Akai MX1000 & PM76
MIDI Master Keyboard/Piano Sound Board
Take a well-facilitated MIDI master keyboard and add a piano module and you have the basis of Akai's MX1000 - a "dumb" controller with a voice. Simon Trask plays and listens.
When is a MIDI controller keyboard not just a MIDI controller keyboard? When it's an Akai MX1000 fitted with a piano sound board - the first "dumb" controller with a voice.
MIDI controller keyboards promised much when they first appeared on the market back in the mid-'80s. Musicians, instead of being forced to add a new keyboard to their setups each time they wanted to add a new synth, could buy one keyboard instrument which itself made no sound but which was optimised for centralised control of other MIDI instruments. The principle was to build up a collection of MIDI sound modules around this controller.
Yet, while this MIDI modular concept has become the foundation of the modern MIDI setup both in the studio and on stage, dedicated MIDI controller keyboards have never really caught on in a big way.
The oft-quoted reason is simply that many musicians are unwilling to buy a keyboard instrument which has no sound-generating capability of its own - especially when they can get a sound-generating instrument for a similar price or less. No doubt the rise and rise of sequencer culture, and the corresponding decline of performance culture, has played its part in determining musicians' response to what has from the outset been a performance-orientated instrument.
Meanwhile, for those musicians who do want controller keyboard features but not necessarily a dedicated controller keyboard, synthesisers are increasingly adopting such features as multiple keyboard zones and multi-channel MIDI transmission. Korg's Wavestation, E-mu's Proteus MPS (reviewed last month) and Roland's forthcoming JV80 spring to mind. In fact, the Wavestation and the JV80 both offer eight keyboard zones and eight-channel MIDI transmission where dedicated controller keyboards more commonly offer four.
Akai - no strangers to the dedicated MIDI controller keyboard, having previously produced the MX73 (reviewed MT, December '86) and the MX76 (reviewed MT, May '89) - have tackled the silent keyboard problem with their latest controller, the MX1000, by providing an optional sampled piano board which can be fitted inside the instrument. The ten S1000-derived keyboard sounds of the PM76 board effectively turn the MX1000 into a digital piano - but one which has MIDI controller facilities found on no digital piano I can think of. Will this added dimension be enough to persuade musicians in the direction of Akai's new controller keyboard?
THE MX1000's 76-NOTE (E-G) weighted keyboard is sensitive to attack and release velocity, and channel aftertouch. Its dimensions - 50"(W) x 15"(D) x 4"(H) - coupled with its weight - just over 45lbs - and its solid build quality convey an impression of substance and serious intention. However, the familiar Akai light grey colouring makes a pleasant change from the more sober and sombre grey and black usually adopted by other manufacturers.
Akai have obviously paid much more attention to the design of the MX1000's casing than they did to the design of its predecessor's. The MX76 had, shall we say, some rough edges, but on the MX1000 Akai have ensured that just about every edge in sight is smoothly curved. They've also ditched the MX76's clumsy front-panel buttons in favour of smoother low-profile buttons which are much more satisfying to use; the front-panel sliders, meanwhile, have perhaps a little too much resistance, but they run smoothly enough. The MX1000 also looks more stylish than its predecessor, which is no bad thing.
The new controller's weighted keyboard action is nicely balanced, avoiding the exaggerated sense of weightiness which some piano-action keyboards have. But at the same time it's clearly more substantial than the standard unweighted fare you get on synths, while the key travel is, thankfully, deeper than that of the average 61-note synth keyboard. There's a slight sense of "flappiness" in the action, but it's not something I found offputting in performance. In fact, I would feel happy with the MX1000's keyboard as my main keyboard, though personally I find the keyboard on Cheetah's Master Series 770 controller slightly more appealing.
"Nicely balanced" is a description I would also apply to the MX1000's front panel - which is neither cluttered nor sparsely populated with controls. In addition to the standard pitch and mod wheels to the left of the keyboard, there are four performance sliders, four performance switches with built-in pinpoint LEDs to indicate on/off status, an 8 x 40-character backlit LCD under which are six "soft" buttons and a Panic button (pressing this causes MIDI note off commands for all notes on all 16 MIDI channels on all four Outs to be transmitted), a two-digit LED which displays the currently-selected Program number, up/down/left/right cursor buttons for manoeuvring around the LCD screen, data inc/dec buttons for parameter value setting, and two rows of ten buttons for selecting Bank and Program numbers or Program Chain step number. Gone are the Start and Stop/Continue buttons and tempo control slider of the MX76, which allowed you to control a sequencer remotely, and gone is the ability to select LCD pages from the bottom 18 white keys of the keyboard when in Edit mode and the ability to enter alphanumeric characters using the black keys.
