In the early nineties I was half a pop synth duo called Then There Were None, named because our reliance on electronics was fueled by band member attrition. Because 2 people were responsible for a heavily layered wall of sound, our live setup was cumbersome and complicated! I had a Korg M1 keyboard that we used as a sequencer. Its midi output went into a patchbay that enabled us to send sequences to a Yamaha TG33 synth module and sync with a Roland R5 drum machine. Between songs I would frantically conduct sysex dumps from an Alesis rack-mounted data disk. I have no idea how I was able to plug in so many midi cables in the dim lighting conditions of the typical club and/or dive bar. My 21st century electronica gig setup is a breeze by comparison: all I need to do is fire up the laptop and plug in an audio interface and USB midi controller.

And now we are in an era where even the laptop is deemed too cumbersome! The advent of iPhone apps has put the promise of a handheld band in reach. I siezed on this opportunity when I bought an iPod touch and recorded an EP predictably named “Touch.” I used this device during my morning commute to come up with musical sketches on apps such as FingerBeat, iSyn, and iDrum, and then sent the output to my desktop computer back at my apartment so I could arrange the parts into more polished tracks using Reaper.

Though I was blown away by the capabilities of iPhone apps, playing with thumbs left a lot to be desired, so I was excited to read of the release of the Akai SynthStation25, a 2 octave keyboard controller for the iPod Touch or iPhone that works with the Akai SynthStation app. In fact I was so excited I placed a pre-order over the summer though I did not actually receive the unit until a few weeks ago.

The unit itself is only $99. The keys are not full-sized, so the keyboard can easily fit in a laptop bag. Unfortunately any protective skin from the iPod/iPhone must be removed for it to fit in its slot on the top of the unit. But since most of my touch’s other functions can be fulfilled by my android phone, my naked iPod touch lives happily in its new keyboard controller dock. The audio outputs are line-level RCA and 1/8 inch stereo headphone jacks and a volume knob is conveniently located next to them. The synthstation is powered by either 4 AAA batteries (included) or a standard mini-USB cable (not included).

The app is also purchased separately. Perhaps in response to criticism that the app was not included, Akai lowered the price to a special rate of $1.99 after the units shipped.

The app provides 3 synths and a drum machine packed with classic sounds. The drum kits are preset but the volume, pitch, and volume can be adjusted for each sound. However the program’s ability to record musical phrases leaves a lot to be desired. Although the synths respond well to the keyboard with very little latency, the sequencer does not allow the recording of parts in real time, only via step programming. This to me is a very serious drawback, since half the reason I bought the device was to make it easier to play parts that I would want to record! Each synth does have an arpegiator with a latch function for creation of a percolating rhythm bed on the fly, and live parts can be played over step-inputted creations, but the workflow feels very limiting.

The app does enable tracks to be recorded to the cloud so they can be downloaded in midi and .wav format. But I can’t see myself coming up with anything with this app that I would want to save for later!

UPDATE 9/11: version 2.0 has been released with real-time recording! Yay!!!

Thankfully Akai allow third-party developers to write iPhone apps that are compatible with synthstation25. So far one of the first apps to provide synthstation25 support has enhanced the interface’s potential. I will be writing soon about NanoStudio, which serves as the perfect foil for the synthstation app by featuring real time recording and the importing of user-created samples! Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here is some annotated fumbling with AKAI SynthStation courtesy of Ms. Arthur!