Review: Akai Advance 49

All your VST are belong to it
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

Almost as entertaining as a viral cat video, Akai and Native Instruments’ cat-and-mouse game of product development commands the attention of gear geeks in the computer music space. NI’s Maschine for now has wrested the beat-production throne over the Akai MPC Renaissance, and the Akai-affiliated Air Music Tech AMPS bundle takes a worthy yet somewhat overlooked stab at NI Komplete 10’s dominance. However, with the Advance series of controllers (Advance 25, Advance 49 and Advance 61), Akai has one-upped its rival NI Komplete Kontrol S series, which provided a dedicated hardware and software environment for browsing, loading, and controlling patches from any Komplete 10 instrument.

The problem with Komplete Kontrol S controllers, at least for now, is that they only work their magic on Komplete 10 instruments. Akai has responded to the backlash against that closed system with the Advance controllers. With the help of its companion VIP (Virtual Instrument Player) software, the Advance system scans all of the VSTi plug-ins on your system, after which you can browse and load the presets from any VSTi into VIP, which maps all of the plug-in’s parameters to the hardware controls and slots into any DAW as an AAX, AU, or VST plug-in. (Yes, Pro Tools users can use the AAX VIP software as a VSTi host.)

Possibly in response to the Advance controllers, Native Instruments has announced that its Komplete Kontrol S controllers and software will begin to support third-party VSTs under its new Native Kontrol Standard sometime later this year. But the Advance controllers are the here and now, and they have many unique and welcome abilities in store for you.

VERY IMPORTANT ADVANCEMENT

Fig 2. With external power supplied by either the USB or AC jack, the Advance 49 can function without a computer connection. In addition, it can interface with MIDI gear over its 5-pin MIDI ports. When a new musical tool innovates, the hype train often makes more noise than the actual benefit. Yet in this case, it’s tough to imagine a dyed-in-the-wool computer-based music producer who wouldn’t at least lift an eyebrow over what the Advance 49 offers. The hardware begins with 49 semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keys with Aftertouch (see Figure 1). Eight rotary encoders, eight key switches, and four banks of the eight velocity- and pressure-sensitive RGB backlit MPC pads provide hands-on control. The highlight, of course, is the 4.3" color display that, to some extent, mirrors the VIP software, so that you can browse and load VSTi patches, as well as control them and edit mappings in a large part straight from the hardware, without staring at the computer screen (see Figure 2).

Image placeholder title

[BREAK]

Along with the VIP VSTi host software, Akai includes an excellent software package full of high-level instruments and sounds: the Sonivox Eighty-eight Ensemble grand piano plug-in; Air Music Tech’s Velvet vintage keys; Xpand!2 multi-instrument; Vacuum Pro, Loom, and Hybrid 3 synths; and the Transfuser rhythm machine with 16 GB of sounds.

Those great instruments are just a few of the 358 pre-mapped VSTi settings that Akai included at launch for the VIP software. Other pre-mapped instruments include all of the NI Komplete 10 titles, most of Arturia’s excellent re-creations of vintage synths, all of Air Music Tech’s instruments, and plenty of other popular ones like Sylenth, IK SampleTank 3, Korg Polysix, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and many others.

After the VIP software scanned all of my VSTi’s, I had more than 100,000 total instrument presets in the VIP browser, accessible from the hardware screen or the software, which works as a Mac/PC standalone app in addition to a plug-in. A push-button encoder and two sets of arrow keys on the Advance 49 navigate the color display for you. It took a little while to master the navigation system; the PDF manual can help, but it was rarely necessary.

It’s a huge plus for the VIP browser that you can search instrument presets by Plugins, Articulations (Muted, Plucks, Portamento, Sustain, Staccato, Tremolo, etc.), Styles (Ambient, Arpeggios, Chords, Dance, Electronic, Hip-Hop, House, Rhythmic, Sweep, Trance, etc.), Timbres (Airy, Bright, Dark, Dirty, Fat, Hard, Noise, Punchy, Warm, etc.), Instruments (Bass, Drums, Keys, Synths, etc.), and by Expansions that you’ve downloaded from the Advance Content store within the VIP software. And you can drill down further by narrowing the results from one category. For example, you could search for only Synths with Bright timbres, or just Hip-Hop patches with Plucked articulations, and so on. You can also type in keywords in the Search field in the VIP software.

