At first glance, the Akai MiniAK looks like a compact performance
synth with few frills. Its three-octave velocity-sensitive keyboard, pitch
and mod wheels, three assignable knobs, and gooseneck mic for singing
into the onboard vocoder, are just the thing for playing solos, bass lines,
pads, and fills at live gigs or in the studio. But appearances can be deceiving.
Under the MiniAK’s hood lies a full-blown virtual analog synth that’s
capable of producing up to eight voices with three oscillators each. Each
voice can be its own multitimbral part if you prefer. You get two multimode
filters, three ADSR envelopes, two LFOs, linear and exponential
FM capabilities, a ring modulator, and stereo effects including a 40-band
vocoder. There’s also a step and pattern sequencer, an arpeggiator, and a
drum machine. Oh, and lots of preset sounds—600 of them. This gives
you a lot of musicmaking power in a deceptively small package.
by Dominic Milano
You can process external audio through the MiniAk’s synth engine, either via the included vocoder mic or the 1/4" balanced inputs around back.
Bass, lead, pad, string, brass, comp, keys, drum, vocoder/special FX . . .
the MiniAK’s sounds are organized in nine self-explanatory categories.
Though sounds cover all the bases—organs, electric pianos, Clavs, chimes,
and yes, synths—there are no samples. Everything is analog modeling.
Even its drum sounds are created using analog-like synthesis techniques,
so many have a TR-808 or TR-909 feel. A few distortion-enhanced kicks
and snares evoke a Nine Inch Nails industrial vibe.
A number of programs have names that keyboard cognoscenti will
recognize: “Seven Days,” “Lucky Porta,” and “WontGetFooled,” for example,
are dead-on covers of sounds from Jan Hammer’s “The First Seven
Days,” Keith Emerson’s “Lucky Man” solo, and the pulsing, filtered organ
of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Many of the factory presets have a wonderful ambient tone, thanks to
judiciously applied onboard DSP effects. In addition, the performance
controls—both mod wheels as well as the three assignable knobs—usually
take the sounds in new, expressive directions. For example, by opening
up the filter cutoff, dialing in resonance, adding vibrato, or giving the
tone added grit via overdrive, and so on.
Synth Engine and Effects
The MiniAK’s voice architecture will be familiar if you’re an Alesis ION
or Micron player, as the MiniAK is a direct descendent. As such, its programs
are compatible with both Alesis machines. The MiniAK is also
reminiscent of various classic analog synths: the Minimoog, ARP Odyssey,
Prophet-5, and so on. It also incorporates a few useful enhancements.
For example, one of the three envelopes can modulate oscillator
pitch. There’s also a ring modulator between two of the oscillators, and
various types of frequency modulation. Linear FM does classic FM synthesis
a la Yamaha DX7, whereas exponential FM modulates the pitch of an oscillator and can be used for drastic frequency-shift effects spanning
up to 12 octaves.
Both hard and soft oscillator sync between various combinations
of the three oscillators are available. Oscillator sync was
made popular by analog classics such as the Oberheim SEM and the
Sequential Prophet-5, and famously used by new wave bands such as
Available oscillator waveforms are sine, triangle, sawtooth, and pulse.
A waveshaping parameter “bends” those waveforms. This causes sines to
deform, triangles to morph into positive- or negative-going sawtooth
waves, and the width of pulse waves to change. There’s even an oscillator
drift parameter to simulate varying degrees of analog instability.
Bïzune’s Windows-only MiniAK MIDI Suite consists of Minizune,a software editor you can run standalone or as a VST plug-in. Get it here.
Each of two filters can operate in any of 18 modes, which range from
four-pole lowpass (for a Moog-like sound) to two-pole lowpass (like
the Oberheim OB series), three-pole lowpass (think Roland TB-303 acid
bass lines), to bandpass and highpass variations, as well as three vocal
formant filter modes and a comb filter mode. Two modes are unique
to the MiniAK, including an eight-pole lowpass that yields an extremely
deep cutoff, and a five-band formant filter mode that’s based on an idealized
human vocal tract.
Two mixers in the signal chain (pre- and post-filter) let you adjust
the relative volume of each oscillator, and you can insert various modeled effects, including compression, limiting, tube overdrive, distortion,
tube amp warmth, or a fuzz pedal effect at the output stage of
the signal chain.
