NAMM 2012: Akai Max49

The Akai Max49 is another of NAMM’s little surprises, and I don’t think anyone was quite expecting it. It’s a reversion of the MPK49, essentially – although that’s not to say that the MPK49 is being discontinued – with far superior pads and ribbon controllers in place of physical sliders. There’re also CV connections round the back, a cool step sequencer function, and the debut of Akai Connect, which looks to be pretty much the same concept as Novation’s Automap. It commands a bit of a premium over the MPK49 for all these reasons, but the removal of the rotary pots has detracted from the value in our opinion. The pads are much better than the ones on the MPK range, and that’s what stuck out to us most I think. That and the metallic red paint job of course. Expect a review around release time!

Best Bits:
  • Markedly improved pads over MPK range
  • Ribbon strips for pickup of software changes
  • Same excellent keys as the MPK49
  • No knobs
  • Premium price
  • 49 semi-weighted keys with Aftertouch
  • Built-in step sequencer
  • Expanded arpeggiator with latch and time division controls
  • Included AkaiConnect software automatically maps to VST plugins
  • 12 backlit, real MPC pads with MPC Note Repeat and MPC swing
  • Eight backlit LED touch faders
  • Four pad banks & four fader banks
  • CV & Gate outputs for use with vintage analog synths (1V/Oct)
  • Large, centrally-positioned transport controls & rubberized pitch and modulation wheels
  • Mackie Control & HUI modes




Akai MPC Renaissance: Exclusive In-depth Look

We’ve been following the Akai MPC Renaissance since its announcement, and NAMM gave us the perfect opportunity to get some hands on. Rather than get the same old sales pitch, I decided it would be a whole lot more interesting to get some cool background information from someone who worked (and is still working) closely on the development of the product, so I roped in Dan Gill, Product Manager at Akai Pro.

Here’s a quick lowdown of some of the key points in the video:
  • How the choices for the visual design were made, and some of the big names that were consulted
  • How coloured pads help work flow
  • The nitty gritty on the emulation modes, including the plans for SP1200 mode
  • The audio interface and its features (did you know that the signal path is a replica of the MPC3000? Interesting…)
  • The decision to use rotary pots and drop the sliders
  • Software capabilities
  • How the JJOS has influenced the design of the Renaissance

Whilst the hardware is finalised – except for the fine tuning of the feel of the pads – the software’s still in early beta and there are a lot of bugs still to iron out. We were told we’re to expect things to be finished up in around six months, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it develop; the reason we’ve not included much footage of the software in action is because it’s not particularly stable and in many aspects not fully functional so there’s very little point in showing you something that’s just not going to represent the final (or close to final) product.

It seems apt, on that note, to bring the Studio and Fly into the conversation. Neither products are as close to being final as Renaissance, and whilst MPC Studio was out for a hands on it was still very much in prototype; MPC Fly was in a plastic cage to keep it away from prying hands. Because of this we’ve not focused on them, but that’s not to say we’re not interested because we most certainly are – I’ll write up some of my thoughts in our wrap up coverage.

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Akai’s MPC Studio Unveiled

As we run up to NAMM, and after last week’s big MPC news, we can follow up the news of MPC Renaissance with MPC Studio, Akai’s real Maschine competitor. Whilst Renaissance is designed to appeal to the producers who love the centre-stage presence of MPCs of yore, MPC Studio is definitely the one that’s going toe to toe with Native Instruments’s baby.

Key points:

The big screen looks great, and if you’re used to – and love – the MPC workflow, then MPC Studio will definitely appeal with its recognisable jog wheel, d-pad, and transport arrangement. Akai have gone with MPC1000 style ‘areola’ jog wheels, and as well as the main data wheel there are four, vertically aligned wheels on the left. Keeping the function key layout is smart on Akai’s part, because it further reinforces the MPC workflow, but one of Maschine’s greatest design features is the encoders that line up with the screen so that you’re never in any doubt as to their function; the jog wheels here are a little stranded, not to mention probably not great for tweaking live parameters compared to a grab-able knob. Other than that we’re pretty impressed; as long as Akai do the sensible thing and compete fiercely with Native Instruments on price compared to Maschine then they could well wrestle some market share back. We wonder whether there’ll be a package deal for the two to appeal to particularly flush amongst you… would you buy both if they did? Let us know!

