M-Audio Axiom AIR 25 Review

A Portable Music Keyboard That Combines Expressive Keys and Trigger Pads

Axiom AIR 25 Top View
Axiom AIR 25: Top View. Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Introduction

Creating digital music doesn't have to mean that you need a large static setup such as a dedicated home studio. These days there are a lot more music hardware devices designed to be portable so you can create music on the move. Portable MIDI gear such as keyboards have surfaced that provide miniaturized full-featured interfaces that give you the ability to have a mobile studio that can go almost anywhere.

To add to this growing trend, M-Audio (part of inMusic) have combined the usefulness of trigger pads with a compact keyboard to produce the Axiom AIR 25. With a wide range of advanced features, is M-Audio's creation the last word in 25-key portable controllers? To find out what we thought of it, read this in-depth review for the low-down.

Pros

  • Flexible combination of full sized keys and trigger pads.
  • Good sized unit which is solidly constructed.
  • Keyboard and trigger pads responsive to the touch.
  • Multi-colored illumination provides real-time visual feedback.
  • Good range of connections (midi in and out) / (expressive and sustain pedals).
  • Built-in HyperControl for automatic MIDI mapping of controls.
  • Free software included: Ableton Live Lite (on DVD) and Ignite (downloadable) for an out-of-the-box solution.

Cons

  • HyperControl limited to just a few software digital audio workstations.
  • Not the most compact or lightweight 25-key portable controller on the market.
  • Default velocity sensitivity for keys and pads is quite firm.

Main Features and Specifications

Regardless of whether you are looking for a compact MIDI keyboard for home (where space is limited) or need one to compliment your mobile studio, it's always best to consider the main features of any digital music product and its specifications before buying.

To help you save time hunting around for this information, we've compiled a quick lookup list of the Axiom AIR 25's main features and specifications.

Main Features:

  • PC and Mac compatible via USB.
  • Universal MIDI controller with built-in HyperControl.
  • 25 full size keys with synth action and aftertouch.
  • 16 Trigger pads with velocity and pressure sensitivity.
  • 8 rotary control knobs and 1 long-throw slider (assignable).
  • Programmable velocity response.
  • Pitch bend and modulation wheels.
  • color-coded illumination on pads, knobs, and buttons.
  • Input for optional expression and sustain pedals.
  • Midi in/out connections.
  • Free music production software: Ableton Live Lite (on supplied DVD) and Ignite (download after registering).

Technical Specifications:

  • Dimensions (L/W/H): 20.25" (51.4 cm) x 16.5" (41.9 cm) x 4.0" (10.2 cm).
  • Weight: 8.2 lbs (3.7 Kg).
  • Mac Operating System: Mac OS X.
  • Windows operating system: Windows 8 / 7 / Vista / XP.

Build Quality, Style, and Design

In this section, we take a look at the build quality, style, and design aspects of the Axiom AIR 25.

Build Quality: Compared to equipment that is designed to stay in one place, portable equipment has to be able to stand up to that extra bit of wear and tear over its lifetime with the knocks and bumps that will inevitably happen during transport.

On inspecting the Axiom AIR 25, there's no doubting that the unit is made of sturdy stuff. Its casing is solidly built from strong plastic and all the edges are nicely beveled. This should, in theory, reduce the chances of any edges being damaged if accidentally knocked. Looking at the main keyboard and trigger pads, these are also well-made with both interfaces feeling strong and positive to the touch. Finally, the other controls that the Axiom AIR 25 sports also give the feeling of reliability -- all this adds up to a controller you will no doubt be confident in using and transporting around.

Style and Design: Visually the Axiom AIR 25 is very stylish and sleek looking. Surrounding the trigger pads and controls on the top of the unit is an attractive brushed aluminum faceplate which clearly details the function of all the controls. The rear view of the Axiom AIR is also impressive, giving the impression that the unit is a much more expensive standalone synth than just a MIDI controller (great for on-stage). From a design point of view, the user interface is well put together with all the controls being intuitively grouped to help with your workflow. We also like the centralized transport controls and the clear LCD display which gives visual feedback on what is going on.

Overall, the build quality and style / design of the Axiom AIR 25 is first class.

Using the Axiom AIR 25

Setting up: As with all controllers, the first task was to install the correct driver for the keyboard. This went without a hitch when we downloaded and installed the up-to-date drivers from M-Audio's website. We also installed the free Ignite software in order to test out the keyboard's HyperControl but found that the keyboard displayed error message S.E.Not.Impl ERR. We eventually found out that a firmware upgrade to at least version 1.1 was necessary to get going with Ignite. Once we had ironed out this firmware gremlin, the keyboard stopped complaining when Ignite was launched and we were now ready to rock.

