Music producers rejoice! The latest keyboards from Akai are almost here and needless to say they’ll have a lot of people like this. The new keyboards have a sleek design that will definitely catch the eye of anyone looking for the right keyboard for their own studio setup but do they have the functionality to be worth the purchase over stiff competition like Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol S-Series? We met up with Jennifer Hruska, the brains behind the new Akai Professional Advance keyboards and Patrice Tarabbia, the software engineer, to get the inside scoop on their new products. Jennifer gave us a run-down of what to expect and also answered a few of our questions about the new Advance keyboards from Akai.
Jennifer Hruska: This is the new keyboard from Akai called Advance. It comes in 3 different sizes; 25 key, 49 key and 61 key. It’s a smart controller in the sense that it can acts as a stand alone MIDI controller so you can use it with any of your stuff even without a computer but the real magic starts to happen when you launch the VIP (Virtual Instrument Player) software. It’s a… host software that can host all the different plug-ins that you have on your system.
One of the key things about VIP is that it can play any of your plug-ins, not just from one manufacturer. It can play any VST from any manufacturer that you have. Whatever you have, it’s going to consolidate it all into the VIP software. In the Plug-in manager… you just go in and you scan and it will find all of the different VST’s on your system. Then, you say OK and what it’s going to do when you first bring up the software, it’s going to grab all of the different presets from all your plug-ins and throw them into a big database. Now you’ve got access to all (the) different sounds on your system. I’ve got something like almost 12,000 presets on here. It’s not unusual to have 50,000 (or) 75,000.
Now, you can kind of go the old fashioned way, where you select a particular plug-in. You’ll notice it loads really quickly… but you can do a lot more than that. You can say, “Oh, I don’t really care what plug-in it comes from… what I really want is a bass sound (that’s) kind of distorted and maybe kind of analog sounding”. Now (it will) grab all of my analog distorted basses from all my different plug-ins and it puts them all here in a list for me. Now I can just step through them. Even though I’m going through three different plug-ins, it still loads up really fast.
By the way, you can run this software stand-alone… without a DAW but you can also run it as a plug-in inside of a DAW so you can use it as a AAX plugin inside of Pro Tools or an AU plugin inside of Logic or a VST inside of Cubase or what have you. This patch switching is really nice because you can have a DAW project open and maybe you’ve got VIP in a couple different instances and you’ve got maybe a piano line going in one of your tracks. Now, while your groove is just playing, you can just start switching through different patches… to all your different pianos. You’re… quickly auditioning sounds that’ll work perfect for that particular track that you’re working on.
The other thing about the software is that… once you’ve got your sounds selected, you want to be able to control it and manipulate it using the controllers so the hardware gives you these 8 big performance nobs. These are nice big nobs that you can grab and they feel really good when you’re playing them. You’ve got four banks of 8 nobs and then you’ve got four banks of buttons and you’ve got four banks of MPC pads. So you can just get into your pads, you go into control mode and now all these patches are auto mapped to different VST parameters so you can start manipulating the sound all in real time. We’ve auto-mapped over 300 plugins at this point to where it… works right out of the box. If you want to assign your own controllers, you can do that. You just click LEARN and you (may) say “this nob here, I really want this nob to control my filter cut-off”. That’s it and now that will control your filter cut-off. It’s real easy to map things.
We wanted to take VIP another step to where you can do things in VIP that you can’t do in a DAW or can’t do very easily anyway. One of those things is multi-mode. Multi-mode allows you to have up to 8 different patches… from any plugin all layered on top on one another. Just click it (and) drag it over and grab another one. Now, you can use the pads to mute them (and) control volume. Now, these are total performance controllers that you can use. You can lay a beat here, a bass here, a pad here, a keyboard line here and really quickly switch between these things.
The other thing is that there’s a set list mode here where you can create a new set list… and you can just start dragging any patches you want here and now you’ve got… your favorite patches all lined up in the order that you need and you can really quickly… move between them. It’s super musical. There’s very sophisticated logic here where you can switch between different presets in different VST’s without any glitching. There’s no stopping. It’s very musical. It’s really great during performances.
TFM: How do you feel your new keyboards compare to the Komplete Kontrol S-Series from Native Instruments?
Jennifer: It’s a lot more versatile and the main reason is because with Komplete Kontrol you can only load in NI plug-ins. That’s cool. They’ve got a lot of great plug-ins but, ya know, I want to wear clothes from Macy’s and (laughs) somewhere else. Right? I want to be able to do my thing. I’m an artist so that’s the key thing. You can also switch patches a lot faster (in Advance) and Komplete Kontrol is really slow to pull up your patches. Like I mentioned, We’ve got this sophisticated logic in there where you can go between different patches and there’s no glitching. You can hold notes over and it’s really smooth. We also have this multi-mode where you can layer up to 8 different patches or split them across your keyboard. That’s something that Komplete Kontrol isn’t doing. Then, of course, on the keyboard itself, there’s this screen. I mean, this screen just rocks. You can really see what you’re doing and your controllers. You just see everything. The thing is that you can put your computer away. It’s got to be running because that’s what’s playing everything but you can do everything from right here at the keyboard. That’s awesome. It makes it feel more like an instrument, ya know? You’re playing it, ya know? There’s some pretty big differences.
TFM: Being that the keyboard operates as a plug-in, is the user able to manipulate whether it is recognized by a DAW as a 32 or 64 bit plug-in?
Jennifer: Yeah, it can run as a 32 bit plug-in or a 64 bit plug-in… depending on whether you have 32 bit plug-ins or 64 bit plug-ins.
TFM: As far as plug-ins being used by the software, does it require 64 or 32 bit plug-ins?
Jennifer: No, if you’re running 64 bit BIP then it will host 64 bit plug-ins, if you’re running 32 bit VIP, it will host 32 bit VIP plug-ins. There’s no bit bridge in the sense of mixing and matching those.
TFM: Will an iLok be necessary?
Jennifer: No (laughs)
TFM: Does access to VIP come paired with the purchase of one of the Advance keyboards?
Jennifer: Yeah, it just comes with the keyboard. You get an Advance keyboard and you get the software with it, free and we also include a bunch of other plug-ins. You get six different plug-ins from Air Music Tech. They’re the people that do plug-ins for Pro Tools. You also get a great piano plug-in from SONiVOX and some expansion packs for Hybrid from AIR.
I guess, I should mention too that there’s a store inside of VIP. You can go in there and grab some free plug-ins but you can also browse and look for other plug-ins. You can go in there and it will tell you about the plug-in and you can buy them from right in (there) or you can just demo them. We’re going to put a bunch of different stuff in there. Then, for people who don’t really want a store in VIP, you can just turn that off if you want in your preferences. It’s just a quick way to get you new content that you know.
TFM: I think I’m sold.