One of the most popular articles on this site was my review for the Akai MPK Mini MK2. It has a small footprint that makes it incredibly portable, packs a ton of features, and comes at an excellent price point without making the unit feel cheap. It’s no surprise that this keyboard was a best-selling mini MIDI keyboard everywhere — and Akai finally released a new version after five years.
But there’s a ton of brands competing for your dollars in the portable mini MIDI controller space. Is it worth a buy in 2022? Let’s find out.
Let’s start out with the most important aspect of a MIDI keyboard and check out the actual keys on the MPK Mini’s 3rd generation unit.
As with most keyboards in this size, you get 25 keys total spanning two octaves. There are Octave+ and Octave- buttons that allow you to move across 4 octaves up or down for a total of 10 octaves — plenty of keys to work with for whatever instrument you want to play.
A nice feature is that the lights blinks to indicate your position whenever you press one of the Octave buttons based on what octave you’re currently at; for example, if you’re two octaves down from middle C, the Octave- button will blink twice. This is great for most bedroom producers, but don’t get it wrong: this is primarily for one-handed playing to create basic melodies and chords. If you have any sort of experience playing the keys and are primarily a two-handed keyboardist who needs 3-4 octaves at once, this keyboard probably isn’t for you.
The MK3 improves upon the MK2’s keybed. It’s not semi-weighted (which I’ve actually come to prefer more over the years, as my fingers don’t get as tired while composing), but there’s more key travel when you press a note. It’s also not as noisy as the previous generation’s keys, which is a plus. However, the sharp/flat keys (the black notes in between the white ones) do feel a little bit too tiny and plastic-y for my tastes — not a huge deal breaker by any means, but something you might want to keep in mind.
One thing I noticed is that this keyboard is a fingerprint magnet — which becomes especially obvious if you purchased one of the models with black keys. It doesn’t affect performance and it’s nothing that a cheap microfiber cloth can’t fix, but some producers might want to take this into consideration when choosing a colorway.
Let’s talk about the joystick. As you probably know by now, one of the unique features in the MPK Mini is the decision to forego pitch bend and mod wheels for a joystick. It’s an improvement over the MK2, as this generation gives you more resistance making it easier to control. You’ll still have to be a bit more precise with your movements than you normally would so you don’t accidentally modulate while pitch bending, simply because it’s quite easy to mess with both the X AND Y axis movements of the joystick. However, it does feel quite fun once you accumulate to it, which took me about a day or two.
Now, as much as I liked the feel of the keys, this keyboard has one huge drawback: I found the keyboard’s default velocity curves to be quite poor. Maybe this is just my lack of keyboard experience, but it was very difficult to get a relatively consistent velocity with the default settings — the slightest change in force when pressing the keys could result in a loud note or a very soft one. It’s pretty frustrating, to say the least.
Unfortunately, unlike on keyboards from other manufacturers, there’s no easy way to edit the velocity curve either. Akai’s own MPK Editor software doesn’t allow you to do it (as far as I’ve poked around — if you’ve found a way to do it, please let me know in the comments) and Akai has yet to release a detailed user manual for this device. After a couple of hours searching the internet for advice, there are only two ways to edit the velocity curves:
- Press and hold the Full Level button on the keyboard for 5 seconds, then turn the knobs until all velocity settings are on max level (you have to turn them up in order from 1 to 4) and the black balance to be at 1.0x.
- Edit the velocity curves in your DAW to be flat (in FL Studio, you can do this by going to MIDI settings, clicking the graph icon next to “Link note on velocity to”, then dragging the first node all the way up — sorry, I don’t know how to do this in Ableton or other programs)
As soon as I made those changes (I opted for solution #2), the keyboard finally plays like a dream. It’s disappointing that Akai makes zero mention of this anywhere in their materials, and I had to dig through music forums and Reddit to find the solution.
Again, you may not need to make these changes depending on your experience with playing the keyboard and it’s possible that you’ll actually welcome the default velocity curves of the device, but for my experience level and the music I make (hip-hop, which tends to have very little variance with velocities in melodies), I would prefer keyboards that makes it much easier to change these settings.
One of the great features about the Akai MPK Mini MK3 is that it comes with 8 pads, which is quite a unique feature for a keyboard of its size. If you need more than that, you can easily press a button to change banks, giving you a total of 16 pads to play with.
The pads are full-sized, so it’s much easier to play than the pads on, say, the Novation Launchkey Mini. Akai upgraded the pads in this generation’s model to be the same pads as they have on their MPCs — they’re a little stiffer and firmer than it was in the MK2, but it is more responsive and tactile than the previous generation’s. I would wager that the MPK Mini MK3 has the best pads in any mini MIDI controller at this price point.
