We review the Akai Pro MPK Mini – MKII, is it a worthy successor to the MKI or does it fall short?
Are you looking for midi keyboard that is light enough and feature rich to take on the road with you, or perhaps are you just getting started in the world of music production and are looking for your first controller? If this sounds like you, then let’s have a look at the Akai Professional MPK Mini midi keyboard mkII.
In today’s article we will discuss why it might be the right controller for you. We will look at the hardware itself and what features it has. We will explore the included software that comes bundled with the unit, and take a look at a few of the MKP Mini’s special features.
In the world of mini keyboard controllers, the key aspects we should be looking for as potential buyers are:
- Build Quality
It can be tough searching through the many options out there, trying to filter out the poor quality units from the good. In this article the focus will be to guide you as a potential buyer so that you understand what to look for and then take this information and apply it to other units out there you may come across. So enough intro let’s dive in!
The hardware is made up of 25 velocity sensitive mini keys, 8 velocity sensitive MPC-style pads, 8 270 degree encoders all packed into a form factor of just 31.75 x 18.1 x 4.45 (cm) and weighing in at just under 750g. There is also a full sized sustain pedal jack on the back and a 4-way joystick pre-mapped to control pitch-bend and modulation. Let’s go a little deeper on a few of the main hardware features.
The keys are mini sized so they may feel a little cramped under your hand however after a few hours you get used to the feel of them. They are also synth-action keys I.e. not weighted at all. Keys like this do have there benefits though, such as being able to play many notes in quick succession since the key springs back at you faster than weighted keys do. Not forgetting that when you consider the size of the unit, Akai did really well to pack in 25 keys along with the rest of it so I guess they can be forgiven here.
There are 8 pads with two banks allowing you to trigger 16 different samples. They inherit there quality from the MPC so rest assured they are top quality. As with all MPC-style pads, they are firm and can really take a beating. Some may not like the `stiffness` of the pads preferring more of a softer pad, like that found on the Native Instruments Maschine. But this really is down to personal taste and what you prefer. The pads are backlit, lighting up when being played and when the `Prog Select` button is held down pads 5-8 can be selected to change the MPK’s mapping layout (more on this later).
The 8 encoders are 270 degree rotation encoders meaning they rotate and stop at the max and min points located approximately 4.30 and 7.30 on a clock dial. While some may prefer infinite encoders which continue to rotate even when the max midi message has been sent, the encoders on the MPK Mini definitely have there place. They are particularly good because at a glance you know exactly where the encoder is rather than having to guess. The knobs are short which may look like a cost saving shortcut by Akai but in fact they are short to improve portability and save a little weight. If you are carrying this in your backpack for example the last thing you want to have to do is wrap it in a shirt to protect it so that the knobs don’t get knocked off!
The unit also comes with some free software and here is where the real value of buying a controller like this comes in, because you are paying around $100 for a controller and getting almost double that in free software! It definitely pays to look into what is included and in particular, if the software is a full version or lite/limited versions.
MPK Mini mkII Editor
As with most midi controllers they all include a midi editor which really does unlock some great features that make midi controllers so versatile. From within the editor you get the usual control over what midi messages are sent from each of the hardware controls. You can even setup up to 4 presets and load them onto the MPK mini hardware. They can then be called later by holding the `Pro Select` button and selecting Pad 5-8. A handy feature is that you can map the pads to a different midi channel than that of the keys. This is very handy so that you are not accidentally triggering samples from the keyboard or a synth note from the pads.
Akai Pro MPC Essentials
This is a cut down version of the Akai MPC Software but allows full use of the available features without time limit. The main difference between the Essentials and full version is that in only 1 track in the editor is allowed with no track mix or sends. This gives you an introduction into the original workflow of an MPC and you can even open up the application in standalone mode or from within your DAW. With the Essentials version you can even open multiple instances of the software. In standalone mode the MPC software is a DAW in its own right, so if you are interested in the MPC workflow or are a MPC user from way back then this could be a big bonus for you.
As the name suggests the SONiVoX Wobble is best known for its Dubstep and Grime bass synth sounds. It has two channels of synthesizer generators each with their own controls like filters, LFO, harmonics and an advanced pattern generator to keep the sound moving. This is good for getting the signature sounds of Dubstep and Grime out quickly and with its simple interface it is easy to get comfortable with. While it is a very simple plugin and comes with only a few presets, it is a nice $99 inclusion (on sale for $49 as at Sep 2018).
