In many cases, some of the new DJ and production tools featuring iProduct integration have been little more than a perfunctory capitalization on the popularity of the mobile market. It’s not too often that a product comes along which uses an iPod or iPad to do something not ordinarily possible without the use of such a capable device. Akai’s series of SynthStation products, which use the iPod and iPad as a synthesis engine, input interface, and display screen, differ from the pack in that regard.
Without some form of synthesis engine, all keyboards are simply a hunk of plastic with no real function. Normally, one of two routes is taken which breathes life into the keyboard – either some form of synthesis chip is installed, along with some knobs and switches, to make the keyboard performance-ready and computer-independent, or, as is the case with the keyboards perhaps most widely used in home studios today, the keyboard hooks up to a computer via USB and acts merely as a control surface for the synthesis which occurs inside the computer and is displayed on the computer screen. The Akai SynthStation 49 is somewhat of a combination between the two. On its own, it is an empty plastic shell which does nothing – but slap in an iPad, and suddenly the keyboard is a ready-to-use standalone unit complete with multiple drum and synth tracks all controlled by the SynthStation iPad app (sold separately).
The SynthStation app, which can be used with or without the aid of the SynthStation 49 keyboard, is not necessarily the star of this particular review, but it’s worth going over its basic features to gain some insight as to the utility of the keyboard itself. The app features a selection of multiple monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers which can play simultaneously in different tracks. The app features multiple pages of knobs to control the synthesizers, just like you’d see in a VST synth. Different drum tracks are also available, and this section of the app resembles an MPC in its ability to load up different samples into the drum banks. The app also has a built-in sequencer for generating and playing back loops. In essence, it’s a complete iPad-based idea station.
The SynthStation 49 external keyboard attachment helps this creative process along in many ways. First, and most obviously, the 49-key keyboard is indispensible when it comes to actually playing the synths. The app has wee little onscreen keyboard which does absolutely no justice to the synthesis engine contained inside, so it’s healthy to let those sounds roam free with a multi-octave physical keyboard. Additionally, drum loops are fun to program in software, but nothing beats getting to bang out some rhythms on a real, spongy, physical drum pad. Play, pause, and record buttons are also included on the hardware interface for more easy access to transport control.
The SynthStation products provide a computerized upgrade to the world of digital keyboards as we know them (most notably, the inclusion of a screen) while adding the element of portability to what we normally think of as DAW-based creation. Thus, the SynthStation resides somewhere in the middle ground, occupying a niche that could only be fulfilled with the help of the mobile tablet platform. Offering an upgrade both in size and features from the iPod-driven SynthStation 25, the SynthStation 49 hardware is an essential add-on for the SynthStation app and, when combined with the app’s engine, a formidable keyboard package for either studio or stage.