The Advance keyboards are offered in 25/49/61 key versions which all sport the same features. The only noticable difference between the 3 (other than number of keys, duh...) is the 25 key version has smaller controller knobs while the 49/61 have oversize knobs for increased control.
The big drawcard for these controller keyboards is the fact the on-board LCD screen integrates with software that can deliver all your VST instrument presets to the keyboard for you to browse and play (as if inbuilt to the keyboard). This is what is turning heads...
Pros: Quality feel, Great concept, Easy to use
Cons: Software needs work, manual integration with some VSTs will be expected.
Model: Advanced 61
- Keyboards for advanced virtual instrument performance
- Integrated 4.3-inch high-resolution full-color screen with dedicated interface buttons
- Screen provides 1:1, real-time feedback of plugin parameters
- Includes Virtual Instrument Player software for unprecedented virtual instrument preset management, control mapping and multi patch creation
- 61 premium, semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keybed with aftertouch
- 8 large, endless and continuously variable control knobs
- 8 velocity- and pressure-sensitive MPC pads with RGB illumination
- Dedicated pad bank, transport control, octave, and performance buttons
- Note repeat, time-division, pattern arpeggiator, and tap-tempo buttons
- Rubberized Pitch and Modulation wheels
- Expression pedal and footswitch inputs
- USB and 5-pin MIDI Input/Output for use with any MIDI capable software or hardware
- Functions as a standalone controller
- Plays virtually every VSTi-compatible plugin
- Operates as a standalone virtual instrument player for your computer
- Organizes your plugin collection with intuitive browsing by plugin, artist collection, instrument type, timbre, and more
- Access, edit, and mix up to 8 virtual instruments at one time
- Setlist feature lets live performers switch between patches from any plugin instantly from the keyboard
- Extensive key zone splitting, custom mapping, and instrument mixing options
- Pre-mapped to hundreds of industry-leading virtual instruments
- Unlimited instances of VIP may be run in a DAW
Before even looking at one I did my research. I have been in the market for a new keyboard for some time but I already own a Push controller and Mackie MCU so have pads and controls pretty much covered. This doesn't mean I do not want some controls on my keyboard but I didn't need more static controls. From most reviews the product seemed like a god send but there were some technical questions I had whcich no review covered so I decided to place an order with my local music store (instead of just buying online) because I wanted the option to return easily if needed (something I would say you need to be able to do).
It was ordered in and I was excited to pick it up and get it home. Looking at the colorful box it was apparent this keyboard was targeting the Native Instruments users considering the Komplete Kontrol keyboard as it had a huge stamp stating "Works with Komplete". I unboxed the keyboard which was well packaged with foam under the actual keybed as well. The accessories are nothing more than a quick guide, USB cable and registration instructions to download the VIP software.
The actual keyboard is quite a solid unit with a glossy piano appearance, metal end caps with AKAI inscribed and nice firm keys. I have read some opinions that the keys appear "stiff" but personally I liked the feel of the keys and found them to be very expressive so any opinions on this subject should be taken as personal opinion.
The Pitch/Mod wheels have a nice rubber feel, travel well and feel quite smooth to use. The encoders have nice oversize knobs to assist with easily tweaking controls (though the 25 key has standard sized knobs). The function buttons all have a nice click to them (same buttons you will find on the MPD series of controls) and the pads feel solid and expressive enough.
All in all the build quality of the keyboard is quite decent and at the price you would hope so. It does not feel cheap.
Installation & Setup
The first thing you are asked to do is register the keyboards serial (found on the box) so you can download the software. You need an Akai account for this. Once registered you will receive a software link and also registration codes for the included VST instruments which are installed as part of the installation.
Once downloaded you then need to install the dedicated VIP software and choose the location for your VST dll files (for the VIP and also for the instruments). It should be noted that the VIP software offers both a 32/64bit version for use with 32/64 bit VSTs and does not wrap 32bit to 64bit. After installing the VIP software it was time to switch on the keyboard and see if it was all detected.
Switching on the keyboard displays a rainbow of colours on the Pads and the LCD boots up with a nice splash screen before asking you to select your default DAW template (I use Live which was listed 4 options down). This configures the CC values for direct integration with certain DAWS (with Live you need a device script to have automated control of Live devices).
