In this review, I’ll be talking about the Akai Advance 49, a 49 key MIDI keyboard from Akai. Akai is famous for their music production tools, such as the MPC, a sampler and drum machine that revolutionized hip hop and music production alongside Roland’s TR-808 back in the 80s and 90s, and is still used today. Akai believes in the power of a good workflow, which means that they think you should be able to make music and perform quickly, easily, and without too many stops. However, they ask one thing in return: that you learn their machines first.
Ultimately, that message is still conveyed with the Advance 49. I’ll talk about the features in a little bit, but I wanted to mention that this MIDI keyboard will take some time to get fully comfortable with, so if you’re already accustomed to using something else, you might not like this keyboard.
I know that for me, I have a specific workflow developed that I usually do not deviate too far from, and while I can see what Akai is doing with this MIDI controller, I am not wholly on board. That being said, I was very eager to try out the Advance 49 because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about (and while I’ll save my complete thoughts and grade for later, I can already see that if you spend some time with this instrument, you’ll see an improved workflow).
And below, please take a quick moment to view our interactive table. You can use it to compare the Akai Advance 49 to other competitor keyboards on the market, like the Komplete Kontrol S49 and Akai MPK249.
|Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII|
|Novation Launchkey 61 MK3|
Using MIDI Controllers
In today’s era of digital synths, keyboards, and MIDI controllers, it’s not unreasonable to expect innovation in the realm of music production. MIDI keyboards, if you’re not familiar with them, are designed to control Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and soft synth plugins hosted on the computer to make sounds or recording and live performance.
It’s actually quite common these days to record music primarily through a MIDI controller and a computer only.
So what does this mean for you? Well, if you have a computer capable of music production already, a MIDI keyboard can be a wonderful investment. However, there are so many MIDI keyboards on the market, picking one out can feel downright overwhelming.
Don’t worry—that’s what I’m here for, as I’ll not only be discussing the Advance 49 in depth today, but also comparing it to some worthy competitors to see how well the Advance 49 stacks up against its rivals.
Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about how MIDI works and how to get started, check out this forum and read about midi for beginners.
Below, please take a look at some of the best selling MIDI controller keyboards that are currently available online:
|1) M-Audio Hammer 88|
|2) Arturia KeyStep Pro|
|3) Arturia KeyLab 49 MkII|
To begin, I plugged in the Akai Advance 49 and connected it to my computer. The screen on the left hand side is clear, bright, and much more modern than screens on previous MIDI controllers. I can see now why this thing is retails at around $500: the product is built with high-quality parts.
The keybed feels good too, there are 49 keys and they are full-sized, springy, and unweighted (of course) but overall sturdy enough to withstand vigorous playing, should the need call for it.
Aftertouch is a common effect on MIDI controllers and keyboards today, but what does that mean, exactly? Aftertouch basically continues to send data as you increase pressure after having already struck a key. So, when I pulled up the Addictive Keys Plugin (a popular piano VST plugin) I made sure it could catch MIDI information after I pressed the key.
It worked fine, and although this is a subtle feature, I think it’s worth mentioning. Aftertouch gives the keys a slightly more realistic “piano” feel, so it’s nice to know they put it on this keybed.
Knobs, Buttons, and More
The Advance 49 has a lot of buttons and knobs. On the left near the screen are the wheels controlling pitch and mod. They felt pretty nice, not too flimsy, but the rubber coating is an interesting texture to get used to. Beside these are the octave controls, crucial for any keyboard that isn’t a full 88 keys. They respond quickly when you shift up and down, which is nice.
At the left center of the keyboard face is the complicated interface. Like I said earlier, the screen looks great—it’s bright and the display is very clear. There are several browsing buttons surrounding the screen, some for navigating through the control system and others for triggering actions like recording in the DAW. Most MIDI controllers have the DAW buttons, I know mine does, so I was very familiar with these. However, the other browsing buttons, in addition to the keypad, took a minute to get used to.
I should pause here and mention that the Akai Advance 49 comes with a copy of their VIP software. Akai likes you to use their software, and while it’s not always integrated as easily as they think, it’s almost always powerful.
VIP Software & Sounds
So what does VIP do?
Basically, it’s a place to host all of your sounds, including the ones that come with the VIP and VST Plugins you already have. It’s basically a virtual library for all of your synth sounds. In short, you use the scroll wheel and arrow keys to navigate through your sounds and ultimately select one by pressing enter.
However, there’s much more you can do. You can edit sounds by assigning controllable filters to the knobs on the right side of the keyboard that you can tweak to your liking. You use the browser button to get to the plugin of your choice and scroll through pages of presets and click on ones that sound interesting. The shift button is used to control different actions when using the scroll wheel.
