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 mentioned previously.
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 can simply dial up the corresponding preset.
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 difficulty zipping around the MAX49’s LCD for basic editing, the free software editor is a godsend for elaborate studio and performance rigs. Every available parameter 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 independently!
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 sequencer/arpeggiator and 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