Oh, one more thing: we’re not touching the supposed MPC Fly leak until it gets confirmed. Right now, as far as we’re concerned, those images have as much likelihood of being fake as they do real, and even if real they could be concept shots, outdated, etc.


Akai Announce MPC Renaissance, Studio, and Fly Controllers

[break]As we beaver away behind the scenes on the oh-so-nearly-here Oh Drat update and work overtime in preparation for NAMM, we’re excited, intrigued, interested, and simultaneously a little reserved about Akai’s hand showing ahead of the Anaheim extravaganza: the MPC Renaissance, MPC Studio, and MPC Fly. First off check the reveal video for the MPC Renaissance:

[highlighted_text color=]So what does this mean?![/highlighted_text] Details are light, and the only current information we have on the MPC Studio is that it’s going to be a ‘slimline’ controller whilst the MPC Fly is an iPad app.

Akai are obviously hurting from repeated blows from Native Instruments’ Maschine over the past couple of years, and with 2011′s introduction of Maschine Mikro and iMaschine, it’s understandable that Akai are really going head to head on all fronts with the Renaissance, Studio, and Fly. [infos]First off, the key information on Renaissance:[/infos]

      [list type="type1"]

    • It’s a controller with a built in audio interface; there’s no standalone operation here
    • It supports direct import of all existing MPC projects
    • 16 rotary encoders with LED ring feedback
    • Hinged LCD screen
    • Combi inputs with phantom power, phono inputs with turntable preamp
    • Stereo 1/4″ output with additional stereo 1/4″ mix out.
    • Multi colour back light on pads
    • MPC Software can use VST plugins and run standalone or as VST, AU or RTAS plugin
    • 64 track sequencer


[biglines]We’ve got so many questions about the new MPC range.[/biglines]
The big shock… apart from the fact that there’s a new MPC at all, of course, is that this MPC requires a computer to run. No brains inside it at all. Are we happy with that? …no, not really. We think there’s something really special about firing up an MPC and not having the hum of a computer or the glow from its screen in sight, and I think many will have expected any new MPC to have capabilities that could be augmented  by software, not require it. All that said, it’s also a new dawn, and with so many producers switching to Maschine – and importantly, having a decent enough computer to run the MPC software is now more or less as likely as having a two slice toaster – perhaps it won’t be such a problem. we’re still a little sore though.

There’s no indication as to whether it requires its power supply (there’s one plugged in in the video), although we suspect it does, especially if it’s to provide phantom power AND power the screen. Akai boast ‘genuine MPC pads’, which is something they’ve run fast and loose with in the past and there’s something of a philosophical argument to how much you can remove from an MPC pad until it stops being one. Between the MPC 2500/5000 and now, though, funnily enough people have gotten over the ‘MPC or nothing’ mentality that competitors’ controllers were blighted with for years. Maschine’s pads are extremely sensitive and have a much more consistent feel across the pad surface, and third party suppliers have had large successes both with aftermarket thicker pads and mods to improve sensitivity across a greater area of pad. Not only that, but one of the prevailing determiners of what makes an MPC pad – at least in our opinion – is the soft rubber that’s used, a markedly different feel to the backlit variety that Native Instruments, Korg, et al use. It’s a surprise to see backlit pads, then; we’re a little worried that they look just like the ones used on Akai’s LPD and MPK Mini, and they’re not great. Perhaps it’s the sensors that qualify the Renaissance’s pads as MPC – it can’t simply be that they’re on an MPC controller, therefore they must be! Either way, multicoloured backlights are going to be very useful.


[heading size=]Akai’s first ever MPC software looks… okay, actually.[/heading]
There’s no indication on exactly how much you can do with your eyes away from the screen and hands away from the keyboard and mouse of your computer on the Renaissance, but we hope you can do pretty much everything – including play with plugins – on the unit itself. NI absolutely nailed Maschine’s heads down workflow, and so a company who has spent the past 30 years making instruments that rely on tiny dot matrix displays should be easily capable of pulling it out of the bag. We assume ‘MPC workflow’ means just that; you can work as if you were using any hardware MPC. Perhaps it’s the usability of the MPC Software that we should be most interested in then, because we get precious little indication of the real capabilities it holds. We imagine that despite only advertising VST plugin compatibility that it will also be compatible with AU on Mac (and likely RTAS on ProTools setups), but don’t take our word for it. One potential issue we did notice is that there are faders on the software, but Akai has actually done away with all faders in the hardware. We think it’d make more sense to use GUI elements that either tied in with the controller or were completely abstract, but maybe we’ll change our minds.

