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The New Master

Akai MX1000 Master Keyboard

Ease of programming and an optional plug-in piano sound board should ensure popularity for the Akai MX1000. Julian Colbeck explains why it makes all the difference.

Akai are not new to master keyboards. The MX73 was modestly successful back in 1986 when the first flurry of master keyboard activity took place, but 1988's MX76 was notably unsuccessful, and another keyboard announced that year wilted under the harsh lights of its inaugural NAMM and Frankfurt trade show appearances and has never been heard of since. The MX1000, on the other hand, is most unlikely to suffer the same fate. In a field that it is admittedly strewn with falters it looks every ounce a winner.

The design, if not radically different from earlier Akai master keyboards in that it is Akai-grey, has a small panel of four assignable sliders and buttons, and a large central display, seems to have been finished better, and feels far more approachable.

The MX1000 is only as large as a 76-note instrument has to be. It is slim, almost imperceptibly wedged shape, and shallow. To the left of the keyboard are centre-detented pitch and mod wheels. The large-format screen is S1000 blue and is controlled by the six soft buttons underneath, plus cursor and data keys.

The keyboard is weighted, firm to the touch, and reasonably positive. It has a hint of sponginess to it but then I'm picky about actions and this is a very personal observation. The keyboard also responds to (channel) aftertouch.

Master keyboards have failed to be as popular as they might for a number of reasons, the most obvious being people's reluctance to buy a 'dumb' instrument, ie. one with no sound-producing capabilities. In the main master keyboards have also been notoriously difficult to program.

Akai have clearly taken both points on board. In a move that could revolutionise the whole concept of master keyboards, the MX1000 can be fitted with a PM76 Piano Sound Board, which contains 10 S1000 sampled pianos culled from the presets seen on Akai's range of dedicated digital pianos last year. In a matter of minutes, and in exchange for £499, you don't have a dumb keyboard controller anymore, you have a high quality digital piano plus.

Akai have also tackled the second sticking point, that of complexity. Although the MX1000 has comparable features to the likes of Roland's A50/80, it is noticeably easier to program. In fact I'd go as far as to say it is quite the most direct and accessible master keyboard I have yet come across. Programming revolves around the concept of keygroups, something that will instantly be familiar to all Akai sampler users. You can program up to four keygroups, each capable of storing a MIDI transmit channel, program change, and MIDI Out port (there are four, A-D), along with transpose information, pitch and mod wheel ranges, sustain, aftertouch range, choice of velocity curve, key follow adjustment, preset volume, keyboard range, and program name.

The main menu displays each program's name in giant letters, plus a graphic of the keyboard so you can see each keygroup's range. Also on show are each keygroup's port assignment and MIDI channel. From either an on-stage or studio perspective this seems an ideal amount of info to be presented with.

Programming is page driven, and blindingly simple. From the main page you can go straight into the sub-menus of chain programming, keygroup setting, control, system, card, or piano (if connected).

You'll probably spend most time in the first keygroup page where basic channel, program change, MIDI Out, and transpose are set. The only minor problem for me came when trying to find out how to link, by name, a MIDI channel to an instrument — something I could see the MX1000 clearly allowed from the status of the instrument as it came from Akai UK.

A quick flip through the manual revealed that this parameter lurked quite deep in the system pages. Here you can set up not only default channel-to-instrument settings, but channel to MIDI Out ports too. Good idea. In other words once you have tailored the MX1000 to your own rig, programming should be astoundingly quick.

The only point at which you're likely to do some serious lingering is at the velocity curves, where you have a choice of using one of the six preset curves, or creating a custom curve which is then storable in one of the eight user-definable locations. There is welcome interaction between keyboard and screen for velocity curve setting, and inspection of this feature can not only help breathe some new life into your old sounds, but is one of the few way in which you can substantially customise the PM76 sounds — more of which anon.

In general, though, programming is lightning fast, and it's fast because the software is so well written. Instances of thoughtfulness and cunning are everywhere: when you waggle one of the assignable sliders, say, a layover sub-screen pops up to show its current status (this feature can also be switched off, if you get tired of it); you can move from one program's edit pages to the same edit page in another program simply by dialling up that other program using the 10 numeric keys; the assignable sliders default to keygroup I-IV volume, allowing create a 4-sound mix in seconds; you can copy programs, so minor substitutions to a series of program will not have to involve starting from scratch every time.

Constructing a basic MIDI patch, though swift and thorough, is not the MX1000's only strength. There are plenty of interesting bonusses. One such is a 'chord' feature. 10 4-note chords can be stored and subsequently triggered by an assignable panel switch (or footswitch). Live, this will be a superb facility, allowing you to trigger (in either hold or momentary modes by the way) sustained musical sounds, samples, effects, without interfering with your actual keyboard playing.

Another bonus, also found in the system pages is Reception/Transmission Monitor, whereby incoming or outgoing (toggled simply by switching between F3 and F4 soft keys) MIDI data can be viewed, scrolling in real time. Because the feature is so easy to access, I suspect it will be used extensively, to check incoming sequencer data, velocities, unnecessary data...

The most dramatic bonus is of course the option of fitting the PM76 digital piano card. The acoustic pianos, grand and upright, are quite soft and classical compared to something like a standard M1 piano. The first of a pair of electric pianos is a good, generic electric piano, the second a wonderfully jangly number that was one of my personal favourites from the PG series. There's a plucky, wobbly tone called Mellow, a honky tonk, excellent vibes, a cembalo (harpsichord), brilliant pipe organ, and finally a generic, clicky, jazz organ. The tones are 16-voice polyphonic.

If you have a PM76 fitted you can use the MX1000 in a special piano mode, whereby you have instant access to the 10 piano sounds without having to fiddle about with MIDI assignments at all. Pianists looking for a piano-based instrument with quality master keyboard facilities are thus catered for quite well, and the MX1000 could therefore cost the Roland FP8 the odd sale.

Out of piano mode, a fitted PM76 behaves exactly like any externally connected sound module, except that it defaults to MIDI Out D. The sounds are essentially preset, though of course they can be tweaked to an extent using the velocity curve and various modulation parameters. Edits cannot be stored in the PM76 as such, but will be saved along with all other program data in one of the 100 programs.

The only slight reservation I have about the MX1000 is its restriction to four keygroups, which may be limiting for those using a lot of samples or who create lavish multi-patches at every opportunity. No doubt the designers, who seem to have a fixation with the number four (four sliders, four buttons, four footswitches, pedals, MIDI Outs) couldn't bear to deviate when it came to keygroups.

This notwithstanding, the MX1000 has to be the friendliest master keyboard in existence, and, considering also its substantial power and flexibility, it surely sets the standard by which other master keyboards will be measured in 1992.

Further information

MX1000 £1,199 Inc VAT.
PM76 piano board £499 inc VAT.

Akai UK, (Contact Details).

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Mar 1992

Gear in this article:

Keyboard - MIDI/Master > Akai > MX-1000

Review by Julian Colbeck

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