This versatile compact synth takes the essence of its close cousin, the Alesis Micron, and adds a twist...
In 2003, Alesis unleashed the Ion, an eight0voice synthesizer that injected artery‑clogging fatness into the world of analogue modelling. Rather than releasing a rack version, Alesis followed up with a petite and curious spin‑off called the Micron. Despite almost entirely lacking controls, the Micron trumped its knobbier brother with desirable extras that included delay and reverb effects, a sequencer and a drum machine.
If you're wondering how this is relevant to the review of an Akai synth, it's because both Akai and Alesis are owned by Numark, a company that actively encourages cross‑pollination. Or, indeed, wholesale plundering, as is the case here. For at its software heart, the Akai Miniak is an Alesis Micron, with an updated design and a bundled microphone. It is testament to Alesis' programming skills that their work has received a new lease of life in 2010, presumably on the back of the success of Korg's Microkorg XL. The Korg has a broadly similar spec, and Akai invite closer comparisons with the addition of a gooseneck microphone. Thrusting proudly from the panel, this mic is aided and abetted by a sticker pointing out how to operate the vocoder. As to why it's Akai rather than Alesis on the box, it seems that with the passing of the mighty Andromeda, Alesis aren't currently associated with keyboards, so the role falls to Akai.
With such a close relationship between the Miniak and the Alesis Micron, it makes more sense to revisit the latter synth's review in the January 2005 issue of Sound On Sound. Here we'll recap briefly, focusing on any significant differences encountered.
At 5.4kg, the Miniak is heavier and more substantial than the Micron, and its main encoder inspires a little more confidence too. I'm not madly keen on the blue backlit display, though; its background glow almost overwhelms the text in spite of every contrast adjustment. It's readable, certainly, but not as clear from a distance as the Micron's plain but serviceable green display.
Having a larger torso enables the Miniak to accommodate full‑sized keys and three wheels, placed above the keyboard. They consist of a traditional sprung pitch‑bender and two assignable modulation wheels. Backlit in a rather fetching amber, these feel instantly more familiar than the sideways sliders of the Micron, although I rather liked the Micron's pitch‑bender. The light, three-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive but, as expected, lacks aftertouch. It has a total transpose range of eight octaves, with brief on‑screen graphics popping up at each transposition. In a further show of friendliness, the transpose buttons increase in brightness for each octave shift.
There's a choice of four possible operating modes — Multi, Sequences, Rhythms or Programs — selected from a row of buttons inexplicably labelled 'Program Controls'. Single patches (Programs) are dialled up alphabetically, or from a pool of stored favourites, or according to category (known as Sound Bank on the panel). The categories include the usual Bass, Lead, Pad, String and so on, accessed via a combination of the Program button and a white key from the lower half of the keyboard. A spin of the main encoder whizzes through the available patches. It's not a bad system, and has some quirky advantages, such as the 'Recent' category, which is automatically populated with the last 10 patches played.
The six buttons known as 'Performance Controls' include the Phrase arpeggiator — the gateway to prepared riffs — and 'Pattern Play', a button whose job is to start and stop all sequences, rhythms and arpeggios in a Multi. All rhythmic shenanigans are subject to the tap-tempo button. Tapping in tempo is brilliant when working with a live band, but it can be preferable to dial up a BPM in absolute terms. This is simple, too: hold the button and twist the main encoder. Finally, three encoders enigmatically labelled 'X', 'Y' and 'Z' are actually performance controls, their function assignable in each patch.
There are no textual enigmas on the rear panel; instead we find balanced 24‑bit stereo outputs and inputs. There's not a great deal to say, other than that connecting a jack to the left input disables the included XLR microphone. Sadly, Akai's revamp hasn't opened up a place for USB connectivity. In this respect the Miniak shows its age as if sporting a wrinkly neck and liver spots. At least MIDI sockets are in full attendance, though. Power is via a line‑lump adaptor, and completing the rear view are three additional jacks: a headphone socket and inputs for a sustain pedal and an assignable expression pedal.
All edit functions fall under the jurisdiction of the main encoder, which has push functionality, so it can double as an Enter key. One push and you're in edit territory. As a visual reminder, the button for the mode you're in changes from yellow to red. Throughout the review period, the only real downer involved the amount of time spent glued to this one encoder.
This is a deep and intricate synthesizer brimming with potential. But at just one option per page you sometimes struggle to see it. Thus, you turn the encoder to select a page. Then push it to switch into data-entry mode. You then adjust the parameter and push the encoder once again so you're ready to select a new page. If I tell you that the Miniak's envelopes require almost 40 separate menu pages, you can imagine how long it takes to program an entire patch! Despite the keyboard being drafted in to provide quick entry points to several important pages, I feel an opportunity to massively improve on the Micron has been missed.
