Akai Advance MIDI controller reviewed: One ’board to rule them all?

August 3, 2015

There’s no shortage of USB MIDI keyboard controllers on the market, but this hasn’t dissuaded Akai Professional from developing what could be the one controller to rule them all—soft synths, that is. The new Advance keyboard range sets the bar high for what we can expect from a controller, but does it truly combine all the playability and immediacy of hardware keyboard workstations with all the sonic horsepower of working with virtual instruments? Read on.


Overview

The Advance keyboards are available in 25-, 49- and 61-key versions with nearly identical features across the entire range. I say nearly, because the 25-key version has smaller knobs and pads than the larger models, but is functionally identical to the bigger ’boards in every other way.

I received the 49-key model, which arrived in impressive full-color packaging that boldly claimed, “Load, play and control Komplete, and thousands of other instruments from Arturia, Spectrasonics, U-he, FXpansion, Synthogy, and more.” The word Komplete was largest. It’s clear that Akai is targeting everyone who owns lots of soft synths, but especially those who might be tempted by NI’s Komplete Kontrol S (reviewed by yours truly, Dec. ’14).

There are many choices when it comes to USB MIDI keyboard controllers, so it bears some unpacking of this crowded space to understand where Advance fits in. Generally, controllers fall into two camps: “dumb” and “intelligent.” Typically with dumb controllers, mapping physical performance controls (i.e., knobs, faders, pads, and wheels) to software parameters or MIDI hardware is done manually. This can be a tedious process. To make controller assignments easier, some keyboards come with templates that work with popular DAWs and software instruments. Others, such as Akai’s own MPK range, include a software editor with which you can assign MIDI CCs and save these setups to the hardware for later recall.

What distinguishes smart controllers is some form of bi-directional communication between the keyboard and the software on your computer. This is achieved in different ways, and on the Advance, it’s handled by Akai’s Virtual Instrument Player software, or VIP. Essentially, VIP is a specialized host for VST instruments that promises the “live playability of a keyboard workstation” for soft synths. With VIP you’re able to browse and load sounds from your entire VST collection (either from the software or the Advance’s display), and when instruments are loaded, VIP automatically maps Advance’s knobs and buttons to logical plug-in parameters. Nice.


Hardware

Advance’s build quality seems top-notch, with brushed metal end cheeks, a beautiful 4.3" color display, and a sleek top panel that’s clearly labeled and easy to navigate. The rubberized modulation and pitch wheels feel solid.

The eight endless rotaries are larger than most, with a smooth response that oozes luxury. Tweaking synth parameters with these knobs felt more like working the dials of an upscale hi-fi system. I found I could make subtle adjustments by dragging the tip of my finger across the top in either direction, a better experience than grabbing smaller knobs with forefinger and thumb.

Eight velocity and pressure sensitive MPC-style pads are also onboard. These light up in different colors to indicate the currently active bank or some other status. The pads seem durable and are on the larger side, so you can tap multiple fingers on a single pad without it feeling crowded.

Advance is clearly more of a player’s keyboard than a kitchen-sink controller. As such, there are no sliders. If you need them for controlling your DAW’s mixer, Akai will point you toward their MPK range.

What Advance does offer is a reassuring, responsive semi-weighted synth-action keybed that’s head and shoulders above the springy and lightweight feel found on less expensive controllers. Does it feel better than the Fatar keybed on NI’s Komplete Kontrol S? In my opinion, no. But keyboard feel is subjective, and the Advance certainly feels nice. I found it translated my musical intentions very well when playing multisampled acoustic and electric pianos. If a particular software instrument doesn’t feel right, you can always adjust Advance’s velocity curve and sensitivity.


Virtual Instrument Player Software

VIP can operate as a stand-alone host, providing certain advantages over DAWs when it comes to playing VIs in a live setting. It can also operate as an AU, AAX and VST plug-in within compatible DAWs. As a host, however, VIP only supports the VST format.

Used as a plug-in, VIP adds a software layer between the Advance keyboard and your DAW. This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Software incompatibility might be more of an issue with multiple programs and plug-ins in the mix. But the upside is that you gain a level of functionality with the Advance controller that’s unmatched by any other keyboard on the market.

The user manual describes VIP as a “production hub and advanced content library designed for Akai Professional Advance Series keyboard controllers.” This hints at what I think is one of Advance’s biggest selling points: VIP’s browser.

Unlike any other software I can think of (except the discontinued Kore from Native Instruments), VIP aggregates all the VST instruments installed on a machine, along with all the presets and any tags or keywords that a plug-in uses to categorize its sounds. This information is then organized within the browser, which has columns for Instruments, Timbres, Styles, Articulations and even Expansion sets for NI’s Komplete.

Once presets and criteria are imported, you can browse for sounds using any combination of criteria, for instance, “Piano” and “Ambient.” Search results show up on the left-hand side where you can load any of the options with a single click.

One of the benefits of this system is that through the course of searching, VIP will present many more sound choices than what you’d get if you were to browse through a single plug-in. Ultimately, it means you could uncover gems you never knew you had in your library, and in fact, this is exactly what happened whenever I spent time with VIP. As a result, I got deeper into my instruments and found new sources of inspiration.