With the keyboard powered up and detected I opened the VIP software which then detected the keyboard and it was then connected
The VIP Software
The VIP software is what makes this product work, without it it's just an overpriced MIDI keyboard. I am a computer user and have used DAW software for 15 years so know what to expect when working within the box. I had an open mind, knew I would have some manual work to do but these things are to be expected and I enjoy this part of a product (in most cases).
I started by using the standalone version of VIP before getting into the DAW integration. This allowed me to first open the settings and set the VST plugin path for the software so it could scan in my plugins. I did this and the software listed my plugins and started to populate the preset list and tags (awesome).
After about 5 minutes I came back and it had completed but I noticed a few "issues". Some plugins had only a single preset (Cakewalk Z3ta+2) and my Omnisphere 2 plugin showed only 4000 when I know O2 has 9000+ plugins. These were not actually issues but limitations on how the software worked (which I was aware of). In order for all the individual presets to be listed in VIP they need to be loaded from what is called "Plugin Maps" which are essentially packages of presets that have already been exported and tagged by Akai for each VST which are then referred to as "Patches" in VIP. That's right, for the VSTs presets to work they need to be extracted and tagged to appear in VIP as a patch which stores the VST preset information, tagging data and encoder maps This was no issue as I found that Omnisphere2 was already being worked on by Akai (only Omnisphere 1 had been mapped for the release) and additional plugins could be requested to be mapped.
For users who do not wish to wait for Akai to create maps for their plugins you can create patches within the software by opening a VST then loading a patch and clicking an Export button.... This is great but also where I experienced the first of my issues with the software which I will get to in a moment. Exporting presets allows you to setup the controls to be used (globally for the VST or individually per patch) and also allows you to assign tags for the browsing system. Pretty straight forward.
Clicking through patches and moving from one instrument to a completely different instrument worked rather well and I was quite impressed. Using the keyboard to browse is also quite easy and intuitive but can take some getting use to the navigation knob. As each patch loads you can switch to control mode and start tweaking the plugin with data displayed on the screen.
Another neat feature is the Multi feature where there are 8 individual tracks within the VIP software allowing 8 different plugins to be loaded to combine as a single instrument. This can be used to create an instrument from several different ones or to load multiple instruments or presets and use the Pads to enable/disable each one to compare. Because this can all be done at the keyboard makes finding sounds and auditioning sounds a real treat and as soon as you start creating a Multi, it is saved in the Multi browser for later recall.
Controlling VIP From The Keyboard
With VIP closed, the keyboard assumes a generic MIDI mode where all controls and keys send basic MIDI data (all of which can be custom programmed for channels/CC/Note etc). Once VIP is launched the keyboard displays a message stating that it is connecting to VIP and then you will see the browser display on the keyboard.
The browser is simply controlled from a control knob that scrolls quickly through lists. Below the control knob are navigation keys that move the focus between the different windows and screens for browsing and to narrow down results you can select multiple tags/plugins to browse through. Clicking down on the control knob loads the instrument preset.
It must be said that browsing and loading patches from the keyboard is quick and fun. Apart from some very sample heavy patches most loaded very quick (within a few seconds) and the fact you can do all of this without even opening a DAW allows quick browsing.
There are a few control buttons that allow you to switch the keyboard between browser displays and controller screens so it's quick to jump between sections of the keyboard and you can also switch between VIP instances and also between VIP control and DAW/MIDI control allowing controls to double for both VST and DAW specific functions.
Working Within a Host
The VIP software is loaded within a host by the installed VIP.dll VST plugin that is installed during installation. This loads in via the same method used to load in any VST and worked as expected. Within Live I was able to easily map the controls from the VIP plugin directly into Live for automation and also any controls that were not mapped within VIP were still able to be mapped direct to Live.
The VIP software also supports multi-midi in and multi-audio out so it is possible to place individual VST instruments into individual VIP slots and send midi/audio to individual control tracks in a DAW which is handy but a limitation is for multi-timbre instruments you cannot send multiple midi channels into VIP to reach the additional channels in the instrument so you can only trigger instruments with Omni MIDI triggering.
I noticed almost no additional load on my machine running VIP as a wrapper and also had no issues with delay. It did perform rather solid but I only tested for a short while and have read some reports of issues with multiple instances in some setups.
Technical Issues & The Bad
Technical issues are to be expected to a degree but this is where I decided that for all the things I loved about this keyboard, technical issues and lack of support from Akai forced me to return this pricey investment.
