Akai – MAX49 MIDI & CV controller keyboard review

We offer our verdict on Akai’s impressive MAX49 controller keyboard, whose features go a lot deeper than its flashy appearance would initially have you believe.

There are a long line of keyboard controllers with varying octave ranges, featuring batteries of faders and knobs that can be mapped to any parameter you could wish for and for any purpose that the most decadent imagination can conjure up. So what is it about the new MAX49 controller from Akai Professional that makes it stand out from the crowd? At first glance it would seem that the MAX49 is just another keyboard controller, with a 49 note keyboard, 12 backlit pads, eight virtual faders, an LCD display, transport control buttons and just the right amount of function buttons to allow comprehensive tactile control without appearing cluttered. However, it nevertheless sports a flashy Ferrari red sheen with a subtle marble undercoat and translucent veneer, appearing like a machine that wants to be looked at and admired.

The 12 backlit, velocity sensitive pads have been taken straight from the latest MPC Renaissance, which arguably feature the best pads on any control surface to date. Ideally spaced so as to discourage accidental mishits, with classic MPC type dual functionality, these pads are ideal for drum programming or for launching samples in your DAW. The velocity sensitive keyboard meanwhile, with after touch, is semi-weighted. Although the semi-weighted keys do feel quite luxuriant and comfortable to play, the keyboard’s action is slightly on the stiff side, making it less suitable for those who need to play fast phrases.

The pitch bend and mod wheels are placed above and to the left over the keyboard, as expected, and are as sturdy as the rest of the unit. It also has eight virtual faders that can be mapped to any parameter you wish; simply touch your finger on the strip and raise it or lower it to change the values. Feedback comes in the form of backlit segments and perhaps one of the more unique aspects of this design is that you can touch anywhere on the strip to immediately jump from one value to another. Although an unconventional design feature next to its nearest rivals in the controller keyboard market, the benefits are that over years of wear and tear they won’t break off or need cleaning and repair. However, this writer wasn’t completely convinced that detailed control was possible with this arrangement, as it seemed to lend itself to more vague and general parameter changes.

Despite the small niggle with the faders, the MAX49 works very well as a control surface. It’s easy to hook up to a DAW like Ableton and mappings are completely painless, while Mackie Control and HUI modes to make it easy to use with other DAWs; just a simple twist and a click of a push encoder will enable a generic mapping of your DAW. In this case we used Ableton Live and found it simple to use as it ships with the Akai Connect software, Vyzex, in addition to a version of Ableton Live Lite with support files that can be found on Akai’s website. The only drawback in terms of control surfaces here are the lack of knobs. If you’re the kind of person who likes to twist rather than fade then you are out of luck with the MAX49, as there is only one push encoder and its main function is to navigate the menu, – which is, thankfully, straightforward.

In addition to being a high end controller, there are some welcome, if somewhat surprising, connection features on the MAX49. MIDI in and out are all present and correct, as is the USB port. However, this unit’s real trump card are its inclusion of CV/Gate connections. Ports for CV – the pre-MIDI standard – are unusual on MIDI keyboards of this type, and anyone with any old analogue gear without a MIDI connection will be able to easily bring it into a digital setup and make use of the MAX49’s built in modular style step sequencer; simply slave the clock of the controller to your DAW to sync and latch the sequencer to integrate the old with the new. All the parameters are easily edited and you can create up to 32 step patterns with time divisions of up to 32nd triplet notes.

If you want a more varied type of control over your pre-MIDI gear, then you can effectively turn the MAX49 into a MIDI/CV converter by synchronizing the MIDI output channels between your DAW and the Max49’s gate, allowing your DAW to talk to your beloved old gear. Once again Akai allow you to work in new and exciting ways with this feature, and it becomes a fluid and enjoyable experience to launch clips from Ableton using the pads whilst syncing up to four step sequences for your pre-MIDI vintage synth. An expression pedal input and two footswitch ports add another dimension to the control possibilities present on this useful bit of kit.

Overall, the MAX49 is an impressive and easy to use controller keyboard. Its user friendly nature means that you find yourself looking at a computer screen a lot less and actually using your ears instead of your eyes; the transport control buttons, along with the virtual faders, help in this respect. It’s the sort of controller that could exist happily in a home studio, on a stage or in a club, even if it is on the heavy side for a 49 note controller.

There are some alternative brands that could give the Akai unit a run for its money however; the Axiom Pro 49 from M Audio as well as the Impulse 49 and the 49 SL MkII from Novation offer comprehensive control with easy DAW integration, but they don’t feature the analogue connection possibilities available on the MAX49, and they don’t come with a built in step sequencer, both of which are an added pleasure and serve as evidence of Akai’s promise to let you work in new ways.

Rob Lee

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Specifications:

Power 6V DC (supplied)
Keys 49 Semi Weighted keys with velocity and after touch
Pads 4 banks of 12 velocity sensitive backlit pads
Faders 4 banks of 8 virtual faders
Connections USB, MIDI In/Out, CV Out, Gate Out, 1 x continuous pedal, 2 x footswitch
Dimensions 74cms x 32cms x 8 cms
Weight 5.3kgs
Software Ableton Live Lite Akai Edition, Vyzex & Akai Connect
Mac System Requirements 1.25GHz G4/G5 (intel Mac recommended), 1GB RAM (2GB recommended), Mac OSX10.4.11 (10.5 or later recommended)
Windows System Requirements 1.5GHz Pentium 4 or Celeron compatible CPU or faster (multicore CPU recommended), 1GB RAM (2GB recommended), Windows 7, Windows Vista or Windows XP, Windows compatible sound card (ASIO driver support recommended), QuickTime recommended