The Akai Advance has been receiving a lot of coverage since its introduction at NAMM, and rightfully so. What Akai is attempting to do is a huge step forwards for users of virtual instruments everywhere. Akai Advance and the VIP software it interfaces with is geared towards streamlining your workflow both in the studio and on stage. The seamless integration of hardware and software promises to revolutionize your workflow by giving you access to your sounds with the click of a mouse OR the touch of a button on the keyboard.
|Editor's Note: Watch an in-depth exploration of the Akai Professional Advance in action here (scroll down for the video).|
We here at AskAudio have kept a close eye on the Advance for you as it's been developed and presented—and now we finally have one in the studio. I've taken it for a test drive for the last 3 weeks and I'm ready to tell you if it delivers on its promise.
The keyboard itself is aesthetically beautiful. The keybed is responsive and feels very smooth to the touch. The sensitivity and velocity curves are adjustable, but feel incredibly expressive and natural in their default state. The body of the instrument is sleek and futuristic. I've been a fan of the Akai controllers since the MPK series was introduced and this latest iteration feels quite evolved. The pads are illuminated and the colors can be customized right down to each individual on/off state.
The 4.3 inch high resolution screen looks truly beautiful, and is wonderfully responsive with real-time displays of information about the controller as well as the connected VIP software. There are 8 HUGE controller knobs at the top which are unapologetically large and sturdy. You won't miss these knobs when you're reaching for them, and the larger size makes them quite a bit more precise when adjusting virtual instrument parameters.
The keyboard itself has MIDI in and out, as well as USB, sustain, and control pedal inputs. Akai Advance is USB powered, so while there is a power jack there is no need to use it with a standard computer setup. It may be a small feature, but it's a 'make or break' feature for many a performing keyboard player, (myself included).
The software component of Akai Advance is called VIP. While the Advance is a great MIDI controller on its own, it's when you pair it with VIP that the magic really happens. VIP will scan all of your VST instruments then utilize metadata and the instrument presets to create a massive library containing just about every instrument plugin you own. Looking for an analog-sounding pad? You no longer have to concern yourself with what VI you're using, you simply get to browse all the analog/pad patches from every instrument you have installed on your system. It's a great way to get the tech out of the way so you can actually focus on making music.
How does it work in practice? Quite well, actually! Akai has pre-mapped hundreds of virtual instruments so they are all categorized and ready to control with the keyboard right out of the box. Just about every major VST is in there, and you can create your own maps and metadata tags for any instruments that aren't already categorized.
I noticed two things while using the Advance that really impressed me. First, their plugin caching system is pretty remarkable. Many plugins load up faster in VIP than they do on their own! Second, I did not notice any detectable 'penalty' for loading up an instrument in VIP. Virtual instruments are pretty complex, and when running system monitor to keep an eye on CPU power it fluctuates with every note, articulation, and MIDI event. I can say, however, that I noticed no appreciable difference when loading up an instrument on its own vs. loading it up in VIP.
Integrating the Two
Once you've got everything installed and configured, you can begin to really see the synergy between VIP and the Advance in action. You can browse your entire library and instantiate plugins right from the keyboard. You can browse patches, trigger samples, layer, split, create dynamic multis all without touching the computer.
When you load up a sound which is pre-mapped with VIP, you get every control that Akai has deemed important right at your fingertips on the hardware. It's all configurable—so if you don't want distortion mapped to knob 1, you don't have to leave it there. This is another spot where Akai has knocked it out of the park. I would say that I was pretty happy with about 80–90% of their mapping choices, and with how quickly you can re-map parameters (right from the keyboard!) I didn't even care about the remaining 10%. Akai promised you control, and Akai delivered.
The Included Instruments
As if all of this control wasn't enough, Akai has seen fit to partner up with AIR Music Tech and SONiVOX to give you quite the library of instruments to start off with. You get Loom, Hybrid 3, Xpand!2, Velvet, Transfuser, Eighty Eight Ensemble and more. These aren't starter packs, they're full versions of some pretty quality instruments that I was only too happy to add to my collection.
There are quite a few features on the way for Advance, and Akai hasn't been coy about sharing their long-term plans. They're already hard at work on software updates to bring more features to the system, and have been very active in soliciting both industry and user feedback for how to make Advance a better platform.
I'm a big fan of what Akai has done here. There are a few changes I'm hopeful that they'll address in the next version of VIP (resizable main window, multiple controls mapped to a single knob, and velocity based splits come to mind!) but the future for virtual instrument users looks very bright with Akai Advance at the forefront!
Price: $399 / $499 / $599 for 25, 49, and 61 note versions respectively.
Pros: Seamless software and hardware integration. Aesthetically beautiful and functional keyboard. VIP software is fantastic. Extremely responsive and reactive. Very stable software.
Cons: VST instruments only (although the VIP app itself is an AU plugin). Main window is not resizable.