Akai knows when it has a good thing going. When we reviewed the MPK Series of controller keyboards (November 2010), the venerable manufacturer of the beat-friendly MPC tabletop sampler/sequencers had already found many new ways to give home-studio composers and live performers access to the MPC pad interface. There were modern hardware MPCs, tabletop USB controllers to add MPC pads to your DAW, and in the MPKs, performance keyboards/control surfaces that had MPC pads as part of the package.
The MPK line is still available from Akai and doing well, but the company hasn't stopped looking around to find cool new ways to take the MPC-and-more paradigm even further. The MAX49 controller under review here is a prime example, as it takes the MPK formula and adds new control methods and new interface options to the mix.
The MAX49 comes preconfigured with templates to control many different DAWs, and not only speaks MIDI Control Change (CC) and MIDI Machine Control (MMC) messages, but can also communicate handily in the popular Mackie Control and HUI protocols when needed. Even if you're not entirely sure just how your DAW wants to see controller commands, the MAX49 will probably give you want you need right out of the starting gate. Anyone with experience configuring his or her DAW for external control will find everything easy to access, and can customize the MAX49 to taste in a jiffy.
So what do you find when you open the box? A new-car-red chassis sporting a 49-note keyboard with a nicely stiff action and comfortable aftertouch, a set of 12 velocity/pressure-sensitive backlit MPC drum pads with the usual Akai performance controls like Note Repeat and Full Level, centrally-located function and menu controls (including dedicated transport controls) under a four-line backlit LCD, rubberized pitch and mod wheels, eight assignable buttons, and a set of eight Touch Faders -- ribbon controllers with LED ladders to indicate their current setting, taking the place of conventional faders.
The Touch Faders offer a few advantages when compared to traditional faders. They have no moving parts so they're hopefully more sturdy; the LED ladders indicate fader position on a dark stage; and perhaps most critically, when you switch fader banks or functions, all of the Touch Faders' settings instantly update to new values because you don't have to physically move the faders to new positions -- you get the instant recall of automation without having to motorize the faders. Disadvantages? Their resolution feels a bit more coarse than what you'd get with a real fader (although that may just be perception), and they lack the tactile feedback of faders -- for example, you can't set a fader to match levels with the one next to it just by feel. The fact that they instantly update to new values with a gentle touch is both an advantage and a disadvantage; you can do cool control-stepping tricks that are impossible with faders, but an accidental touch can throw a parameter value a lot farther than a mistaken fader nudge.
The rear panel offers USB, MIDI In and Out, and five 1/4" TS jacks for an expression pedal, two footswitches, and Control Voltage (CV) and Gate outputs for old-school analog gear (more about those below). There's also a jack for the 6V wall-wart power supply included with the MAX49; it's not always necessary if you're only doing USB connectivity, but you'll need it for CV/Gate use, and if you're low on USB power the LEDs may not always light as you'd expect them to. I'd play it safe and run the MAX49 plugged in when possible.
New operating features
I won't revisit the many features the MAX49 shares in common with the MPK Series; it's a fine-playing keyboard, the MPC pads are comfortable to play (and do double duty as function switches or MIDI controllers if you're not a pad-masher), and the built-in Arpeggiator offers various play modes and controllable swing. As a controller, the MAX49 covers a lot of ground, as its Pads and Touch Faders each have four separate Banks of settings (for 48 Pads and 32 Faders/buttons in all). It's seen by your DAW as having three output ports and two inputs; that lets you send up to 32 channels of MIDI data from the MAX49 (each control can be assigned a transmit channel or use a common one), exchange parameter settings with your computer, and use the MIDI In and Out as DAW MIDI interface ports.
The Sequencer is a fun throwback to the old days of analog modular gear; you can set up a sequence of up to 32 steps, with each step transmitting a note within a 2-octave range, a rest, or a tie to the previous note. Pitches are set with the LCD or via the Touch Faders, a quick and intuitive process, and a function called Keyshift lets you transpose a sequence on the fly by touching the keyboard. Each of four storable Sequences can have not only a series of notes but also a different series of values for a given MIDI CC number, so you can automate stepped knob-turns like filter cutoff for cool effects.
