The Akai Fire is the first hardware device custom-built for FL Studio. It features a lot of user-friendly integrations that make the DAW experience better. But, it may not be the best tool for a film composer to invest in. Read my full review below.
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It’s no secret that FL Studio is my favorite music software. I may just be stubborn, but it’s the DAW I grew up playing around with, and it has grown to incorporate a ton of professional features. So, when I heard Akai was making a hardware controller custom designed for FL Studio, I dove right in and bought one.
For more on digital audio workstation software, check out this post.
Akai has a long history of producing beloved hardware music controllers (most notably the MPC). They basically revolutionized hip hop with the release of the MPC60 in 1988. With that pedigree, I figured this new midi controller would be an awesome addition to my project studio.
As it turned out, it was pretty great, but not as useful as I had hoped…
The Akai Fire tries to pack 50 pounds of functionality into a 10 pound bag. It manages to be capable of a lot, but there are compromises. First and foremost, it’s obvious that it’s really focused around FL Studio’s Step Sequencer.
Most of the Akai Fire is comprised of a 4×16 grid of “stamps,” or small fingernail-size buttons. These correspond 1:1 to the default layout of the step sequencer in FL Studio. When you press a button, you enable a sample to play on a certain beat. In 4/4 time, each beat is sliced into fourths, so you get four “stamps” per beat. It’s much simpler than it sounds, I promise. It’s a pretty intuitive way to program drum beats in the software, and this hardware makes it so much faster.
If you kick the Akai Fire into “Note” mode, those small buttons light up in a rough approximation of a piano keyboard. If you have a channel selected, you can play that virtual instrument by pressing those small keys. It takes some getting used to, but you can play notes straight into the Piano Roll this way.
One cool feture here is the ability to transpose the keyboard – you can shift the root note up or down. So, while you’re playing in C, your notes are being translated up or down to any key you want.
“Drum Mode” on the Akai Fire lights up two 4×4 grids of the small stamp buttons. These correspond to two banks of the FPC plugin – which is a software mimic of Akai’s MPC drum/sampler machine.
Tracing the foodchain involved here is kind of meta: (1) Someone samples a breakbeat, (2) that sample is loaded onto an Akai MPC, (3) ImageLine writes the FPC software to emulate an MPC, (4) Akai creates a piece of hardware to mimic the FPC, (5) you press a small key to play that same breakbeat. Why not just play the drums?
This is a great way to trigger drums or samples. The Step Sequencer can feel robotic and constrained, but the FPC lets me add a certain imprecise human element to my music that I’m often looking for.
There is a mixer mode built into the Akai Fire, but it is somewhat limited. You can select mixer tracks, then use the faders to control volume, pan, low eq and high eq. You can assign tracks to mixer channels, and solo/mute tracks, but there are no linear faders. And, the 4×16 “stamps” don’t do anything useful in this mode.
There are two “User” presets on the device, which effectively turn the Akai Fire into a generic midi controller. At that point, every button on its surface is programmable by you. So, you can link any parameter to any button you want. If you wanted to, you could map your favorite effects and channel parameters to buttons to be quickly manipulated.
This mode turns the keypad into triggers for samples and loops. You play a song live, using the stamp keys to enable different instruments, melodies, and loops. If you combine this with User modes to custom route filters and effects, you can have complete control over your sound as it happens.
The Akai Fire is a great piece of hardware for creating beats and drum loops. If you often spend your time crafting the perfect beat in the Step Sequencer, you’ll love how quickly you can experiment and play around. The Drum mode likewise gives you tactile control over your samples.
For a composer or producer on the go, it’s a small, quality device that travels well. Take it out into the wild, and you essentially have a midi keyboard, MPC controller, faders, and transport controls in your backpack.
Check out this travel case to protect it when you’re traveling.
If you live inside FL Studio but think some things require too many mouse clicks, you’ll love the deeper functionality accessible by the Akai Fire like library browser navigation, pattern selection, and mixer assignments.
Finally, the transport controls make it uber-simple to control your playback or record your music. There were always keyboard shortcuts for things like enabling the metronome, loop record, or switching between song and pattern mode, but they are finally all collected in one intuitive area. I found myself preferring thse Fire buttons to the keyboard shortcuts I used to use.
While it looks and feels great, the Akai Fire is lacking one crucial component for me: touch sensitivity. This is a problem in both Drum mode and Note mode.
As a film composer, I may write some drum beats occasionally, but the majority of my time spent with drum samples is in more of a percussion mode. I’ll use the step sequencer occasionally, but my bread and butter is loading up the FPC with percussion samples. I’ll play gong hits, cymbal rolls, or bass drum accents in my film score cues. These require finesse and control over dynamics, but the Akai Fire lacks the ability to play any sample at less than 100% velocity. Many times I’ll use layered samples that sound different depending on how hard you hit the pad (like the gong), but I can’t do that here.
It’s the same (but worse) in keyboard mode. I appreciate the innovative way they’ve replicated a keyboard on the device, but it feels like an afterthought. The keys are tiny, you only get three octaves (even though four are displayed), and there is no touch sensitivity. I can record the notes of a melody for a cue, but I can’t perform it, or add any sort of expressiveness to it. With this device, I need to open the piano roll and manually alter the velocity of every note. Very counter-productive.
My last big gripe with the Akai Fire is the mixer functionality. This feels like more of an afterthought than the keyboard implementation. When mixing, I typically need access to many channels at once, but the Fire only lets you control one channel strip at a time. The dedicated volume and pan faders are nice, but I have almost zero use for the pre-assigned high- and low-eq faders. I can assign effect automation to buttons and faders in a User mode, but any midi controller would let you do that.
At the end of the day, I appreciate the Akai Fire for its features, but, speaking as a film composer, I don’t see much use for it in the studio. Unless you are writing a lot of drum loop-heavy cues, most of its coolest features will be worthless.
If you are composing while traveling, or if you’re building your studio on a budget, it definitely adds value to your FL Studio workflow. But, there are many devices that will fulfill a composer’s needs – at a much lower price point (including a great one from Akai!).
In fact, if you are interested in the Akai Fire as a film composer, I suggest you first check out my next post: the Best Small Midi Controller for Film Composers.