Keyboard & Trigger Pads: So, what's it like to play the Axiom AIR 25? First, the keys. These have an excellent feel to them and they respond well when hit.

They are light to play and return quickly -- ideal for quick audio editing for electronic, dance music etc. The velocity sensitivity on the keys by default is quite firm so you may find that you need to tweak this during your initial setup phase to feel truly comfortable with the keyboard. This is something we had to do and the velocity curve was easily adjusted using the edit button. Aftertouch also held up well on the Axiom AIR 25. We found that reasonable pressure on the key gave a positive response.

Playing the trigger pads was similar to the keys. They feel robust and you don't need to bash them too hard to strike up a good groove sequence. Again, the pads (just like the keys) seemed quite firm to us and so you may find that a sensitivity adjustment is necessary to gel with your playing style. Then there ae the lights! Each pad is well illuminated and when hit gives a nice flash of color providing great visual feedback while playing. We also like the fact that the color of the pads changes depending on the memory bank setting -- red for bank 1, green for bank 2, and amber for bank 3.

HyperControl: You may have already heard of M-Audio's HyperControl technology. If not, then it's a 'set it and forget it' feature built into some M-Audio keyboards to make your life a whole lot less complicated. It automaps commonly used tasks to buttons, sliders, knobs etc., so you don't have to manually assign MIDI Control Changes (CCs) to them. The good news with the new generation of Axiom AIR controllers is that you can instantly switch between HyperControl and your own MIDI mapped layout.

The Axiom AIR 25 also provides a way to operate a mix of modes too simultaneously. You can, for example, keep HyperControl enabled for some controls (like the fader), and switch the trigger pad section of the keyboard to MIDI mode. This flexibility works very well and is sure to make the best use out of any music production session.

As a fall-back, if the DAW you are using doesn't support HyperControl, then you can still manually assign all of the Axiom AIR 25's controls as you would do if using other MIDI controllers.

If you are going to use AIR's free Ignite software, then HyperControl works very well. When we tried it, we found that it seamlessly integrated with all of the controls. However, at the time of writing HyperControl only supports a handful of DAWs and so you may want to check which ones currently work with the Axiom AIR before parting with your money.

As a side note, Ignite is a great music creation software program that makes it easy to get your ideas down without the steep learning curve of many DAWs such as Pro Tools, Cubase, and others. If you are just starting out creating digital music then it's well worth giving it a shot -- we found it easy to use and very intuitive.

Conclusion

After reviewing the Axiom AIR 25, there's no doubt that M-Audio has produced a great MIDI controller for the home studio (where space may be limited) or to compliment your mobile music setup. Even though it's not as compact or lightweight as other competing keyboards out there, the Axiom AIR 25's generous interface has the potential to make audio creation a lot more productive. It can, of course, be used for all types of genres, but in our opinion is particularly useful for creating electronic music, dance, etc. The fusion of a quality expressive keyboard coupled with an equally capable 16 trigger pad matrix makes for a perfect interface to quickly churn out grooves and beats.

It's solidly built too. All the way from the sturdy casing to the keys, pads, and controls. Playing the Axiom AIR 25 is a comfortable and fun experience. The only downside we could find with regards to playing the keyboard was the default velocity sensitivity. We found that this was too firm and the velocity curve needed tweaking on the keys and pads for a more responsive experience.

M-Audio's HyperControl implementation on the new AIR keyboards also impressed us. This is a step up from previous Axiom Pro units with the ability to now have a mix of HyperControl and MIDI CCs. However, at the time of writing HyperControl only supports a handful of DAWs (Ignite being one of them). If this auto-mapping feature is a requirement for your particular DAW then it's worth checking M-Audio's website before committing to buy. That said, you can use the Axiom AIR 25 with any DAW and map all of its controls manually as you would with other MIDI keyboards.

Looking at the software side of things, we liked the fact that if you're just getting into creating digital music, mixing, etc., then the Axiom AIR 25 comes with two free DAWs -- namely, Ableton Live Lite and Ignite. Air Music Technology's audio production software impressed us a lot with its intuitive interface, relatively small hard drive space requirement and how easy it is to get your ideas down -- certainly recommended if you don't want a steep learning curve like most popular DAWs to come with.

Overall, if you're looking for a quality portable MIDI keyboard that has bags of potential for live performance, groove sequencing, and more, then you won't go far wrong with M-Audio's Axiom AIR 25.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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