By FRANCIS PRÈVE
THE KEYBOARD CONTROLLER MARKET IS COMPETITIVE LIKE THIS
summer was a little warm. There are so many products that it’s never
been a better time to shop around, but the range of options is daunting. Akai’s new
MAX49 is a top contender for your hard-won dollars. It offers a boatload of truly useful
features, from MPC-grade pads to perfectly located transport controls to backlit
touch-strip faders—and in an interesting twist, it’s also has control voltage and gate
outputs for interfacing with your vintage (or new) analog synths or modular gear.
Build and Action
When I first unboxed the MAX49, I was struck by
its robust construction. In addition to its brilliant
candy apple red case, the thing is built like a tank.
The keyboard itself is a 49-key, semi-weighted
affair—with aftertouch. The action was a tad stiff
for my taste, but I definitely prefer it to some
of the mushier keys I’ve encountered on budget
controllers. The keyboard also includes a capable
arpeggiator with seven patterns: up, down, two
up/down modes, a mode that double-hits each
key (for trance and ’80s effects), random (great
for Duran Duran covers), and chord repeat. There
are also parameters for octave range, gate time,
note value (“time division” in Akai parlance), and
MPC swing feel. In practice, this is a great little
arpeggiator that will serve both EDM producers
and cover bands quite nicely.
Th e MAX49’s drum pads are backlit and light up
when tapped. Flanking the pads on either side
are additional buttons for switching between four
user-configurable pad banks, and two indispensable
MPC features: full-volume hit and adjustable
note-repeat. In addition, there are switches for
the arpeggiator features
The pads themselves feel great
and can be customized for various playing
styles thanks to the inclusion of parameters for
both velocity sensitivity and a selection of velocity
curves. It’s also worth keeping in mind that while
most users will be using the pads for drum programming
or live triggering of samples, they can
also handily toggle various DAW functions (like
solo or mute), so if you program your drums using
diff erent techniques, the pads won’t go to waste.
In the center of the
front panel is a four-line
LCD that provides ample
navigation of the MAX49’s presets,
menus, and parameters. Beneath that are
five large transport buttons for your DAW. It’s
amazing how important placement and design
can impact the usefulness of a feature as seemingly
small as this. Having the transport front
and center makes a world of difference—and the
larger scale and spacing of the buttons is a boon
for players with sausage fi ngers.
There’s also a nice little collection of control
templates for all of the major DAWs including
Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Reason, Cubase, Logic,
and FL Studio, so users who want to dive right in
dial up the
The MAX49 includes
eight touch strips that replace
the mechanical faders and
knobs found on most other controllers.
While some users may prefer true
faders, the touch faders off er performance possibilities
that are impossible via hardware. Unlike
a fader, you can tap any spot on the strip and
immediately jump to that value. This makes for
interesting performances when controlling synth
parameters like filter cutoff , wavetable position,
or FM amount.
Six behaviors are configurable for each fader
independently, including Mackie Control and
HUI modes, which are essential for many of the
DAWs that the MAX supports. Some of these can
work in bipolar fashion (zero is at the midpoint
with positive and negative values on either side);
this works exceedingly well with center-detented
synth parameters such as panning and detuning.
In addition to these different types, you can set
each touch fader to absolute (jump) or two diff erent
relative modes that add or subtract to your
value based on where you touch the faders. A row
of LEDs next to each fader clearly indicates what
your values are at any moment.
At first glance, eight faders may not seem like
enough for high-performance acrobatics. Fortunately,
you get four bank selectors so you can
quickly switch fader groups. Until people start
growing more than four fingers on each hand,
this feels adequate to me.
Under each fader is an additional assignable
button that can be used for muting, soloing, or
toggling parameters. These buttons also turn
steps on or off in the sequencer, or change time
division (note values) for the arpeggiator and
MPC pad repeats.
Speaking of sequencing, the MAX49 has a really
cool implementation, with the fader bank
switches selecting between four banks of eight
steps, resulting in up to 32-step patterns. These
patterns can be assigned to MIDI parameters or
the CV/gate, for 303-style sequencing of vintage
analog gear. I tried this with both my Oberheim
SEM and Roland SH-101 without a hitch. The fact
that the steps can be edited in real time as the
sequence plays—as well as toggling steps on/off
with the buttons beneath each fader—gives the
ultra-modern MAX49 a decidedly vintage flair.
I then used the step sequencer to control the
filters on a couple of my modular-friendly analog
gems, like the Doepfer Dark Energy and Arturia
MiniBrute (to be reviewed next issue). Since both
are connected to my computer via a USB hub
(for MIDI), I was able to use the step sequencer
to control other functions, like filter cutoff on
the MiniBrute or pulse width modulation on the
Doepfer. A bit fiddly, yes, but that’s what modular
rigs are all about: fiddling!
While I would have loved an additional CV out
for assigning to the SEM or Dark Energy’s filter
CV in, there’s only one sequence available at any
given moment, so that would have minimal value.
Here’s hoping Akai makes a big brother (MAX61,
anybody?) with additional sequencers and CVs,
because this one’s hella fun to use.
While I had little
around the MAX49’s
LCD for basic editing,
the free software
editor is a godsend for
elaborate studio and
performance rigs. Every
is easily configured,
and there are also sys-ex librarian tools if you have extreme patch organization
needs. Note the pop-up—you can select protocol and behavior for each fader
I was extremely impressed with the MAX49. Its
touch-strip faders are way ahead of the curve for
realtime performance. The pads are the real deal for
MPC fans. The step sequencer is a blast. It works
out of the box with every major DAW, and the
ability to convert MIDI data from your DAW (or
from the onboard sequencer and arpeggiator) into
control voltage for your analog toys shows that Akai
clearly knows we’re living in a hybrid world. For 500
bucks, this is one controller that really stands out in
a crowded market—total Key Buy material.
Solid keyboard feel.
Aftertouch. MPC-grade pads
and inimitable MPC swing.
Built-in arpeggiator and step
sequencer. Includes control
templates for all major
DAWs. CV/gate outs for
analog synths. Both onboard
incoming MIDI over USB
translate to CV outs.
Has only one CV
and one gate out—more
would make it better for
controlling vintage and
modular synth rigs.
Need one set of keys that bridges
your computer world and that cool
voltage-controlled synth module
you just scored? That’s just the
beginning of what the MAX49 can do.
$699 list | $499 street