Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool

The leak was real. Akai have a standalone box that can free you from a laptop, when you want that freedom. It works with your computer and gear, but it also does all the arranging and performance (and some monster sounds and sequencing) on its own. It’s what a lot of folks were waiting for – and we’ve just gotten our hands on it.

Akai have already had a bit of a hit with the latest MPCs, which work as a controller/software combo if you want, but also stand on their own.

The Akai Force (it’s not an MPC or APC in the end) is more than that. It’s a single musical device with computer-like power under the hood, but standalone stability. It’s a powerful enough sequencer (for MIDI and CV) that you some people might just buy it on those merits.

But it also performs all the Ableton Live-style workflows you know. So there’s an APC/Push style interface, clip launching and editing, grids for playing drums and instruments, and sampling capability. There’s also a huge selection of synths and effects (courtesy AIR Music Technology), so while it can’t run third-party VST plug-ins, you should feel comfortable using it on its own. And it integrates with your computer when you’re in your studio – in both directions, though more on that in a bit.

And it’s US$1499 – so it’s reasonable affordable, at least in that it’s possibly cheaper than upgrading your laptop, or buying a new controller and a full DAW license.

First – the specs:

• Standalone – no computer required
• 8×8 clip launch matrix with RGB LEDs
• 7″ color capacitive multitouch display
• Mic/Instrument/Line Inputs, 4 outputs
• MIDI In/Out/Thru via 1/8″ TRS inputs (5-pin DIN adapters included)
• (4) configurable CV/Gate Outputs to integrate your modular setup
• (8) touch-sensitive knobs with graphical OLED displays
• Time stretch/pitch shift in real time
• Comprehensive set of AIR effects and Hype, TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric synth engines
• Ability to record 8 stereo tracks
• 16GB of on-board storage (over 10 gigs of sound content included)
• 2 GB of RAM
• Full-Size SD card Slot
• User-expandable 2.5″ SATA drive connector (SATA or HDD)
• (2) USB 3.0 slots for thumb drives or MIDI controllers

Clarification: about those eight tracks. You can have eight stereo tracks of audio, but up to 128 tracks total.

And there’s a powerful and clever scheme here that lets the Force adapt to different combinations of onboard synths and effects. Akai tells us the synths use a “weighted voice management” scheme so you can maximize simultaneous voices. Effects are unlimited, until you run out of CPU power. Since this is integrated hardware and software, though, you don’t fail catastrophically when you run out of juice, as you do on a conventional computer. (Ahem.)

All that I/O – USB connectivity, USB host (for other USB gear), CV (for analog gear), MIDI (via standard minijacks), plus audio input / mic and separate out and cue outs.

US$1499 (confirming European pricing), shipping on 5 February to the USA and later in the month to other markets.

I’ve had a hands-on with AKAI Professional’s product managers. The software was still pre-release – this was literally built last night – but it was very close to final form, and we should have a detailed review once we get hardware next month.

The specs don’t really tell the whole story, so let’s go through what this thing is about.

In person, the arrangement turns out to be logical and tidy.

Form factor

The images leaked via an FCC filing of a prototype did make this thing look a bit homely. In person with the final hardware, it seems totally logical.

On the bottom of the unit is a grid with shortcut triggers, looking very much like a Push 2. On the top is a touch display and more shortcut keys that resemble the MPC Live. You also get a row of endless encoders, which now Akai call just “knobs.”

The “hump” that contains the touch display enables a ton of I/O crammed onto the back – even with minijacks for MIDI, the space is needed. And it means the displays for the knobs are tilted at an angle, so they’re easier to read as you play, from either sitting or standing position.

There are also some touches that tell you this is Akai hardware. Everything is labeled. Triggers most often do just one thing, rather than changing modes as on Ableton Push. And there are features like obvious, dedicated navigation, and a crossfader.

In short, you can tell this is from the folks who built the APC40. Whereas sometimes functions on Ableton Push can be maddeningly opaque, the Akai hardware makes things obvious. I’ll talk more about that in the review, of course, but it’s obvious even when looking at the unit what everything does and how to navigate.

Oh and – while this unit is big, it still looks like it’d fit snugly onto a table at a venue or DJ booth. Plus you don’t need a computer. And yeah, the lads from Akai brought it to Berlin on Ryanair. You can absolutely fit it in a backpack.