Hybrid 3 by AIR Music Tech
This is a six oscillator virtual synthesizer split into two parts with three oscillators each, LFO, envelope filters and effects. You can really create all sorts of sounds with this plugin and it is a real competitor to the likes of Native Instruments Massive and Serum. The plugin comes with 200 new presets in version 3 and includes 1000 presets from version 2. This gives you a huge range of sounds to pick from and examples with which you can start to build your own sounds from. Again not bad considering it is a $150 piece of software on its own.
Akai VIP 3.1
This tool is targeted at live performances where you can have all your VSTi instruments setup up ready and all you need to do is open up VIP and you are good to go! The VIP 3.1 software is designed to bring together all of your VSTi instruments in one location, from there you can layer them together (yes you can create a new instrument from two completely different instruments) and add effects. It also collates all the presets form your different instruments into a unified library making searching for sounds easy! This is a $95 added extra! The below video series does a great job at describing the software in detail.
When we add all this up you get around $300 worth of software freebies in addition to the controller. The great thing is that free included software with controllers is not new or specific to Akai, so take the time to have a look at this when you are searching for any midi controller! Be sure that the included software is relevant to you too. Remember, the best software is not the most expensive, but what you will use the most and which will add to your sound.
Now that we know about the hardware and included software let’s take a look at some features that make the MPK Mini stand out.
The MPK Mini has a built in arpeggiator allowing you to play a chord and have the MPK Mini generates the arpeggiated midi messages for you! This is completely customizable from within the MPK Mini editor, and allows for interesting live performance possibilities. Perhaps you have the keys controlling a synth in your DAW and the pads triggering various samples. You can play a chord in arpeggiator mode and let the MPK arpeggiate the chord while you switch to the pads to layer on drums. The unit includes a tap tempo button so that you can get your MPK in time with the rest of the band. The below video shows you how to set up an external midi clock with the MPK from within Reaper. Other settings for the arpeggiator like interval and swing can be triggered directly from the hardware by holding the Arpeggiator On/Off button and selecting a key with the desired setting.
Midi Data Type Change
Above the keys we have two buttons `CC` and `Prod Change`, these button affect the functionality of the pads allowing you to change the midi setup on the fly. As you might expect, when the `CC` button is selected the pads will send CC or Control Change data rather than midi note data. The same is true for the `Prog Change` button changing the pad functionality to send PC data. All of this is configurable through the MPK Mini editor software.
Program Select With Pads
Not to be confused with Program Change midi data as discussed above, the MPK Mini can store up to 4 presets (programs). This allows you to create 4 unique midi mapping presets for the MPK Mini. You could have one programmed to control your DAW and another to control your favorite synth etc. This is a particularly useful in a live situation where you want to switch between controlling different instruments quickly.
Things to Note
I wanted to cover a few items off here, in an attempt to give an unbiased review of the unit. I understand that even for myself when looking at different review sites I am most interested in the cons rather than the pros. So here is my attempt at poking holes in what otherwise is a very good product.
It must be noted that with a controller in this price range something has to give, and with this controller when compared with other more expensive units, it does have a light and almost flimsy feel to it. In particular the keys to some will feel rather cheap, and the 4-way axis knob looks like it will catch on something and snap right off! This being said the pads are solid and the unit can take a beating. For this price however it is to be expected and again for the price, it’s actually not bad at all!
Personally I don’t much like the mini keys, they do not feel natural to play even after some use and I am forever hitting the wrong keys (this is most likely due to my lack of keyboard playing skill not doubt lol). The keys are also not weighted at all which means that snap back at you, and even follow your fingers closely as you lift your hand away form the keyboard making for a very unnatural playing feel. Again this is quite subjective.
Lack of Faders
I would have liked to see a version with Faders in place of rotary encodes as I find these much more useful than knobs and far more playable. I like to map the Faders to different controls in the virtual instrument when recording to add some life. Trying to come up with a solution I have tried to use the pads in place of Faders where the pads are mapped to send the same type of midi data a fader would. So if I were to press a pad as hard a possible this would send the same midi data as a fader being moved to the top, and then as I slowly let go of the pad this would send the same midi data as a fader being moved back down. This worked but I didn’t have the same control as I would with Faders, which is a real shame because if this was a real alternative then the MPK Mini would be perfect for me.
The MPK Mini is a great little keyboard especially for the traveling producer/artist, and It packs a ton of features and offers great quality for the price. Today we have discussed the hardware itself, getting familiar with the layout of the unit. We looked at the included software and discussed some things to look out for when choosing a midi controller in this price bracket.
For me this is a great little controller that is super portable and feature rich. The included software is good (but not great) and the hardware is sturdy enough to last many journeys in a backpack. The only thing holding me back at this stage is the lack of Faders.
Do you have any experience with this controller or something similar? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Thanks for reading.