Review: Akai Advance 49 MIDI controller with VIP VSTi host software

The Akai Advance 49 controller with VIP software puts all your VSTi plug-in sounds at your fingertips, at the same time in the same place. Imagine browsing many thousands of presets—every single one from your collection, including Native Instruments Komplete—narrowing them down to the perfect sound and then loading them onto a controller that’s pre-mapped for your controls. Then you load up to 8 sounds from different plug-ins to play together in one monster patch. The Advance 49 could revolutionize your music production workflow.

Reviewed: Akai Advance 49
Price: MSRP $599, $499 street
Availability: June 12, 2015
Communication: MIDI over USB; MIDI over 5-pin MIDI I/O ports
Ships with: VIP standalone, AAX, AU and VST format software for hosting VSTi plug-ins (download), 358 VSTi plug-in mappings (download), USB cable, Quickstart Guide, software and soundware pack: Air Music Tech Vacuum Pro, Loom, Hybrid 3, Xpand!2, Velvet and Transfuser plug-ins, Sonivox Eighty Eight Ensemble piano plug-in and Toolroom Record Hybrid artist expansion packs (download).
Weight: 9.9 pounds (4.5 kg)
Dimensions: 29.5 x 11.5 x 3.5 inches (75 x 29.3 x 8.8 cm)
Minimum System Requirements: Mac OS 10.8 or later; Windows 7 or later; multi-core CPU; 20 GB free disk space for full content download; 4 GB RAM (8 GB recommended).
Also Available: Akai Advance 25 (MSRP $499, $399 street); Advance 61 (MSRP $699, $599 street)

The Good: VIP software browses and loads any VSTi plug-in preset from either the hardware or software interface. Multi patches bring up to 8 sounds from 8 plug-ins together for mixing and mapping to the keyboard. Full Level and Note Repeat keys for the pads. Arpeggiator and Note Repeat have 8 Time Division keys. Four different-colored banks for the 8 pads. Pads are pressure and velocity-sensitive. MIDI presets for controlling most major DAWs.

The Bad: Color screen can’t match the crispness of recent smartphones that people are used to. In the VIP software, can’t see the Multi view and the Control view at the same time.

The Bottom Line: It’s not that often that a piece of music gear does something both completely new and completely welcome. While NI’s Komplete Kontrol blazed the trail, the Akai Advance controller series integrates all your VST instrument plug-ins into one host software—VIP—so you can search all your plug-in presets in one place, load and play them against each other, and manipulate them with pre-mapped hardware controls. Right now, this is the only hardware that will do that, and the 4.3-inch color display helps you do it with your eyes off the computer screen. Along with a generous software package, those exclusive features make the Advance 25, 49 and 61 well worth the extra money for software instrument junkies.

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Akai Advance vs. Komplete Kontrol S Series

When Native Instruments introduced its Komplete Kontrol S keyboards last autumn, the dedicated controller entirely mapped NI’s Komplete software instruments and hosted them inside the Komplete Kontrol software, which let you browse and load all of Komplete’s instrument presets, as well as use the arpeggiator, special keyboard playing modes that played one-note chords and kept you in key, and exclusive features that utilized the keyboard’s LED color coded keys. However, there were a couple of big critiques that kept coming up. The Komplete Kontrol system would only work on NI’s own Komplete instruments, making it a potentially huge investment to get started, and making your other software instruments you owned less attractive in the process.

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Akai Advance 25
Akai’s new Advance series of controllers, the 49-key Advance 49 that we’re reviewing here, and Advance 25 and Advance 61, aim to rectify those concerns. And while they don’t add the same kind of exclusive color-based features to plug-in instruments that Komplete Kontrol often does (such as preset color-coded keyboard zones that function in different ways for each instrument), the Advance series have their own, arguably better bragging points.

