Akai Professional MiniAK by tjporter
The Akai MiniAK is a budget VA synth. For some people, “budget VA synth” is the musical equivalent of the bubonic plague. For others, such as those of us on a budget, we have to get by with what we can get. And, in this price range, there are basically four new synths to choose from: the Novation Xio25, the MicroKorg, the Roland Gaia, and the MiniAK. I’ve only had limited exposure to the MicroKorg & Gaia, so I’ll try to not stick my foot in my mouth. Still, I’m going out on a limb right from the start: the Akai MiniAK is the best of this group. So, now that I’ve established my position, I better defend it.
Sound: You have a wealth of choices. Two aspects separate the MiniAK from the rest of the pack, the filters and the modulation matrix capabilities. First, you have 21 filter options (you can use two in series), which include:
Lowpass ob_2pole: Modeled on the lowpass output of the multi-mode filter built into a classic synthesizer expander module.
Lowpass tb_3pole: Modeled on the filter from a little silver bass synthesizer whose sound has become ubiquitous in many styles of electronic music.
Lowpass mg_4pole: Modeled on the filter found in the most famous monophonic analog synth ever made. The filter, with a steep cutoff and deep resonance, earned much credit for its fat sound. This filter will self-oscillate at high resonance settings.
Lowpass rp_4pole: Modeled on the filter in a very popular semi-modular synth. This filter will clip (distort) when fed a loud input level.
Lowpass jp_4pole: Modeled on the lowpass filter from a popular 8-voice synth noted for its very colorful case and colorful, versatile sound.
Now, how well the MiniAK emulates the different filters it tries to mimic is irrelevant - what does matter is that:
a. each of these filters has its own distinct characteristics.
b. you can recreate classic sounds (fine, you won’t fool a Minimoog D owner, but you can create better sounding patches than Arturia’s Minimoog emulation) OR you can go nuts with your filter combinations and create unique/bizarre sounds.
The Mod Matrix is even more versatile: one full page in the manual for sources, two pages for destinations: endless hours of fun to be had here. Sonically then, the other three VAs cannot come close to the programming possibilities offered by the MiniAK.
So, what does it actually sound like? Well, the MiniAK excels at basses and pads. I’m getting close to vintage 70s Tangerine Dream / Klaus Shultze sounds out of the MiniAK (an unexpected yet pleasant surprise). At the same time, it will do contemporary; at least judging from the presets that I subsequently deleted because I personally can’t stand 303 Acid lines and such. I’ve read some complaints that the MiniAK sounds flat, and to a small degree it does, but since I’ve started running it through a Hardwire Delay, flatness is no longer an issue. On the other hand, I’ve yet to hear undying praise for the sound of a Xio, MicroKorg, or Gaia. Hell, people complain about Nords that cost twice as much as these synths. Some people don’t even like Moogs, so what can you do?
Ease of Use: This is where the MiniAK loses ground. Those who hate menu diving will hate the MiniAK. Mind you, those who hate menu diving typically appear to be those who can afford more knobby/slider synths, and many of these folks still don’t care much for the Gaia, so it really is a no-win situation.
Anyway, one of the biggest complaints about the MiniAK is its lack of USB. Furthermore, Akai really missed the boat by not coming out with its own editing software. For some people, this is a deal breaker. For me, programming through the keyhole isn’t that much of a big deal once you get used to it (which in my case wasn’t very long), especially since the rewards can be so great. However, because of its programming layout, I wouldn’t recommend the MiniAK for a total noobie, which helps explain why the MicroKorg is on its way to becoming / already is the best selling synth ever. And yes, the Xio has knobs, but they have the tendency to come off in your hand (more on that later). Also, I can’t stand the MiniAK’s arpeggio – why did they have to make something so standard into such a pain in the ass?
Versatility: This is the main reason why I own a MiniAK. In Multi (performance) mode, you can perform a 4-track (drums, bass sequence, pad, & lead) song. Not that you were likely to, but 8-note polyphony allows for serious jamming fun. Anyway, setting up splits is dead easy – splits, you know, something you can’t do on a Xio, MicroKorg or a Gaia (although it is possible on the MicroKorg XL and the much-maligned SH-201). Also, parts One and Two of the Multi receive on midi channels 1 and 2, so they can be used with an external sequencer (in my case, an Electribe EA MKII). For a typical song, I’ll have three different sounds mapped across the keyboard: bass and pad/counter melody sequenced in the Tribe, plus a lead or arp/sequence. The MiniAK has allowed me to expand my sound considerably: its Multi Mode leaves the other three dead in the water.
Construction: Simply, the MiniAK is built like a tank. If you dropped a MiniAK on a glass table, the table would shatter. If you dropped a Xio on a glass table, the Xio would shatter. Furthermore, you could use the MiniAK's vocoder mic to beat someone to death - try doing that with a MicroKorg mic. Also, I still refuse to deal with the MicroKorg’s mini keys, never mind its horrible colour scheme. I’m still divided about the Gaia – just seems too plasticky, like something will break off of it if you looked at it too hard.
Conclusion: The MiniAK is niche synth – a serious VA for those who can’t afford a more serious VA/Analogue/etc. Yet, I can safely say that it would be a decent addition to anybody’s (live) set-up. Akai has already discontinued the MiniAK, so prices have dropped dramatically. Get one while you can.