The Akai SynthStation 25 transforms your iPhone or iPod Touch into a portable music production studio for mobile music creation. OK, I admit it, I stole that line directly from the Akai Pro website, but I couldn't think of a better way to explain it! What the SynthStation basically allows you to do is to dock your iPhone/iPod Touch on the front of the Akai SynthStation controller, and then use the controller to trigger the SynthStation application. Essentially, the Akai SynthStation gives you hands on control over the most commonly used features of the application, leaving the touchscreen free for you to affect some of the more experimental parameters within the synth application.
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - SYNTHSTATION APPLICATION
So, at the core of the Akai SynthStation is the SynthStation application (which has to be purchased separately from the iTunes store). This application gives you three powerful three-oscillator synthesisers, capable of producing an array of useful musical sounds. Compared to some of the more gimmicky applications out there, you will be pleased to hear that the analogue modelling SynthStation application comes from a brand with a rich musical history, and is built around their amassed experience in synthesis, drawing concepts from their recent Miniak synth.
Most of your navigation with the Akai SynthStation will happen on your touch screen application, which is crammed with tools geared towards professional music creation. The application offers features that will help you take an idea from the practice stages, right through to sequencing and recording. It's portable music creation at it's most powerful! The range of sounds that come with the application should be vast enough to fulfill most of your music creation needs, with a selection of drum kits, bass sounds, leads, chords, and melodies, and it even comes equipped with an arpeggiator, built-in effects, and filters. The touch screen can also be loaded up as an XY touch control, to give you a highly expressive way of working with key parameters, allowing you to create complex timbres, which would otherwise be extremely time-consuming and difficult to construct.
Right, now I've set the scene for what this product is capable of, it's time to tell you exactly what I think of it! Akai SynthStation controller: check! Akai SynthStation Application: downloaded! Here we go!
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - TIME TO PLAY
Opening the box, my first impression of the Akai SynthStation is that it is indeed highly portable. In fact it is a perfect size for on-the-go music creation, with an extremely light weight body, and dimensions that would allow it to fit into a small rucksack, handbag, man bag, etc, (whatever floats your boat!) whilst still being highly useable.
Feeling my way around, I have to admit that I like the way the pitch and modulation wheels move: both feel nice and sturdy, and the pitch wheel has a nice spring-back feel to it. The buttons also feel nice and 'touchable'. In fact the only thing that lets it down is the feel of the keys, which feel a little too much like a child's toy for my liking. But having said this, the Akai SynthStation is a budget piece of kit and is geared more towards portable sound creation rather than to act as a studio centrepiece, so I will let it off!
Anyway, it was time to get playing! I plugged my iPod in, booted up my SynthStation application and turned the Akai SynthStation 25 on and started bashing a few keys....and nothing happened! One quick call to the IT department and the problem was solved by turning the Akai SynthStation 25 off and on again! I should have guessed!
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - SYNTHS
I started by exploring the synths! The Akai SynthStation allows you to run up to 3 synths, and each is selectable via buttons on the controller. My initial thoughts on the preset synths were that I wasn't blown away, but the sounds were 'nice'! Opening up the 'Synth Edit' panel in the application, I was confronted with an impressive 3x4 matrix of sound shaping panels. Here I could control each of the 3 oscillators (their tuning, their waveform, and pulse width modulation), how they were mixed together, the main filter and it's envelope, the LFO (its rate, shape and routing), the main volume and main amplitude envelopes, an array of modulation settings, and the tuning, scale, portamento and cutoff of the keyboard! I found that such a range of controls was extremely impressive, and I spent a good while altering parameters to create my own sounds. This is indeed a powerful sound creation application considering it's all stored on an i-gadget!
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - PERFORMANCE
I then moved onto the 'Perform' pane within the application, which presented me with a touch screen MIDI keyboard as well as controls for an arpeggiator and an XY touchscreen for shaping the sound. The thing that I found especially useful about this pane was that it allowed me to control the touchscreen keyboard separately from the controller keyboard. This allowed me to, for example, tune the touchscreen keyboard down an octave to play my bass riff, whilst I played a lead riff on a higher octave on the controller keyboard! Well, actually I am by no means skilled enough to do this and always end up playing the same riff with both hands when I attempt this, but the capability is there if you have the skills to pay the bills!