There’s also Note Repeat and Arpeggiator buttons for use with both the pads and the keys (syncing the keyboard to your DAW’s BPM settings is as simple as pressing and holding down the Note Repeat button then moving Knob 6). In my opinion, these buttons aren’t actually that useful as I’ve actually never used them in my life — I would personally much prefer it if the MPK Mini used this space for transport controls instead so you can control your DAW.
Unlike the keys which make this incredibly difficult, I’ve found the default velocity curves for the pad to be great — plus you have the option to easily change the velocity curves. All you have to do is to tap the Full Level button and each hit for the pads will trigger maximum velocity regardless of how hard you press it — again, a great feature for someone like me who doesn’t play live and only uses a MIDI keyboard for programming notes in my DAW.
(Speaking of the buttons, they’re made of plastic and make a loud click-y sound when you press it, making them feel somewhat like a toy. Minor gripe, but a downside nevertheless.)
Another great thing about the pads is that it can multitask. While you can map them to your software to play drums, you can also use them to play melodies by pressing the Prog Select button and selecting either the Major Scale mode or Minor Scale mode. While not as versatile as other controllers with a more robust option that allows you to choose the key, this is still great for those who aren’t as well-versed in music theory (or are complete newbies to it, as I once was) as you can jam on random notes without ever worrying if you’re out of key.
A great reason to upgrade to the MPK Mini MK3 is the new generation encoders. As opposed to the MK2’s knobs that only rotate 270 degrees, the MK3’s encoders allow you to rotate endlessly in one direction or the other.
I personally love using knobs while designing sounds or mixing, so the endless encoders in the MK3 allow much more freedom of expression since you’re not limited by how much the encoder can turn. If you use a program such as FL Studio, Studio One or Reason, you can easily assign these knobs to anything you like within your DAW — you may have to take the time to set them up and save yourself a template depending on the program you’re using, but this endeavor is well worth the effort.
The OLED Screen
Another new feature in the MPK Mini MK3 is the introduction of the new OLED screen. This is one of the most notable features in this generation, and proves to be quite useful while navigating your DAW with the keyboard. The screen is bright and easy to read, and gives you an idea of the parameters you’re controlling on the keyboard itself without having to look at your computer screen. I do find it strange that Akai decided to display the MIDI note number instead of the actual note value when the hitting the pads (i.e. C#3) which I personally would’ve found to be more useful, but it’s not a dealbreaker by any means.
However, I did find this to be quite tiny — it’s almost the same as the OLED screen on Native Instrument’s Komplete M32 keyboard — so for some people, this may not be as useful as they would need more information than this screen would display. But if that sounds like you, chances are you wouldn’t be looking for a mini MIDI keyboard anyway, and perhaps a 49-key controller would be more up to your speed.
As soon as I plugged in the MPK Mini MK3 onto my laptop (running on the latest build of Windows 10), it was instantly recognized and installed — I was able to quickly detect it as a MIDI controller in all the DAWs I have on my computer (FL Studio, Studio One, and Reason).
The pads can be automatically mapped to some DAWs — notably, Ableton Live, Logic Pro X, FL Studio 20, and Garageband. When I tried it out with FL Studio (my primary beatmaking DAW), the pads are automatically mapped to the native FPC VST, which is nice — but you might want to consider purchasing this custom template for $12 if you load samples straight to a particular channel and don’t want to have to use FPC.
If you want to tweak the parameters further though (or use this keyboard with another DAW of choice; for example, Reason users may want to map this with Kong), you’ll need to create an account over at the Akai website, register your product, and download the MPK Mini III editor software. This will allow you to change which MIDI notes the pads and encoders control for ultimate versatility.
Included with your keyboard are bonus software such as MPC Beats and sample packs. I didn’t play around with this as much since I already have my main DAWs, but if you’re a complete beginner to beatmaking (or are planning to buy this keyboard as a gift for someone interested in starting out), this software is a perfect way to start making beats. MPC Beats functions perfectly as a VST instrument in other DAWs as well, which makes it an ideal program to start with.
Speaking of VSTs, you also get the following software (which, I should note, are great programs but require you to use an iLok account to use in your DAW):
- AIR Hybrid 3, a synth plugin
- Mini Grand, a grand piano plugin
- Velvet, a vintage electric piano plugin
With all that said, Akai’s MPK Mini MK3 is an excellent MIDI keyboard for a lot of people. It comes with everything that a complete newbie to beatmaking would need, and it’s excellent for those who need a small, portable rig for live performances. Producers who need drum pads and knobs on their MIDI controllers would find this model to be a great bang for their buck as well. Lastly, if you already own a MK2 and are looking to replace it with something newer, the MK3 is a no-brainer.
It’s not without its downsides — lack of transport controls could potentially be a dealbreaker, and if you use Ableton Live or Maschine, you might want to consider other models that have tighter integrations with the software (Novation’s Launchkey Mini and Native Instrument’s Komplete M32, respectively). But at a very nice price point of a little over a hundred dollars, it’s hard to go wrong with this keyboard.