Akai is well known for the legendary MPC series, and of course, hardware samplers like the S2000, which I owned nearly 15 years ago. It was my first hardware sampler and entry drug to the sampling world. Since its release in 1995, two decades have passed, and like the needs of modern composers, the product range of Akai has also changed. Instead of hardware samplers, they now focus on USB controller hardware and keyboards, as needed by the modern computer musician or live performer.
One of these hardware controllers is the MPK49, a 49-Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller with the famous MPC Pads that was released in 2007. In 2014, Akai has released the MPK249 Performance Keyboard Controller: the successor to the MPK49 with advanced features, new keys, and drum pad lighting.
In this review, we will have a look at the new changes, features, and my nearly two month daily working experience as composer with the MPK249.
- 49 semi-weighted, full-size keys with aftertouch
- 16 RGB-illuminated MPC pads each with 4 banks for 64 pads
- 24 assignable Q-Link controllers include knobs, faders, and switches (8 of each)
- Revamped control layout with backlit LCD screen
- iOS compatibility using the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit (sold separately)
- USB-MIDI with 5-pin MIDI input & output
- Comprehensive transport and parameter controls for hands-on DAW integration
- MPC Note Repeat, MPC Swing, and arpeggiator for advanced rhythmic and melodic manipulation
- MPC Full Level, 16 Levels, Tap Tempo, and Time Division assist with dynamics and tempo
- Pitch bend, modulation, and octave controls for expressive recording and performing
- 1 assignable footswitch jack and 1 expression jack
- USB power and plug-and-play connectivity
- Production software package included: Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech, SONiVOX Twist 2.0, and Akai Pro MPC Essentials (downloads)
After having unboxed it, I noticed how heavy in weight the MPK is. I have a Nektar Impact LX61 with 61 Keys, and it is lighter. Even the M-Audio Keystation 61 which I had before was not as heavy as the MPK. But the feeling of the heaviness is good. It feels valuable and the matt black case makes a solid impression. All the knobs and sliders are properly seated; nothing wobbles here. The buttons and pads have a very clear pressure point, while the faders and knobs move in a way that is not too fast and easy. There is also a small on/off power switch on the rear side that you don’t find often on such USB keyboards. All in all, the MPK stands solid on the studio desk, and also looks pretty good!
The semi-weighted keys feel good during playing. Compared to my Nektar, they perform a bit harder. I like this feeling, as I am used to weighted keys on my piano, and it feels a bit like that. However, it is always only semi-weighted. Regardless, it’s a wonderful feeling keyboard that will definitely hold up for years. The velocity sensitivity curve can be adjusted via presets, across a range of ± 50 steps.
The MPC-styled Pads
The RGB illuminated MPC-styled and fully programmable pads are beautiful to look at, as well as responsive. You can really feel that this is Akai‘s comfort zone. and that due to the old MPCs, a lot of investigation, experience and development have been invested in them over the years. No trigger ever fails, they react on each light tap as well as on big taps. The pads on my Nektar (which I never use, by the way) are nothing against these MPK pads. I am sure that I will use these pads more frequently, as I usually play my percussion and beats with the keys of the keyboard.
Buttons, Knobs and Faders
The knobs and 45mm faders perform brilliantly and totally fluently. No noise, no pending, no scratching or anything. They feel heavy and also have a fine resistance, so that you would have to move them a bit harder than on other controller units. I see this as a big advantage – with this Akai prevents accidental moves of the knobs or faders when you just touch them a bit. I can say the same about the Mod- and Pitch-wheels. They feel good and you can adjust them with precision.
Display, Configuration and Functionality
The background illuminated display has four lines, where you can see all kinds of information and paramaters while moving the faders, knobs, buttons or wheels. I never had any problem recognizing the information on the display during day or night, with room lights turned on or off.
The built-in transport controls, jogwheel, and arrow keys work perfectly, and the usability with stepping through the menus is easy. But yes, the menus. Here you can guess what kind of functionality monster the MPK is. MPC Note Repeat, MPC Swing, and arpeggiator for advanced rhythmic and melodic manipulation, and, and, and … it never ends. Functionality and countles configuration possibilites are great without question. But they also need time to be learned, be remembered and finally also to be programmed. This is a bit too much for my old brain, so the manual and quickstart guide were my best friends and always reachable.
Setup and Software
So let’s face the most important aspect that I was really curious about: how fast will the setup be? I have to say that I am a bit biased in this case, as with my Keystation and also my Nektar Impact, I regularly had problems. So why should Akai be better? I have to say: it was seriously plug-play and go!
As my main DAW is Ableton Live Suite 9.x, I only had to set up the sync information Ableton‘s preferences, and voilà – it worked. From the first day on, no problems, no dropouts, nor anything else. It simply worked. Now, this I really call plug and play!
The MPK comes also with bundled software which (unfortunately) was not available for my test device. But the AKAI website says that it comes bundled with Ableton Live Lite, Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech, SONiVOX Twist 2.0, and Akai Pro MPC Essentials (downloads).
Daily work and Conclusion
As I said above: in the two months where I had the chance to work with the MPK249, it worked flawlessly and was very stable. I never had any problems. In fact, I think that the reverse is true: the problem was sitting in front of the MPK. As great as it is, as useful as the ton of features it has are, I really had a problem keeping all these functionalities in my head, and in the end, I did what I mostly do. I took to my mouse or played the percussion with the keys of my keyboard. So why did this happen?
I think this is a question of personality and workflow. I had lots of controllers here in my little studio and never got really used to one. And as a film and TV composer, I think most features of the MPK don’t fit with the needs we have. We (or at least I) use the keyboard to play my lines, arpeggios I play on my own, automation is mostly done via modwheel or mouse, and percussion stuff is mostly edited after having it recorded ‘kind of like that’. If you work more in electronic dance music, the MPK will be in its comfort zone. There lots of ways, especially in combination with Ableton Live and its session view, where you can fully concentrate on the keyboard and even work on it without looking at the software on the monitor. But the workflow is different to composing trailer music or soundtracks.
But as I said, it’s more of a personal problem than the problem of the MPK. Yes, the learning curve is high at the beginning, but it is a great piece of hardware, well constructed and produced, with tons of functionalities. I wish other hardware manufacturers would build as good a piece of hardware as Akai does.