Unfortunately, the backlit LCD on MT's review model wasn't - backlit, that is - and consequently required a desk lamp to be shone onto it to make it readable. Although this rather obvious fault was presumably an aberration of the review model, I mention it so as not to keep you in the dark.
MIDI controller keyboards often have more rear-panel sockets than the average synth, and the MX1000 is no exception. In addition to the standard one MIDI In and one MIDI Thru, there are four MIDI Out sockets (labelled A-D), a Program up/down footswitch input, a dedicated sustain pedal input, four programmable footswitch inputs and four programmable footpedal inputs. Disappointingly, the MX1000 isn't able to detect the polarity of connected footswitches on power-up - you can only use normal-closed types.
Additional rear-panel features are, along with the power on/off switch and AC input, a memory protect on/off switch, an LCD contrast adjust knob and a RAM card slot. The positioning of the card slot on the rear panel isn't as inconvenient as it may seem because the slot is located on the forward-sloping upper half of the rear panel, making it both visible and readily accessible when you're seated in front of the instrument.
"The MX1000 is straightforward yet it's not lacking in the sort of features and flexibility you'd expect of a decent MIDI controller."
With the PM76 piano board fitted, the MX1000 sports a few sockets you won't find on any other controller keyboard, namely Left and Right audio outputs and a headphones output, together with an output level adjust knob.
THE MX1000 IS a straightforward and accessible instrument yet it's not lacking in the sort of features and flexibility you'd expect of a decent MIDI controller keyboard. Physical front-panel operation is easy to grasp, as is the organisation of the LCD's software pages, while the pages themselves are informative, well designed, and make good use of graphics to convey their information clearly and concisely. For instance, the display of the Main (Program select) software page, which is centred around a keyboard graphic, tells you at a glance each Key Group's note range and its MIDI channel and MIDI Out assignments.
Clarity is assisted by the fact that Akai have ditched the bizarre terminology which afflicted the MX76. Libraries, Packets, Bullets and Shuffle Boards have given way to less colourful but more readily understandable terms like Program and Program Chain.
The MX1000 utilises the now widely-used "soft button" approach to LCD page selection. This and the logical organisation of its software pages allow you to find your way around its various features both quickly and easily. The Main page is never more than three button-presses away, and getting back to it is easy: keep pressing the F1 softkey (variously labelled Main or Quit, depending on your location in the page hierarchy) until you get there.
If you've edited any Program parameter(s), the MX1000 prompts you with the query This Edit Save? each time you reach the stage of exiting to the Main page. You can then select Cancel (return to editing), Yes or No using the F4, F5 and F6 softkeys. The good thing about this is that, because you're forced to make a choice, you can't forget to save an edited Program, while at the same time if you've made a mess of editing you can recall the stored parameter values with a single button-press. However, it can get tiresome if you need to keep switching between Key Group and Controller pages while editing, as you have to go via the Main page - which means you get the save prompt every time.
One aspect of editing on the MX1000 which is particularly helpful is the way you can select different Programs using the Bank and Program buttons while you're on any software page. For instance, you can be editing the Footswitch parameters for Program 12 one moment, and then almost instantaneously switch to editing the same parameters for Program 13, 19, 24, 36, 42... You get the This Edit Save? prompt if you've made any changes to a Program as opposed to having simply checked on its parameter settings, but you can be through this in an instant, safe in the knowledge that your edits have been stored.
The MX1000 allows you to create up to 100 Programs, and give each Program a name (of up to ten characters) which is then displayed in large letters on the Main page. Each Program in turn consists of four Key Groups, and each Key Group can be given an independent note range on the MX1000's keyboard (so Key Groups can be layered and overlapped) together with a MIDI transmit channel (1-16), MIDI Output assignment (A-D), MIDI patch change number (1-128; transmitted when the Program is selected), MIDI volume amount (off, 0-127; also transmitted when the Program is selected) transposition amount (±50 semitones in semitone steps), pitchbend range (0-127), modulation range (off, 1-10), sustain pedal enable/disable setting, aftertouch amount (off, 1-10), aftertouch offset (off, 1-10), MIDI In merge on/off setting, and velocity curve selection (preset curve 1-6, global User 1-8).
In addition, you can define up to four extra MIDI patch changes per Program, each with its own MIDI channel and MIDI Out assignments; these patch changes are transmitted whenever the Program is selected, so you could use them, for instance, for external changes which you want to align with a Program change, such as changing the effect on one or more signal processors or calling up a different multi-timbral configuration on a synth.
So that you don't have to remember which MIDI instruments are on which MIDI Outs and MIDI channels, the MX1000 includes a global System page which allows you to assign a five-character name (S1100, MPC60, M1R, D550) and an Output assignment (A, B, C or D) to each MIDI channel. Wherever you're required to select a MIDI channel on the MX1000's software pages, the name associated with the selected channel is shown; at the same time, the Output which you assigned to the channel is automatically selected - a useful time-saving feature. This system presumes that you're using different MIDI channels on different Outs; however, if you're not and you want to route, say, a Key Group to a different Out or more than one Out, you can override the default assignment.
