This is a review of the Akai MPK261 Midi Keyboard. You can find the detailed specifications on the Akai website. I only explain the particularities that are not obvious on the web site. Most of the information here applies to MPK249 and MPK261. Some of it applies to the MPK225.
My setup in the studio includes a full 88-key keyboard, various Digital Audio Workstations (DAW) controllers and pedal boards but I can’t carry all of this easily. For example, the fully weighted 88-key keyboard weighs 55 pounds (without the stand). When I travel with a suitcase, I carry my trusted, old, M-Audio Oxygen 49.
The 49 key Oxygen is too small for comfortable playing, although it is perfect for learning new tunes and licks. It has some DAW controls and is lightweight.
My 88-key Casio has perfect key feel and decent sound for practice. It connects via Midi to other equipment and computers. It is not portable (well…maybe).
So a 61 key is a perfect size for stage playing. I can use an octave switch if I need to play more notes occasionally and the length of the keyboard makes it easy to carry.
I have tried an M-Audio Axiom Air 61 and, while the included software and Hypercontrol functionalities sound excellent in the marketing copy, nothing really works as expected and numerous bugs cause the keyboard to completely freeze at random intervals (needing a reboot). This is not viable in a show environment. So, although the Akai brand is now owned by the same company as M-Audio (InMusic also owns Alesis, Numark and Sonivox, to name a few) they seem to develop different products. I’m guessing that each company is still quite independent as far a product development goes. That might change in the future, as some of the products are competing for the same market segment.
The Akai MPK261 is heavy! The base is metal sheet and the unit is built like a tank. It is relatively compact because the Pitch Bend and Expression wheels are above the key bead. The multitude of buttons, knobs and sliders need quite a bit of space so the keyboard is quite deep (but less than the M-Audio Axiom Air 61). The professional black finish is good and the red base, visible on the back, adds a nice accent.
The MPK2 series is not a synthesizer, meaning that it will not make sound by itself, or even hooked to an amplifier and speakers. It is strictly a Midi generating device.
The MPK261 comes bundled with a good selection of software, for Mac and Windows, that might be a good selling point if you do not have your own already. MPC Essentials is especially interesting.
The MPK261 has 16 pads and some of the functionalities of the MPC series of midi controllers. Pads on keyboards are common now and Akai has vast experience with them. The pads on the MPK2 series are great.
The Keyboard and Keys
The MPK261 is a semi-weighted keyboard. This is supposed to mean that the keys are similar to a normal, fully weighted, keyboard and less soft that a “synthesizer” or”organ” type keyboard. I have never used a semi-weighted keyboard that didn’t just feel like a stiffer synth keyboard. The MPK261 is no exception.
The key feel is good, but the “semi-weighted” monicker is just marketing talk. Although I have not opened the keyboard (yet), I’m guessing that the action is just using variable density springs to mimic the weight of a real keyboard. A standard “synth” keyboard uses equal density (read regular) springs.
The key response is great and fast and the keys are well polished with slightly rounded angles so they don’t catch on your skin when you play fast. This is a matter of taste, as some players prefer keys that are rougher to prevent finger slippage, especially with humid or wet hands (as in sweaty). Since the keys are not very stiff, it is easy to hit the neighbouring keys if your finger action is not absolutely precise. This is a “feature” common to all non-weighted keyboards.
As with most non full-size keyboards, the keys are not only less numerous, but also smaller. This is measured two ways:
- The width of the keyboard, with its 61 keys, is about a 1/4 inch (5 mm) narrower than the equivalent keys on a full keyboard. This does not make a significant difference but a trained piano player will sense it.
- The length of each key is about 1 inch (25mm) shorter than a regular keyboard (a hair over 5 inches long versus 6). This is a very noticeable difference and a typical pianist will have quite a surprise when switching to a smaller keyboard.
Note that smaller keys are not the exception for electronic keyboards. All of mine have keys of varying sizes, from quite short on the M-Audio Oxygen 49 to near-normal on my Casio 555. That said, the MPK261 has some of the smallest keys I’ve seen. You will definitely have to adjust your playing style on this keyboard. If all you do is activate synthesizer sounds one key at a time or only play full chords, the action is fast and predictable. If you play classical music, Jazz or in any way have been trained on a regular piano, you will spend some time adjusting your hand positions.
The most noticeable difference is when playing the black keys. I find that pressing the black keys when, for example, playing a chord so that my longest fingers (index, mid and ring) hit the black keys, I touch the keys near their root. Because of the difference in the action (mainly the pivot point), the black keys need more pressure to achieve the same sound force the closer you press to the root. Luckily, the MPK261 has a parameter for this particular adjustment (see below).