Most importantly, the Advance controllers include their own Virtual Instrument Player (VIP) software that both hosts and maps any VST instrument (VSTi) plug-in that you have on your machine: From freeware to NI’s Komplete instruments, to any other VSTi, like Sylenth or the brand-new U-he Hive, Advance’s VIP system will host the plug-in and map its controls to its array of 8 endless encoders, 8 key switches and 4 banks of the 8 velocity and pressure-sensitive MPC pads. Besides that, you can browse and load the patches of all your VSTi presets in one spot, and create very useful Multis, or groups of 2-8 patches from any VSTi inside of VIP.

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VIP software with the Browser showing up top, the Control mode plug-in controls across the bottom and the hosted Native Instruments Absynth plug-in preview in the bottom left-hand corner.

Very Important VSTi Player

At launch, Akai has included 358 pre-mapped VSTi settings for the VIP software, including all of NI’s Komplete collection, most or all of Arturia’s excellent recreations of vintage synths, and plenty of other popular ones, like Sylenth, IK Sample Tank 3, Korg Polysix, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and all the instruments from Akai’s partner company, Air Music Tech. In fact, even if you’re starting fresh with an Advance controller, a generous software package will get you started with 16 GB worth of sounds for the Air Music Tech Transfuser rhythm machine, Velvet vintage keys, Xpand!2 multi-instrument, Vacuum Pro, Loom and Hybrid 3 synths, and Sonivox Eighty-eight Ensemble grand piano. Most of the included instruments could merit their own reviews, so we’ll just say that even though the Advance controllers cost noticeably more than run-of-the-mill MIDI controllers, their great VSTi package and new VIP technology make them well worth it for producers to search and control all their VSTi plug-ins from one place.

After the VIP software scans all your machine’s VSTi presets, more than 100,000 of them in my case, you can browse through them or search through them all in one spot, and then load them into the VIP software, which works as a PC/Mac standalone program or as an AAX/AU/VST plug-in for your DAW (note that it only hosts VST instruments, not other formats). You can have as many instances of VIP in your DAW session as your computer can handle, and it doesn’t seem to add much processor load on top of what the hosted VSTi already uses.

Akai Advance's onboard browsing view.
Akai Advance’s onboard browsing view.
Taking a cue from NI’s Maschine Studio, the Advance controllers include a full color, 4.3-inch LCD, where it more or less mirrors the VIP software interface in a more compact space. You can handle most of the things the VIP software can do from the hardware screen, including browsing and loading instrument presets.

On the keyboard, you use the push-button browsing encoder, cursor keys and page arrow keys under the screen to navigate all the functions, which you also see from the software window. Sometimes it takes a little trial-and-error to figure out which hardware controls to use to do everything, but resorting to the PDF manual was rarely necessary.

VIP software hosting the free Toolroom Records expansion settings for the Hybrid 3 synth, with the Control view underneath. The Control view shows the parameters that the Advance keyboard controls.
To drill down to the presets you want, you can search through the patches organized by Plugins, Articulations (Muted, Plucks, Portamento, Sustain, Staccato, Tremelo, etc.), Styles (Ambient, Arpeggios, Chords, Dance, Electronic, Hip-Hop, House, Rhythmic, Sweep, Trance, etc.), Timbres (Airy, Bright, Dark, Dirty, Fat, Hard, Noise, Punchy, Warm, etc.), Instruments (Bass, Drums, keys, Synths, etc.), and by Expansions that you’ve downloaded from the Advance Content store within the VIP software. For example, you get two sounds expansions for the Air Tech Hybrid 3 synthesizer to start with for free: Mark Knight Deep House and Rene Amesz Tech House, both from Toolroom Records. Within all those categories, you can drill down further to filter the results. For example, you could search for only Synths with Bright timbres, or just Hip-Hop patches with Plucked articulations, and so on. You can also type in keywords in the Search field in the VIP software.

This one crucial and unprecedented feature sets the Advance series apart from everything else (at least for now) and could potentially change the way you use your plug-in instruments and the way you choose sounds for your music. As serial entrepreneur Peter Diamandis says in his book Abundance, human wealth can be measured in hours saved, and in that way, while the Advance costs a little more than controllers without VIP, it could make you significantly wealthier in the time you save if you currently pour over thousands of preset sounds in dozens of VSTis.