If you have analog synth gear that uses standard 5V/octave Control Voltage scaling and accepts positive-going Gate signals, the MAX49 works as a monophonic keyboard controller or MIDI-to-CV converter for MIDI signals or data in the DAW. I tried it with my Oberheim Xpander and Roland MC-202, and it set up instantly and tracked like lightning.
In addition to Avid Pro Tools Express and an Akai-specific version of Ableton Live Lite, the MAX49 has two programs for Mac and Windows associated with its hardware: a Vyzex patch editor/librarian, and a new program called Akai Connect.
The Vyzex software is a great way to visually set up and modify presets on the MAX49 without having to use the workable but cramped front-panel LCD. As shown in the screenshots, the software lets you set and store all of the MAX49's settings, quickly program Sequences, add custom names to parameters assigned to the Touch Faders and buttons, and offers a realtime MIDI activity window that looks much like the MPK61's front-panel LCD. My only gripe is that as on the MPK, Vyzex's patch-management system remains very flexible but non-intuitive; it's supposed to safeguard your data from accidental overwriting, but misunderstanding its functions can make you do exactly that.
Akai Connect allows users to quickly customize mappings of the MAX49's controls to parameters in plug-ins. Like other programs of this type, it runs in the background as you use your DAW and creates a "wrapped" version of whichever VST programs you would like to use with it. The wrapped versions appear next to the originals in your plug-in list, marked with [AC], and are used in your DAW just like the originals. When you select the plug-in, Akai Connect makes a guess at mapping all of the MAX49 controls to plug-in parameters; you can then go in and edit the mappings to your taste. It allows you to try creative tricks you might not normally think of, like assigning parameters to foot control for quick access while you play.
Many experienced DAW users will already have a way to map parameters to controls, and Akai Connect can be ignored by them without harm... you don't have to install it if you don't want to, and even in use, deleting a "wrapped" version of a plug-in is a one-click operation. But for novices wanting to explore hands-on plug-in control, this is a fairly non-intrusive and user-friendly way to get started.
When a controller tries to do it all for everyone, there are going to be places where people run into limitations that bother them, and that was the case with me and the MAX49. Most of my complaints are minor and relate strictly to how I like to work with control surfaces and/or keyboards; for example, while I understand that its bank-switching capabilities give it a minimum of 32 "faders" and a much larger number in Mackie Control or HUI modes, I really miss having a dedicated ninth fader for volume control. MPC purists will miss having 16 pads rather than 12, and I missed a couple of the MPK61's features left off the MAX49: the front-panel MIDI activity display and the backlit pitch and mod wheels.
I loved messing around with the Sequencer, especially when connected to my old analog gear via CV/Gate, but I found the two-octave pitch range of each step to be a frustrating limitation, and using Keyshift to transpose a sequence causes the sequence to instantly retrigger from the first step rather than staying in sync. Also, there doesn't appear to be a way to flip the polarity of the Gate output for gear that wants negative-going gate pulses. With no more documentation available than the Quick Start Guide, I can't tell if I've just missed a setting somewhere or if these are hard-wired limitations.
Even with these matters in mind, the MAX49 represents a remarkable step forward for keyboard control in the DAW age; not only does it offer very flexible USB-based control, but it happily works as a MIDI master controller, a CV/Gate controller, and even as a MIDI-to-CV and DAW-to-CV converter. It plays comfortably and expressively, and its Touch Faders point toward a new way to think about realtime DAW control. Put all this together, and you have a controller that lives happily in the DAW world while respecting the eras of analog and MIDI synths. For the keyboard-based songwriter, the MAX49 represents a significant creative tool that shouldn't be overlooked.
Price: $699 ($499 street)
More from: Akai Professional, www.akaipro.com