Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 4 January 2019
First of all, the disclaimer. I'm not a musician. I've never played a keyboard before in my life, nor have I ever produced music on a computer. I own a ukulele, which I play really badly, and that's about it.
What did I want? I fancied having a mess with a keyboard, but I wanted something small, ideally small enough to stick in my suitcase when I go travelling away with work, so not something bulky or heavy, and ideally that could run off batteries. I also wanted something that could make sounds on its own, had a speaker so I could hear what I was doing, and could also have headphones connected so I wouldn't upset my wife too much. I liked the idea of something that I could connect to my PC or laptop so I could do some fancier stuff if the mood took me. Above all else, because this would most likely be a bit of a fad for me, I didn't want to spend an absolute fortune.
It's safe to say that for me, the Akai MPK Mini Play ticks all of the boxes. The first thing you notice is that it is tiny! Powered by 3 AA batteries or by USB (more on that later) it's a dinky little thing, with 25 keys, eight drum pads, six knobs you can twiddle to mess with the sound, and 128 different keyboard sounds and ten drum kits to play with. As soon as I put the batteries in, the first thing I did was to press a key to hear what it sounded like, then turn the knob at the top to change instruments and press the same key again to hear how it now sounded, which of course I repeated 128 times much to the frustration of my wife (thank heaven for headphones!) The keyboard has a tiny built-in speaker but even on full volume, it's quiet - don't expect it to fill a room, but it's fine for sitting by yourself, tinkering away. Of course, if you connect the keyboard to a speaker with its own volume control you could make things rather louder.
On the left of the keyboard you'll find various other controls. The red joystick allows you to bend the pitch of a note, and below this the arpeggiator will play a note multiple times when pressed - you can configure the repeat interval by selecting a setting using the keys (explained in the rather skimpy manual.) There are buttons to move up or down through the octaves too. As a full sized keyboard has more than 25 keys on it, the MPK Mini Play starts out as being somewhere in the middle of a full keyboard's range, so if you press the "octave down" button you'll effectively shift to the left a bit, and "octave up" shifts you to the right. The drum pads are pressure sensitive, so the harder you tap them the louder the drum sounds, but if you press the "full level" button they sound at maximum volume no matter how hard you hit them. All in all, just with this basic functionality, it's loads of fun, and for an absolute beginner like me it's a joyous little thing to play with.
Inside the box, there's a USB cable. On the back of the keyboard you'll find a headphone socket (standard 3.5mm connector, as used on mobile phones etc.), a port for connecting a sustain / loop pedal, a USB port, and a switch labelled "USB / BATT". If the switch is in the "BATT" position, the keyboard is essentially "on" and running off battery power, so it will produce sounds using its own internal workings. If however you flick the switch to "USB" it is basically "off" and won't do anything until you connect the USB lead and plug it into a computer. Please note, the keyboard can't run off something like a USB phone charger. As soon as you plug the keyboard into a computer is is effectively "dumb", and acts as a controller for music production software. Of course, if you don't have any such software, you won't be able to use it with your computer. Thankfully, Akai have included a card inside the box with a link to register your keyboard, and then you can download some free software. The software you can get includes ProTools|First, SONiVOX Wobble, Air Hybrid, Reason Lite, and Akai's own MPC Essentials. Personally I found that MPC Essentials doesn't seem to work with the MPK Mini Play, and some of the other packages needed a PC which was at least an i5 processor to work (eg ProTools|First) so my computer wouldn't work with it, and others were for eg dubstep music production, which isn't my cup of tea, but I quite like messing with Reason Lite. Mac options are available for all of the downloadable packages, and you can also use it with Garageband apparently.
All in all, I absolutely love my MPK Mini Play. It may not be the greatest keyboard in the world, and other MIDI controllers may be better, but this one does everything I wanted it to do and more. I'm certainly happy!
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