You can choose DAW presets from the Akai Advance's onboard display.
You can choose DAW presets from the Akai Advance’s onboard display.

Plug-in Control

Selecting a sound on the keyboard display, loads that particular plug-in sound within VIP, and you can view the plug-in’s interface within the main VIP window, in an external window, or not at all. VIP has its own view modes, including Control mode, for viewing sets of 8 plug-in parameters at a time, MIDI mode, for viewing parameters that control your DAW software via MIDI and Multi mode (more on that later). Advance includes DAW presets for all the big programs (Ableton Live 9, Bitwig Studio, Cubase, Reaper, FL Studio, Logic Pro X, Pro Tools and more), but you can edit and save those presets with your own customized DAW control settings.

The VIP software hosted as a plug-in within Ableton Live 9. VIP is hosting an instance of Hybrid 3, shown in a separate window.
For pre-mapped plug-ins, VIP lays out sets of 8 parameters that you can tab through. It does a great job for the most part of prioritizing the most vital controls on the first or second control pages, such as putting the most likely filter, LFO, oscillator and effect controls that you would want to use near the front of the page order. You can also edit these mappings. For plug-ins that aren’t yet mapped, VIP lays out the available controls pretty much in order of appearance, so it’s definitely better than nothing, but you may have to spend more programming time on those to create your customized control pages.

Multis – 8 Instruments in 1

One of Advance’s amazing features—and also one you don’t get with Komplete Kontrol—the Multi Mode lets you load 2-8 patches from one or more plug-ins into VIP’s mixer-style interface. For each patch, you have a mixer-style channel with volume, panning and solo/mute switches, which you manipulate directly from Advance’s controls. With Multi mode still active, you can swith back and forth to the Control and MIDI modes to use the hardware controls for plug-ins and the DAW respectively.

For each Multi slot, you can edit the MIDI channel, Transpose setting, and Lo Key/Hi Key, which makes it very handy for creating keyboad zones. For example, on the Advance 49, you could create a 4-patch Multi where each sound played on one octave of the keyboard and use the Transpose settings so that each octave played the same pitches for each sound.

A VIP Multi patch hosting 4 plug-ins: NI Massive within the VIP interface, Air Music Tech’s Hybrid 3 and Xpand!2 in external windows, and the freeware Dexed FM synth in an external window.
The Multis are also great for quickly auditioning sounds from different plug-ins against each other, or layering up a bunch of disparate sounds for huge-sounding pads, leads or stabs for Big Room chords that would make Zedd wet the bed.

You can save Multis for quick recall, making them handy for live performance or for storing your best sound designs. All of the Multi work is easily done straight from the hardware.

Akai’s Advance series includes 5-pin MIDI I/O, footswitch jacks and AC power inputs for optional AD adapters.

Timing functions: Arp & Note Repeat

The Advance controllers build in the MPC legacy Note Repeat feature, as well as an arpeggiator with more than 100 settings, all of which you can apply to whatever VSTi you’re using. You can get lost in all the arpeggiator settings, but it’s safe to say that producers of almost any style and asthetic should find something that they can use there. You can vary the arpeggiator’s Swing amount, Time Division, Note Length and octave Range.

With Note Repeat turned on, holding a pad down retriggers the sound at the rate of the current Time Division (8 settings from 1/4 to 1/32T). You can change the rate quickly by pressing the Time Div key and then selecting one of the 8 hardware key switches. The Time Div setting affects the Arpeggiator, as well.

Forward-Thinking

It’s tempting to directly compare the Advance 49 to the Komplete Kontrol S49, but that’s also tough because each one will evolve with new software features. For example, Native Instruments added more free instruments with the purchase of a Kontrol S keyboard and announced in April that the Komplete Kontrol will begin support VSTs sometime this summer. Additionally, NI will launch a new Native Kontrol Standard for deep integration of third-party plug-ins on the Komplete Kontrol series. However, until that happens, Akai Advance is the only game in town for this kind of universal VSTi integration. And we will have to wait until later to directly compare the Akai Advance and the updated Komplete Kontrol.

