Akai’s Advance 49 is a tightly integrated controller/software package designed to bridge the gap between musician and computer.
Hot on the heels of Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol S keyboard series, Akai have released their own advanced MIDI controller that aims to unify your virtual instrument plug-ins into a single hardware/software interface. In my January review I was impressed with the S-series’ hardware quality, slick UI and deep integration, both with Komplete and your DAW. The Advance is a strong challenger, differing from the S-series in its support for any instrument plug-in, stand-alone operation and a large colour display — and all at a lower price.
Akai’s new keyboard is two products in one: it’s a fully featured programmable MIDI controller keyboard with USB and old-school MIDI connectivity; plus it’s a workstation instrument that lets you browse, play and control your virtual instrument plug-ins in a tactile, consistent way. It achieves the latter by teaming up with a lightweight VSTi plug-in host, VIP, which can run stand-alone or as a plug-in in your DAW. VIP becomes the hub for all your VIs, offering intelligent patch browsing, pre-programmed hardware control mapping and more.
As you’d expect from Akai hardware, the Advance is well designed and has good build quality. Like its NI rival, the focus is on ergonomics and feel rather than how many controls can be crammed in. The Advance doesn’t take minimalism quite as far as the S-series though, as evidenced by the welcome inclusion of eight trigger pads and eight buttons in addition to the rotaries in the control section. There are three different models, offering a choice of 25, 49 or 61 keys; all models have the same set of controls. I had the 49-key model (the controller keyboard sweet spot in my opinion), which has a surprisingly small footprint. This is partly down to the pitch and mod wheels being set above the keyboard, and also because the keys are quite small. The same cannot be said for the rotary knobs, which are massive! To characterise the overall impression, the Advance’s more chunky feel, smaller keys, colourful end cheeks and Moogy knobs gives it a playful synth-like quality, compared to the more refined, master keyboard styling of the NI S-series.
The most distinctive feature of the front panel is the 4.3-inch colour screen. This is used in conjunction with cursor keys and a scroll knob (it’s not a touchscreen), and a set of Mode select buttons. Elsewhere you also get DAW transport controls and Arp control, and this wouldn’t be an Akai controller without a dedicated Note Repeat button. These performance controls are configured and generated from the keyboard so do not depend on the VIP software. On the back you’ll find a USB port which you’ll be pleased to hear can power the keyboard, a power connector in case you want to run stand-alone, MIDI ports, two footswitch inputs and a Kensington lock. All very comprehensive.
VIP (Virtual Instrument Player) is the link between the keyboard, your instrument plug-ins and your DAW. This is a 64-bit host with VST, AU and AAX plug-in versions for both Mac and Windows. I tested both stand-alone and with the plug-in in Ableton Live 9 and Pro Tools 12. The first time you run VIP it needs to scan your VST plug-ins folder to see which instruments you have installed. The software can then present a unified library with access to all your plug-ins and their patches. The browser allows you to filter by instrument types, sound characteristics, specific plug-ins, or a combination. Patches can then be loaded, played and controlled via VIP/Advance directly without using the original plug-in UI. This even works with Kontakt, Reaktor and SoniVox as VIP is aware of the individual ‘Expansion’ instruments within these environments. You still have access to a plug-in’s own native panel, either as a separate full window, or within the VIP window. The latter is quite compact though so you’ll only get a partial view of your plug-in. I found this frustrating compared to Komplete Kontrol, which can shrink or grow, but Akai believe you’ll do most work on the hardware, or occasionally the plug-in’s own window.
The software interface is easy enough to use: selecting plug-ins and/or tags in the filter columns generates a patch list that you can click to load sounds. However, the idea is that you’ll be doing a lot of this from the hardware. Unlike the NI keyboard, where you’re controlling the Komplete Kontrol host from the keyboard and looking at the computer screen, Akai’s approach was to build a dedicated user interface on the keyboard itself, using a built-in display. With the Advance in Browse mode, the screen displays two columns. The left displays your lists of tags or plug-ins, and the right is your filtered list of patches. Dedicated left/right buttons step you through the different tag categories, and selection is via the scroll/click knob. To load a sound you move focus across to the patch list with the cursor controls and use the scroll knob again.