Workflows

What impresses me about this effort from Akai is that it takes into account a whole range of use cases. Rather than describe what it does, maybe I should jump straight into what I think it means for those use cases, based on what I’ve seen.

It runs live sets. Well, here this is clearly a winner. You get clip launching just like you do with Ableton Live, without a laptop. And so even if you still stick to Live for production (or Maschine, or Reason, or FL Studio, or whatever DAW), you can easily load up stems and clips on this and free yourself from the laptop later.

You get consistent color coding and near-constant feedback on the grid and heads-up display / touch display about where you are, what’s muted, what’s record-enabled, and what’s playing. My impression is that it’s far clearer than on other devices, thanks to the software being built around the hardware. (Maschine got further than some of its rivals, but it lacks this many controls, lights, and display.)

That feedback seemed like it’s also not overwhelming, either, because it’s spread out over this larger footprint. There’s also a handy overview of your whole clip layout on the touch display, so you can page through more clip slots easily.

Logical, dedicated triggers and loads of feedback so you don’t get lost.

Full-featured clip launching and mixing.

It’s a playable instrument – finger-drummer friendly. Of course, now that you can do all that stuff with clips, as with Push, you can also play instruments. There are onboard synths from AIR – Electric, Bassline, TubeSynth, and the new multifunctional FM + additive + wavetable hybid Hype. And there are a huge number of effects from lo-fi stuff to reverbs to delays, meaning you can get away without packing effects pedals. It’s literally the full range of AIR stuff – so like having a full Pro Tools plug-in folder on dedicated hardware.

That may or may not be enough for everyone, but you can also use MIDI and CV and USB to control external gear (or a computer).

The grid setup features are also easy to get into and powerful. There are a range of pitch-to-grid mappings, from guitar fret-style arrangements to a Tonnetz layout (5th on one axis, 3rd on another) to piano and chromatic layouts. There are of course scale and chord options – though no microtuning onboard, yet. (Wait until Aphex Twin gets his, I think.)

And there are drum layouts, too, or step sequencers if you want them.

Two major, major deviations from Push, though. You know how easy it is to accidentally change parts on Push when you’re trying to navigate clips and wind up playing the wrong instrument? Or how easy it is to get lost when recording clips? Or how suddenly a step sequencer turns up when you just want to finger drum a pad? Or…

Yeah, okay well – you have none of those problems here. Force makes it easy to select parts, easy to select tracks, easy to mute tracks, and lets you choose the layout you want when you want it without all that confusion.

Again, more on this in the review, but I’m thoroughly relieved that Akai seems to understand the need for dedicated triggers and less cognitive overhead when you play live.

Tons of playing options.

It can replace a computer for production, if you want. There’s deep clip editing and sampling and arrangement and mixing functionality here. Clips even borrow one of the best features from Bitwig Studio – you can edit and move and duplicate audio inside a clip, which you can’t do in Live without bringing that audio out into the Arrangement. So you could use this to start and even finish tracks.

The Force doesn’t have the same horsepower as a laptop, of course. So you’re limited to eight stereo tracks. Then again, back in the days of tape that bouncing process was also creatively useful – and the sampling capabilities here make it easy to resample work.

Powerful clip editing combines with sampling – and you can use both the touchscreen and dedicated hardware controls.

Or you can use it as a companion to a computer. You can also use Force as a sketchpad – much like some iPad tools now, but of course with physical controls. There’s even an export to ALS feature coming, so you could start tracks on Force and finish them in Ableton Live – with your full range of mixing an mastering tools and plug-ins. (I believe that doesn’t ship at launch, but is due soon.)

Also coming in the first part of this year, Akai are working on a controller mode so you can use Force as an Ableton Live controller when you are at your computer.

There’s wired connectivity. You can set up MIDI tracks, you can set up CV tracks. There’s also USB host mode. Like the grid, but wish you had some MPC-style velocity-sensitive pads? Or want some faders? Plug in inexpensive controllers via USB, just as you would on your computer. You only get two audio ins, but that’s of course still enough to do sampling – and you get the sorts of sampling and live time stretching capabilities you’d expect of the company that makes the MPC.

For audio output, there’s a dedicated cue out as well as the stereo audio output.

On the front – SD card loading (there’s also USB support and internal drive upgradeability), plus a dedicated cue output for your headphones.

The full range of AIR effects is onboard.

Powerful audio effects should help you grow with this one.

