Akai Professional Advance 49 by Diogo C
- Product: Advance 49 Keyboard Controller
- Manufacturer: AKAI
- Price: $499 (USD - MSRP)
- Website: Akai Professional - Iconic music production gear, including the legendary MPC
Short description: MIDI/USB Keyboard controller with 25, 49 or 61 semi-weighted keys, 8 encoders, 8 dynamic pressure pads, mod and pitch wheels, navigation encoder, octave up/down buttons, transport, built-in programmable arpegiator, 4.3” high-res color screen and plenty of navigation buttons!
Dimensions for the 49-keys model used for this review: H 3.48 x W 29.52 x D 11.52 inches (8.8 x 74.9 x 29.2 cm). Weight is 9.92 pounds (4.49 kg).
AKAI brings us with their new proposal for a MIDI Keyboard - the Advance Series, which features great looking keyboard along with a software integration solution that tries to free the user from the computer as much as possible. For the sake of objectivity I’m gonna set some bullet points with what I consider to be the essential aspects for a fair evaluation. I’m going to start with the build quality and then move on to the software end of things, and at some points these two will hopefully intertwine.
Here we go - AKAI Advance Series rundown:
- Strong and solid construction. Nicely designed and executed all around, I’d say it is borderline bulky but still very elegant with its black piano finish. Presents itself like a professional piece of equipment. Nice polished metal side plates, very strong plastic on the panels, the construction feels extremely rugged, polished and well-executed. For something of such quality it’s not that heavy and will do very well on stage while still looking great on studio. Bravo AKAI, bravo!
- Keybed is tight, some have said that it's stiff, which I don't agree. The keys feels very good and responsive, with a good aftertouch. They feel strong and most important, it feels like it’s gonna last. I have a personal preference for fully-weighted keys, but for a semi-weighted model this keybed might be as good as it gets and most important, it feels like it's built to last, just like the rest of this keyboard.
- Pads are also very responsive, better than all the other ones I’ve tried. By comparison it’s a notch above the keybed. The pads are backlit with different colors to differentiate the operating modes and/or different presets. You can set the colors to your taste, so you’re not obligated to look at that rainbow all the time. There are four banks for the pads, leaving us with a total of 32 possible keys for it.
- Encoders are big and they are surprisingly precise for a non-detented knob and they have a great resolution! They have different operating modes for sending out MIDI CC. The range can be also tweaked for ultra-fine tweakings, but they’re always linear - in that regard I miss a exponential mode option.
- Pitch and Mod Wheels are also very good and have a great feel. The big size definitely helps in that regard and they are rubberized so there’s a lot grip. They are both backlit so you can play it in the dark!
- The Screen Display is good enough for what it's supposed to do. Resolution isn’t anything to write home about (i.e. don’t expect an iPad), nonetheless it’s a good looking screen with some good colors, decent brightness and a layout that makes reading and visualizing very easy all-around. Most importantly, it does what is supposed to do in a very effective way and you can visualize plenty. Could be improved with variable font-size to accommodate more on-screen presets.
- A navigation encoder, shift key, 4 navigation and 4 arrow buttons are what you use to navigate through the display and they do a very good job. The detented-encoder works extremely well.
- Available connections are USB, MIDI Input and Output, Sustain and Expression pedals.
Other notable features:
- A fully programmable arpegiator, with over a hundred presets covering many different rhythmic figures, melody styles and grooves;
- Tempo tap button;
- Extremely easy to use “Control” menu for assigning plugin parameters and/or MIDI CC to the eight encoders;
- Eight assignable buttons right below the knobs can control the rhythm of the included arpegiator or be set to control MIDI CC;
- Can be powered by USB or external power adapter. Worked fine on both USB2 and USB3 ports.
Software-Hardware Integration and the VIP Software
The ultimate riddle of the MIDI controller is how to integrate it with the very thing it is supposed to control. In recent years with the developments in computer technology, any domestic or regular consumer grade computer can host a full blown synthesizer. Even handheld devices can accomplish such things nowadays, but the integration with a physical controller hasn’t quite catch up. The feeling of pressing keys and turning knobs will never be fully replaced and/or replicated by an automated sequencer. That’s the challenge AKAI tries to overcome by implementing a fairly big screen (for MIDI controller standards) at the heart of the Advance series and some nice software to go along with it, which is called AKAI VIP.
VIP is the bridge that connects the hardware navigation to the computer with on-screen editing, on that computer side of things it comes both as a standalone app and as a AAX/AU/VST instrument plugin. They’re both hosts that reads your VST instruments and gives you access to its presets and maps its parameters to the hardware controller. VIP gives you eight slots for plugin, displayed as a mixer. Drag the desired instrument patch to the slot and it's all set. AKAI has done a remarkable job in mapping the most popular VST instruments, so reading patches and mapping parameters are usually handled automatically by the provided maps. The VIP can also organize your presets according to categories and you can also text-search through your sea of patches, which is a great thing. Adding custom tags to further organize your library is a piece of cake - just drag the desired patch from the left column to the category of your choice and you’re set.
This software does a great job on the MIDI and mapping side of things, and it’s quite easy to get used to it with the intuitive interface and a great parameter-learn function. The VIP can assign parameters to the eight encoders both as a “plugin parameter” from the plugin’s map or as conventional MIDI CC. You can set the minimum and max range for each knob, making it easier for fine-tuning and delicate changes and you can also set the encoder behaviours to regular linear movement, reverse and bipolar. VIP also lets you map what the buttons below the encoders does, which is handy for on/off buttons and switch functions. Last but not least, VIP also allows you to split the keyboard to dedicated areas for each of the eight slots and also to set what key each pad pressure pad will play and which midi channel it sends that data to, which allows for some very flexible mapping.
On the hardware side of things it mirrors, to some extent, what you have on the computer screen, but instead of mouse and keyboard you now have a streamlined interface which can be browsed with a set of arrow buttons and a detented rotary encoder. It feels very similar to the browsing you on a regular digital keyboard synth, just with longer loading times because of the plugins involved. I must say that it works and it works very well, giving a good degree of independence from the computer screen. Through the process of this review I’ve challenged myself to use it without looking at the screen and the physical layout of my studio forced me to turn 45 degrees to access the keyboard with comfort. Looking at the screen would mean turning my neck in a bad way, and browsing through my presets and assigning parameters with such ease was quite a great moment.
The display’s size and resolution is good enough for visualizing what you need (and good enough to be captured by a cellphone camera) and the navigation system actually works and manages to do a good on handling big patch libraries.
If the VIP greatly succeeds on the browsing, mapping and patch organizing tasks, it falls a bit short in terms of audio signals handling. The standalone app uses only one stereo from your soundcard, which is a pity and something AKAI needs to address. However, you get more than that when using a DAW - there are dedicated outputs for each of the VIP Plugin slots, but that comes with a catch: you can not route different instruments to different outputs i.e. say farewell to running eight Jupiter 8s (couldn’t resist!) each with its own audio output. On the other hand, you can run something like Omnisphere and have its eight slots going through dedicated audio outputs, each with its own fader, panorama pot and solo/mute buttons. If it falls short on managing audio signals, VIP does a very good at running stable. Good news for the PT crowd is that VIP runs VST Instruments on Pro Tools 11/12 very nicely. I enjoyed good performance and stability throughout my tests on Cubase and standalone app as well, but keep in mind that the VIP does add another of layer of complexity and therefore it leaves some other chances for possible problems and bugs. My experience with it has been quite positive, with a good success rate, so it’s a “risk” I’m happy to take. I wouldn’t say it’s worth using on every situation like for example, a huge virtual drum-kit that needs a tons of outputs, but if you’re just sound-hunting and tweaking/improvising, then the VIP becomes very enticing and can greatly boost productivity since you spend less time configuring things, which leads to more time actually experimenting with sounds.
- Eighty-Eight Ensemble - Acoustic pianos
- Velvet - Electric pianos such as Rhodes and Wurlitzers.
- Vacuum Pro - Vintage-inspired synthesizer.
- Transfuser 2 - Groove and song creation sample-based instrument
- Hybrid 3 - Modern synthesizer
- Loom - Modular additive synthesizer
- Xpand2! - Jack of all trades sampler
Detailed scores and closing thoughts
- Sound Quality - 4/5: I’m giving it a four out of five here for the bundled content, which is definitely good but slightly below the competition, which is a fierce competition I should say. Nonetheless, these are good sounding instruments that can definitely find their place in most people’s arsenals. The pianos are my favorites, Velvet sounds very convincing for most electric piano duties and Eight-Eight Ensemble can certainly cut through a song without being noticed as fake or anything. Loom is also an interesting instrument and in that regard I feel like AKAI could include more odd and unique instruments like it for exotic electronic sounds.
- Features - 5/5: Easily five stars. Featured-pack both in terms of what’s included in the keyboard itself and on the software side of things. There is a lot of room for growth nonetheless, and AKAI has the chance to really make the Advance series shine if new features are added. My score is based on the current set of features and even if the lack of proper audio routings upsets me a bit, the workflow it provides and the quality of the hardware are more than enough to give it a five stars. Notice that I’m not taking the bundled instruments into account here, I’ll address that briefly.
- Ease of use - 5/5: Once again it’s easily five stars. This is the best implementation so far when it comes to freeing the user from looking at the computer screen. It really works and enables a very comfortable way of working with virtual instruments. On the hardware end of the stick, things are just as nice and the Advance’s awesome build quality makes it a real joy to use. On the computer side it does a remarkable job on the instruments maps and organizing tools. Managing huge patch libraries and assigning parameters has never been so easy. The Advance will also do very well on stage with its streamlined operation, and the display and backlit pads/wheels will let you localize things with ease. I wish the navigation arrows and encoders were also backlit for ultimate operation on poorly lit and dark places, but that won’t hurt this score.
- Bang for buck - 5/5: This is where it gets a bit tricky, because we’re talking about many different audiences, situations, needs and contexts and so on. I’m sticking to five out of five because of the superb hardware and the decent bundled content, which can definitely help people who don’t have a ton of virtual instruments. On the other hand, if you already have a nice chunk of VSTIs then it loses some of its value, but the sheer quality of the hardware and the independence from the computer that it enables with the VIP software should be more than enough to entice the most vicious virtual synth junkies. With that in mind and in the current economic meltdown of the universe, I can accept if someone raises an argument for a 4/5 score, but no less than that.
The Verdict: AKAI’s Advance Series comes as a bold proposition, a loud shout on the competitive MIDI controller market. With an unusual layout where basically everything is bigger than what you generally see out the there, the Advance Series keyboards shows some strong design decisions that are ultimately tailored towards productivity rather than sheer complexity. It’s not about having 16 knobs or faders and a ton of controls - it’s about having more quality at the expense of quantity. The software integration works, AKAI definitely got it right, but it definitely needs further developments to be fully realised - some which are crucial like better handling of the (hardware and software) audio outputs. Nonetheless, it enables a great way of working with virtual instruments and once again, the hardware is as good as it gets and I can see this piece catering to a good and wide audience. Anyone working with virtual instruments looking for a serious controller has to consider it, but if you just need a well-built stage and studio keyboard, this is it as well. The Advance series feels like an endgame controller and one that is priced accordingly - this level of quality eventually claims its price. There are other great ones out there and many more will come, but AKAI might claim its place in history with this one and they’re showing all the signs they’re just about to do so.