Thursday, October 28, 2010

Akai Synthstation 25 Keyboard Controller

I've been waiting for the Synthstation 25 since it was first announced earlier this year. The promise of this item is great but what was delivered was slightly underwhelming. However, there are glimmers of hope for this device yet!

I have tons of music making apps on my iPod Touch 2G and I love playing with these apps and making my own music. When I first heard that Akai had created this keyboard and that it was designed to interface with their own music making app, I was pretty thrilled. It was soon reported that Akai would be releasing the information needed to any app creator to allow their apps to be controlled by this device. This sounded too good to be true but the thought of being able to actually play with apps like Xewton Music Studio or NanoStudio using a real keyboard was too tempting. I figured that Akai would do right and create a great app to go along with this controller.

My first impression was how small this keyboard actually is. The keys are not full-sized but are in fact mini-keys, much like the old Casio consumer keyboards from the 1980's. The controller does seem very well built however. My iPod Touch slides into the area designed to hold it and it sits there very firmly.

I thought that the Synthstation app would be included in the price as a free download from the Apple store. Unfortunately, that is not the case and you need to spend and additional $9.99 to purchase the app. As of right now, there are only two apps that interface with the Synthstation 25, Akai's own app and iVoxel.

The Synthstation app is actually quite deep and it comes with a huge number of pads, monophonic lead sounds and drum kits. However, there's little or no documentation about the app and I've yet to figure out how to overwrite some of the preset sounds with my own patches. There are quite a few additional problems with the Synthstation app but truth be told, as a synth app it's really phenomenal. I just don't think I'm going to be writing any songs with it however.

Another nice feature is the fact that the controller comes with left and right RCA audio outs, and a mini usb port to connect to your computer so that it can be used as a traditional controller for any DAW software on your standard PC or Mac. There's also a pitch bend and modulation wheel. Along with the 4 AAA batteries that are shipped with the product, that's about all you get in the box. There is no AC adaptor, there is no USB cable and no audio cables and no case to protect it when travelling. It's just the controller and batteries. Everything else will have to be an additional purchase. I know that asking for these additional items might seem like a lot for the $99 price but at the very least I thought I might get some cables.

The promise that other synth app manufacturers might release updates allowing the Synthstation 25 to control their apps is very important. There are tons of wonderful instruments available through the app store and the music composition apps that are out there are far more powerful then the Synthstation app. Right now, it's very early in the products life-cycle and other then the two apps already mentioned, nothing else is ready to go.

In closing, I really like the idea of the Synthstation 25 but I was a bit underwhelmed by what came in the box, and that the app itself was not part of the purchase price. I can't really fault Akai for this decision as they are selling the Synthstation 25 at a very aggressive price. If you factor in the additional $10 for the Synthstation app, it's still a very good deal. What you get is a fantastic, analog-sounding synth with tons of preset sounds. You get lots of editing features (though again, I still haven't figured out how to overwrite the presets) and you get a great sounding, though basic drum machine with an enormous number of drum samples to play with. I just wish the integration of all these elements were implemented better within the Synthstation app itself.

I'm not disappointed that I bought this item but again, the promise seemed so much greater than the reality. I hope that Akai continue to build on their success and make this item a really great music-making tool for wanna-be composers such as myself.

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