Incoming MIDI performance data on all channels is routed through to the MX1000's MIDI Outs provided that MIDI In merge is enabled for at least one Key Group in the currently-selected Program, and that Key Group is routed to at least one MIDI Out. If each Key Group is routed to a different MIDI Out, you can limit the MIDI input to a specific Out. This system works well if you're routing another MIDI keyboard or other MIDI controller through the MX1000. However, if the input is from a MIDI sequencer which you're also recording into, you need to avoid routing the sequencer's output back to its input via the MX1000; with the controller keyboard's merging and routing system, you have to forgo one Key Group in order to do this.
The MX1000's velocity curve programming function is the most sophisticated I've come across, yet it's presented in a way which makes it very intuitive - again, through intelligent use of graphics. Basically it works on a graph principle, with the horizontal axis describing the input (MX1000 keyboard) velocity and the vertical axis describing the output (MIDI transmit) velocity. You can program any MIDI output velocity (1-128) for any keyboard input velocity (1-128), which means in effect that you can create any velocity curve you might want. You don't have to edit every velocity value - instead, you can edit selected values and the MX1000 will "join the dots" for you on the graph and set the MIDI velocity values accordingly.
"Libraries, Packets, Bullets and Shuffle Boards have given way to more readily understandable terms like Program and Program Chain."
Along with velocity curves, you can also create a Program-specific Key Follow curve and choose, per Key Group, a velocity offset value (+10) and upper and/or lower velocity limits (allowing you to create velocity splitpoints).
Settings for the MX1000's sliders, switches, footpedals and footswitches are Program-specific; also, the sliders and footpedals share the same settings (connecting a footpedal to the rear panel disables the corresponding slider), but the switches and footswitches are separately programmable.
You can assign any MIDI controller in the range 0-121 to each of the performance controllers. Meanwhile each slider/pedal can be used to transmit pitchbend or aftertouch and each switch and footswitch can be used to transmit a four-note chord or a MIDI patch change.
Output routing for the sliders and footpedals involves selecting one or more Key Groups for each slider/pedal. The MIDI data generated when you move the performance controllers is transmitted on the channel and Output(s) of the selected Key Groups; you can also select an extra MIDI transmit channel for each slider/pedal and route the output of this channel to one or more of the MIDI Outs. Remote control of instrument volumes from the sliders/pedals is one obvious application; the flexible output routing means that you can program volume sliders which affect individual sounds or groups of sounds.
Output routing for the front panel switches and the footswitches is more straightforward but less flexible: you simply assign a MIDI channel and one or more Outputs to each controller. As these channel and Output assignments can differ from those of the Key Groups on the keyboard, the switch performance controllers needn't have anything to do with the keyboard performance - something I'll return to soon.
The switches and footswitches transmit only minimum and maximum values when a MIDI controller is assigned to them - so, by assigning MIDI controller seven to one or more of these switches, you can use them to mute and unmute selected instrumental part(s). There are two trigger options for each switch and footswitch: they remain on or off for as long as you hold them down, or remain on or off until you next press them. In the muting example, the former works best for rhythmic muting effects while the latter works best for sectional muting.
If you have a mixer which implements MIDI-controlled muting via note ons and offs, you can use the chord triggering function mentioned earlier to mute and unmute mixer channels - individually and in groups using the MX1000's front-panel switches and footswitches. The MX1000 lets you program up to ten globally-selectable Chords consisting of from one to four notes each, so there's plenty of scope here, especially for combinations of individual and group channel muting.
You could also use the Chords to trigger sample loops, or patterns on some drum machines. If you select the on/off-until-next-press trigger option, the sample or pattern will loop continuously once you've triggered it, leaving your hands free to roam the keyboard.
Other possibilities include playing over Chord-triggered drone notes and, yes, triggering straight chords (as in harmonies). For chord sequences and tight, rhythmic chording, the on/off-while-held trigger option is the one to select. Incidentally, when you play in your Chords - on the logically-named Chord page - the MX1000 records both the notes and the velocity you played them with. Therefore you have control over the volume level of the Chord, and you can, for instance, accentuate a particular note in the Chord or determine how much you want the filter cutoff point to be opened up for each note.
Triggering chords from the front-panel switches and the footswitches isn't a substitute for playing them on the keyboard, it's a different way of working which generates its own characteristic feel and leads you along different creative paths. You can also find new demands being placed on your co-ordination once you start combining fingers and feet - and once you start pulling together the various possibilities I've mentioned - MIDI muting, MIDI-controlled audio muting, triggering sample loops and/or drum machine patterns, triggering drones, triggering chords... And playing on the keyboard at the same time, of course. Well, the MX1000 is a MIDI controller keyboard, and control is what it hands you. For the adventurous, there are many possibilities for live music creation which aren't just about playing on a keyboard in the traditional way.
