far more versatile Elektron Analog Rytm and Arturia DrumBrute.


The Akai Wolf series has become a bit of a cautionary tale. Whenever someone mentions bad gear they are always thrown into the conversation. There was an assumption at the time that anything analog would always sound good, and I think initially the feeling was that, well, it's analog, so it’s bound to sound a little inconsistent and quirky—that's what character is all about. As it turns out, sometimes analog can sound really bad. It also demonstrates how powerful YouTube and social media have become in the perception and marketing of synths.

I should also point out that many people loved these machines and got an awful lot of fun out of them. Most of the fun seems to come from running them through a lot of effects and so demonstrably changing the sound and enjoying the playfulness of the sequencer.

A Second Coming?

For me, the most unfortunate casualty of the Wolf series is the Timbre Wolf. There's some absolute genius in this little synth. In many ways, it was far more like a modular synthesizer than a regular poly. We would think nothing of using four different monophonic synth voices through a Eurorack system, having their melodies interplay and intertwine, processing them separately, and having them hang together. Very few standalone synths give us the versatility of addressing oscillators on their own terms, within their own synths architecture, so each note sounds different. Or you could see it as four analog bass synth presets set up on the front panel. I think it's very clever and could be very well received today if the mini-synth voices were a bit more up to scratch.

We now have a lot of drum machines and low-cost access to analog, digital and hybrid synthesizers. We’re moving towards a post-analog state where the reverence for the nature of the actual circuitry is less important than the fun and creativity you can have with a device. In the current electronic music climate, I think people would go nuts for a new Wolf. Because we’re all in on the joke. It would be trading on a terrible reputation and turning it into a bit of marketing genius. So, Akai, keep the sequencer and form factor but work on some innovative sounds. I think the Rhythm Wolf 2 and Timbre Wolf 2 could emerge as head of the pack.