MIDI Master Keyboard
Akai's new MIDI master keyboard boasts a weighted six-octave keyboard and new terminology for its features. Simon Trask decides MIDI control is more than a simple matter of feel.
As your synth expanders and sampling modules pile up, a comprehensive controller keyboard becomes a necessity rather than a luxury. One of the latest is Akai's MX76.
THERE'S NO DOUBT about it, the master keyboard refuses to lie down. Most recent entries onto the market are Roland's A50 and A80, Cheetah's Master Series 7P and Akai's MX76.
Akai's keyboard is a sort of "big brother" to their earlier MX73. It's a solidly-constructed instrument, finished in Akai's familiar light grey, with a 76-note "piano-touch" keyboard (E-G) which can transmit attack and release velocity and channel aftertouch (but not poly aftertouch). It's a bouncy keyboard, but at the same time the keys have a deep travel and seem to bottom out quite suddenly, which can be a bit hard on the fingertips.
The front panel offers four assignable MIDI slide controllers and four assignable MIDI switches, MIDI Start and Stop/Cont buttons together with a tempo control slider for remote control of a sequencer or drum machine, an Edit button and a numeric keypad. The display "centrepiece" of the MX76's front panel is a generous 40-character, 8-line backlit LCD window with adjustable contrast, underneath which are four "softkeys" for selecting functions which differ with each page display. It's good to see these "new generation" LCD windows becoming increasingly common on MIDI keyboard instruments and expanders, as they allow a much more intelligently-structured and accessible user interface.
When you switch in the MX76's Edit button, pressing any one of the bottom 18 white notes on the keyboard will select its associated Edit page in the LCD window (no note value will be sent over MIDI, of course). The page associated with each key is clearly labelled on the front panel immediately next to that key. As soon as you press one of these 8 white notes, the page select function is cancelled and the keyboard reverts to its normal play status. It's a clever system because it's so simple, and because it gets you doing what you feel most comfortable with: playing notes on a keyboard. Additionally, the MX76's black keys can be used as a means of entering alphanumeric characters for names, which again proves to be a quick method of entry.
On the MX76's rear panel you'll find one MIDI In and two MIDI Outs, four footswitch and four footpedal inputs, a dedicated sustain pedal input, Library inc/dec footswitch input (you'll be discovering plenty about libraries soon) and a slot for an Akai BR16 RAM card. A MIDI In on a keyboard instrument which makes no noises of its own might seem odd at first glance, but it has two uses: one is to receive SysEx data dumps of its memories which you have previously dumped to, say, a sequencer; the other is to receive MIDI data from, say, another MIDI instrument, merge it with notes played on the MX76's keyboard and send the result via the MIDI Outs. In a live situation you could have a shoulder-slung remote keyboard plugged in on a long MIDI lead and make occasional forays to the front of the stage. Or in the studio, say, you could have another MIDI musician (guitarist/wind player/percussionist) plugged in and record duets into a sequencer.
The two MIDI Outs are independently addressable. This allows you to route a merged signal and to send start/stop/continue and tempo information (for remote sequencer control) via one or the other or both MIDI Outs. A neat practical feature is the inclusion of back-panel clips for each MIDI socket, allowing you to secure your MIDI cables and not worry about them being pulled loose.
TO USE THE MX76 is to enter into a world of Libraries, Packets, Memos, Shuffle Boards and - would I lie to you? - Bullets. If MT ran a Ridiculous Parameter Name of the Month competition, Bullet would shoot off with the prize for May. What I want to know is this: why do manufacturers feel the urge to reinvent the wheel where parameter names are concerned?
I'll leave you to ponder on the mysteries of Akal's terminology for a moment, and instead turn to what is probably the most important point to remember about the MX76, namely that it has four Keygroups (zones) which can be spread across the 76-note keyboard in any configuration. Each of these Keygroups can have a large number of parameters assigned to it, and it is these which you program when you select the 18 Edit pages. The page display in each case lists the four Keygroups and the associated parameters relevant to that page, while the four softkeys take on functions specific to the current page. Each page clearly tells you, in the bottom two lines of the LCD window, what the current function of each softkey is.
Now back to the reading room. Having fought my way through the wearily familiar Japanese obfuscations of the MX76's manual and tried the old trial-and-error method, I came to the following simple conclusions. A Library is a memory which stores a "snapshot" of all the parameter settings for each of the MX76's four Keygroups. You can store up to 50 Libraries onboard the MX76, and a further IO0 (as two Banks of 50) on an Akai BR16 16K RAM card.
