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