[shadowed_600 img=][/shadowed_600]

Looks wise, we think Akai have made a superb decision.

What do you do when your competitor out-high techs you in the looks department and makes your attempts at ‘modern’ look dated? Go back to your roots. The MPC Renaissance has taken its style right from the MPC 3000; the button shapes, the jog wheel, palm rest, white on blue screen and beige box with red and blue highlights screams ‘classic’, and thankfully Akai have also reverted to their classic MPC logo (the reboot that began with the 2500 was one of my biggest disappointments after switching from a 2000xl!). Only the new backlit pads and LED rings round the encoders indicate that this is Akai 2012. Bravo.

We’re also really interested in audio quality.

Akai boast MPC sound, but MPC sound has always been such a weird thing. No two MPC models sound exactly alike, and it’s always been the converters as the digital audio gets turned back into electric that have given the MPC ‘that MPC sound’. It remains to be seen whether the MPC Software will require audio to go through the outputs of the MPC Renaissance so that sound is coloured by the hardware to really get that MPC sound, whether there’s an internal connection that can enable the Renaissance to perform these conversions, re-convert, and send back as digital audio through the USB cable (that’s probably dream-land, but still…), or whether the MPC sound is just well researched and programmed emulation within the MPC software audio engine. The same goes for the emulation modes – are they hardware or software? We’re pretty sure the answer to all these questions is going to be the most boring – ‘yes, it’s software’, but we can’t help but wonder.

More information as we have it – including on the MPC Studio and MPC Fly as well as what this means for the MPD range – but for now, let us know what you think!

iPad 2

Apple Announce iPad 2 – What Does it Mean for Music Production?

When the iPad was released in April last year, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it took the world somewhat by storm. Despite not being the first to do a lot of the things it was lauded for doing (companies like Jazz Mutant were releasing multi touch screens for musicians much earlier, for instance) it was certainly the most conspicuous; perhaps the iPad’s greatest feature was the way it opened peoples’ eyes and imaginations to the realities of the progress of consumer level technology. Whilst the traditional keyboard and mouse paradigm of computing is some way from being shaken out of its position as the power user’s choice, light, touch friendly apps on the iPad are capturing peoples’ imaginations.

light, touch friendly apps on the iPad are capturing peoples’ imaginations

The way I see it, there are two main barriers to the adoption of the iPad (or of course any other multi touch tablet – right now the focus is on Apple because I genuinely think they’re the only ones doing it right at the moment): power and connectivity. There’s a possible third, too, and I’ll get onto that later.

When it comes to power, even computer nerds are starting to find it difficult to keep up with the colossal speed at which progress is being made. We’re a long way from the simpler times when a bigger number meant a faster processor, and what with multiple chips, cores, faster buses and all the other wizardry that’s being squeezed out of silicon, the number of mHz written on something isn’t really relevant anymore – especially where custom chips built for bespoke computers with matching software are concerned. No, the reality is that technology is moving forward at such a frightening rate that in less than a year, processing power of the iPad 2 is reportedly double that of its predecessor. iPad was already fast enough to run software like Korg’s iElectribe, a very convincing virtual remake of one of its most successful groove boxes, and Akai’s SynthStation, a full studio in a box tool that really proved that iPad meant business when it comes to audio.

When iPad 2 is launched, GarageBand for iPad will follow shortly.

When iPad 2 is launched, GarageBand for iPad will follow shortly. New hardware, from Apogee’s JAM to Alesis’s StudioDock and the Akai SynthStation 49 are all pieces in the puzzle that provide solutions to connectivity issues of such a standalone piece of equipment, with more, I’m sure, to follow.

Predictions? A future update of iOS will improve app to app interoperability, increasing the practicality of investing in the burgeoning iOS synth market and paving the way for Apple to release an iPad version of Logic with a plugin system. Propellerhead, one of the kings of the studio in a box world, will bring out their own studio in a box iPad app and Imageline, the other king, will up their game after testing the water with their recently released ‘in name only’ FL Studio. I’d also be surprised if Akai weren’t to bring out an MPC like sampling workstation and pad controller with audio input for sampling.

