Review: Akai APC40 MK2 First Look

The original Akai APC40 is one of the rare breed of products in the computer music age to achieve iconic status. Launched in 2009, the APC40 (followed by its more compact sibling, the APC20) was, along with the Novation Launchpad, the first dedicated, plug-and-play Ableton Live controller to hit the mainstream market. Five years later, Akai are releasing a re-imagining of the original APC40, the Mk2. Will it be as widely adopted as its forebear? We spent some time with it to try to find out.

Reviewed: Akai APC40 MK2
Expected Street Price: $399
Released: Available now in the DJTT webstore


The Good:

  • Cheaper and more portable than the original model
  • New RGB pads are very cool
  • Bus powered

The Bad:

  • Doesn’t feel as solid as the mk1
  • No new ‘creative’ features

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

apc-40-mk2-vs-apc-40
Old APC40 (left) vs new APC40MK2 (right)

Anyone who has spent time with an original APC40 (and liked it) will certainly be comforted by just how similar the new version is. Yes, the layout is a little different, and there are a couple of new features, but overall in functionality terms, the Mk2 is just that; a revision of the mk1.

The APC40 Mk2 remains very much a ‘live’ controller, designed purely for playback of clips in Live’s session view. There are very few concessions to studio use here; no way to input notes, no step sequencer. This model is very clear in it’s purpose, and that’s rather refreshing in a market so often crowded with ’Swiss Army Knife’ products.

The 8×5 matrix of buttons for launching clips is the most noticeable difference. Now fully RGB capable, they allow proper colour feedback of all the myriad assignable colours within Live itself. On the one hand, that is a wonderful development, allowing users to colour-code different clips to their own taste, reducing the need to look at the screen.

On the other hand, though, the way to tell if a pad is active, and playing, now, is that the illumination gently pulses. That’s ok in a very dark club space, but if you’re using the Mk2 in a lighter environment (daylight, for example) it can be quite hard to see at a glance exactly which clip is playing in any particular column.

On balance, the benefits offered by the RGB pads do outweigh the issue of clarity; it’s a massive leap forward from the old 3 colour system, but you should keep it in mind if you perform at a lot of daytime events.

OTHER NEW APC 40 MK2 FEATURES

APC-40mk2crossfader

There are a few other new features that have made their way to the Mk2:

  • A dedicated tempo control knob joins the Tap Tempo and Nudge buttons, which should make mixing your Live set into a DJ set a little easier.
  • Channels can be assigned to the crossfader, either side, on the fly, and there’s a button for Session Record, a new feature which appeared in Live 9.
  • The Clip Stop buttons are now recessed, making them less prone to accidental activation.
  • The 8 endless rotary knobs, (previously sat on the top right of the controller) to control pans and sends (and have a user assignable mode too), have been relocated to directly above the channel strips. This is a much more logical setup, and as they are endless rotaries with LED ring lighting, will immediately adjust to match their mode, or channel as you navigate around your Live set.

That ease of use is similarly reflected in the Device Control section, again with 8 rotaries, along with buttons to navigate through different devices, lock control to a single device, and switch them on and off. All good stuff, and using it reminds you why the original APC40 did prove to be so popular; there’s smart design going on here.

One big benefit over the original APC40 is that the Mk2 is powered solely over USB. There’s not even an optional power supply. That’s quite a step up from the original, which required a fairly hefty wall-wart at all times, and makes the Mk2 a much more portable solution.

APC 40 MK2 BUILD & SIZE

APC40MKII_angle_web_700x438

Speaking of portability, the Mk2 is actually quite a bit smaller than the original, whilst, as it loses the rather superfluous ‘wings’ of the earlier model, there is generally more space for the controls.

It’s a touch narrower, around 3 inches shorter front to back, and, as it has a completely flat profile, not as tall overall, by around an inch. It’s also not far off half the weight of the old one, perhaps due to the completely plastic nature of the the casing now. It still feels well built, and sturdy, but doesn’t quite exude the ‘tank-like’ feeling of the mk1. In general though, the increased portability feels like a reasonable payoff for that.

WHAT’S STILL MISSING?

