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electronic MUSICIAN

Akai Professional LPK25 and LPD8 (each $129 list, $70 street) www.akaipro.com

October 1, 2010

Fig3_LPD8What: Highly portable, self-powered USB controllers. The LPK25 has 25 mini-keys and a built-in arpeggiator, while the LPD8 offers eight pads and eight control knobs. Both include cross-platform editing software on CD-ROM (you’ll also find the manual there), as well as a USB cable to connect a standard USB port to either unit’s mini-USB port.

 Fig. 3. Akai’s controllers include editing software, which increases the overall usefulness—especially because you can save and load controller presets.

Why: Sure, you have some cool virtual instruments on your laptop— but are you really going to play them from the QWERTY keyboard? (If you are, and your host of choice doesn’t offer a suitable option, then check out Tanager’s Chirp $20 virtual keyboard.) For those who want a “real” keyboard, or at least as real as you can get in the land of the Lilliputians, the LPK25 is small and surprisingly effective. The LPD8 is even smaller, but dedicates a reasonable amount of space to the pads and knobs. While the pads might imply the LPD8 is only for programming beats, it offers other control possibilities—like triggering clips in Ableton Live.

LPD8_Ortho_mediaFaraway Factor: Any method of playing from a laptop’s QWERTY keyboard is a kludge, as there’s no way to do velocity other than by presetting a specific value, or changing velocity values on the fly by hitting other keys. In a virtual instrument/laptop world, this is a major limitation.

The LPK25 measures a mere 13-1/4" x 3-7/8" x 1-3/8", so it can fit easily in most laptop case compartments. Although it has no controllers, there are a few buttons for programming the LPK25, as well as an option to save and load programs and perhaps coolest of all, an advanced arpeggiator.

At 12-1/8" x 3-1/4" x 1-1/8", the LPD8 is an even more likely candidate for portability. I can fit both in a Targus laptop soft case—with computer—with no problems.

LPK25_Ortho_mediaStrengths: Both are well-built and don’t feel flimsy. The LPK25’s keys have a “springy” feel with some resistance, and a key-up to key-down travel of a little over a quarter inch; the velocity response is remarkably predictable, including low velocities. Octave up/down buttons allow shifting the keyboard over the full MIDI note range.

The arpeggiator is a big plus. You can choose all common rhythmic values from quarter notes to 32nd-note triplets, a 3- octave arpeggiation range, six different modes (up, down, inclusive, exclusive, order, or random), latching, and tap tempo. Four arpeggio presets are available, which you can save and load with the LPK25 editor.

Similarly, the LPD8 pads exhibit a solid feel and predictable behavior. They can generate notes, program changes, or continuous controller values (the harder you hit, the higher the controller value—it’s not just about switching), and offer toggled or momentary operation. The knobs are low profile so they’re a little hard to grasp, but they’re not cramped. Extra credit: You can set high and low limits for each control using the software editor (Figure 3).

Speaking of which, the editor is essential for the LPD8, as there’s no other way to assign functions and continuous controller values to the pads and knobs. However, you can create and save four presets; after doing so, you don’t need the editor unless you want to alter the presets. Still, as you’ll be using the LPD8 with a laptop anyway, you have the editor available as long as it’s installed.

The LPK25 editor is complete—it covers all arpeggiator parameters—and while simple, works as advertised. However . . .

Limitations: You can’t use either editor and a DAW or virtual instrument at the same time, because one or the other grabs the USB port depending on which was opened first, and therefore locks out the other one. With the LPK25, this means you can’t audition the results of arpeggiator changes while the editor is open. What you can do after programming some cool pattern is close out the DAW, open up the editor, import the preset from the LPK25, and save it. However, the process of programming the arpeggiator is sufficiently simple that I’ve found I don’t really need the editor anyway.

This is less of an issue with the LPD8, as you simply set it up to control things, rather than dealing with something sophisticated like an arpeggiator. Besides, given how so much software offers a “learn” function, you may end up just programming a generalpurpose control setup, and letting the host take care of the rest.

The only other real limitation is that each controller can send data over only one MIDI channel at a time, but as a mitigating factor, each preset can transmit messages over a different MIDI channel. Also, while the LPK25 has a sustain button, there’s no sustain jack.

Conclusions: These arrived for review just before a multi-city road trip, which provided an excellent opportunity to see how they performed in the line of duty. I didn’t baby them by covering them in anything protective; I just tossed them into my laptop bag. They held up fine, although if I wanted to play it safe, it would probably be a good idea to wrap a T-shirt or bubble wrap around them.

Going in, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of performance—after all, they’re very inexpensive controllers. But the velocity response is smooth and reliable (especially for the LPK25), which to me is by far the most important aspect of a portable pad or keyboard controller. I do wish the LPK25 had a ribbon controller for pitch-bending or modulation, but given the price point, that’s probably asking too much. Nor can the LPD8 send pitch bend data, but there are mechanical constraints: How would you return a knob to zero?

Given the overall performance and sturdy construction, though, these are relatively trivial complaints. As sweet little controllers that do their job efficiently and cost-effectively, they make it soooo much easier to program and play virtual instruments when you’re traveling with a laptop. These babies now join the Monster Copper Turbine Pros and CEntrance DACPort as essential tools in my portable music production toolkit.

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