Akai MPK249 review
Akai has been making production tools, drum machines, and keyboards for the last several decades. They’re the seasoned veterans that musicians have relied on throughout the years, always putting out consistently professional-quality gear. However, the unique thing about Akai is that not only do they make professional-grade gear, they also make great equipment for musicians that are just getting started on their performance and production careers.
With all of this in mind, I recently demoed Akai’s midi controller, the MPK249. Let me start this review by saying that Akai makes some excellent stuff, and the expectations are always high when they come out with a new controller or keyboard.
Akai is one of the companies that has transitioned really well from the old ways of the music industry and into the digital age, where electronic programming is in nearly every pop song, and nearly every genre is using forms of digital, electronic samples and sounds in their own music. Knowing this, I expect good things from Akai.
Their MPK series has been around for a few years now, and I used to own a smaller version (the MPK mini) of the keyboard I’m about to review. I loved the MPK mini and I regret letting a friend “borrow” it, but alas I might never see it again.
However, after demoing this instrument, I’m seriously considering picking up the MPK249’s now, because I was pretty pleased with it.
So let’s get started. And to do so, please take a look at our interactive table below. You’ll be able to instantly compare the Akai MPK249 to other quality keyboards, like the Akai Advance 49, Max 49, and much more.
|Arturia KeyLab 49 MKII|
|Novation Launchkey 61 MK3|
Understanding MIDI Controllers
First, it’s important to recognize that this is not an digital piano. It is a midi controller, or MIDI keyboard.
What’s the difference?
Well, a MIDI controller does not have any sounds internally, and cannot make sound on its own. You might think that’s pretty lame, but before you judge, you should know that a lot of professionals use midi keyboards in their studios.
Because MIDI keyboards are meant to be used with computer software programs called DAWs or Digital Audio Workstations (such as Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton to name a few) in order to control the digital, virtual sounds. DAWs are used for everything from music production and sound design, to mixing and mastering, to live performance. DAWs are great ways to learn how to make music, but they’re also the standard for recording music. Everyone who is serious about music will encounter a DAW at some point.
Now, because DAWs are expensive, midi controllers are generally a little cheaper than digital piano keyboards. Regular keyboards usually have speakers, an option to select different preset sounds, connections for playing on external speakers and amps, and sometimes a small recording function. The DAW is basically a place to host all of this digitally, through the use of the computer. MIDI keyboards simply control the functions you want to do through the use of the buttons on the keyboard and the keys themselves.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best selling MIDI keyboards online:
|1) M-Audio Hammer 88|
|2) Arturia KeyStep Pro|
|3) Arturia KeyLab 49 MkII|
The Akai MPK249’s Target Market
The Akai MPK249 has a lot of great features, but it thrives in a couple of different ways. The question is whether this MIDI keyboard is right for you, though.
As we look at all of the different features, we’ll try to think about who Akai is targeting with this machine. Is the MPK249 for beginners, professionals, or somewhere in between?
Lastly, it’s worth noting (especially if you are a parent) that midi keyboards, while they look like small pianos for beginners, are not generally aimed at piano students at all, specifically those that are children.
The fact is that children probably won’t want to spend the time to learn how a complex digital audio workstation works, since DAWs are tools used by professionals.
DAWs are meant for the technically and sonically savvy, and often require years of work to master. For instance, I’ve been using Abelton Live for about four or five years now, and there are things I still don’t know about it, and I’m an adult who spends at least fifteen to twenty hours a week on music production and writing.
Thus, because MIDI controllers are meant to be used with DAWs, they’re probably best for those who are a little older and are willing to put in the work to be able to use one successfully.
Akai MPK249 Overview
Akai’s MIDI controllers are pretty great in general, based on my experience, so I was eager to test out the MPK249. It’s a little fancier than the MPK mini, due in part to the greater number of keys, but also largely due to the fact that there are more buttons, more pads, and some wheels on the left-hand side of the keyboard.
However, it sticks to its classic, boxy MPK design, which looks like plastic, but it’s durable enough to withstand a lot of portability. I picked it up to see how it would feel to carry it into a studio or to a gig. It’s lighter than it looks (12.6 pounds, to be precise), which is always a good sign, and it seems like it would handle travel pretty well.
Some midi keyboards feel a bit too flimsy but this one comes across as fairly sturdy given its size and weight.
Akai is famous for their three letter abbreviations when naming instruments and production tools. Akai made its name when hip-hop producers in the 80s started using the legendary MPC drum machine.
This boom-bap style drum sampler is responsible for some of the most legendary hip-hop and rap performances ever recorded. Because of its ease of use, ability to tweak samples, and great stock drums, the MPC was the standard for drum machines alongside the more electronic analog Roland TR-808 drum machine (still responsible for so many iconic drum sounds today).
The MPK is a reference to the MPC, more as a production tool than an actual drum machine. However, I think there are few homages to the MPC that you can find on the MPK249.