The MiniAK includes a bevy of pitch, delay, and reverb effects, any
two of which you can use on a given program. Pitch-based effects include
chorus, “theta” flanging (a combination of phasing and flanging), “thruzero”
flanging (emulated classic tape flanging), and a 14-stage phaser that
gives you that vintage analog string machine sound. The time-based
effects range from mono and stereo delays to hall and plate reverbs.
Then there’s the 40-band vocoder. A number of parameters help you
dial in the effect you’re after, including the ability to increase or reduce
sibilant frequencies to improve the intelligibility of words. This is handy
when the sound you’re after is less Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express
and more Clockwork Orange.
Groove-Mod for visual control of the MiniAK’s virtual analog
drum machine. The apps are $33 each or $50 as a bundle.
My first reaction to programming the MiniAK was that it could really
use a software editor. One does exist, as part of the third-party MiniAK
MIDI Suite from Bïzune (see above). On the MiniAK itself, a backlit LCD
display and a single Data dial, along with the keyboard and three realtime
knobs, are the only ways to access its powerful synth engine. The
Data dial serves multiple functions—turning it scrolls through programs,
sequences, rhythms, and Multis. Pushing it in lets you step through voice
editing settings; push it again to edit the chosen parameter. Making tweaks
one at a time in this manner is anything but fast and intuitive.
Fortunately, holding down the Programs button then pressing a white
key above middle G# lets you jump to often-used parameters while using
the Data knob to make changes. Better still, if you wiggle one of the assignable
knobs while pressing and holding the Data knob, it maps the assignable
knob to whatever parameter is currently “up” in the LCD. With a bit
of practice, you can customize the MiniAK for a bit more on-the-fly
Multis, Sequences, and Rhythms
You wouldn’t think you’d want to layer too many programs across a
three-octave keyboard, but it’s surprising how much sound you can
pack into 37 notes. Controlling the MiniAK over MIDI opens things
up, especially when playing sounds that cover more real estate—organs
and electric pianos, for example.
Multis can contain programs, rhythms, and sequences, which the
MiniAK comes packed with. Most of the built-in rhythms are house, acid,
and trance-oriented. The sequences are simple patterns you trigger with
a single key press—different keys change the pattern’s musical key. A tap
tempo button lets you change playback speed on the fly. Usually, the mod
wheel adds a filter sweep or other appropriate club-music nuance.
The factory Multis take those same dance-flavored sensibilities to another
level by combining rhythms, pattern sequences or arpeggios, and synth
sounds. Programming sequences or patterns is like using a step sequencer
that’s always in 4/4. To get odd meters, you treat 4/4 like 1/4. Shuffle and
swing feels are produced by dividing the beat into 12 or 24 steps.
The MiniAK packs a lot of punch into a compact package that’d be at
home at a gig or in the studio. DJs will find plenty to like in its acid-house
grooves, while prog rockers will have a blast riffing with the classic synth
sounds. The vocoder and formant filters bring vocal articulation to the
virtual analog signal, and of course, let you do those guilty-pleasure robot
voices. Anyone serious about programming their own rhythms and sounds
should check out the MiniAK MIDI Suite software from Bïzune, but if
you’re looking for a portable, self-contained keyboard to cover all the
bases you want to sound “like a synthesizer,” the MiniAK delivers the
goods—and then some.
PROS: Lots of usable sounds. Cool acid-house analog grooves. Compact and
lightweight. Manual provides context that explains what features are
CONS: Programming UI is challenging. Only available software editor is
third-party and PC only. No USB MIDI. Can’t record audio loops
for automated control of the vocoder.
CONCEPT Performance synth with modeled analog sound, built-in rhythm patterns,
sequencer, and vocoder.
POLYPHONY 8 voices.
OSCILLATORS PER VOICE 3, each with continuously variable waveforms.
FILTERS PER VOICE 2, both resonant and multimode.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS Up to 8.
HOW ANALOG DOES IT SOUND? Some of the programs are spot-on
recreations of classic synth sounds, others evoke “analog-ness” but could
use more oscillator drift, which you can add.
W x D x H 22.8" x 10.8" x 3.3".
WEIGHT 12 lbs.
PRICE: List: $699
Street: Approx. $500