"The MX1000's velocity curve programming function is the most sophisticated I've come across, yet it's also very intuitive."
Once you start getting into the possibilities of Chord triggering, ten Chords for 100 Programs hardly seems enough - ten Chords per Program would be nice. However, it is possible, with some practice, to play in a new Chord from the keyboard with one hand while triggering Chords with your feet or with the fingers of the other hand. The only thing you have to avoid is playing in a new Chord while the old one is being played back from one of the switches, because when you release the old Chord the MX1000 sends note offs for the new one - which leads to hung notes. Rapid recourse to the Panic button is the order of the day.
When you're playing on the keyboard, the MX1000 allows held notes to overlap Program changes. However, this very useful feature doesn't apply to held notes triggered from the controller's switches and footswitches, which are cut short as soon as you select a new Program - a shortcoming which I hope Akai will remedy in any software upgrade they may provide for the MX1000.
The MX1000'S System Setup page allows you to choose a MIDI receive channel (off, 1-16) for remote selection of the MX1000's Programs via MIDI, to choose whether or not the Reset All Controllers command (controller #121) should be transmitted by the MX1000 each time you select a new Program, and to choose whether or not a message will pop up in the LCD each time you move one of the performance controllers telling you what MIDI code the controller is generating and where it's going to.
Other System pages govern MIDI SysEx transmission and reception of MX1000 data (bulk transfer only), onboard Copying of Program data from one memory to another (All, Key Group, Controllers or Velocity Curves), bulk transfer of MX1000 data between onboard and RAM card memory, and the earlier-discussed labelling of MIDI channels.
System mode also provides access to MIDI receive and MIDI transmit monitor pages, with (translated) MIDI data scrolled across six lines from bottom to top of the LCD window; if you get confused about what's coming and going where, these two pages can be very useful.
The MX1000 allows you to create up to four Program Chains, each one of which can have up to 100 Steps - a Step consisting of one of the 100 Programs. You select Chain mode from the Main page by holding down the F1 softkey (Chain) for a second or so. Once you're in Chain mode, the Data inc/dec buttons allow you to step sequentially in either direction through the selected Chain, while for hands free operation you can use a single footswitch plugged into the rear-panel Program Up/Down jack to advance through the Steps or a dual footswitch to move in either direction. And, invaluably, you can move directly to any Step by tapping in its number using the Bank and Program buttons.
Chain programming is something you can pick up almost immediately. All it entails is scrolling through a list of Steps to select the required Step, scrolling through a list of Programs to select the required Program, then hitting the F5 softkey to Insert the Program at that Step. Then you select the next Step, scroll through the Program list to find the required Program, hit the F5 Softkey again, and so on. To change a Step setting you've already made, you just Delete the relevant Step and then Insert the required Program. It's easy enough, though a simple Replace command wouldn't have gone amiss.
The optional PM76 piano board provides ten multisampled sounds playable with 16-voice polyphony: Grand Piano, Upright Piano, Electric Pianos 1 and 2 (hard Rhodes-type and softer effected sound), Mellow Piano, Honky-Tonk Piano, Vibes, Cembalo, Pipe Organ and Jazz Organ. They're a well-chosen and nicely-balanced collection of quality sounds, selected for their general usefulness to the performing musician. You can play them either by selecting a special "stand-alone" Piano mode from the Main page or by integrating them into your Programs - though you can only use one at a time. The PM76 is, in effect, placed in the path of MIDI Output D, so to assign it to a Key Group you have to route the Key Group to Out D and set the transmit channel to the PM76's receive channel (which you program in the Piano mode).
The MX1000 is Akai's best MIDI controller keyboard to date, and is a fine example of the genre. While I had mixed feelings about the MX76 when it came out, I have no problems about recommending the MX1000. Although it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of Cheetah's significantly cheaper Master Series 770 controller (nor the 770's 88-note keyboard span), it does have a well chosen and well-implemented collection of features whose possible applications are well worth exploring (I'm thinking in particular of its many performance controllers). Thanks to a well thought-out user interface, it's also a very accessible instrument, not at all a daunting prospect. The optional PM76 board is a neat idea which could make the MX1000 a good keyboard for some musicians, but equally it could simply be an unnecessary expense for others.
There's a lot to be said for having a keyboard which is dedicated to the function of controlling (perhaps I should say marshalling) a MIDI setup - particularly when it's as effective on the job as Akai's new controller keyboard is. If you feel the need for a controlling influence in your musical life, try out the MX1000 for size - it could well fit your requirements.
Prices MX1000, £1199; PM76, £499; both prices include VAT.
More from Akai UK Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask