Recently I found myself needing a live gig keyboard. I have my trusty M-Audio Keystation 88 in my studio that I use with all my soft synths, and on the rare occasions that I’ve needed a live keyboard, I’ve taken it out with my laptop running my soft synths and it’s been fine, but as I’ve started to play more keys in a few projects I wanted a simpler solution. The thing is, I’m still mostly a guitarist and bassist and so that, combined with the fact that I was only playing some keys and I did still have my MIDI controller and soft synths made it hard for me to justify a high end Nord, Kronus, or the like.
That’s when my friend and bandmate David Houston introduced me to the Medeli AKX10 which he had just ordered for the same reasons, as he hadn’t played much keys in a while and had just taken on a keyboard gig. Now like a lot of musicians, I initially had my doubts about this keyboard for several reasons. One it’s sold as an “Accompaniment Keyboard” for one-person band type situations, like bistro singers who want to be able to have features like one-finger left hand chords and backing accompaniment that can follow your chord changes in various styles and arrangements. That plus the fact that any keyboard with built-in speakers, to my experience was mostly a low level keyboard that would make pros would turn their nose up. I found myself falling prey to some of these biases as well. Though to be honest, I do like some of the frills like the pulsing colored lights on the sides of the keyboard and the different color schemes you can choose from for the buttons. I just needed a big variety of great sounds, good feel, and a great usability, so why would I want to pay for a bunch of extra stuff I’ll never use like the auto-accompaniment and such?
There’s not a whole lot out there about this keyboard at the time of this post, but I did find this one video by Jeremy See to be extremely helpful, thorough and insightful. I mean, for $700 if this thing was at all decent, it would be worth it. The aforementioned Nords, and comparable pro keyboards go for thousands of dollars. After watching that video and learning about my friend David’s experience, I was sold on giving it a try. The thing is, even though it turns out that I don’t need at least 75% or more of the insane amount of features packed into this board, it’s not like I could possibly find a comparable board with great sounds, interface, and feel for any less than $700 so that kind of negates any feeling of “Paying for features I don’t need.”
Consequently, this thing seems to be pretty hot right now as the bang for the buck that you get is pretty inarguable. It’s certainly not perfect and I have my own little quirks and complaints but overall I’m totally satisfied and will definitely use this for live gigs.
First let’s talk about what is the most important feature in my mind: sounds. There’s a whopping 1100 sounds in here. Now while that is great and so far I haven’t had a sound that I needed that I haven’t been able to find something that worked, it’s not quite as impressive as that number sounds. There’s a ton of varieties of the various categories, and some seem almost unnecessary to me. Are all 76 different organ sounds unique and necessary? Probably not. Do I need 30 varieties of accordions and harmonicas? Likely not. 168 SFX and General MIDI? Probably won’t touch them. That being said, I imagine most of us would rather have too much than not enough. I’ve definitely found at the very least a handful of sounds in each category that I see as very useful. I find myself wishing there were more Electric Piano variations. Rhodes, Wurlitzers, and the like. Don’t get me, there’s 40 of them and some decent ones, but being a major staple sound for most players, I definitely wish there more in this particular category.
The feel of the keyboard was surprisingly good to me since I’ve played on my 88-key semi-weighted controller forever and expected to really miss that feel, but I find the Medeli easy and enjoyable to play on. I do sometimes wish I had more than 61 keys, but so far it hasn’t been a deal-breaker or anything I couldn’t work around. If they had a model of this board with more keys I would have gone that route though.
The interface and usability are definitely one of the best features of this board. I found most of it to be very intuitive and really well laid out. Especially all the main, basic operation type stuff. The main interface is a huge touch screen that even my old eyes could use live without glasses. I love that there are always 3 full keyboard voices you can set. So if you want to layer sounds, it’s not a special feature or section or anything. You just turn on one, two, or three voices with a button for each one. and you can see right there on the screen what each one is set to and change each one easily to something else if you want. There’s also one dedicated “Left” voice so if you want a split, you turn on “L” and the left voice takes over the keyboard up to the split point, which can be set to anything you want as well.
Many things can be accessed via the screen or by dedicated buttons. There’s also a great “Shortcut+” key. You can press that and any other button and it will immediately pull up the relevant settings. For example, press Shortcut+ and move the joystick and you will pull up the settings for the joystick. Shortcut+ and “Insert” will pull up the Insert FX settings screen. I also love having dedicated buttons for Transpose +/-, Octave +/-, turning the various kinds of effects on/off, and mono/poly. There’s also lots of customization that can be done. 3 knobs, 3 buttons, the 4-way joystick. However, there’s some glaring holes here to which I’ll get to in a bit.