Fig 3. The VIP plug-in with the Browser showing up top and the Control panel on the bottom. Therein lies one of the main reasons why Advance 49 costs a bill or two more than other 49-key MIDI controllers, and is worth every penny to plug-in fanatics. Depending on the way you currently pick out instrument sounds from your many VSTs, the VIP preset browser could save you hours of time on every project. Or if it doesn’t save you time, it can at least help you rediscover sounds or entire instruments in your collection or lead you down creative avenues you otherwise would not have explored (see Figure 3).

Image placeholder title

[BREAK]

Fig 4. Here, the VIP software is hosting a four-patch Multi with the Massive window shown within VIP and the other plug-ins in external windows.PLUG-INS REIGNED IN

Image placeholder title

Once you load a plug-in preset into VIP, you can view the plug-in’s interface inside the main VIP window, in an external window, or not at all. VIP has other selectable view modes, such as Browser, Setlist (a place to store specific sets of presets and Multis to cycle through), the Control panel (which shows banks of parameters mapped to eight Advance 49 encoders and buttons at a time), the Keyboard panel, and the Multi panel (see Figure 4).

Fig 5. This screen from the Advance 49 color display shows some of the MIDI presets for DAWs. Whether you’re using one of the 358 pre-mapped plug-ins, obscure shareware, or some other commercial plug-in that Akai hasn’t mapped for VIP yet, the Control panel on the software or hardware display shows sets of eight plug-ins’ parameters at a time, and you can tab through pages to the next set of controls (see Figure 5). For the most part, VIP’s onboard mappings do a great job of prioritizing the most vital controls on the first or second control pages, such as putting the most likely filter, LFO, oscillator, and effect controls that you would want to use near the front of the page order. You can also edit these mappings. For unmapped plug-ins, VIP lays out the controls pretty much in order of appearance, so for optimal results, you may want to edit and save the settings for your most-used instruments in a more logical order.

Image placeholder title

The Advance hardware also has a MIDI Mode for controlling your DAW host software with mappable MIDI controls. Here too there are presets for controlling six major DAWs: Ableton Live 9, Apple Logic Pro X, Bitwig Studio, Cockos Reaper, Image Line FL Studio, and Steinberg Cubase. The Advance’s transport controls will work in the selected DAW when in MIDI Mode, and you can quickly toggle from Control mode for VIP back to MIDI Mode for your DAW. Power users of the DAWs may be disappointed that the Advance’s DAW presets aren’t everything you’d find in a more dedicated controller such as the Nektar Panorama P4 for Bitwig, Logic, and Cubase, or the Novation Launchkey for Ableton Live, but having the two modes for VIP Control and MIDI helps a lot, and the MIDI mappings are editable to your taste.

MULTIPLICITY

Here’s another huge score for the Advance 49 that you don’t get with Komplete Kontrol S: Multi Mode. Any instance of VIP can host up to eight VSTi presets for layering sounds or for creating keyboard zones with a sound or sounds assigned to a range of keys. Once you have two or more sounds loaded into VIP, going to the Multi view in the software or hardware brings up a mixer-style interface, where each sound has level, pan, mute, and solo controls, which you can alter with the hardware knobs, buttons, and pads. With a Multi sound selected, pushing the hardware Enter button lets you edit the sound’s keyboard range, transposition value, and MIDI channel.

[BREAK]

Multi Mode could be amazing for setting up live performances to your exact specifications: For example, you could create a four-patch Multi in which each sound plays on one octave of the keyboard with Transpose set so that each octave plays the same pitches for each sound. You can store your Multis for quick recall and put them in a Setlist if you like.

