Allow me to argue that, realistically, mini keyboards are no less useful than their full sized counterparts when there are only two octaves to play with. If a designer runs with this idea, there are two different routes to travel down when coming up with a portable keyboard and each has their own benefits – pocket the space savings and minimise, or use them to add features? Akai have opted for the former option with the MPK Mini, resulting in a keyboard that is smaller than a laptop but still manages to pack a punch.
Essentially a LPK25 and an LPD8 combined, if you have used either you’ll know what to expect. The build of the unit is faithful to its bigger and stronger siblings in the MPK range; there’s a reassuring heft to the Mini, and it doesn’t feel like it’ll ever twist and break in transport. The keyboard is soft and allows for expressive playing, feeling very similar to the Korg Microkorg/Microkontrol keyboards.
The build of the unit is faithful to its bigger and stronger siblings in the MPK range; there’s a reassuring heft to the Mini
The pads and system buttons are more akin in feel to the XR20 than the MPK series – and in my opinion, all the better for it. The pads in the larger MPK keyboards are based on the MPC500, which features the least inspiring of Akai’s pad matrices. These solid rubber pads have a much more even sensitivity across their surface, are larger (the same size as the MPC2500’s), and conform to the 2×4 layout that is fairly standard across software and hardware alike.
The pads and system buttons are more akin in feel to the XR20 than the MPK series – and all the better for it
An additional advantage is the bright red backlight that glows when the pads or system buttons are activated, both from an aesthetic perspective and a practical one – not only is it something for a crowd to coo at during a performance, it’s easy to see what’s active at a glance.
The ultra portable design inevitably means a few compromises, such as the absence of pitch bend and mod wheels. With an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ approach to the portability aspect of the MPK Mini, Akai have used low profile knobs on the eight pots. This keeps the form factor petite and ensures the Mini slides into tight spaces in bags, with the side effect of them being just a little bit fiddly. Rather than using thumb and fingertip to adjust them, I found myself using the first knuckle on my thumb and finger. Funnily enough, whilst it’s a little less comfortable to make adjustments, the low profile of the knobs actually helps to reduce the likelihood of accidentally nudging an adjacent one when twisting, which is a problem for many compact knob arrays.
Other than that, though, the Mini is very fully featured; there are four pages (Programs, to use Akai’s nomenclature… although considering they already use Program to mean something different in the MPC series, and MIDI Program change is another onboard option, I’m not sure it’s the best term) for the pads and knobs, allowing a total of 32 knobs and, because each program has two banks for pads, 64 pads.
The editor is generally easy to use – it’s a cinch to save and load presets
Each pad stores a note, CC, and Program Change value, and toggle button modifiers allow you to choose which function you want on the fly. Whilst dedicated transport buttons are always nice to have, if your software allows you to use note or CC values to trigger transport controls (and most do) then it’s a short task to configure the pads to do it.
The editor is generally easy to use, allowing you to quickly set up controller assignments and settings. You can select whether you want the pads to behave as buttons or toggle switches (there’s also a sustain button directly on the unit for the keys), pads and knobs can be set to a different MIDI channel to keys, and the min/max value for the pots can be entered too. It’s also a cinch to save and load presets so that you can put together the perfect configuration for all your software.
Perhaps the only questionable design decision on the entire unit is the use of a red font for the markings above the keys – they’re quite difficult to see in low light
One of the biggest value adders for Akai’s controller keyboards is the brain, which contains an onboard arpeggiator (bigger versions of the MPK also feature Note Repeat and Swing settings, not present on the Mini). It only functions on the keys, not the pads, but other than that it’s a very strong addition to the unit’s feature set. Able to sync to external tempo or get its timing via a tap tempo button, the features on the arp are fairly comprehensive and include up/down/exc/inc/order/random, three octaves of scaling, and timing from ¼ to 1/32, including triplets. Changing the settings of the arp is done by holding down the button as a modifier, and then pressing a corresponding key on the keyboard. Perhaps the only questionable design decision on the entire unit is the use of a red font for the markings above the keys – they’re quite difficult to see in low light, especially when compared to the high legibility of the prog markings, which are activated similarly with the Program modifier key.
The MPK Mini isn’t just a good small form factor controller, it’s a good controller full stop
The MPK Mini isn’t just a good small form factor controller, it’s a good controller full stop. Its features are perfectly selected to make it a worthy travelling companion, but it’s also handy for live performances both DJ and live production focused. It’s so well priced that I would even recommend it to the home producer on a budget, whether it’s destined to grow roots on the same place on your desk or not. The only real downsides to its small form factor compared to larger 25 key portables is the lack of pitch bend and mod wheels, display (for at a glance MIDI channel and program information), and no MIDI I/O. Without any MIDI ports it’s obviously not a viable pairing with standalone hardware, but for the space, price, and portability conscious computer musician/DJ, it’s tough to beat.