When you load a patch, the eight control knobs and buttons are automatically mapped to the plug-in. Bank buttons give access to four sets of parameters. Unlike older-school controllers, these mappings are far from a random selection: each bank has been pre-defined by hand to present the most important controls from each plug-in or instrument expansion. This represents a huge undertaking by Akai and their collaborators, as at launch the Advance includes maps for over 200 instruments.
In order to see the knob assignments, you switch the screen to Control mode and it will display rotary graphics with labels. There is a slight disconnect here as the layout is two rows of four while the knobs are a single row of eight, and the screen is not near the knobs. There is a graphical representation on the VIP plug-in interface, which does match the knobs. The screen also displays the button assignments, but on the hardware you have to switch to another page to see these. I’d really like to see both at once. What Akai have really got right, though, is the ability to edit the controller assignments. A Learn mode allows you to quickly re-assign the controls to different plug-in parameters, then save this for the current patch, or globally for the plug-in.
Depending on your choice of host, the Advance keyboards offer differing levels of DAW control. There are preset modes for most major DAWs, which can be loaded from the hardware. Integration with Live is good: with the supplied Remote Script you’ll get transport control and sync’ed Arp and Note Repeat. The pads are set up to map to Live’s Drum Racks, and the knobs give you Device/Macro control of the selected device in Live, which is really useful. Likewise in Logic Pro X the Advance’s knobs will dynamically map to the selected instrument’s Smart Controls. In Pro Tools I had no functionality over and above a generic MIDI controller, as the Advance does not support the aging HUI protocol.
Much like NI’s controller, you can toggle the Advance between a generic MIDI mode and dedicated VIP control. MIDI mode is where you get control over built-in instruments in your DAW, or map controls to anything that supports MIDI control. When you have instances of the VIP plug-ins in your DAW the keyboard talks to these directly. As with any controller, selecting a track in your DAW will redirect the keyboard to play whichever instrument is on the track. However, the Advance is not able to detect this and determine whether that instrument is VIP, or which instance of VIP it is when there are more than one in the project. To sync up the hardware and software you can switch to an Instance selector page on the keyboard’s screen, or open the plug-in and click the link button.
While this is very much like the workflow I had with Komplete Kontrol in Pro Tools, there is none of the ‘Advanced DAW Integration’ that the NI keyboard enjoys in Live, Logic or Cubase (or Maschine for that matter). In those hosts, the S-series hardware can detect when you select a track containing its companion host plug-in, and auto-switch to the right mode and instance. This is such a good user experience that you really miss it when it’s not there.
In some ways the Advance is the modern hybrid equivalent of the traditional keyboard workstation, and this is particularly evident when looking at its Multi and Live Set features. (And here Akai are echoing features from NI’s defunct Kore project, which did not make it to the next generation.) The VIP software (and plug-in) is multitimbral and is able to host up to eight different plug-ins, all with their own control sets. On the hardware there’s a dedicated Multi mode button which calls up a mixer display. The scroll wheel lets you focus a slot for patch loading. In the software interface you can simply drag and drop patches to the Multi mode mixer view. Once you have multiple patches loaded the Control page can be switched between plug-ins with the scroll wheel. When the hardware is in Multi mode, the eight rotaries become volume controls for each part, the switches become Mutes and the pads become Solos. By default all keyboard input plays all the parts, but you can set note ranges per part to set-up splits and layers. I had a lot of fun using the Multi feature as a sound-design tool to build up big sounds in layers. It would also be really useful if you were playing live and needed to switch instantly between sounds, especially using the pads as Solos.
A higher-level approach to managing a live performance is to use Set Lists, a feature which (like much of VIP) is shared with the Arsenal software that comes with M-Audio’s Trigger Finger Pro. A Set List is simply a list of patches or Multis. You can load patches on a Set List from the hardware or plug-in UI, and they can also be triggered externally with MIDI Program Change messages.
