Akai Synthstation25 Review – Is This The Future Of iPhone Music Making?

Akai Synthstation25 iPhone MIDI Controller

At the 2010 NAMM Show, Akai Professional introduced their concept for the Synthstation25 as an early prototype. Even as a prototype, though, the Synthstation25 interested a lot of musicians that had already made the jump to using iPhones and iPod Touches as musical tools.

The Synthstation25 is basically a $100 MIDI controller with a built-in dock for an iPhone or iPod Touch. It’s compatible with the original iPhone, iPhone 3G & iPhone 3GS; it’s also compatible with the 1st gen to 3rd gen iPod Touch.

Now that it is out and has support with several apps, we thought we’d take a look at the Synthstation25 and try to get a perspective on what it means for musicians now and what it may mean for the future of mobile devices as music platforms.

First, though, let’s take a look at Akai’s own introduction to the Synthstation25 and their vision for the device:

Akai positions the Synthstation25 as a device that transforms your phone into a full-blown performance and production tool.

For people with a casual interest in synthesis, the Synthstation25 and Synthstation app combination turns an iPhone or iPod Touch into an inexpensive, but capable, mobile synth workstation. For musicians already using their laptops as a mobile platform, the Synthstation offers a flexible alternative to other mini-key USB MIDI controllers.

The Akai Synthstation25 Hardware

The SynthStation25 is a compact controller, but features two octaves of velocity-sensitive mini-keys, 8 control buttons and standard pitch-bend and modulation wheel controllers.

Akai Synthstation 25 back

Around the back, it’s got:

  • a volume knob;
  • stereo RCA audio out;
  • a mini headphone jack;
  • power in; and
  • power off/on.

In addition to these connections, the Synthstation25 has a USB connector on the right side.

While the Synthstation25 is lightweight, it feels sturdy enough to handle travelling around in a laptop bag. Build quality is comparable to Akai’s other mobile USB-MIDI controllers. It’s solid, nicely-designed and has a pretty good “feel” for a portable controller.

Getting Started With The Akai Synthstation25

First impressions of the Akai Synthstation25 were good. Getting started with it, though, is a bit rougher.

The Synthstation25 manual is limited to a 2-page “Quickstart Guide”. The Guide explains the basic functions of each of the controls on the Synthstation25, offers a few troubleshooting tips and the controller’s specifications.

The discussion of using the Synthstation25 with an iPhone or iPod Touch, though, is abbreviated:

Dock – Connect your iPhone or iPod Touch here. Gently rock the device back and forth over the connector when attaching or removing it.

Other than that, there’s just a note that the Akai Synthstation Studio app is not included and to download it from the App Store.

It is actually straightforward to download the Synthstation app and get started with it. The manual should include a discussion of this, though, and cover the basic use of the Synthstation25 hardware with the Synthstation software studio.

The manual’s coverage of getting started with the device is inadequate enough that it may come back to haunt Akai; it’s easy to imagine people buying the controller, hooking it up to their iPhone or iPod Touch and asking “WTF” when it doesn’t immediately turn their device into an awesome synthesizer.

Akai Synthstation 25

Using The Synthstation25 With Synthstation

Once you’ve installed the Synthstation app on your device and plugged your iPhone [or iPod Touch] into the Synthstation25, things get interesting.

This review is for the Synthstation25 controller, but the Synthstation app packs a lot of power for a virtual studio running on a mobile device, and works well with the controller.

Synthstation offers 4 instruments: drums and three synths. The synths are virtual analog and sound surprisingly good, with three oscillators per voice and basic subtractive synth options.  In addition, the Synthstation app features a sequencer and arpeggiator, several effects, a mappable X/Y control pad and a mixer.

The integration is a no-brainer. The keyboard and mod wheels just work. The top row of buttons on the Synthstation25 lets you select parts: drums or synth 1, 2 or 3. The bottom row lets you switch programs and jump the keyboard an octave up or down.

Using Synthstation25 With Other Apps

The Synthstation25 isn’t limited to use with Akai’s Synthstation app, though.

Earlier in the year, Akai introduced a free software development kit for the Synthstation25. The AkaiConnect SDK lets music app developers build support for Akai Pro’s SynthStation25 keyboard controller into their apps. This makes the Synthstation25 a lot more useful, at least for apps that support it.

Currently, Akai lists 5 aditional apps that are compatible with the Synthstation25:

  • iVoxel – a great-sounding vocoder from VirSyn;
  • Nlog Synthesizer – a soft synth that features a sound set by trance producer 7-skies;
  • 50in1 Piano – a tool for learning to play the piano, with 50 different instruments;
  • NanoStudio – a popular mobile virtual studio; and
  • Music Studio – a mobile music production environment.

Unfortunately, MIDI support on iOS is a work in progress, so you can only expect to use the Synthstation25 with apps that explicity support it.

The Synthstation25 can also work as a standard USB MIDI controller with your laptop or workstation, which opens up a lot more options.

