Controller keyboard to rule them all?
The marketplace for USB controller keyboards has never looked so flush. There are controllers for every budget, size or musical requirement, and the competition for attention is fierce. Akai, veterans of the genre, have proven over the years that they can meet the demands of the modern musician with gear which packs in interesting features and reliability, often at a reasonable price point.
The company has recently released a new range of controller keyboards, aimed at the home studio operators who have computers full of softwares, plugins and virtual instruments. Akai Advance, as it’s called, positions itself as the new centrepiece of the modern studio, with a host of interesting features and intelligent tech. Here’s our Akai Advance review to explain more.
A lot of what you see on the surface with the Akai Advance range looks largely familiar. 25/49/61 key variations? Check. MIDI programmable drum pads and rotary knobs? Check. Flashy disco-lights upon power-up? Check. Yet one thing which leaps out immediately is the inclusion of a 4.7″ LED screen, instantly raising the perception of Akai Advance from being just another run of the mill controller into the realms of it actually being, dare we say it, innovative. Native Instruments Maschine Studio had a similar setup and users quickly grew to love the immediacy of being able to see various bits of important information without having to look up from the unit. Of course, in this day and age, we expect everything screen-based to be touch-controllable and alas, that isn’t the case here, but with the majority of the musical instrument world still favouring old-style LCD displays it makes a nice step into the 21st century.
The 49 key version, on review here, does appear slightly more plastic-y than the Advance’s most obvious competitor – the Native Instruments Kontrol S series. Often in the world of premium goods, people can form an opinion on something based on if it has a nice weight to it, and the Kontrol S certainly did. You wouldn’t want to drop that on your toe. The Akai Advance on the other hand is constructed largely from black gloss plastic, save for a couple of striking red metal panels at the side of the unit. With that in mind, it is probably fair to say that the Advance controllers are better suited to a life in the studio, rather than on the road, although the unit does feel well built; the rotary knobs, slightly bigger than seen on other similar controllers, don’t wobble like they might do on a cheaper controller, and the keys themselves have a satisfying, playable heft to them.
Powered up, the old disco light extravaganza washes over the pads, and the LED screen illuminates nicely. It’s roughly the same size an an iPhone 4s, and is easy to see under most lights. The screen actually becomes more and more useful the more you get used to it. Anyone who has spent time, either with plugin libraries or hardware synths, knows how important a good menu system is and on the Advance it is superb. Two ‘hot’ buttons underneath the screen help confirm most options present on screen, while a simple four-button navigation setup helps you find your way around. Referring back to the Kontrol S, while that did enable you to easily navigate your way around your plugin software, you were effectively still confined to using your computer screen or monitor to do so. Advance, on the other hand, brings up all relevant parameters and options on the unit itself, making switching between presets and altering settings a breeze.
The Advance controllers ship with a copy of VIP, Akai’s bundled plugin host. VIP has some really neat tricks up its sleeve including the ability to host VSTis natively. As anyone who has ever switched between a PC and a Mac will tell you, this is genuinely game-changing. Once, while working solely on PC, I got rather too attached to a certain VST called Glitch, by dBlue. After making the move to a Mac, an onto Logic Pro, it became apparent that my favourite go-to mayhem plugin wouldn’t work. After searching through endless forums and groups to find a fix, I eventually gave up. If only I’d had Akai Advance. The VIP software acts not only as a VST host but also as a kind of library management system for every other plugin you have. Instead of loading up different plugins on each track, you can now, for example, load up an instance of VIP, host the plugin there, and enjoy complete auto-mapped control over every parameter instantly.
VIP comes complete with a folder containing MIDI maps for hundreds of plugins, including full support for Native Instruments Komplete 10. Initialising the system and loading up the libraries was as simple as turning the unit on, telling it where to look for your folders, and pressing enter. The whole process took less than five minutes, and worked a treat. The on-screen navigation system is logical and easy to find your way around, and each and every one was mapped perfectly to the various settings and parameters.
Based on Akai’s work with Ableton, including creating the Push controller, it figures that support for Live is pretty central to the whole deal. Sure enough, all mapping and controller elements are quickly and easily dealt with with a few keystrokes. Happily, Advance also has settings for most other DAWs, including Logic, Reason and Reaper. For owners of hardware synths there is good news too, as the Advance series can operate without being connected to a computer, unlike Kontrol S, and will work happily with whatever other relevant gear you have.
In summary, the Akai Advance range takes some of the ‘smart- controller’ promise shown by the Kontrol S series and ups the stakes significantly with an on-board colour screen, native plugin hosting and standalone functionality. It perhaps loses face slightly due to the physical form of the unit which, while attractive, could be a touch sturdier but this isn’t a deal-breaker. In every other way this is an intelligent, playable controller which is definitely worthy of your attention.