As should now be obvious, the Miniak is a virtual analogue synthesizer. It offers three oscillators per voice and eight notes of polyphony in total, and in its creation, priority was given to the quality of analogue modelling rather than the number of playable notes. In that respect, I think Alesis (and now Akai) have got the balance about right. With continuously variable waveshapes, FM, sizzling oscillator sync and spooky ring modulation, the Miniak's sonic building blocks ably divert you from their digital origins. The filter implementation is particularly impressive too. Each voice has two multi‑mode filters, with a choice of 20 different types. There are low‑pass filters modelled on Roland, ARP, Moog and Oberheim synths, plus vocal filters, phase warp filters, comb filters and more. Throw in two LFOs, a separate sample & hold and a modulation matrix to captivate the geekiest modular enthusiast... Oh, and there are three of the most flexible envelopes I've ever encountered. They have variable curves for each envelope stage, are loopable and possess the 'Freerun' mode, which is so perfect for pads and drones that I don't know why it isn't found on every synth. To sum up: the Miniak kicks ass. And with on‑board storage for 1000 patches, you could cram most flavours of analogue — poly or mono synths — into this one machine.
As shipped, there are nearly 700 single patches, over 100 multis, and more than 600 sequences and rhythms ready to go. The standard of programming is generally high, especially if you're into prog‑type solos and Moogish basses. I would have killed for sounds as fat as these when I was a teenager only able to afford weedy Japanese monosynths. Other highlights include thick analogue pads and strings, plus brass patches that subconsciously urge you to play 'Jump'. Sound effects and drums aren't neglected, either, and although the percussion programs in isolation won't blow you away, when heard in the context of the factory rhythms, they aren't half bad.
Rhythms are organised so that you can trigger the looping pattern from the lower half of the keyboard and play individual drum hits on the higher notes. If you like your beats synthetic, you're going to love this lot. Each kit can have up to 10 drums, and programming the patterns in real or step time is surprisingly easy — given the size of the display and lack of controls. The phrase sequencer/arpeggiator is just as neatly implemented. It can serve as a quick notepad for use whenever a tune pops into your head, but becomes even more powerful when used multitimbrally.
Some of the factory multis hint at how much one Miniak can do in terms of interactive sequenced playback. I started to get all nostalgic for '80s disco, something that doesn't happen very often. I was inspired to start laying down overdubs on the top of existing rhythm patterns and, using the arpeggiator and real-time phrases, I came perilously close to creating a full song. For live work, your Multis could be organised by placing related patterns on adjacent keys. If you use up all eight parts that are available, Multi mode can easily consume those eight notes of polyphony. But with careful programming and judicious use of effects, it offers the kind of one‑box flexibility that no small synth in this price range can touch.
Each multitimbral part has access to two common effects: FX1 (chorus, flanger, phaser, vocoder) and FX2 (delay, reverb). Individual patches have additional drive effects, such as distortion, tube amp, overdrive and fuzz pedal. Delays and reverbs will be very much appreciated — especially by the gigging musician — but it's the emphasis on vocoding that really sets the Miniak apart from the Micron.
The Micron does have a vocoder. I didn't give it a great deal of space in the previous review, because it didn't make a huge impression. On paper, it should have, since it has 40 bands, which would typically indicate quality. But when I came to check out the Miniak's 11 vocoder patches (identifiable by their prefix of a '#' character), the results still didn't quite convince. The supplied microphone is of good quality and performed well in its role of processing vocals (and other external signals). However, I found it strange that it had no dedicated gain control. You set the input level when programming a patch, but a physical knob — even a small one — would have been a big improvement. An orange label under the microphone proclaims 'Vocoder', which set me briefly wondering if the panel had been designed by another division of Numark entirely. I did persevere, and produced several vocoder patches I'd call 'interesting', if not quite 'Kraftwerk'.
With the Miniak, Akai have put the Mic into Micron. As the latter is still available, you can choose easily whether the newcomer's extras tip the balance. It could be that traditional mod wheels and a free microphone are exactly the temptations that will convert the wavering Micron‑curious into full‑blown Maniaks — sorry, Miniak owners. The new knobs suggest greater durability, especially the main encoder, which is so extensively used. I'm probably just less tolerant of time-wasting these days, but this single-encoder editing technique seems long overdue for retirement. However, with no bundled editor software, you have to live with it.
Although the vocoder takes centre stage, it never quite won me over. There's nothing especially bad (or good) about it, but I doubt any of the factory vocoder patches would win a music store head-to-head against the Microkorg XL. Fortunately, the included mic can take another role — that of warping vocals using the various filters and effects — and at this it fares better.
Leaving the vocoder aside, the Miniak has a lot going for it — multitimbrality, a sequencer, a drum machine and effects — but most of all, it has a potent incarnation of analogue modelling. Even though we're contemplating a synth with just eight notes of polyphony, produced by a technology we first met seven years ago, the Miniak holds up surprisingly well against today's competition. If Akai could rustle up an editor, there might be nothing to hold it back.
We've seen that the strongest competition for the Miniak is clearly the Alesis Micron. There's obviously also Korg's Microkorg XL, which is well established and, with its small keyboard, excellent vocoder and supplied editor software, is the one to beat. The Korg's extra non‑analogue waveforms give it greater tonal variety but the Miniak's filter and envelope implementation, not to mention its three-oscillator design, full‑sized keyboard and large number of onboard patches, could be enough to give the Korg a scare. Then there's the Waldorf Blofeld to consider. For anyone not into vocoding or external audio processing, its great display and powerful synthesis make it definitely worth a look.