The Bottom Line On The Synthstation25

Pros:

  • Tiny and portable
  • Feels solid
  • Doubles as a USB MIDI controller
  • Makes working with supported apps a lot more fun

Cons:

  • Documentation is inadequate and may frustrate some new users
  • Not compatible with 4th generation iPhone & iPod Touch
  • Limited list of supported apps
  • MIDI on iOS is rapidly evolving

With the Synthstation25, Akai is taking a bold step in supporting the idea of mobile devices as a new platform for musicians. We expect both Akai and early adopters to hit some speed bumps over the next couple of years, though, as Apple upgrades its phones, as MIDI on iOS evolves and as the smartphone market gets more competitive.

Is the Synthstation25 right for you?

If you own a 1st gen iOS device, you’re better off upgrading your device to something more powerful before you invest in music peripherals.

If you’re into making music on iOS, have a Gen 2-3 iPhone or iPod Touch and are considering getting a mobile MIDI keyboard, the Synthstation25 offers an interesting new option for mobile music making.

If you’ve got a 4th generation iOS device, or if your favorite music apps don’t support Synthstation25, you’ll be better off waiting to see how MIDI on iOS develops.

More information on the Akai Synthstation is available at the Akai site.

42 thoughts on “Akai Synthstation25 Review – Is This The Future Of iPhone Music Making?

  1. so when are these things gonna have audio in and out? I really like the iphone as an effects pedal or controller more than a sampler or some 2$ appstore synth. That would really set this thing off for me.

  2. Have got one, the weight of the keys (though small) is lovely, latency is good, better with nanostudio, not a silly toy(re:McGlobalfields!!!,) sits proudly next to my Doepfer, also fits in my rucksack, perfect for beat making on the commute to work!
    Overall, if you like using your "touch/iphone" etc for music creation, a worthy addition to a small form portable studio/live rig… (korg mini kp/monotron/akai synthstation/gakken sx150/Ipad/ehx2880)-can't wait for the 49key one for the ipad version!

  3. TLAW1 – for people that are considering other mini-controllers, the Synthstation25 adds another layer of capability.

    I'll be interested once they officially support 4th gen devices.

  4. I saw a vid where the guy had to remove the iPhone 4’s cover before docking it. I’m contemplating buying this, but what happens once the iPhone 5 or whatever comes out. Will it still fit?

  5. This might be nice to keep by the bed for those late-night strikes of creativity. Also, you might be able to use a dock extender to use it with the iPhone 4 (google dockXtender)

  6. With a dock extension cable you can connect an ipad which makes the app much easier to use. You can also connect it as a midi controller to the ipad via the camera connection kit providing you connect via a powered hub.

  7. I use mine with an iPhone 4 no problem, though not while the phone is in its bumper case. Great to make some of these apps playable (I suspect there will be more and more compatible apps as time goes on). I love the footprint of this thing, fits nicely with a laptop in a laptop bag. Great price too, and acceptable build quality (glad that while they could have probably made not quite as nice, that they didn't).

    One thing that threw me off initially is that when you trigger keys, they don't graphically move or change in any way on the iPhone (this initially had me thinking that it wasn't working with my phone). If you think your SynthStation isn't working, make sure the power is on (no guarantee that the included batteries are good), that the volume knob on the back is turned up, and that you're either listening via the audio outs, or via headphones (the audio won't play out of your iPhone speaker, only out of the SynthStation outputs).

  8. Heheh, but the reason the on-screen keys don't mirror what you're playing is so that *you can play the tiny iPhone on-screen keyboard while you're playing the SynthStation*. I use it to play tiny bass notes. It's true you can hook up an LPK25 (which, oddly enough, has slightly smaller keys and no pitch or mod wheels) to the iPhone/iPod but… this thing tricks my brain into thinking that I'm playing a neat little instrument. It fits on my desk, on my lap, in my bag, and on top of other keyboards. Great device. 😀

  9. p.s. Never understood why calling something a "toy" meant it was bad somehow rather than lighthearted and fun. I guess I always thought the toy piano was an underrated instrument, I liked Leopold Mozart's brilliant Toy Symphony, and I still think that musical instruments, synthesizers, and computers are the world's greatest toys. I'd rather "play" my instruments than "work" them any day. Not all music has to be Beethoven, Wagner, or the Adagio for Strings. Not that I have anything against such music, particularly if played on appropriate instruments like the Crumhorn, Kazoo, and CasioTone. Bring on the musical toys!

  10. iConnectMIDI is better for more extreme use, you can connect it to any larger and better piano to use with ANY idevice

  11. It works fine with iPod touch 4th gen. It works with NanoStudio, and it's also going to work with FL Studio Mobile, soon to be released. It is in short, quite brilliant. Fairlight CMI works with it too. Is a Fairlight in your pocket a joke? Build quality is much better that I expected for £75. Using it to control my distinctly un-toylike Novation SuperNova Pro II 48 voice. Oh, and it has Akai written on it. Views will change rapidly once [INSERT ARTST'S NAME HERE] endorses it.

  12. It does support iPhone 4! It say it on the akai web site. I also contacted customer service and they confermed that it did! Just got one two days ago and the controller worked fine. Only problem I have is with the akai app. For some reason the volume is very low. Works like a charm when I’m using it with nano studio app!