All cheap (relatively, as the MPK261 cost $500) keyboards use velocity calculation to approximate the force used to press on a key. Instead of a mechanical action that transfers the force to the hammer that strikes the string (as in a regular piano) or that strikes a sound pickup (as in many vintage electric pianos), electronic keyboards use speed instead of force. They map the speed of the key press to a velocity curve that is supposed to correspond to the force of the impact of a regular key. This is better than nothing as I remember that my first few keyboards didn’t have velocity calculation. The notes where either ON of OFF, more like old synths or organs would do.
The keys on the MPK261 have adjustable velocity curves. They are way too soft out-of-the-box and it takes very little pressure to get a 127 Midi value on the output.
Akai is using a number system to adjust the velocity curve. The value can be adjusted in the Global Parameters and three type of numbers are needed:
- the Velocity curve
- the Gain
- the black/white offset to velocity. Let’s look at those separately:
The Velocity Curve parameter sets the velocity curve’s shape. The value goes from -50 to +50. The velocity will increase very slowly with lower values for this parameter and will accelerate as the input velocity increases. With a -25 value, the curve might look like this:
With a +25 value, the curve might look like this:
The Gain parameter will let you set a relative effort needed to apply the chosen velocity curve. It seems to be a shift applied to the velocity curve. If the value is low, the curve shifts upward (relative to 0), meaning that more force will be needed to generate a note. Inversely, a higher value will shift the velocity curve downward. Generating a note will require less force. It flattens or expands the velocity curve.
Finally, the black/white offset parameter will let you adjust the relative velocity of black and white keys. In my case, for example, I found that a black value of -5 will let me play the black keys with very similar values to the white keys.
I set my parameters to : Curve -6 to -10, Gain -6, Black -5. This is a trial and error process. I played different styles of music and looked at the values coming out of the keyboard (using Midi Monitor on a Mac). I also listened to many sound generating programs to figure out the best velocity arrangement.
I love this particular way of adjusting the velocity curve although you should note that this is a Global Parameter, meaning that the keyboard will react the same way in any software. This is annoying as different synthesizers will react differently to incoming velocity changes. For example, in Ableton 9, the Grand Piano will tend to smooth ou the incoming velocity curve based on a series of parameters in its setup. It is generally adjusted with the Hardness macro command but can be fine tuned as well. The Sonivox Eighty Eight Ensemble software included with the MPK261 sounds marvellous but is reacting very differently to key velocity, to the point of being very hard to use.
I end up using different velocity curves depending on the software I have producing sound at any point. The problem is that the velocity parameters are stored in the Global Parameters set and cannot be adjusted by switching presets. That’s a feature that Akai should include in future firmware releases: let the user assign the global Velocity Parameters to a Preset or have theses parameters modified for a Preset.
The Pitch Wheel and Expression Wheel are placed above the keyboard, on the left. This is my preferred arrangement as I rarely use Pith Bend and having it on the left side of the Keyboard adds six inches to the with.
To conclude, I love the key action despite the small key size. I would prefer a tighter spring to allow me to better modulate the velocity, especially when playing smoothly. Since I often switch keyboards, that also demands constant adjustment. The Velocity parameter adjustment is great if you spend the time to do it carefully. The keys have channel aftertouch and sadly, no release velocity. I must admit that I seldom use release velocity but I like it with some guitar effects.
Buttons, pads and sliders
The Mpk261 is divided into sections. We’ve covered the keyboard already.
The next section is the DAW. This is a small section of five buttons that will send actual regular computer keyboard messages to your computer, like ENTER, RIGHT-ARROW, etc. This is all modifiable. This is a great way to control some parameters on your computer without having to touch it.
Below the DAW sections four keys let you adjust Tempo, Pad repeat, Keyboard Arpegiator and Arpegiator Latch.
The Tempo button flashes according to the tap tempo that you adjust. If the tempo is controlled by an external source, it will be turned off. I would love to see it flash to the tempo set in my software. I like to have a visual cue for tempo and the MPK261 has very bright lights. Next to the tempo button is the Repeat button. This is linked to the Pad Repeat only.
The arpegiator is also linked to the tempo button. If the tempo is external, the arpegiator funciton is off (or controlled by the computer). Note: The arpegiator only works with the keys, not the pads.
To the right, the PAD section. The pads on the MPK261 are simply the best that I have used. They are fixed, meaning that they don’t go down when you push. They are very sensitive, have poly aftertouch and are controlled by some Akai MPC functionalities like 16 level, HI level and pad repeat. Each pad is lit by RGB LEDs. You can choose the color (ON and OFF). It might look a bit over the top, but it adds a lot a visual “ah!” to the MPK. Plus, it can be assigned to each Preset so you have quite a bit of control over the color. In a future post, I will show you how to change the color “live”, from you DAW software.
The pads a really customizable and allow for a lot of creativity. Here’s a short video:
The display section has associated buttons on the right. The display has good contrast and presents the information logically. I would like to see it put in at an angle. This would make it easier to read. Also, a bigger display would prevent having to navigate right and left to go through a series of parameters. I know that 20 characters-4 lines displays are dirt cheap (I pay $7) and make a difference for volume production dollars, but in this day and age, a graphical display, even color TFT or OLED, is available for just a few dollars. Also, this is a $500 keyboard.