The arpeggiator controls on the perform page offered another creative layer to your sound creation, and with range, type, time division, swing, tempo, and latch controls, there is plenty to play about with! One feature that I found out by accident, but was pretty useful was how to scale the MIDI keyboard display between showing two octaves, or one octave (useful for playing more precisely as the keys are much bigger). This was achieved by double-tapping the red indicator that highlights the keys displayed on the playable MIDI keyboard to toggle between both settings.
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - DRUMS
As well as being able to trigger one of the 3 synths using the Akai SynthStation hardware, it is also possible to trigger the drum mode, allowing you to play drum sounds using the Akai SynthStation 25 keyboard. Within the application, the Drum page displays a virtual representation of a 3x3 pad matrix, allowing you to trigger one-shot drum hits via the touchscreen. There are a vast amount of pre-compiled drum kits to choose from in the Akai SynthStation application, from Funk to Electro, to Hip Hop, to Techno, to Glitch...in fact there are so many that I'm not too keen on counting them all! If you switch from the 'Kit Select' page to the 'Drum Edit' page, then you can perform individual edits to each pad to really gear a kit towards your individual needs, using the pitch, level and pan controls on each individual drum hit.
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - EFFECTS
The Akai SynthStation application also contains an 'Effects' page, which allows you to configure either a Phaser, Flanger, Chorus, or Delay effect that each synth can be routed to individually for processing on the mixer page. Again, each effect has a number of parameters to refine a sound to suit your individual needs.
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - SEQUENCER
If you come up with a solid idea when you are out and about, then the Akai SynthStation application has a sequencing function, which allows you to draw synth patterns onto a traditional piano roll display, and drums onto a drum map. You can then move back and forth along the musical timeline to create a full length song if you want to! It uses most of the basic MIDI sequencing principles of your favourite DAW, so you should be at home here. Just click and drag to create a note and determine it's length, drag over an existing note to alter the length, drag the notes anchor to change its pitch and/or time position, and double tap a notes anchor to delete!
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - EXTRAS
Finally, I noticed the application also had a tap tempo function, which allows you to tap a beat into the application, and it calculates an estimated tempo in BPM based on your touches. It's a handy little addition, and also comes with a couple of controls to refine the accuracy of it's calculation to compensate for various tapping styles!
AKAI SYNTHSTATION 25 - SUMMARY
I guess the success of the Akai SynthStation controller will hinge on how good the Synthstation application is. I for one was extremely impressed with the depth that the app offered, and although I have done my best to explain the main parts, I am sure that there are a number of useful hidden features that I have neglected to use in the brief 30 minutes I had to play with the app, and which I hope to discover in the future.
I would say that the Akai SynthStation application is a fantastic piece of kit for on-the-go music creation. If you're ever sat on the bus and inspiration hits, just plug in your headphones and get composing on your iPhone!
However, for professional music creation I am still yet to be convinced. As previously stated, although I found the sounds within the Akai SynthStation to be of a good quality, they did not have the 'out of this world' factor that could convince me to use my iPod in a serious music making manner. I am also yet to be fully convinced with touch screen controls. I'm just so used to either using a mouse or a physical control, that at times using a touchscreen seems a little haphazard and inaccurate! Add to this that on very rare occasions some of the applications' controls seemed to get 'stuck', and it made me quite frustrated! Why can't I get in there and give that control a good yank! I guess this is just me though, and for the next generation who will grow up with touchscreens as part of their daily lives, then they won't be phased in the slightest by this sort of technology.
The Akai SynthStation 25 controller did a good job at adding to the playability of the application, and made it a lot easier to bring your ideas to life! However, the question did enter my head, that if you are willing to carry a MIDI controller around with you, why not just carry your laptop and have your full professional DAW at your finger tips? However, I guess there may be times when I would prefer to carry around an inexpensive controller as opposed to my precious laptop, so I guess the Akai SynthStation 25 controller does serve a purpose.
Essentially, the combination of the Akai SynthStation 25 controller and the application form a solid team. If you're after a new way to create music on-the-go, or simply just want to have a bit of musical fun, then you could do a lot worse! I've even neglected to mention so far that the Akai Synthstation 25 features a USB MIDI I/O connection for MIDI interface with your computer, so you can integrate the application with your favourite DAW! However, if you're looking to become the next Jean Michel Jarr, then I would definitely recommend a much more conventional piece of kit with additional capabilities to wow your audience!