The main things one might look for in a controller dedicated to Ableton Live, which aren’t found in the APC40 Mk2, are all related to MIDI creation, really. The pads aren’t velocity sensitive, so even if Akai did offer a Note Mode, as found on the APC20, you wouldn’t be able to be very expressive with them. There’s no step sequencer, either, as found on the competing Ableton Push (also made by Akai). The APC really is designed just for playing back existing clips, and mixing them. Anything much beyond that, you’ll need a secondary controller.

One feature which has always seemed to be a missing link in the APC range is a lack of motorised faders. Yes, they would add to the cost, and weight of the device, but they do make a massive difference to some people. Ableton’s takeover modes go some way to negating the need for them, but it’s worth being clear – if you need motorised faders, the Mk2 isn’t for you.

WRAP UP

The APC40 Mk2 feels like a natural evolution of the original model, bringing it up to date smoothly. Users of the old APC40 will feel right at home here, whilst enjoying the nice new design touches. Anyone who was put off by the lack of ‘creation’ options before won’t find anything new here to get them excited, but considering what this controller is designed to do – control Ableton Live in a live environment, it achieves that superbly. It’s really fun and intuitive to work with, and feels like it will last. A worthy successor, especially considering it is launching at $399, a full $200 less than the original price of the mk1.

The Push is $599, so you’ll really need to consider how much you need the clip creation features of the Push before choosing between the two for live use. For playback of clips, and control of devices in Ableton Live, the APC40 Mk2 serves its purpose superbly.

BONUS REVIEWS: APC MINI & APC KEY 25

Along with the APC40 Mk2, Akai have added a couple of super-portable extra units to the APC range.

APCmini_ortho_web_lg_700x438

The APC Mini ($99 in the DJTT webstore) looks like a shrunken version of the Mk2, with the now familiar 8×5 grid of pads (just very small), with equally diminutive recessed, low profile faders below. The faders can be quickly assigned to different functions with dedicated buttons, and clever use of a shift key allows the Mini to pull off a lot more than you might imagine for such a tiny device.

APCKey25_ortho_web_lg_700x438

The APC Key 25 ($129 in the DJTT webstore)  has an even smaller 8×5 grid, and all the same controls, but instead of faders, you get a set of 8 knobs (not endless), and a compact 25-key keyboard.

Ultimately, these mini devices didn’t get our blood pumping like the APC40 Mk2, but we didn’t expect them to; they are designed to be used on the move, or as part of a bigger setup, and they do that job very well. Both feature 3 colour LED clip launch pads, rather than RGB, but those pads are just big enough to be usable. Perfect for practicing, or recording mixes whilst on a train or sat in an airport, really. Add in the fact that you can use any combination of the APC range together in one Ableton Live rig, and at $129 for the Key 25, and $99 for the Mini, they both seem like a good deal.

  • Unreallystic

    So this has been out for a while now and some reviews I’ve come across have mentioned that the design isn’t very robust, it breaks pretty easily (faders specifically), can anyone verify/validate? I’ve been thinking of getting one to pair with ,my Push, but its a steep price IMO for the functionality, especially if I need to get a warranty ON TOP because it breaks easy.

  • dmyra

    Now its been like 2 years, i’ve had my unit since then, and i like it. seems like since release it hasnt been loved by the community as much as the mk1. there are very few mods or anything. kind meh

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  • I am currently building an extension to the APC remote script that’ll add a Step Sequencer, modeled on the Push.

    We can’t really use it for drums or keyboards (no velocity), but it’s great for sequencing.

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  • Kevin Reynolds

    Really feeling the size and bus powered updates on this one. I travel and play live with the MK1 all the time but I never got why it needed a wall wart and those silly wings on the side. The daytime color issue is a tough one to get around, played recently with Push outside here in Detroit and I couldn’t tell what was going on. Had to look at laptop which defeats what I like to do. Maybe they could do a software update for a “daytime mode” where the pads light up only when a clip is active, regardless of color? This will help in summertime gigs for sure.

  • is it just me or did the old APC look way more robust and “music” like than this newer one ?