Multis are great for using disparate instruments together to create extraordinary sound designs, for quickly auditioning sounds from different plug-ins against each other to find what you like best, or for layering up a bunch of drum, synth lead, or pad sounds to get more huge overall patches.

PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS

These days, Akai builds in certain attractive features from its legacy of MPC workstations on any relevant product. The Advance controllers’ drum pads have the feel of MPC pads, and they have the crucial and popular Note Repeat feature. With the Note Repeat button lit, holding a pad down will retrigger the sound at the specified Time Division rate, which can be helpful and fun for recording and performing rhythms. There are eight Time Division values (from 1/4 to 1/32T), which you can set from the Advance display menus or with the Time Div button and eight key switches.

The Time Div setting also affects the Advance 49’s built-in arpeggiator, which has 100 pattern settings— so many that the only complaint is that there’s not a more efficient way to find the pattern you want. You have to scroll through them one at a time on the Advance display. While they are grouped into useful label like SEQ (where you hold one note in order to play a repeating sequence of many notes), CHD (settings designed for chords), and SFX, it can take a while to find what you want. However, there are tons of creative patterns to absorb, and it’s nice being able to quickly jump through Time Div settings with the hardware switches.

FORWARD MARCH

The Advance 49 endeared itself to me in a way that the Kontrol S49 didn’t—although I do very much love the Kontrol S49. The Kontrol S49’s playback enhancements using the Light Guide LED highlighted keys remain unique in the controller market. However, the Advance 49 has drum pads, detailed color screen, Control and MIDI modes for toggling between the VIP software and a DAW, and most importantly, an all-inclusive VSTi ecosystem that brings all your plug-ins’ sounds together with the added creative convenience of Multi Mode.

It all adds up to an experience that you don’t want to be without once you’ve tried it. I get the feeling that other controller makers—not just NI— will soon have to come up with some type of answer to the Advance series if they want to remain competitive at the professional price point. As it stood at the time of this writing, the Advance Series boards cost $100 less than Kontrol S boards, so they’re a premium-priced product, but also very reasonable for what you get, including a nice software package.

[BREAK]

The Advance 49 is the perfect controller for operating the VIP VSTi host software, which also means—at least for now—that it’s not the perfect DAW controller. That’s one thing to think about when considering the Advance Series: Even with its helpful MIDI mode, you’ll still probably want some kind of master controller for your particular DAW. I’m sure that this current iteration of Advance— while admittedly great—is not the last stop on the journey for total production control. If Akai—or someone else—can marry these VSTi hosting features with Nektar Panorama-level DAW control, that will be the next generation of a must-have product.

STRENGTHS
VIP software browses and loads VSTi plug-in presets. VSTi parameters map to the keyboard’s controls and color display. Multi patches load eight sounds from eight plug-ins at a time. MIDI presets for major DAWs.

LIMITATIONS
Color display isn’t as crisp as the smartphone displays people are used to. Can’t use the Multi view and Control view at the same time in the VIP software. VIP won’t load certain built-in DAW instruments. Individual sounds in a Multi can’t have their own Note Repeat or Arp settings.

Advance 49: $499 street
Advance 25: $399 street
Advance 61: $599 street
akaipro.com

Multi-ply Your Impact Use the power of the VIP browser and Multi patches to direct your sound design. Create a new VIP instance and start drilling down to very specific requirements, such as Styles>Dance, Instruments>Drums, or Timbres>Dirty.

For me that narrowed down 4,400 “Dance” sounds to 16 dirty-sounding dance drums. Whatever your results, start loading them up into Multi slots and throw out any that don’t sound good together. You’ll likely come up with something that you didn’t expect at first. You may also discover that the labels for sounds in the VIP browser aren’t always 100 percent accurate, but that’s okay.

Mix the levels for sounds that you like together within the VIP Multi patch, and put a multiband compressor or EQ on the DAW channel to shave off or boost certain frequencies. To save a Multi, go to the VIP software window and choose File > Save Multi from the top menu.