“As someone who normally uses a shorter keyboard in the studio it felt luxurious to play on this 49 key model.”
Anatomy of the AKAI MPK49 Performance Controller
Straight out the box I liked this big and weighty controller keyboard. It is USB bus powered so the lights came on and it was working with Ableton in seconds. I selected the MPK49 as a control surface from the MIDI preferences page and everything was mapped and ready to go.
Just for the sake of clarity, the MPK49 is not a synthesizer, it has no onboard sounds. It is just a giant MIDI instrument to control soft-synths and effects inside your sequencer. So the power of a controller like this can only be realized if you have spent time building a library of instruments in your sequencer software. If you haven’t, then mileage may vary.
Theoretically the MPK49 is all the control you could possibly desire: a 49 key semi-weighted keyboard, big rubbery pitch and modulation wheels, 12 MPC-style drum pads, 8 long faders, 8 infinite rotary knobs and 8 buttons all on one control surface. I use at least three pieces of MIDI gear in my studio to achieve the same results.
So let’s take a tour through the features and see how the MPK49 measures up in a studio session.
A Closer look…
The unit has a sturdy build, although at the end of the day it is all plastic and won’t survive fire or heavy rock ‘n roll abuse. Get a board bag if you’re going to take it out to party. The keys are semi-weighted and don’t feel cheap like many other controllers on the market. They seem a little stiff for my personal taste, although admittedly I do play with a stylish one finger technique (left and right hand), so I won’t deduct any points for that. As someone who normally uses a shorter keyboard in the studio it felt luxurious to play on this 49 key model.
For the serious keyboard players out there, it has input on the rear for a foot pedal, an expression pedals and MIDI input and output to send and receive information between other sound modules. Strangely, if you would like to use the MPK49 without a computer, you would need to go out and purchase a 6V power adaptor, something not mentioned in the manual.
The drum pads proved to be a bit of a dilemma for me. The Akai website, and indeed both the local distributor’s drum expert and technician all assured me that the MPC-style pads on the controller use the same contact membrane technology as that of Akai’s highly respected MPC series, albeit made from a different rubber. For those not familiar, Akai in fact made its name with the MPC, the drum sampler of choice for hip hop producers since the late 1980s. What you do get is four different velocity curves available from the global preferences, however I found them a bit stiff for subtle velocity detection and actually banged them quite hard to achieve close to 127 velocity. This may just be my demo model (it is brand new) so my suggestion is to test this to see if it is to your liking.
Something else to take note is that the MPK25 and MPK49 both have a drum pad layout of 3 across and 4 up. Most software and hardware uses a 4 x 4 grid layout so you’ll find yourself needing to trigger the missing notes on the keyboard; not ideal. If this is an issue I recommend looking at the MPK61 or MPK88, both of which have 4 across and 4 up.
One of the redeeming features of the drum pads is they can be played using different velocity modes: variable velocity, at full 127 velocity, or in 12-step mode, where the last note played is mapped out over the 12 pads at incremental velocity levels – I found this useful for programming drums with very precise velocity control e.g. hi hat patterns.
Enough about the bloody drum pads, the big rubber pitch and modulation wheels hang out in the left corner and light up in the dark. Very cool, I had lots of fun with these, but I’m that kind of guy.
The MPK49 has got a very nifty performance mode that allows you to lock to your sequencer’s tempo and play with the in-built arpeggiator. It has fully tweakable arp modes, range, gate and swing. The drum pads have their own note repeat mode that is a similar kind of thing. The combination of these two features will allow somebody with the rhythm of a white man like me to whip up some very musical sounding chords, melodies and rhythms in no time at all.
One of my favourite parts of playing with the MPK49 was assigning all sorts of things in Ableton functions to the knobs, buttons and sliders. I simply clicked on MIDI learn mode in the software, moved the hardware and was ready to tweak to my nerdy heart’s delight.
Natively, the 8 sliders control volume, the 8 rotary knobs control the macros of any selected channel and the buttons toggle record arm on and off. These can easily be re-assigned using the MIDI learn mode, but why bother when you have 3 banks in total x 8 knobs, buttons and sliders. Even I thought that was a little over the top control.
Other features I enjoyed were the no-fuss, intuitive LED interface. Unlike some other brands out there, no parameters were ever more than a click or two beneath the surface.
I managed to whip up about 20 cool MIDI clips in Ableton using instruments, drum racks and samplers I had in my library. Overall I found myself using the MPK49 to control multiple functions, rather than clicking with the mouse. So if you’re looking for a MIDI controller keyboard to create and tweak lots of parts quickly, this is a sound bet and a solid workhorse (to mix a metaphor or two).
The MPK49 comes with a copy of the Ableton Live 8 Lite. Basically it’s a hobbled version of the software, but you can upgrade to the full version at a 33% discount. The included CD also contains the VYZEX editing software and a user manual that makes it seem like an impossibly complex space ship flight panel. Why do user manuals seem like they are written by a depressed German scientist and then translated into English via Japanese?
So to sum up this big monster controller keyboard: AKAI has built itself a name for hi-quality performance hardware and this is no exception. Apart from the layout of the drum pads and a few other design quirks, I would be very happy to have the MPK49 as the master controller sitting in my studio or running a live show on stage. Is it worth the R 5,895.00 price tag? Well, that’s for you to decide so go try one out.
SA Distributor: Musical Distributors
Expect to pay: MPK25: R 3,795.00 | MPK49: R 5,895.00 |
MPK61: R 7,995.00 | MPK88: R 11,995.00