Akai Professional MPK Road 88 Keyboard Controller
By Phil O'Keefe |
A new Road partner for your laptop and MIDI modules
It used to be that a keyboardist needed to take a controller keyboard and a collection of modules with them whenever they wanted to perform live, but that paradigm has been rapidly changing. Today you're just as likely to take along a laptop computer and control its virtual synths with an external keyboard controller. In fact, some keyboard controllers now omit traditional 5-pin DIN MIDI ports and only offer USB connections, which limits what you can use with them and makes taking along a computer a necessity. Akai Professional doesn't think you should have to make a choice between virtual and physical sound sources, and their new controller, the MPK Road 88, offers a feature set that allows you to use whatever you want with it, which, along with its integrated case design and newly designed keyboard action will make it an attractive choice for many musicians. Let's take a look at the details.
What You Need To Know
- The Akai Professional MPK Road 88 is a full-sized keyboard controller with an integrated Tolex-covered case that is designed for travel.
- The travel case is very retro-cool, and reminds me of some vintage keyboards that had somewhat similar cases. You simply release three latches and the top of the case lifts off the hinges at the back to reveal the keyboard underneath. It's no substitute for a full flight case, but for travel to and from local gigs it will offer plenty of protection. In fact, it will be all that many people will ever need, yet it doesn't add too much additional bulk or weight.
- The MPK Road 88 measures 51.7" W x 14.9" D x 5.2" H, and has a shipping weight of 67 pounds - it's about 53 pounds, out of the shipping box. It's heavy, but not so much that the average person can't manage to handle it by themselves with a bit of effort. A carrying handle is built into the center "top" of the case (which is actually the rear panel when it's opened up), and four feet are located at the "bottom" (which is actually the "front" from the player's perspective when it's open) when it's all packed up - with two feet on the keyboard's case and two on the removable cover.
- The Model-A premium 88-key velocity sensitive hammer-action keyed is an Akai Professional exclusive - you won't find this keybed on any other controller. Akai Professional says they spent two years doing the research and design on it, and it shows - it's a very solid and expressive feeling keyboard. The Model-A keybed also features channel aftertouch.
- Nice feeling, heavy-duty mod and pitch bend wheels are located to the left of the keybed. The pitch bend wheel is spring-loaded.
- Most of the Akai Professional MPK Road 88's connectors are mounted on a small inset panel on the back panel.
- The MPK Road 88 doesn't have any onboard sound generator. It's designed to control MIDI keyboards and hardware modules, and / or to work in conjunction with your laptop or other virtual instrument-equipped computer. To that end, it has both a MIDI over USB interface for connecting to your computer as well as traditional 5-pin DIN MIDI in and out jacks, so the Akai Professional MPK Road 88 is equally well suited for use with external MIDI hardware, without requiring a computer.
- Interestingly, it also has a built-in USB computer audio interface. While the interface doesn't have any line or mic inputs, it does have two pairs of stereo outputs - Main and Aux. These are on balanced 1/4" TRS jacks located on the left side of the rear panel when viewed from the rear.
- The built-in audio interface means there's no need to bring a separate interface for your computer along with you to gigs - you can just use the one that's built into the MPK Road 88. It's one less thing to have to pack and take with you - and one less thing that can be accidentally left behind.
- The latency performance of the onboard audio interface is quite good - I was able to reliably use it with a 128 sample buffer, which results in 2.9ms of latency, with no hiccups or glitches.
- Also on the rear panel you'll find a trio of pedal inputs - two for optional continuous controller pedals and one for an optional sustain footswitch.
- The USB port provides bi-directional connection with your laptop or other computer. It carries both MIDI and audio over the USB 2 connection. This is class-compliant, so you don't need to install any drivers in order to use it with your DAW - just connect it and select the MPK Road 88 from your DAW's MIDI and / or audio setup menus.
- A jack for connecting an optional 6V 1A DC power adapter is located on the rear panel, along with a power on / off switch, which works whether you're using the external power supply or bus-powering the MPK Road 88 over the USB connection.
- While the recessed rear panel connections are open to the world and are not covered by the removable part of the case, the location of the handle makes this part of the case face "upwards" when it's packed up, and a removable plastic panel is included that can be installed over the entire area to keep dust and debris out of the connectors and ports when traveling. The only other included accessories are a short USB cable, the user's manual, a software download card and safety and warranty information.
- A 1/4" headphone jack on the front panel (below the mod and pitch wheels) mirrors the main outputs.
- There are six backlit buttons mounted on the left side of the top panel, and these controls allow you to scroll through presets, split the keyboard, transpose it, set the MIDI transmission channel, and turn various features of the MPK Road 88 on and off, such as the wheels, the MIDI and USB ports and the various controller pedals. With two different Setups available (A and B), it's possible to switch between two different customized setup configurations at the push of a button.
- A single rotary volume control knob adjusts the output levels of the main, aux and headphone outputs.
- The keyboard can be restored to the factory default settings by powering it up while depressing the Transpose, Setup A and Setup B buttons simultaneously.
- Akai includes a nice software bundle with the MPK Road 88, including their VIP 3.1 VST host for Macs and PCs, and three VST / AU virtual instruments from AIR Music Technology: Mini Grand, DB-33, and Velvet. Velvet is a very high-quality electric piano VI, while Mini Grand and DB-33 provide nice piano and tone wheel organ sounds, respectively. I did have some issues with the installation and licenses for Mini Grand and DB-33, and they were not installed automatically when I installed the rest of the software. An online chat with Akai Professional's customer service resulted in the licenses being deposited to my iLok account, and I'm told that they are working to get the software license and installer glitches rectified, and that they hope to have it taken care of soon.