Of course new tags can be added, and a sound’s tags can be changed. Additionally, sounds can be marked as “favorites” for later recall, which is handy (and not possible with NI’s Komplete Kontrol browser). Unfortunately there’s no way to easily organize sounds by project the way you can within Spectrasonics Omnisphere or Propellerhead Reason, which is something I’m hoping can be addressed in a future update.

For live performance, VIP’s Setlist feature organizes sounds into “slots” for fast recall. A set list can contain up to 128 slots, which can hold a single preset or a multi (a combination of up to eight plug-in presets). Multis support key zone splits and layers but not velocity splits wherein playing harder would bring in another instrument. Even so, there’s a lot of potential here.

Building a set list is dead easy: Drag and drop sounds into slots, drag to reorder. Depending on where you place the mouse cursor in the list, you can insert new sounds between currently loaded slots. It couldn’t be simpler. I was also impressed to find that notes don’t get cut off from one sound to the next when switching slots, although in a few situations I did notice a brief lag, depending on the source plug-ins used.


DAW and Hardware Control

For all the intelligent mapping that VIP does, it doesn’t afford much in the way of programming for use as a generic MIDI controller with hardware or DAWs. For this, you’ll need to work directly from Advance’s display to edit and save presets in what Akai calls MIDI mode, which will be familiar territory to anyone who has assigned MIDI CCs and other MIDI messages to physical performance controls.

Advance has 32 internal memory locations for these kinds of presets, several of which are pre-configured for use with popular DAWs, including Logic Pro and Ableton Live. These presets are really just MIDI controller mappings that have DAW-specific names. It’s easy to program the keyboard in this way, though it does require some menu-diving. I did find it odd that this kind of programming couldn’t be done via a software editor (or VIP), but this is certainly not a deal-breaker. Akai has said that some form of software editor is in consideration for a future release.


In Use

I put Advance and VIP through their collective paces, both as a stand-alone system and within my DAW, Logic Pro X. When I first set up VIP for stand alone use, I was pleasantly surprised to learn it would accept MIDI input from my other keyboards, which meant that for live use, you can create an expanded rig, although VIP doesn’t recognize the performance controls on other keyboards. For this reason, and the fact that VIP doesn’t host VST audio effects or have audio inputs, I wouldn’t consider VIP a “MainStage killer.”

Scanning my system for VST plug-ins and importing their presets/tags was a smooth process. I was then able to start exploring without a hitch. I got distracted many times during the review because it was too much fun having all of my VIs immediately at my fingers in such an intuitive way.

I also have to give kudos to Akai for all the painstaking work they did in mapping the more than 350 third-party plug-ins that VIP supports (at the time of this writing). Each plug-in map was done by hand to ensure that the most important parameters (according to Akai) are assigned in a musically useful way. Advance delivers big on this front.

VIP is not perfect, however. To be fair, any software browser is only as good as its categorization system, and while VIP does an admirable job of applying a consistent set of attributes to third-party VIs, I discovered that the attributes weren’t always accurate or complete. For example, certain sounds in Omnisphere wouldn’t show up when I searched alphabetically.

There were also random crashes at times, which restarting would correct. And initially I had a devil of a time getting the VI content authorized, but this seemed to stem from weirdness with the Pace iLok software. Thankfully, Akai’s helpful tech support sorted me out.

As I played the keyboard and tried to adjust my workflow to a “keyboard workstation meets software browser” mentality, I quickly came to appreciate the full-color display. It made all the difference when navigating within the browser and parameter pages. For example, the endless knobs are represented onscreen in shades of orange or blue depending on the assignment type, and this mirrors the software. This made it immediately clear at all times which settings were controlled directly from the hardware.

Advance (with VIP) was a step up from any other keyboard I’ve used to control software instruments. Mapping controls was a breeze, thanks to the UI, and having all of my software instruments at my fingertips in VIP was definitely a more musical and productive experience than working in Logic or any other DAW I’ve used. I wouldn’t say it was a true hardware workstation-like experience, but no workstation comes as close to bridging the divide between hardware and software.


Conclusions

The Advance keyboard range truly deserves the term “advanced.” Akai has managed to take smart MIDI controllers to a new level, thanks to tight integration with the custom Virtual Instrument Player software, not to mention the intuitive way in which this is navigable from the keyboard. Time will tell whether Akai manages to stay on top of the software development that will be necessary as the universe of plug-in developers release updates. But at this point in Advance’s history, this keyboard is arguably the best semi-weighted synth-action MIDI controller available. Factor in the quality of the included software instruments, and the entire package becomes hard to beat. For this reason, it earns a Key Buy award.


PROS

Excellent build quality. Full-color screen. Intuitive, flexible patch browsing without a mouse. Intelligent, automatic mapping of parameters via VIP software. Very good value. Included software instruments are first class.

CONS

No software editor to assign controls to external MIDI hardware devices. Our review unit exhibited some “version 1.0” bugs. No all-notes-off MIDI Panic option in VIP or on Advance. Won’t intelligently map to built-in instruments within non-VST DAWs.


Bottom Line

No other controller offers this kind of intelligent parameter mapping and patch browsing capability. For the money, it can’t be beat.

25 keys: $499 list | $399 street

49 keys: $599 list | $499 street

61 keys: $699 list | $599 street

akaipro.com


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