The rotary encoder makes it easy to navigate through the parameter choices and a press will select one. The navigation keys are logically placed and responsive.
Below the display you will find the Modes buttons. They let you choose between Preset, Edit, Global and Program display modes.
The preset are what’s called banks or patches on other controllers. They are named set of parameters stored in permanent memory in the MPK261. Most of the keyboard parameters are stored in a preset. The MPK261 comes with a set of Presets for the included software and many other popular software DAW. Contrary to M-Audio product, there is nothing fancy about the Presets and their interaction with the DAW. They only allow you to choose a set of Midi parameters that are associated with the buttons and other controls. This might seems limited, but I have run into so many problems with keyboards that try to couple very tightly with software running on computers that I now vastly prefer to do it the Akai way. Just send Midi commands when I press a button, a pad, a key, etc.
The Presets are stored in the Keyboard memory. Luckily, you can export them to you PC or Mac as SysEx and use a SysEx librarian (or you DAW) to store and transfer an infinite number. In a future post, I will show you how to modify the Presets on your computer and upload them on your MPK.
So the Presets are done right: customizable, flexible and you can store 30 on the keyboard, plus an infinite number on your computer. You choose them by name (editable). On the down side, the Presets don’t store the global parameters.
After you edit a Preset, don’t forget to save it before you call another Preset or you will loose your changes.
By the way (thanks to Tony for finding this out) if you want to reset the presets to factory setting, you first have to press “preset” then the left arrow. The display will show “factory settings” and pressing the rotary encoder will effectively reset them all to factory values except presets 26 to 30 (called Generic by default). This way, the MPK2 will not overwrite your own modified presets. This is a strange behavior, but as Tony mentioned, it will prevent you from erasing your special presets. It’s not documented anywhere (except here…)
If you press the Edit button after you have touched any control the screen will present information about that control and its current configuration. There are many parameters associated with each control. Pages in some cases. Take the time to learn them. This is where the power of the MPK becomes apparent.
You don’t have to save each Edit, but remember to save the whole Preset before you switch to another one or you will loose all your changes.
The Global button gets you into Global Parameter Edit Mode. You get to change values for Keyboard Velocity Curve which, as I mentioned above, should be stored with the Presets. Same thing for the Pads velocity curve and Tempo behaviour.
Global will let you send the Preset SysEx files to a computer one by one or all at the same time.
As far as I’m concerned, the only parameters that should be Global are Midi Channel, Note Display (as in show note name or just note number) and the Global SysEx Send. The rest belongs to each Preset.
This mode lets you send a Midi Program Change down the Midi line. Nothing fancy. You can send a standard Program Change, with a value of 0 to 127, or a Banked Program Change, which will send a Bank address (MSB and LSB) along with a Program Number (0-127).
Next is the Preview button. If you press it and keep it pressed, the touch any other controller and it will let you see the value associated with this control. This is useful when working with certain DAW software like Ableton Live.
Below the Mode Buttons are the Transport Buttons. They are standard assignable buttons used to control you DAW software or other Midi equipment.
The bottom row has the Octave shift Buttons. I would like to see them bigger and separate from other controls. I often use Octave Shift when I play and I sometimes hit the wrong button. I also use pedals to switch octave.
Next you have 3 Bank Selector buttons for the Slider section. The last button will put you in Repeat Time Division chooser mode, where you simply choose the divider associated with the Tempo and used by the Repeat and Arpegiator.
Finally, we have the
The slider section is a misnomer as it really includes Sliders, Rotary encoders and a series of standard buttons. Each of then can send various midi commands as they are totally customizable.
The rotary encoders are well made and feel solid. They are continuous encoders. The software in the MPK allows customized output that is usable with all software that I use.
The sliders have a short travel but with just the right amount of friction they let you precisely control the values on their output. They are also assignable and customizable.
The buttons are sending Midi CC commands by default but can send a variety of other Midi commands. Their action can be momentary or latched. The LEDs are bright (and sadly only yellow. Why not RGB, Akai?)
The buttons are also used to select the tempo division for the Repeat and Arpegiator functions.
Yes, I would reccomend that you buy this keyboard. No reserve. This is the best that I could find on the market at this point. Of course, if you don’t need the DAW controls, many other keyboards are available and most of those, especially from Roland and Yamaha, have a much better key feel.
- Construction: very solid metal base
- Compact and good layout for everything
- Drum pads are sensitive and respond well
- Everything is configurable
- Flawless reliability so far, for hardware and firmware)
- Keys are too soft: semi-weighted is a myth!
- Included software has some rough edges (except Ableton Live Lite)
- No included Preset Manager (like Vysex Editor that was available for MPK61)
- No easy way to manipulate parameters from computer while playing (it does not respond to Program Change Midi messages, although more on that here)
- Screen too small (come on, this is 2014!)