But what does that mean right here and now? The truth is, iPad 2 still doesn’t have the power to compete seriously with a desktop operating system when it comes to the kind of quality and quantity we’ve come expect from home studio software. However, it’s more portable, more tactile, and has a much shallower learning curve – if you already own both a computer and an iPad and want to simply enjoy yourself with music, then the iPad 2 is beginning to look like it might be an even better choice than traipsing through the minefield of computer software decisions. And, one day soon, we won’t even have to choose…


Video: Akai MPK Mini Review

Check it out – the first of many Oh Drat videos! First up a review of Akai’s MPK Mini keyboard controller. Look out for more videos, from reviews to tutorials to interviews and even more, from now on! You can subscribe on YouTube and Vimeo, depending on your favourite…

Akai RPM3

Akai RPM3 Portable Monitors Announced

The Akai RPM3 monitors are a portable design with an interesting feature. Connect the RPM3 via USB not only to hear audio from your computer, but also to record to your computer from one of the three stereo inputs – 3.5mm, RCA and a balanced 1/4″ TRS.

Connect the RPM3 via USB not only to hear audio from your computer, but also to record to your computer from one of the three stereo inputs

The interface is a true full duplex design with full monitoring whilst recording; there’s no further word as yet as to the specs of the interface, more info as it comes in.

With a boxy design and all the hallmarks of portable speaker design – sturdy grilles, a single active main speaker feeding a passive companion, front mounted volume, and a headphone socket, the RPM3 is designed with transportation in mind. The woofer grill looks like it may be removable for increased SPL when the monitors aren’t going anywhere, although that’s merely conjecture on my part.

I look forward to listening to these, as well as learning the price – for now, you can check Akai’s site for (not much) more information.

Akai EIE

Akai EIE USB Audio Interface Announced

Aside from anything else, this is a handsome piece of kit. A sturdy, industrial design looking lump, with metal throw switches, aluminium casing, and real analogue style VU meters, Akai’s EIE – Electromusic Interface Expander if you’re fond of a mouthful, is a four in, four out USB audio interface aimed at home and project studios with some impressive specs.

Aside from anything else, this is a handsome piece of kit

Switchable 16/24 bit and balanced throughout (even the 1/4″ headphone jack), the four inputs are situated on the front of the unit in the form of combo jacks (no RCA). There is an insert for each channel via TRS round the back, as well as TRS outputs keeping them company.

Each channel has a switchable mic/line/guitar preamp, and +48v phantom power can be switched on to the channels in 1/2, 3/4 pairs. Rounding off the feature set are MIDI in and out ports and a three port hub for extra equipment.

It’ll be interesting to put the EIE through its paces and see how it performs…

Full info on the EIE can be found at Akai’s site.

Akai SynthStation49

Akai SynthStation49 iPad Controller Announced

The Winter NAMM conference is traditionally a time for manufacturers to give us a glimpse at what they’re going to be putting to market during the year (with the occasional will-they-won’t-they early doors prototype), and this year there are some great announcements. Akai’s SynthStation49 is a MIDI controller specifically designed to work as a tactile surface for Akai’s popular SynthStation iPad/iPhone app, but at the same time fully compatible with both standard MIDI over USB and iOS Core MIDI, which will enable it to play nice with any other music app following spec.

one step at a time, we are moving into a situation whereby the tablet may become the de-facto home computing hub.

Following on from the SynthStation25, the 49 is a much more fully featured piece of kit, with a 49 key keyboard including pitch bend and modulation wheel, nine pads, transport and function buttons. I’ll have to wait until I get my hands on one to pass comment on the quality of the unit, but Akai’s MPK controller series have some of the best keys and general build on the keyboard-with-controls market, so there’s a definite precedent for something great here.

Remember Music on the PlayStation, and how many youths got their first taste of music production sat in front of their TV?

Naysayers may jeer at the pandering of manufacturers towards iPad devices in the DJ and production markets. The truth is that whilst, in general, the iPad may not be the current go to choice for versatile music production, it’s undeniably the trailblazer in a transition era – one step at a time, we are moving into a situation whereby the tablet may become the de-facto home computing hub. And when they’re ubiquitous in the modern home, the floodgates will open. Remember Music on the PlayStation, and how many youths got their first taste of music production sat in front of their TV?

What do you think?

Full details for the SynthStation49 can be found at Akai’s site

Review: Akai MPK Mini

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.

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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.

Now check out our video review of the MPK Mini!

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