I don’t like this feature, and I think it’s more complicated than using your mouse or laptop track pad to physically edit sounds on your computer’s screen. But I suppose if you took the time and learned it front to back, you’d get quick at it.
You can also press the multi-button to layer sounds from any plugin you want on top of your original sound. I do like this feature, which does make layering easier than arming multiple tracks in a DAW, and I would see myself using this.
So as you can see, I have a mixed opinion when it comes to the practicality of this interface; is all of it necessary or is it unnecessarily innovated? It’s certainly hard to say. If you want to read more about VIP software and how to set it up with the Advance 49, check out the user guide that goes into detail about how to integrate it.
The Pads of the Advance 49
If you like assigning sounds, notes, samples, etc. to pads, then you’ll love the pad feature. The pads feel great, they’re very sensitive, and while there are only eight of them, you get four banks to cycle through so you can use up to 32 pads on each setting.
The knobs feel great too; they spin forever and they are easy to spin and grab. Both the pads and knobs are large, which I think would make it easier if you’re playing the keyboard on a stage and need to make a quick change.
The Advance 49 has an onboard arpeggiator with several different rate options (as highlighted by the buttons between the pads and knobs) and a latch button which locks the arp in place, so it keeps going when you let go of the keys. I’ve always loved Akai’s arpeggiators. I think they’re practical, easy to use, and I always find myself wishing every MIDI controller had one. There’s also a tempo tap, which is always useful, especially if you’re importing a sample that needs a different tempo.
Aesthetically, I don’t have any complaints. In fact it actually looks really good. It has red sides, a sturdy rectangular plastic frame, and the side where the inputs and outputs are looks both professional and modern. The Advance 49 weighs just under ten pounds, and I think that’s a perfect weight because it isn’t flimsy while remaining portable.
As for the inputs and outputs, the Advance 49 has you covered. It has an option for the 5-pin MIDI if you need it, otherwise you can just use the USB port, which is definitely easier. It has external power if you need it, and there is also a sustain and expression pedal option, which is great for live performance.
Here are a few key specs for the Advance 49 that I wanted to highlight:
- Integrated 4.3-inch high-resolution full-color screen with dedicated interface buttons
- Screen provides 1:1, real-time feedback of plugin parameters
- Includes Virtual Instrument Player (VIP) software for unprecedented virtual instrument preset management, control mapping and multi patch creation
- 49 premium, semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keybed with aftertouch
- 8 large, endless and continuously variable control knobs + 4 banks
Akai Advance 49 vs Komplete Kontrol S49
In my humble opinion, if you want a controller that integrates with your software, there’s not going to be anything better than the Komplete Kontrol S49. Integrated flawlessly with Komplete and the DAW of your choosing, it’s minimalistic, easy to use, and looks and feels great. Mind you, the S49 is $600, plus you need Komplete, which costs around $1000, but it’s definitely much more easy to use and figure out than the Advance 49.
Akai Advance 49 vs Akai MPK249
Now, the Akai MPK249 is another alternative to the Advance 49. It’s about $100 cheaper (usually retails at around $400) and has sliders in addition to pads and knobs. Its screen is smaller, and the interface is less in-depth, but this MIDI controller might work for people who aren’t interested in using the features of the Advance 49 and prefer to map everything based on their need.
If I had a choice between the MPK249 and the Advance 49, I’d probably pick the MPK249 because while it has more onboard options, its interface requires less education.
Akai Advance 49 vs Akai Max49 vs Alesis VX49
The Akai Max49 is fancier than the MPK49 but is more like it in terms of controllability. It comes in bright red, which I don’t prefer, but it has touch sliders and the pads feel great. It’s $500, so if I were choosing between this one and the Advance 49, I’d probably pick the Advance 49 because the pads and knobs are bigger and it looks more professional.
Lastly, let’s throw in the Alesis VX49. I’m generally not a big fan of Alesis in general. This one is alright, though there’s not a whole lot here to write home about. To be fair, the VX49 also uses VIP, so if you like that software and want to use it but pay $100 less, pick up this one instead (and, like with any instrument you buy, make sure you have the ability to return the product and get a refund if you don’t like it).
When it comes to picking a 49 key midi keyboard controller, it’s sometimes hard to choose the right brand and model. Akai is very good at doing its own thing, and for fans of Akai, this is great. The problem is that people who aren’t intimately familiar with Akai’s interfaces will struggle, at least at first.
There are some cool elements on this keyboard. It feels good overall, and it truly does look great. I just don’t see myself ever wanting to use their interface or their VIP software. It seems like my money would be best spent elsewhere, and you can tell a majority of the price of the Advance 49 goes toward funding their workflow elements.
I don’t want to discourage you, because this is just my opinion, and I’m sure a lot of people love this keyboard, but for me, I want something a little easier to use.
GRADE: 3/5 stars
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