Saturday, 30 March 2013

Akai Miniak

I've just picked up a new bit of kit for my bedroom after spotting a bit of a bargain on Gumtree for just £100 and a trip down to leafy Kenley in South London (barely Zone 5) in the snow. It's an Akai Miniak and in pretty decent shape as well – if only for the missing knob cap on one of the endless controller knobs and a couple of video game stickers on the unit itself that came off with zero fuss. Thanks to some isopropyl alcohol that made the whole unit stink like it had just been dumped in a vat of vodka, the stickers left no marks either and in general the unit is solid, working and with no scratches or dents at all. This post is more of a kind of "first impressions" review after I've had a better chance to sit down and play with it for a few hours.

Missing knob cap is the only blemish here.
The strange thing was that whenever I had tried out a Miniak in stores, I had had a less than stellar experience with it. I know that it's important to have a go with new gear before you buy, but this is becoming increasingly difficult to do with a lack of decent shops carrying music gear in London. London's Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) has only about three decent synthesiser places left, with the rest being more guitar-oriented, so it's tough to get hold of new gear to get a hands-on test.

In the case of the Miniak, problem I had with the store keyboard is that it was difficult to understand the keyboard and how it works without having read the manual first or asking a shop assistant. Of course, asking the guys that work at the store gives the wrong impression and then suddenly you end up with an over-eager sales person trying to force you to buy the damn thing for more than you should. Not that I want this review to sound like I'm trying to justify my purchase; for £100 the Miniak is a complete steal and more than useable as a performance synth or something to program and play at home.

Fairly spartan interface 
Speaking of programming, this happens to be the first thing that struck me once I actually sat down and had a play with it. All synth editing takes place using a click-style rotary encoder to cycle through all the menu options - of which there are absolutely loads - that creates a daunting task when it comes to programming the synth engine. Thankfully, there are quick shortcuts for all the main sections of the synth engine and after a few hours of playing with the Miniak, I found that the options are easy enough to access and started to get some decent sounds out of it.

As for the synthesiser, I think it's the sort of synth that benefits from embracing its digital origins from the Alesis Ion and rather than trying to just be an accurate emulation of everything analogue, it does this and adds loads of extra filters (emulations based on popular synths including the TB-303 and Oberheim), some decent compressors, plenty of modulation routing and sound effects, though some of the delays are a little lacklustre. This isn't to say that they aren't usable for when you're programming but when it comes to effects these can always be added afterwards in a DAW or dedicated external effects unit.

In truth, the first things I have been programming in to it have been Minimoog 3 oscillator patches to get the hang of it and so far I have been happy with the results. Those users who complain that the basses sound weedy or the saws are too thin (you know, the usual analogue rhetoric) are probably missing some of the options as I have had no trouble here in creating some thick and pleasing sounds. Pads can be as complex as you like, with phasers and LFOs galore, while patch management is quick and straightforward - there is plenty of space to save and adapt new creations alongside existing ones from the factory and last owners. It is also easy enough to change from 8 voice poly to 4x2 voices, 2x4 and a massive 8 voice unison mode for totally awesome Reece detuned saw wave bass lines or simply beefing up four note chords. I do have the gooseneck microphone for the vocoder, but like many vocoders, I can't actually tell much of the difference between the Miniak's 40 voice and the MicroKorg's 8 voice offerings.

Oh the possibilities!
Speaking of comparisons with existing gear I have, a nice feature that I wish the MicroKorg has is the easy way to assign pretty much any synth parameter to the two mod wheels and three endless knob controllers and in default mode, the wheels are pitch, vibrato and filter cutoff, with the knobs doing pre-programmed things depending on the patch. Looking beyond the obvious things like filter cutoff and resonance, you can also do things like effects mix percentage to add delay on the fly, for example, and being able to quickly assign the controllers to whatever you want is a joy. I haven't even dabbled with split voices, arppegios, sequencing, the built in drum machine and multis that the Miniak is capable of just yet, but it's clear that there is a lot going on under the hood 

It does have its faults, including an underwhelming, springy keyboard (semi weighted? In your dreams Akai!), somewhat fiddly editing, an area that gets hot under the right hand side near the power plug and its obscene weight (no holding it on your knees or battery operation - who actually does this?), but for the price and a little trip down to South London, I am happy with the good value so far.