And there’s wireless connectivity, too. You can sync sample content via Splice.com – which includes your own samples, by the way. (Wow, do I wish Roland did this with Roland Cloud and the TR-8S – yeah, being able to have all my own kits and sample sets and sync them with a WiFi connection is huge to me, even just for the sounds I created myself.)

There’s Ableton Link support, so you can wirelessly sync up to your computer, iPad, and other tools – clocking the Force without wires.

There’s even wireless support for control and sound, meaning that Force is going to be useful even before you plug in cables.

Yeah, it’s a standalone instrument, but it’s also a monster sequencer / hub.

Bottom line. It replaces Ableton Live. It works with Ableton Live. It replaces your computer. It works with your computer. It’s a monster standalone instrument. It’s a monster sequencer for your other instruments. It does a bunch of stuff. It doesn’t try to do too much (manageable controls, clear menus).

Basically, this already looks like the post-PC device a lot of us were waiting for. Can’t wait to get one for review.

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What could make APC Live, MPC cool: Akai’s new software direction

Akai tipped their hand late last year that they were moving more toward live performance. With APC Live hardware leaked and in the wild, maybe it’s time to take another look. MPC software improvements might interest you with or without new hardware.

MPC 2.3 software dropped mid-November. We missed talking about it at the time. But now that we’re (reasonably certain, unofficially) that Akai is releasing new hardware, it puts this update in a new light. Background on that:

APC as standalone hardware? Leaked Akai APC Live

Whether or not the leaked APC Live hardware appeals to you, Akai are clearly moving their software in some new directions – which is relevant whatever hardware you choose. We don’t yet know if the MPC Live hardware will get access to the APC Live’s Matrix Mode, but it seems a reasonable bet some if not all of the APC Live features are bound for MPC Live, too.

And MPC 2.3 added major new live performance features, as well as significant internal synths, to that standalone package. Having that built in means you get it even without a computer.

New in 2.3:

Three synths:

  • A vintage-style, modeled analog polysynth
  • A bass synth
  • A tweakable, physically modeled electric piano

Tubesynth – an analog poly.

Electric’s physically-modeled keys.

Electric inside the MPC Live environment.

As with NI’s Maschine, each of those can be played from chords and scales with the pads mode. But Maschine requires a laptop, of course – MPC Live doesn’t.

A new arpeggiator, with four modes of operation, ranging from traditional vintage-style arp to more modern, advanced pattern playback

And there’s an “auto-sampler.”

That auto-sampler looks even more relevant when you see the APC Live. On MPC Live (and by extension APC Live), you can sample external synths, sample VST plug-ins, and even capture outboard CV patches.

Of course, this is a big deal for live performance. Plug-ins won’t work in standalone mode – and can be CPU hogs, anyway – so you can conveniently capture what you’re doing. Got some big, valuable vintage gear or a modular setup you don’t to take to the gig? Same deal. And then this box gives you the thing modular instruments don’t do terribly well – saving and recalling settings – since you can record and restore those via the control voltage I/O (also found on that new APC Live). The auto-sampler is an all-in-one solution for making your performances more portable.

Full details of the 2.3 update – though I expect we’ve got even more new stuff around the corner:

http://www.akaipro.com/pages/mpc-2.3-desktop-software-and-firmware-update

With or without the APC Live, you get the picture. While Ableton and Native Instruments focus on studio production and leave you dependent on the computer, Akai’s angle is creating an integrated package you can play live with – like, onstage.

Sure enough, Akai have been picking up large acts to their MPC Live solution, too – John Mayer, Metallica, and Chvrches all got named dropped. Of those, let’s check out Chvrches – 18 minutes in, the MPC Live gets showcased nicely:

It makes sense Akai would come to rely on its own software. When Akai and Novation released their first controllers for Ableton Live, Ableton had no hardware of their own, which changed with Push. But of course even the first APC invoked the legendary MPC legacy – and Akai has for years been working on bringing desktop software functionality to the MPC name. So, while some of us (me included) first suspected a standalone APC Live might mean a collaboration with Ableton, it does make more sense that it’s a fully independent Akai-made, MPC-style tool.

It also makes sense that this means, for now, more internal functionality. (The manual reference to “plugins” in the APC Live manual that leaked probably means those internal instruments and effects.) That has more predictability as far as resource consumption, and means avoiding the licensing issues necessary and the like to run plug-ins in embedded Linux. This could change, by the way – Propellerhead’s Rack Extensions format now is easily portable to ARM processors, for example – but that’s another story. As far as VST, AU, and AAX, portability to embedded hardware is still problematic.