    • J Crenshaw

      Its just you? I dunno. Clunky over compensating package design, and 6 extra inch case for the the 1/4inch PCB board without any extra sturdiness.

      I mean knocking this design is like saying the Ableton Push isnt musical. All a matter of perception I guess.

      Dreaded these things before, now I’m seriously considering adding one to my live setup.

    • Jacob Stadtfeld

      I’m a fan of the old design, both in terms of sturdiness and style, and in terms of layout. The pan/send knobs make sense at the top, but moving the transport, tempo, and other mode controls to the top just puts the device knobs in an awkward place.

  • Holiday

    Novation Launch Control XL has 3 rows of knobs over 8 channels which is nice if you want to tweak EQ or other parameters directly inline. I never liked the side knobs of the APC 40. The APC 40 does have a crossfader and an extra master fader though. Budget-wise you could get a Launch Control XL + Launch Control + Launchpad Mini for roughly the cost of the new APC 40.

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  • chris

    i don’t like those haptic feeling on this black plastic
    btw; this is made of oil, and we have to economise, otherwise we have no more condoms

  • coolout

    Also worth mentioning are 3rd party mappings like J74 and Nativekontrol that add additional features to these types of controllers. The NativeKontrol APC40 mapping added a scale note mode, chord triggering, and stuff that even stuff Push doesn’t do like using the RGB buttons for live clip chopping or turning the buttons into VU meters. I’m sure Stray is working on the MK2 APC controllers.

    I’ve also been using the J74 isomorphic keyboards with launchpads in Push emulation mode. The developer put in this great function where you can randomize note velocity within a set range as you play. It makes it so the midi output isn’t static notes and sounds like natural playing.

  • TYLR

    Is the tempo knob a clicking knob?

  • jstsn

    Mk2 eh? Just give me two Apc minis and the new akai AMX instead 😉

  • tillephone

    I counted twice, but I still think the APC mini has an 8×8 not 8×5 grid – which, with it’s additional faders, makes it a Novation Launchpad killer, if you ask me.

    Oh, and also with the RGB lights, you could also implement a chess game on it 🙂

    • Mojaxx

      You’re totally right about the 8×8 thing; I’ll get that corrected.

      The APC Mini is definitely very close competition for the Launchpad Mini, which I have, and does edge out the LM purely thanks to having faders on there.

      Build quality and ‘feel’ of the two are very similar indeed.

    • superfly

      Don’t understand why they didn’t go to an 8×8 on the main one and make it an APC64, seems like the obvious next step.

  • Lylax

    IMO the tempo knob is a great addition but a lot of people think that the controller should also be more versatile with the music creation process. The APC40 was for launching clips and helping in your live show. If you want both you will have to get a Push. If there was a push like controller for ableton that was cheaper then everyone would go to that and push would be obsolete. its all about the money.

  • Robert Wulfman

    Do the device control knobs on the mk2 play nicely with button type controls? on the original they would be very fiddly where one little touch made the difference between off and on.

    • Mojaxx

      I didn’t find that hugely problematic to work with on the Mk2, but it is basically the same implementation as on the old model, yes.

      [edited for spelling]

    • Tyler

      you should map the min/max values so that like 3 or 10 is on instead of 1.. that way you’ve got a bit of padding

  • strotifiler

    How was the crossfader? I was turned off by the original apc’s fader, did the mkII make any improvements?

    • Mojaxx

      It’s a pretty standard fader still, does the job, but nothing to write home about.

      Might be worth asking Audio Innovate whether an Innofader Mini could be fitted, if you want something better.

  • Kosta X

    If there could be a way to re-purpose the 8 clip stop buttons to become an 8 step sequencer in a DAW that would be nice. Perhaps with some max for live trickery in Ableton?

    http://www.kosta-x.com

    • Sin Sentido Comun

      It’s possible via scripts, I can bet nativekontrol.com will deliver new scripts for this including step sequencers.

    • I’m doing it, literally right now 😉 Will be out in a couple of weeks.

  • b1kjsh

    This is awesome but I’d like to hear more about the APC Mini possibly a demo.

  • darrin bisson

    During the review did anyone map this or the APC Mini to the tpro remix decks?

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