The Akai Advance is more than just a good idea, proving itself highly useful and usable during the review. There were a couple of occasions when I was working on another project and needed to just quickly find a sound and play something in with hardware performance controls. As I had the Advance hooked up I dropped VIP in and both times quickly had a suitable patch up and running and recorded with absolutely no fiddling about.
The built-in screen helps keep your focus on the keyboard instead of the computer screen. However, the UI is a little too reliant on the screen, with many operations requiring a change of page or mode (or both). For example, you want the Control page up most of the time (as there are no other displays to show the knob assignments), but changing patch or VIP instance requires you to switch to a different view, possibly re-focus with the cursors, then select with the scroll wheel. This could easily be improved, perhaps with dedicated Next/Prev Patch shortcuts and an auto-switch back to Control after making a selection. Better Instance sync’ing between the keyboard and your DAW would really make the Advance fly as a master control keyboard.
By contrast the VIP software interface is fast and intuitive to use and I found myself reaching for this much of the time. VIP is not the first plug-in to aggregate virtual instruments and offer a unified interface, patch librarian and automatic hardware mapping, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen. NI’s Komplete Kontrol is right up there and definitely has slicker hardware and DAW integration and plug-in display modes, but as I’m writing it still only supports NI instruments, does not allow control map editing and has no Multis.
So in summary, the Advance is a great controller keyboard for synth-based music production or live VSTi use. The top-notch plug-in bundle adds a ton of value to the package and makes Advance an instrument in its own right.
If you mainly intend to use the Advance as a controller and hub for virtual instruments in a DAW environment, then the NI offerings are the closest comparisons. We’ve already talked quite a lot in this review about comparisons with Native Instruments’ S-series keyboards, which share the same concept as the Advance. There are clear differences between the two, but expect to see a feature arms race, starting with Komplete Kontrol opening up to third-party plug-ins at some point this year. NI’s keyboard has a more luxurious feel, touch-sensitive knobs and the unique key lights, while the Advance has more button controls and some pads, plus you might prefer the traditional pitch and mod wheels. The Advance has the built-in screen for more focused browsing, but the S-series has dedicated displays for each knob. Komplete Kontrol offers smoother workflows and great DAW integration, but VIP has a richer feature set with Multis and Live Sets. Price was an issue with the S-series, but now it comes with a comparable plug-in bundle the extra cost seems justified. You’ll want to try both.
If you’re interested in the concept of Advance but prefer a pad-focused, MPC-style interface, check out Akai’s stablemate M-Audio, whose Trigger Finger Pro with Arsenal software does a very similar job. If you are only really looking for a general-purpose keyboard controller, the Advance does a great job, but you’ll find cheaper alternatives with more controls from all the big players, including Akai themselves (in particular check out the MPKII and Max ranges). Finally, if it’s the live performance power of the package that you’re after, you should also check out Apple’s MainStage. This is more feature-rich as a live environment, although does limit you to AU plug-ins and Mac OS.
The Advance comes generously packed with instrument plug-ins from Akai’s stablemates AIR Music Tech. You get the full versions of Hybrid 3, Loom, Vacuum Pro, Xpand!2, Transfusor and Velvet, all of which are big favourites of mine and cover a wide range of sounds. You also get SoniVox’s Eighty Eight Ensemble and some Hybrid 3 Artist Expansion Packs. The content is available along with other paid instruments and expansions from a store tab right inside the VIP plug-in.
- Built-in screen helps keep focus on hardware.
- Pre-programmed control assignments.
- Control assignments customisable per patch or per plug-in.
- Multis and Sets Lists.
- Some great instrument plug-ins included.
- Macro controls in Live and Logic.
- Screen UI could be improved.
- No automatic instance-switching.
A great controller keyboard that harnesses the power of your virtual instruments to create a powerful synth workstation.