Akai’s Latest Midi Keys Make Sweet Music On the Go

Put your hands all over this thing

  • Akai’s MPK Mini Play Mk3 has a louder speaker and better battery life than its predecessor.
  • Use it alone, or connect to a computer, iPad, or even iPhone. 
  • A MIDI controller is all but essential for making computer music.
An Akai MPL mini keyboard.

Akai

Akai's MPK Mini was already a great portable MIDI keyboard and controller for, well, for anything. The new Play version adds a bunch of built-in sounds to make it even more independent. 

MIDI controllers are almost essential for musicians who work with computers instead of big hardware instruments—otherwise, you're just clicking with a mouse, which is hardly conducive to getting into a groove, let alone rocking out. The beauty of small keyboards like this new Akai MPK Mini Play Mk3 is that you don't have to be anchored to a desk—something the promo campaign makes very obvious. 

"The real potential of the Mini Play MK3 lies in its ability to be used as a MIDI keyboard controller, especially because of its easy-to-use plug-n-play design. You can either hook it up to a PC/laptop or connect it to an iPad," writes technology journalist Tushar Mehta in a blog post. 

Hands-On

MIDI, or musical instrument digital interface, comes from the early 80s and is a simple protocol to let musical instruments talk to each other. They let a keyboard send notes to a synthesizer or a bank of twiddly knobs to control virtual knobs on a computer drum machine. Once rolling, it’s pretty rock solid and makes a huge difference to the musical experience, offering reliable, hands-on control of virtual instruments. 

MIDI is in everything these days, but its advantage is most clearly experienced in something like the little MPK Mini Play because it packs so much into a very portable package. 

The Akai MPK Mini Play has a 25-key keyboard, eight backlit drum pads, four knobs, and a joystick for pitch and modulation. Not much, but enough, and a good spread of features in a small space. You can easily tap in a drumbeat, add a bass line, chords, and melody, and listen via the little built-in speaker or headphones. Everything is powered by three AA batteries. 

Then, when you get back to the computer, you can use it as a MIDI controller for Ableton Live, Logic Pro, or Akai’s own MPC 2.0 software, using the keys, pads, and knobs to manipulate on-screen controls. 

But for such a neat little unit, there’s a third way. You can pair this up with your iPhone or iPad and have a music studio in your backpack. 

Mobile Studio

The iPad might be perceived as a place to read the news or catch up on YouTube while preparing dinner, but it's also quite a formidable music-making machine. There's a huge selection of niche and mainstream music apps available for pocket money in the App Store, and in some ways, the iPad is actually better than a Mac for making music.

There's a touch-screen, for a start, which means you can play musical instruments with expression, rather than the binary click of a mouse. And the iPad has a whole class of apps not available on the desktop, at least not with the same depth and quality. Apps like AUM and Audiobus act as mini studios connecting all the small, modular music apps on iOS. 

Headphones hanging on a computer screen that displays sound waves.

Athima Tongloom / Getty Images

"Yes, it's possible to make professional-level music on an iPad. I have done it many times. I make backing tracks and then record over them with my electric harps," harpist and iPad musician Cymber Lily Quinn told Lifewire via email. 

But the iPad has no buttons, knobs, dials, or keys. In that way, it's worse than a laptop and can benefit hugely from an all-in-one controller like the Mini Play. Akai's controller offers "class compliant" USB audio and MIDI, which is to say, it works without drivers on any Mac, iPad, or Linux device. That lets it double up as an audio interface for the iPad and ensures seamless compatibility. 

And you can go one better. If you're on the move, why not just use your iPhone instead? Many music apps have been cut down, UI-wise, to fit the smaller screen. You might not want to edit a song in GarageBand on your iPhone, but you can totally play its beautiful drums or powerful synthesizers with the APK Play Mini's pads and keys. 

And because it's all battery-powered, you can make beats by the lake, in the park, or anywhere else that increases your chance of having expensive gear stolen while you ignore the beautiful landscapes surrounding you. Just like the folks in the promo videos.

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