Akai’s New Music Controller Adds Some Much Needed Interactivity

It’s a heavenly hands-on hybrid

Key Takeaways

  • The Akai MPC Studio is a hardware controller for Akai’s MPC 2 app.
  • Many muscians prefer the hands-on nature of music hardware.
  • The hybrid approach is a popular and powerful synergy.
Close-up of Akai's MPC Studio

Akai

Akai’s new MPC Studio is causing a stir amongst music nerds. It’s a cheap-ish box of buttons and knobs that hooks up to an app on your computer, letting you rock Akai’s MPC app as if it were a series of much more expensive hardware boxes.

Musicians tend to favor the hands-on tweakability of hardware over the fiddliness of software, and controllers like Ableton’s Push (starting at $799) bring that physicality to powerful audio software suites. But Akai has upped the game by bringing what looks like a high-quality controller at a very affordable $269

"Hardware is just 'hands-on,' plain and simple. There's a level of interactivity with hardware that is impossible to replace with mouse clicks, no matter how good the technology is. Turning a knob, pushing a button, or moving a fader all have an immediate effect—not only on the music, but the user, as well," music producer Ric Lora told Lifewire via email. 

Brain vs Hands

To get an idea of why hands-on control is important for musicians, let’s imagine a live performance. Our fictitious musician is just building up to a climactic point in the song. The audience is going nuts—they’re totally into it. It’s time for the drop. Does our musician keep cranking the audience’s tension with a knob, and then hit a button to cue the drop? Or do they mouse over to an on-screen slider, attempt to move it smoothly, and then click an icon?

Both get the job done, but only the former lets the musician perform the piece, and really feel it. With the latter, they might as well be doing their taxes.

Person using Akai's MPC Studio with a MacBook

Akai

"The controllers like the MPC Studio and Ableton Push are so popular because they allow for more 'in the moment' control and dynamics into your performance," songwriter Brad Johnson told Lifewire via email. "While there is nothing wrong with programming music directly into your [Digital Audio Workstation], you end up losing the performance aspect that makes up so many great performances. These controllers allow you to play your parts and give a performance instead of drawing in notes."

The MPC Controller

The upsides to dedicated boxes are manifold. Unlike apps, the buttons don’t move. That volume knob is always at the top left, and you can grab it without thinking. And hardware is often less screwy when it comes to reliability—hardware crashes, but software crashes more.

Also, you can turn a box off, then turn it back on a week later, and you’re in the exact same place.

But it’s also—by design—limited. A computer program can be expanded, and reconfigured almost infinitely. Those same hardware controls that provide such an intuitive, learnable-muscle-memory experience are also stuck doing one job, forever.

That’s where the hybrid approach comes in. You get to use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) like Ableton Live, or Akai’s MPC2, with all their depth, along with all the plug-ins (add-on instruments and effects) that you want. At any time you can grab the mouse if that makes sense, but when performing and composing, you can use the hardware.

This has been possible for almost as long as we’ve had music software. MIDI keyboards and controllers can be hooked up to most music apps, including those on your phone. But these require configuration, and can be flaky in terms of reliability. The beauty of something like the MPC Studio or the Push is they’re built in tandem with the software, and the hardware is designed to perfectly mesh with the hardware. A kind of musical cyborg, if you will.

"There's a level of interactivity with hardware that is impossible to replace with mouse clicks, no matter how good the technology is."

"A hybrid approach is the best way to approach music production in the 21st century," Eloy Caudet, owner of the Wood and Fire recording studio in Aachen, Germany, told Lifewire via email. "Akai ́s MPC or Ableton Push gives you the ability to control your DAW with your fingers and not with the mouse, and this feeling gets really close [to] touching actual analog gear."

If nothing else, today’s musicians are utterly spoiled for choice. High-quality traditional instruments can be had at low prices, and in the electronic realm the options are almost endless.

And this popular hybrid approach is a great way to meld the power of general-purpose computers with the human need to twiddle knobs.

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