To start with before I even started getting into the software I noted the software version was 1.01. This is the first thing I will say and that is no one can expect a solid platform from a V1.0 software and unfortunately this is the case for the Advance. While it does work trouble free for some users this highlights the issues with a product that is so complex in what it is doing and relies so much on software on many different systems. The software HAS to be very good and VIP is not yet there.
The first issue I had was using VIP standalone when switching between the browser screen and the plugin display the VIP window would constantly go blank and display an empty screen forcing me to minimize then maximize the window to get it back again. A number of users (on windows it seems) have the same issue. That will probably be fixed at some point but Akai would not let on at all.
The second issue I had was with some VSTs (such as Cakewalks Z3ta+2) that I needed to manually create patch maps. This was fine except the patches I created did not load the correct preset in the plugin and basically did not work at all so some VSTs simply will not even allow manual integration. EastWest Play was another that had issues that it would load but trying to switch from one patch to another caused VIP to simply crash.
The third issue I had was the encoders constantly "jumping" values when I twist one encoder (say 1) the value for encoder 4 might start to change occasionally. This seemed to be related to an encoder being between 2 values sometimes. No idea but it was annoying enough.
The forth issue was the fact the keyboard has very basic integration with Live (or any DAW) and transport controls, CC data would not receive any feedback from the DAW so controls did not follow what was happening in the DAW. Quite simply a better script could better address this but alas it was not developed.
The fifth issue is simply the lack of any answers. The support forum is just so basic with only a couple of technicians covering multiple company forums and their level of knowledge is very basic. Akai direct support is worse with most of my queries going unanswered and only ever being asked to provide system specs (which I had already sent in the initial contact form). No contact numbers for Australian customers.
These were not the only issues I found. The keyboard did not remember which DAW selection you made on startup and you needed to do this every time, the VIP software did not allow for expansions to be created for VST plugins (even though expansions were pre-created by the developers), There is no user community space to allow users to exchange files and ideas, there is no information available from Akai at all in regards to features or roadmaps. I also have just a few gripes with the keyboard itself mainly a personal thing. While the screen is great it is actually not simple to associate the on-screen control with the physical one because the physical ones are in a row of 8 and on-screen they are in 2 rows of 4. In a dark room you cannot easily see what you are reaching for so this becomes a slow point for control. A simple LED marker would have made a difference.
After a week of playing with the product I felt it was a good idea simply rushed to market while it was completed as there were so many features missing from the software and the forums echoed this exactly.
At the time of writing this review I returned my keyboard because I found the issues I was dealing with at the time frustrating and the support terrible. I was actually more frustrated at support than the product because the simple fact was I actually loved the keyboard itself and I loved the software for what it could offer me and my workflow. I can accept it will never do everything and is not going to suit every production but as a way to browse for ideas and sounds it was really inspiring and had I not had issues with a few VSTs and the display blanking out I could have pressed on. The fact was simply I did not want to risk such an investment with the "hope" these things would be addressed and after 4 months there has still not been a single software update or mention of updates or even which VSTs they are working on releasing.
I have not ruled out this product just yet. The NI Komplete Kontrol keyboard is set to offer stiff competition with the announcement of VST integration and I will be waiting to see what the outcome is for these keyboards because this kind of integration is really what I have dreamed of and have been holding out for.
If you are not convinced either way I would say see if you can take one for a test and make sure you can return it if you have issues. In possibly a few months many of the reported issues could be resolved but until then I would advise caution. If I get a chance to try it again once issues are resolved I would certainly give it a go but I am waiting to see if Akai can pick up their game because support for their products and software/firmware updates have never been something they have excelled at but if they don't address some of these issues soon they may fall behind other developers pushing for this market.
Update: 2 October 2015
Though I had already returned the keyboard due to frustrations, lack of assistance and the feeling of uncertainty with the product I was contacted by one of the support officers for Akai asking if I would be willing to assist in their Beta program due to the discovered issues and details I managed to provide. I would now like to note that this has helped to improve my rating of the product and happy to say many of the issues I was having with the VIP software (GUI Freeze, EastWest Play crashing) have been fixed and a number of very nice updates and additions to the software have been made (such as resizable GUI, Multi-Channel output for Multis and Chord record feature for pads).
The software into the future should only get better and since most of my gripes appear to be addressed this has me again considering this product for the new year. I would urge anyone considering this product to first check users comments and see if the issues have been resolved for sure. The actual product and concept are quite good... If only there was more advanced DAW integration this would be the killer!