The upshot of this, though, is that InMusic at least has a strategy for hardware that functions on its own – not just as a couple of one-off MPC pieces, but in terms of integrated hardware/software development across a full product line. Native Instruments, Ableton, and others might be working on something like that that lets you untether from the computer, but InMusic is shipping now, and they aren’t.

Now the question is whether InMusic can capitalize on its MPC legacy and the affection for the MPC and APC brands and workflows – and get people to switch from other solutions.

The post What could make APC Live, MPC cool: Akai’s new software direction appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

AKAI Pro Updates MPC Live, MPC X With Ableton Link & More

Akai Professional has announced a major firmware update for the the MPC Live and MPC X that delivers new features for audio warping and time-stretching on the individual drum pad level for manipulating loops and hits on each pad within a drum program, improved Program and Audio editing, Bluetooth 4.0 MIDI capability and enhanced support for storage… Read More AKAI Pro Updates MPC Live, MPC X With Ableton Link & More

Can the MPC X win over some die-hard German MPC hardware users?

The MPC 2000. The 2000XL. The 500. These old Akai boxes inspired countless live sets – and many devoted fans still make them the centerpiece of their rigs.

But Akai abandoned the standalone hardware market for years. Native Instruments came along with Maschine, making the hardware just a controller for software running on a computer. And the MPC lost its place as the machine synonymous with the drum machine/sampler device.

Now, that looks set to change. Akai is back in the standalone hardware business with a new angle – get all the capabilities of a computer, running the same software, but without having to have a computer plugged in at all. And that goes up against Elektron’s own new standalone hardware – and Native Instruments’ own mature Maschine lineup back on the computer.

The toughest audience for the new MPC, then, has got to be those dedicated Akai MPC users. Ideally, you’d find some who are still using the older MPC onstage. And, ideally, they’d be German – well, partly because criticism sounds cooler than in English, and partly because of Germany’s wonderful culture of being honest, reflective, and articulate with opinions.

Berlin videojournalists did just that, and took the flagship Akai MPC X to the trio FJAAK (on Monkeytown Records). The result is exactly the sort of hands-on review I’d want to see – thorough, personal, musical.

They take a hard look at the “best-equipped MPC of all time.” (That sounds fair.) They express some reservations about all those expanded capabilities, but give the unit a great shakedown.

(Don’t worry – English subtitles.)

I think it’s nice to contrast this with the more limited approach (and smaller price and form factor) of the Elektron Digitakt.

For me, I’m still holding out for some quality time with the MPC Live, which seems to nicely bridge what you want in a standalone device with what you want in software (and works as conventional software/controller when your computer is connected). But the MPC X is big, beautiful, and a nice option if you’ve got the budget.

More:
http://www.akaipro.com/product/mpc-x

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Akai Pro Announces iMPC for Samsung Galaxy

Akai Professional today announced that their iOS app iMPC, is now also available from the Samsung Galaxy Apps Store. iMPC for Android was created in collaboration with app developer Retronyms, and the app fuses the workflow of an Akai Professional MPC (Music Production Center) with tools for composing, editing and mixing music on the user’s… Read More Akai Pro Announces iMPC for Samsung Galaxy

Akai’s standalone MPCs just leaked – and they could replace your laptop

Welcome to the post-PC drum machine age. After years of leaving fans of standalone MPCs in the cold, Akai have unveiled machines that promise the flexibility of computer software – minus the computer.

And somehow all the specs and photos are on the Sweetwater website (doh!), so let’s copy-paste here. (For once, I’m glad not to be under an NDA.)

The MPC Live is probably the one you want, in a compact form factor and with a not-insane US$1,199 street price. And it’s no slouch:

mpclive-large

7″ touch screen
16 pads (hopefully these are these build on the quality of those on the previous MPC Renaissance flagship)
Weight: 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs)
Rechargeable battery (clever, that!)
16 GB of internal storage, plus external hard drive support
MPC 2.0 software has upgraded time warp and audio track recording (also putting it ahead of Maschine for DAW-like tasks)
Audio inputs: 2x 1/4″ plus 1 stereo RCA (and GND for connecting a turntable)
Audio outputs: 2x 1/4″ master, an additional 4×1/4″, plus the minijack headphone
MIDI I/O – 2 in, 2 out (that’s surprising on a small unit)
SD card
USB: 2x type A (for storage, presumably), 1x type B (for computer)
2.5″ SATA drive connector

Even the mid-range MPC Live has a surprisingly generous complement of I/O.

