Review: AKAI XR20


The mini beatmaker of hip-hop production stations is here. The XR20 has 32-voice polyphony; built-in reverb, EQ and compression effects; and built-in rhythm patterns to complement your playing. With velocity-sensitive drum pads, a 32 MB sound set that includes various drum and synth sounds, 100 preset drum kits and a collection a 700+ sounds assignable to any pad, the unit has pro-grade sound quality for its drums, bass, synth, sound effects, vocal and instrument hit sounds that give you endless possibilities to create quickly and on the go. This professional beat machine can record and play back your beats with sound specifically designed for hip-hop and urban music. This new approach to the drum machine gives you more freedom and portability for making hip-hop beats.

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Upon powering up, the LCD screen lights up with a blue backlight. Its viewable area is large enough to experience all the features in this cool box. The small and lightweight unit carries a similar size to my MPC500. Velocity impressions of the 12 black pads located on the left side of the workstation feel similar to the MPC pads. The surface of the XR20 has some familiar knobs and buttons, including Note Repeat, Tap Tempo and the Data Wheel. When working on my projects, all of the buttons and knobs were located in a convenient central position to my hand movements.

With a similar feel to the MPC pads, XR20''s 12 pads help you bang out a gritty hip-hop vibe. When in Synth mode, the pads are assigned to specific notes, helpfully labeled in the upper right-hand corners.


For me, coming from the MPC workflow, sequencing on the XR20 was a bit different. There are only three sequencing tracks, marked as A, B and Fill buttons. To sequence, simply hit Record and tap out what instruments you want to record. The tracks aren't indicated on the screen, so I had to get used to only listening to my performance rather than also viewing it on the screen. As a producer coming from the world of hip-hop and MPCs, I set up the XR20 for use as a drum expander module by connecting its MIDI In to the MPC5000 MIDI Out. I was able to trigger the XR20's Synth (MIDI channel 1), 1 Shot (MIDI channel 2) and Drum (MIDI channel 3) parts to apply them to my MPC beats. Also, I was able to audition my sounds even after I'd laid down a basic pattern.

Creating custom kits is as easy as pressing Drum Set and then selecting the instrument layer you want to edit from the Drum, 1 Shot or Synth buttons. Within the Layer page on the LCD, you can assign any of the XR20's sounds to any of the pads, or to more than one pad. Each individual drum set can have its own drum sound assignments. However, Synth sounds can be selected only as a group; you cannot assign different Synth sounds to different pads. Selecting Pad Parameters onscreen lets you adjust the drum-pad and parameter settings. The volume of each of the three instrument layers, as well as the volume of each assigned pad, can be adjusted. When I adjusted the volumes of the instruments, all of my sounds in the selected layers were also affected.


The XR20 quantizes on demand; you can change the quantization within the Record setup page option to the following time signatures: quarter note (1/4), quarter-note triplet (1/6), eighth note (1/8), eighth-note triplet (1/12), 16th note (1/16), 16th-note triplet (1/24), 32nd note (1/32), 32nd-note triplet (1/48) and 384th note (1/384).

For effect, XR20 has 22 reverb settings and 14 compression/EQ settings. I applied the SmPlate reverb to my snares and claps and LoBoost to my kicks, both for a crispy sound. The effects settings are stored per kit. Each kit can have separate reverb, compression and EQ settings that are specific to that kit. To change effects settings, press the Effects button while you are in Pattern Mode. The effect settings can be changed only on user patterns. To save the Effects settings, you must save the Drum Set after you change your settings. Also, if you have a sound that is selected to go out through the auxiliary output, no effects will be applied to that sound.


For the live performer or DJ who needs to add vocals to a live performance, the XR20 has the option to connect a mic to the Microphone Input jack, allowing you to blend live vocals with the sounds and patterns coming from the unit. Although you cannot record vocals into the XR20, this option is very good to monitor a microphone through the unit. The ¼-inch TS Main Right and Main Left connections will output the audio to a mixer, amplifier or speaker system. With the Aux L/R connection, you can output the Drum and Synth instrument layers to separate channels, which can be used in a recording or tracking situation.

You can connect a ¼-inch TS footswitch to the XR20 for remote start/stop and to control pattern playback. Additional connectors include a standard headphone jack and a volume control knob. The XR20 connects to external MIDI devices with 5-pin MIDI In and Out/Thru ports. Power comes from either a DC power adapter or six AA batteries.


With the unit's sequencer and preloaded patterns of various drum and synth sounds, I got a quick idea of how the kits worked together with the different one-shot sounds and synths. The XR20 is great for stacking and embellishing the drum kits that you may already have. If you want to quickly put down some new ideas but you're not the drum-savvy type, this machine has the perfect start-up kit that can help give you basic drum ideas. You can alter the available patterns to create your own. The sequencing capabilities of the XR20 remind me of the old-school E-mu SP-1200 drum machine.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough sequencing tracks to work with, but the connectivity options are great for use with additional production gear. For quick performances, the XR20 has adequate input and output connections. On battery power, the XR20 lasted approximately four hours. I also liked the Kensington Lock slot, a security feature that allows the unit to be secured to a table or surface (with a lock sold separately). Hopefully your XR20 will remain in the studio! Ultimately, the XR20 is ideal for the writer/producer who has a quick idea and needs to come up with quality rhythms and drum grooves.


XR20 > $319

Pros: Illuminated pads. Notes written on pads. Battery power available. Saves patterns into internal memory. User friendly. Color LCD with high resolution.

Cons: No external storage option. No memory card. Only three sequence tracks. Only one drum bank. No USB. No soundcards to add more sounds.