A Packet is simply a chain of Libraries (stop sniggering in the back row); there are four Packets onboard the MX76, while a further eight (two Banks of four) can be stored on the BR16 RAM card together with the Libraries. Another storage option is a bulk SysEx transfer via MIDI of the complete internal memory of the MX76; this can be initiated from the front panel, and takes about 70 seconds. As we've come to expect from Akai, there is no information in the manual on the master keyboard's SysEx data format.
Each Packet consists of up to 20 steps (confusingly called Sequences), with each step consisting of one Library. You can step through a Packet using the front-panel Up/Down buttons, or a footswitch, or footswitch pair, plugged into the Lib Up/Down socket on the master keyboard's rear panel. The Shuffle Board is the Edit page in which you chain Libraries together within each of the four Packets. Additionally, the MX76 allows you to write a Memo of up to five lines of 40 characters to go with each Packet; it's a thoughtful touch.
The Bullet (of which you can program up to 50 in all) allows you to program combinations of a MIDI patch change, a pitchbend pattern and a chord of up to four notes to be triggered off the four front-panel switches and the four footswitches. Each one of these can be assigned to any MIDI channel, so for instance by hitting one of the four front-panel switches you could send a patch change to a reverb unit on one channel and trigger a sound effect on your sampler on another channel. Then you could hit another switch and pitchbend one instrument up a fraction so that it played slightly out of tune with another sound, while playing a snare rhythm on your drum machine from a third switch. OK, so I'm getting carried away here.
EACH KEYGROUP WITHIN a Library can be given its MIDI note range, which can be any area of the keyboard and can be set completely independently of the other three Keygroups. Therefore you can have any texture from a single Keygroup spread across the whole keyboard to a four-way split or a four-way layer. Each keygroup can transmit on its own MIDI channel, of course, and can send out its own MIDI patch change when the Library is selected. You can also set a transposition value (up to +/-36 semitones) for each Keygroup, which can be much more convenient than trying to transpose patches on your slave instruments.
Individual Keygroups can also be assigned one of eight velocity response curves as well as a sensitivity value, while sensitivity is merely turned on or off per Keygroup. Other functions allow you to selectively enable and disable pitchbend, modulation and sustain for each Keygroup - so that, for instance, where you have two sounds layered across the keyboard you could apply sustain to one but not to the other.
A particularly positive feature of the MX76 is the way it allows you to assign names to so many features. For instance, you can assign a name to each MIDI channel within a Library, which allows you to indicate, say, which of your MIDI instruments are assigned to each channel. Libraries and Packets can also be assigned names, so for instance you could name a Library after its intended position in a Packet, say, verse 1, chorus (you can have up to seven characters, so nothing too elaborate).
Then there are the front-panel switches and sliders, and the footswitches and footpedals, all of which are programmable per Library to transmit whatever MIDI controller codes suit your purpose, on whatever MIDI channels are appropriate. One of the most obvious uses for the four sliders, for instance, is to send out MIDI volume data (controller seven) to each of the four instruments you're controlling over MIDI - if you were layering up to four sounds, for instance, you could balance them dynamically from the sliders. You needn't just send controller data on your instrument channels, though; if you were routing one or more instruments through, say, a digital reverb which could lengthen its reverb time in response to volume data, you could experiment with all sorts of interesting effects.
THE MX76 STRIKES me as being a solid, sober instrument which performs well in what it sets out to achieve. In getting to grips with it operationally I felt that it was a bit too awkward for what it actually allows you to do, though once (if) you get beyond the stumbling-block stage into a degree of familiarity, Akai's new master keyboard is quite a pleasing controller to use. The front panel is economical yet well-designed for its purpose; the keyboard-based selection of Edit pages is a successful touch; the LCD window is clear, informative and easy on the eyes; but the front-panel sliders are a bit tacky, and don't travel very smoothly.
Of course, you can have the most sophisticated control facilities in the world but if you hate the keyboard, what's the point? That's one area where Oberheim's Systemizer scores: you can use its sophisticated control facilities with whatever keyboard you want. I wasn't over-enamoured of the MX76's piano-style keyboard when I first tried it (I've certainly played what I would consider better), and though I've grown more accustomed to it I'm still not sure that I'd want to make it my main keyboard. Still, touch is a personal thing (if you feel what I mean), and so is control and I'm going to stop right here before I get into trouble.
Price £1299 including VAT