  13. Can anyone cite a specific iPhone docking extension cable (30-pin pass thru) that is known to work connection the Synthstation 25 to the iPhone or iPad 2?

  14. Toy? How bout misadvertised junk and straight up corporate lying on the manufacturers website.? At least when you find a Speak and Spell at a garage sale today, most of the time the thing still works! Good luck finding one of these electro-gizmos at a garage sale twenty years from now….it'll end up in the dump from being thrown away before it ever makes it to the garage sale……..

  15. SO MY SYNTHSTATION 25 WAS A WASTE OF TIME ON THE IPHONE 4
    Don't you wish you could sue manufacturers in small claims court for the pain and suffering of having to travel to the store, haggle with an underpaid sales clerk, buy a product, set it up and find out it doesn;t work then repeat the hassle all over again?

  16. If only I had nothing but time on my hands, I'd make it hurt AKAI and the fools that keep putting bottom line and CEO paychecks over customer satisfaction and material craftmanship. Must everything be built in some shoddy Chinese factory these days where there is no QC?
    Akai's build quality has just gone to hell in a hand basket since their early products..

  17. almost as crappy as Novation's build quality (my Remote 25SL MKII suffered a drop off my keyboard table on my workstation desk when the dog ran past and hit the cable..it went down high key end first, maybe a foot and a half at the most and jacked my my three top keys to where they will not now play.)

  18. Anyway, we are taling about Akai. My MPC 5000, top of the line product (and time tested great piece of gear) would not communicate with USB. A two thousand dollar item and it comes out of the box with software glitches? I update software, same issue. Puhleezze Akai. Yep, had to take it back and exchange it…..

  19. So I thought I had learne my lesson with my MPC, which I must baby now but NO, had to just try out the synthsattion….looked too cool, could take it to work with me….
    I bought one , plugged in the batteries, read up on the immensely lame manual (which even idicated a lengthy troubleshooting scenario in case the unit would not work), then placed my IOS 4.2 White Iphone 4 (Model A1349) into the rounded (obviously designed for Iphone 3) cradle and opened up Akai Synthstation ver. 2.0.
    You could see the keys highlight in red on the App as I pushed the keys on the synthstation 25 hardware controller but but no sound from the headphone out and I had the volume knob cranked up full blast. Updated my Iphone software, yada yada, no go. I tried it with Beatmaker 2 and same issue, no sound.

  20. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  21. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  22. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  23. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  24. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  25. I Took it back to the store and two of the sales guys tried to help me figure it out and none could. We all gave up and I said to hell with it, I am getting the IK Multimedia IMidi http://www.ikmultimedia.com/teaser_20110721_rirgm
    and using a REAL controller with a Midi out to run this thing….that is, if the iRigMidi ever makes it to market….its had a high falutin flash site going for it for almost two months now and no sign of this supposedly miraculous IOS midi interface….God, I just hate electronic musical instrument manufacturers..they are so full of SH&^&*T

  26. I’ve got an ipod touch 4th gen specifically for this thing because I read you CAN make it work and it’s just not “officially supported” people supposedly have done it but it simply wont fit in the dock and I’ve tried everything and it simply won’t! I’m so frustrated and angry! Someone please explain how I can do this. It seems impossible if it doesnt fit the dock connector and my 1st gen works fine! Please help I dont wanna downgrade to a 3rd gen!!

  27. So I got my SS25 about a month ago and it worked great until like 2 days ago the headphone out stopped working. I never dropped it or got it wet or anything, I’ve tested the headphones on multiple other devices and they work fine. I’ve also tested multiple pairs of headphones with the ss25 and still no sound. I can get sound from the main outs and the iPod is connected fine(it still interacts with the apps and communicates correctly) so I know it’s a problem with the headphone out. Anybody else had this problem and solved it? Ive looked all over the Internet but haven’t found anything

  28. My (previously awesome) SynthStation 25 also just stopped working the same way – triggers keys in the app, but no sound on the headphones. This seems to be a common problem. 🙁

  29. Still just starting to mess with it… Was deal of the week at our local Guitar Center: $24.95! At that price worth it even if it sucked, but it doesn’t. Great little gizmo for working on some riffs with it on your lap on the couch or wherever…

    For the people who said “NO SOUND OUTPUT even with volume maxed”, etc… Just go to the multitasking bar on your iOS device (double click the button), slide left, and to the left of the audio transport controls there is a multi-function button. Mine has always been set to ‘lock vertical orientation’ but apparently if you had ever configured it as a mute button, that mute is kind of handled strangely in iOS. You just need to un-mute there, or go find in the Settings app how to put mute button back there and then un-mute, and the Synthstation will work just fine. That mute is separate from the rest of the iOS volume controls, and I think AKAI just forgot to check for it’s state in their app…. But quite easily remedied….

    Great little device, especially for the rock bottom price I payed. I agree it looks toy-ish, but hey it’s a great little toy! The systhstation app is kind of weak, but I already owned MusicStudio app, and it works great with it (and others).

    Peace –> VRMan

  30. So if I buy a dockXtender for my ipod 4th generation is it gonna still work well…I don’t like that not “officially supported” thing.

Leave a Reply