Even the mid-range MPC Live has a surprisingly generous complement of I/O.

We’ve already seen reasonably clever MPC software in the computer-tethered products. Now, the touchscreens on previous Akai products haven’t been the best ever, in my experience – though the bar is set high when you’re used to things like Apple’s superb iPad screens. But it absolutely beats menu diving – compare, for instance, the experience of using Pioneer’s new sample hardware. And perhaps they’ve upgraded the touchscreen component; that’ll be interesting to see.

The audio track thing to me is huge, as it vastly increases the range of what you can do with just the MPC. I suspect for a lot of producers, that’s enough to finish tracks (even if they move back to the computer for mixing and mastering).

It seems that basically what you’re getting is the MPC Touch with the software running internally on an embedded system – and some significant upgrade to I/O and better software. But given the MPC Touch was already pretty darn good, this could move the MPC Live into must-buy territory.

Of course, if you want something bigger and more powerful / own a car to carry it around or want to leave something in the studio, there’s the US$$2,199 MPC X.

It’s got everything the MPC Live has, with a bigger form factor, a bigger screen, more dedicated controls, and more I/O.

The big'n.

The big’n.

So you get:
10.1″ multi-touch screen
CV/gate for analog connectivity – 8 of them! (seems it’s output only)
Audio inputs 3/4 are both jack and RCA a
8 outputs instead of 6
4 MIDI outputs instead of 2

Another sign that this is power over portability – there’s no mention of battery power.

A big, articulated screen, extra hands-on control, and loads of I/O are what you get on the MPC X, in exchange for being a bit less mobile and paying over two grand.

A big, articulated screen, extra hands-on control, and loads of I/O are what you get on the MPC X, in exchange for being a bit less mobile and paying over two grand.

The leaked specs don’t yet have weight, but then, you’re not really buying this one for portability.

That’s all very cool, and it should be big in the American market where larger equipment is more desirable. But worldwide, the MPC Live is already powerful enough that it seems it’ll be the winner.

Who should be a little nervous? All the competition, clearly.

It’s hard not to feel Native Instruments have missed a major opportunity here. I can’t imagine anyone buying the flagship Maschine Studio when it lacks so much connectivity, let alone the need for tethering to a computer, especially with a standalone MPC Live hitting this price point. And ironically, while NI have through their history pioneered the use of native software, they could have taken that same native software and made it run standalone. They certainly could have shipped a Maschine that looked like this – and I would have been one of the first to buy it. But even as a devoted Maschine fan, I’m going to wonder about whether I really want to play live with a laptop when I could ditch it for an MPC with similar capabilities. The same is true of the Traktor line – there really is some truth to the resistance to DJs showing up with computers.

(Of course, that said, it’s a shame the new MPCs don’t support Ableton Link – at least not that I can see.)

Pioneer have their own market niche because their Toraiz sampler has sync capabilities with the CDJ. But since DJ/producers often differentiate between live acts and DJ sets, I expect a lot will choose to do a live set with an MPC and just use CDJs when DJing. That’s already the case with the Elektron machines you see so often in live sets.

Elektron probably have the least concern. Their user base is pretty loyal, and the Analog line sounds absolutely terrific. But even some would-be Elektron customers may decide a sample-based workflow and more DAW-style flexibility is desirable – without all the menu diving.

Even Ableton ought to have a look at this and wonder if the Push is going to stay as desirable as a performance solution.

Don’t get me wrong – there are still advantages to computer software. When it comes to more complex arrangements, I’m all about a big screen. And past leaks suggest the new Akai hardware won’t support plug-ins. So these machines for many producers will be about live performance. Then again, there’s nothing stopping you from using the MPCs with a computer for those contexts. The category this will clearly damage is the computer-plus-machine area — meaning things like Push and Maschine look less desirable.

I’ll definitely be keen to test this. It’s still down to software – despite the embedded context, that’s what you’re testing. And I’m curious to see how you would integrate this with studio workflows on the computer.

But long before NAMM, it seems we have the big NAMM story for producers.

Just remember – drum machines have no soul. 😉

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