For now, the Advance series has other advantages: They have 4.3-inch color screen for rich visual feedback directly on the hardware, a lower price by about $100, and to my preference, a nicer, weightier feel to the semi-weighted keys. And for now the VIP software offers the kind of features that you’ll never want to be without once you use them. The ability to browse and load presets from all your VSTis and then to manipulate them with mapped controls from the hardware feels like the kind of next-level innovation that everyone will have to match in the next few years just to stay competitive. It’s a rare brand-agnostic function that puts user-friendliness above all else, and I congratulate Akai for being the first to do it. Markkus Rovito

Is this the mother of all midi keyboards? Do you prefer the Komplete Kontrol S or the Akai Advance?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

  • Thomas

    What about side chain when you play live? Can you put a compressor sidechain after the pluggin of your synth or at least put an LFO kind of pluggin that we’ll do the same purpose directly in the VIP software?

  • Soundtemple

    Komplete Kontrol is a waste while its Komplete only. The Akai features step it up but the proof will be in how well it actually works. Sounds like expensive preset browsing.

    Meanwhile, the price of these things and the incomplete feature set of the KK is steering me towards a simple keyboard like the Nektar IX49 and an iPad. What a combo. Maybe no preset browsing but think of all the other midi apps you can use for around the same money.

    • Qless

      I struggled with the same dilemma: pay a bit more for psychical controls or suck it up and use the mouse.

      I snagged a Nektar LX49 for $100 and used the saved cash to buy some more gear. Nothing some quick mapping couldn’t handle. Best decision I’ve made: at least until I have large amounts of cash to throw for some cool LED’s and integrated features.

  • timtam

    Does the arpegiator let you create your own patterns, or have a “play in the order pressed” option?

  • Jake

    Can the software work separately from the controller and/or map controls to midi keyboards other than the product? It would be cool if I could map to my launchkey as well.

    • timtam

      IIRC, the djworx review said not.

  • mixeffector

    Wow… even their software is trying to look like Maschine 2. This is the most shamelessly un-innovative carbon-copy attempt at imitating the Kontrol S that I can imagine being brought to market.
    I have no beef with Akai, but they could’ve at least done something remotely original with the “VST-Player Keyboard” idea, rather than just directly ripping the look of Maschine and Komplete for everything. This had so much potential to be something genuinely new and interesting, but it’s just discount-NI without the discount price.
    So unfortunate. I know you have more than this in you, Akai…

    • timtam

      It has RGB pads… in what other way is it like maschine? The Kontrol lacks a screen, requires VST developers to do additional coding to make it work, and doesn’t do instrument layering. I’m buying one. And I already own maschine 2 and komplete 10!

      • mixeffector

        WRT: Maschine I’m referring to the software rather than the hardware, more. It is by no means the same kind of software, but from a cosmetic design standpoint it’s too similar to be coincidence.

        I’m sure for people who have invested in non-NI VSTs this will be attractive, and I don’t even think it’s actually trying to compete with the S-series for customers (i.e. NI diehards or people who work exclusively/primarily with Komplete or within the NI ecosystem) – it’s just a disappointingly derivative take on an idea that has so much more to give. It feels too much like a direct response to the Kontrol, rather than a new product (which it really is, what with the layering and all). At least they didn’t do a half-assed LightGuide clone out of a sense of obligation – plenty of companies would have.

    • Joshua Nussbaum

      If you think about it, that’s also a means of allowing people to seamlessly switch over from NI products without feeling the sort of jarring disconnect you could get if you switched from something like FL Studio to something like Logic X.

      Sounds like smart business sense to me.

    • Markus Arike

      You can’t be serious. Machine 2 uses Orange highlights, Akia VIP uses Yellow. That is where the similarities end. As far as Komplete Kontrol S, the Advance is a more interesting, more innovative controller with its ability to corral all your plugins in one window and multi mode and way better stand alone use. Add a normal pitch and mod wheel instead of those ridiculous touch strips, color LCD, MPC pads and note repeat, the Advance is a much more compelling product. Thankfully Akai didn’t add that kiddie mode Lite Brite.