- Your action preferences may differ from mine - as always, I'd recommend playing one for yourself before deciding whether it's right for you or not; I'm not the best keyboardist on the planet, and I'm pretty ham-fisted, so I like a somewhat heavier action, which I feel the Road 88 has; if you prefer a lighter feeling hammer action, you may like the MPK Road 88's action less than I do.
- There's no way to adjust the velocity curve or velocity sensitivity directly from the keyboard itself to compensate for players with a softer or heavier playing style. Akai says they're working to have this added to the software controls, but in the meantime, the velocity response can be adjusted via MIDI sysex commands. See the Resources section below for the details. EDITOR'S NOTE: As of June 4 2019 Akai Professional has released MPK Road 88 Editor V1.2.0 for both Mac and PC that gives users the ability to adjust the velocity curves for both black and white keys. This can be found in the editor under "Global." The updated editor can be downloaded by using the download link on this page.
- The ideal placement of mod and pitch bend wheels is subjective; while I like where they're located on the MPK Road 88, some players prefer them to be located above the keybed - especially on an 88 key controller - since that placement tends to shorten the product's overall length.
- It's not unduly heavy considering the nature of the product, but it does have significant weight - a heavy-duty stand is recommended. Additional handles on the two side ends would also be a nice addition to make it easier for two people to share the load and carry it together.
- No power supply is included, although the compatible 6V DC 1A center-positive plug-wired MP6-1 power supply is available from Akai and other retailers (including Amazon) as an optional purchase. If you're going to be using the MPK Road 88 with a computer this is a non-issue since it can be bus-powered over USB, but if you want to use it stand-alone to control external MIDI keyboards and modules sans computer, you'll need to purchase the external power adapter.
This is a product with a lot going for it, and considerable promise… but I think it still has room for a bit of refinement before it realizes its full potential. On the plus side, the integrated case is brilliant and hearkens back to the vintage stage pianos from the 1970s. True, it's got some weight to it, but it's a lot lighter than a flight case or an old Fender Rhodes, and unlike that classic, it is possible to move it around and set it up by yourself, although an extra pair of handles on both ends would be a nice addition. With both USB MIDI and traditional 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O the Akai Professional MPK Road 88 is ready to work with external MIDI hardware and soft synths alike, although you'll need that optional external power supply if you want to use it without a computer. The multi-output onboard sound card means one less thing you'll need to pack along, and the performance of it was very good, with low latency and very good sound quality overall. While the MPK Road 88 was obviously designed with travel and live performance in mind, it works equally well as a studio keyboard controller. It showed up as a MIDI controller in Pro Tools even before I installed any of the bundled software, and it works very well as a master controller in the studio. The flat top panel isn't really large enough to set your laptop or another keyboard controller on, but it does provide space for additional MIDI pad and fader controllers if those are something you want to add to your setup.
The software bundle is supposed to include AIR Music Technology's DB 33, Mini Grand and Velvet, although these may not show up in your Akai user account - if they don't, contact their customer service for assistance. All three of these are very high quality plugins that provide the kind of basic bread and butter sounds that many players will appreciate, and with the very capable and feature-rich VIP 3.1 VST host that's also included, you have the ability to host many other virtual instruments, and create complex setups and set lists. I did have some issues with getting the software authorized - upon registration, only VIP 3 was available in my Akai Professional user account, but Akai's customer support was excellent and took care of me quickly. Hopefully the software package issues will be rectified soon.
Feel is subjective, and while the action is a bit on the heavy side, I really enjoyed playing the MPK Road 88. All of which is fine for me, but may not be for you, so play one if you can first and judge for yourself. My single biggest complaint is the inability to adjust the velocity response curve for different playing styles from the bundled software and the keyboard's top panel controls. This results in a keyboard that is less adjustable to the individual's personal touch than what I'd like to see, and will no doubt frustrate some early adopters of this otherwise very nice MIDI controller. The MIDI sysex commands do offer a work-around, but it's more complex than many users will feel comfortable with. Akai has promised to make some adjustments and add this essential feature soon; possibly by the time you read this - when they do, the Akai Professional MPK Road 88 is destined to become a modern-day classic; it's a very capable road warrior that a lot of keyboardists are going to fall in love with. -HC-
Want to discuss the Akai Professional MPK Road 88 Keyboard Controller or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Keys, Synths & Samplers forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Akai Professional MPK Road 88 Keyboard Controller ($899.00 "street")
Akai Professional's product web page
You can purchase the Akai Pro MPK Road 88 Keyboard Controller from:
Velocity Curve Adjustment via MIDI Sysex Commands:
The velocity curve can be adjusted by sending the following messages:
White key velocity curve:
F0 47 00 42 0A 00 01 XX F7
Black key velocity curve:
F0 47 00 42 0B 00 01 XX F7
Where the value XX is the curve type. Default is linear:
00 = Linear
01 = Exp 1
02 = Exp 2
03 = Exp 3
04 = Log 1
05 = Log 2
06 = Log 3
The overall sensitivity of the keys can also be adjusted with this message. Default is 50:
White key sensitivity:
F0 47 00 42 0C 00 01 YY F7
Black key sensitivity:
F0 47 00 42 0C 00 01 YY F7
Where YY is a value from 00 to 64 in hex.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.