For instance, Akai has always been amazing with drum pads. The drum pads on the MPK can be found in a grid on the face of the keyboard, in a group of 16 pads. Naturally, I wanted to play around with them. They feel soft, but they are velocity sensitive and easy to press. You can press more than one pad simultaneously to get multiple sounds to trigger at once.
Now, when you first set up your Akai MPK249, pressing the pads is the same as pressing some of the keys. They’ll play whatever your keyboard is mapped to. This means you’ll have to map the pads to another sound separately. You can do this, of course, but I figured you might want to know about it in case you tried hitting the pads but could only play the sound mapped to the keys.
Next to the pads are a series of bank controls. This allows you to scroll through banks, which are sets you can switch to. Think of it like an octave button on a synthesizer, which changes the octave, but you still play the same keys. The bank buttons do the same thing, only instead of changing the octave, they change the range of sounds you can play with the pads.
I love the colors of the pads, and how they’re easily distinguishable from each other. I wish Novation would take a cue from Akai for their pads and make the coloration on their Launchpads and midi controllers a little more straightforward.
The DAW Control Keypad
This thing is so useful. It allows you to scroll through things on the computer screen without ever touching the mouse. You can map it to do whatever you want, but it’s perfect for scrolling through synth presets. Next to the keypad is a tempo tap, a note repeater, an arpeggiator, and a latch. The arpeggiator allows you to play a sequence of notes, and the latch simply holds the sequence in place so you can modulate it without holding down the keys.
The center of the face of the midi keyboard is where things get a little complicated. In my opinion, this might be to the detriment of the MPK249. The screen is very clear and easy to read, and the information displayed on the screen can be sifted through using the scroll wheel to the right.
There are also several DAW controls below the screen, including preset and program changes, previewing and looping, which you have to assign to your DAW’s previewing and looping functions, as well as some forward and backward playback buttons, a stop and play, and a record button.
These are all useful, but you have to take the time to set them up if you’re willing to use them. You can also control the octave and the banks on the buttons below.
Honestly, I feel like a lot of people who make music never use any of the features included below the screen. People usually use MIDI controllers for the keys, the pads, the knobs and faders, and the wheels. Beyond that, you can control everything through your typing keyboard, and most DAWs even have hotkeys to make it easier.
Plus, if you’re used to using your typing keyboard already, there is little chance you’ll be willing to change. So while the buttons below the screen are a great option to have in case you want it, I don’t know how necessary they are. On top of that, they take up a lot of room on the keyboard where there could be other, more simple buttons to be used for whatever you want.
I really do, however, like the assignable controls on the MPK249. They’re all organized in one place, labeled clearly, and they’re easy to get to. These are used for mapping any parameter onto your sound, and I use them on my MIDI keyboard all the time.
The buttons below the assignable controls can be mapped to anything, but they can also be used to modulate the rate of the arpeggiator. It’s worth mentioning that not a lot of MIDI controllers have an onboard arpeggiator, but Akai’s do. My MPK mini had one and I loved that it had one. Very useful for easy arps without the headache of setting it up inside the DAW.
Connections and Other Specs
Here’s a brief list of a few connectivity options when it comes to the MPK249:
- Power and Power Lock (it can be powered without a power adapter via USB, however)
- USB to host
- Midi in and Midi Out
- Expression Pedal Port
- Sustain Pedal Port
It should be noted that because no sound comes out of a MIDI keyboard, this does not include audio connections.
Comparing it to Other Midi Controllers
I own a Novation Launchkey 49, so naturally I wanted to throw in some Novation products to see how they stack up against the MPK249.
Akai MPK249 vs Novation Launchkey 49
Ultimately, I still prefer the Launchkey. I don’t need all of the buttons that control the DAW below the screen on the MPK249, and I don’t think most people need them. It adds unnecessary complexity and I think the few DAW controls the Novation keyboards have are more than enough.
However, the MPK249 has the arpegiattor and more pads. If you want those features, pick the MPK249 instead.
Akai MPK249 vs Novation Impulse 61
The Impulse 61 by Novation is another good option, but it’s closer to the Launchkey. It’s also worth noting that Novation specializes in Ableton gear, so if you use Ableton, you might want to go with Novation instead for better DAW integration.
Akai MPK249 vs Advance 49 vs Max 49
Akai has a few other 49 key keyboards, such as the Advance 49 and the Max 49. The Advance 49 really pushes the boundaries of what a MIDI controller can do. It comes with a virtual instrument you can use that’s pre-integrated with the Advance 49, which makes it a really valuable production tool.
Interface-wise, it looks a lot more professional, but it’s also a little more pricey than the MPK249, so if you can live without the flair, your investment is probably better spent elsewhere.
The Max 49 is much more similar to the MPK, although it has touch faders and a swing option. It’s also bright red, so if you’re a fan of red and don’t mind spending a little more for a few more features, the Max 49 is a good way to go.
Some More Thoughts
Ultimately, the MPK249 upholds Akai’s reputation of making great production tools. It might have too many features, and it might be pricier than some of the Novation counterparts, but it’s unique.
I think I still prefer Novation for MIDI, but I’m going to give the Akai MPK249 a solid 3.5 out of 5.
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