I did read through the manual start to finish and while it’s mostly very clear, there are some things that are left a bit unexplained that I’m still not sure about, but nothing super important or relevant to me. As previously mentioned, the amount of stuff packed into this keyboard is mind-boggling, though for my personal use I won’t touch the vast majority of it. There’s so much dedicated to the auto-accompaniment, and recording/playing full songs, and a “Phrase pad” section which lets you play sets of pre-recorded phrases with 4 buttons. In just playing with it for fun it was definitely impressive. You can turn on the one-finger chords on a left hand section (again, with a definable range), or it can just intelligently follow along based on what you are playing across the whole keyboard. There’s a lot of options in this arena as well as a lot of different “style” options, and a whole slew of buttons for controlling the accompaniment with variations of the various song sections and such. I could definitely see it being amazing for any one-person band type scenarios.
There is one feature that I found to be an unexpected fun little helpful tool. Because of the ability to detect what notes you are playing and provide accompaniment, if you turn on the “Chord” feature and go into the Keyboard settings, under the “Chord” tab, select “Smart Full Range” (which is the mode where you don’t have press keys in the dedicated left hand “Chord” section but instead, it looks at everything you are playing and provides the correct accompaniment chords), you can play something and it will tell you what chord you are playing. Conversely you can select any chord and it will show you the notes in that chord. A helpful teaching and analyzation tool!
Overall I will definitely say I’m completely happy with this purchase and kind of can’t believe what you get for $700. So now let’s get to the things I’m not crazy about, though none of them make me wish I hadn’t bought it. More like quirks to be aware of.
I’m used to having a pitch wheel and a mod wheel on my M-audio controller. The pitch wheel springs back to center, while the mod wheel stays wherever you set it which is great for controlling things like Leslie speaker speed on an organ. The Medeli simply has a 4-way joystick. Right and left are pitch bend (by default, though all 4 directions are assignable to a limited number of functions), while up is modulation by default. First big glaring hole to me is that as far as I can tell there is no way to control Leslie speed on the fly. Any actual Leslie-like sound is provided as an effect and that effect parameter is not assignable. There is a “Sound Control” function you can assign to one of the 3 buttons above the joystick which, when pressed, makes the stick control pre-chosen parameters of whatever effect is applied, but with the Leslie it either controls Drive (which I can’t even really hear a difference) or wet/dry mix depending on the direction. If you want a mod wheel type experience where you can set it at a certain point and have it stay there, you can only achieve this by setting one of the buttons to “Mod Lock,” pushing the joystick to wherever you want it and then pushing that button to lock the mod there, but the mod is just simple tremolo and you can adjust the amount in the settings. Also, while I did not see this stated anywhere in the manual, I realized today that the “Sound Control” option only seems to work on the R1 voice. So if you decide to switch to the R2 or R3 voice it will not do anything. My usage has really led me to believe that R1 is meant to be your main voice for any given patch and that R2 and R3 are really meant just for layering options as opposed to having 3 separate sound in one patch that you can switch between, though you can do that too if you don’t need anything too fancy with the other voices like the “Sound Control” function or certain FX, since the manual states the not all FX are available for R3.
One sort of workaround which doesn’t achieve the same effect but can be useful is that I set a straight organ on one voice, and a rotary organ on a 2nd voice then set one of the knobs to control the volume of the rotary organ. So I can start on the straight organ and use the knob to turn up the rotary organ if I just want to accentuate the end of a phrase or something.
I also find it a peculiar choice that all of the organs by default respond to velocity. Play soft and the organ is soft, play hard and the organ is louder. I can see how maybe that might be useful in some situations but I want my organs to work like organs which are not velocity sensitive. I personally accomplish this by either turning up the Velocity offset parameter all the way and saving that as a user sound, or by setting Button 3 to the “Touch Sensitivity” option so I can toggle it on/off at will. Interestingly this setting is in the “Global Settings” but is not at all global. Each memory location saves those settings though there is also another cool feature which allows you to “Lock” various parameters you might not want to change if you change memory locations, so if I want to I can “Lock” Controller settings so my Joystick and Assignable Buttons don’t get changed if I change patches. Even more interesting is that while the organs are touch sensitive by default, the Harpsichords (correctly) are not so it seems they thought about that with some instruments and not others.
Another choice that baffled comes when editing sounds. Now you don’t have a lot of options here. You can’t adjust oscillators or anything that deep, but as anyone who programs synth sounds knows, one of the most basic things you adjust is the ADSR envelope (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release). Strangely, in the edit screen you can only adjust Attack, Decay, and Release. And just in case you are unfamiliar with the ADSR envelope, “Sustain” in this context is not what most people think of such as a sustain pedal. It’s the level to which the sound decays at a rate dictated by the Decay parameter. Now this isn’t a big deal as I haven’t found myself in need of adjusting that parameter but still strange to me to give you only 3 of the 4 most basic sound editing parameters. On that edit page, there’s even a little picture of the ADSR envelope to remind you of what each section does but the picture does NOT reflect the actual settings, it’s just kind of a generic reference to remind you of the order of the sections and kind of generically what they do.
On other Keyboards I’ve played, when playing an organ, strings or a synth or anything that doesn’t decay like a piano, the sustain pedal will cause that instrument to simply sustain indefinitely. On the Medeli, they sustain like a piano does where they slowly decay, another odd choice. You can set the sustain to maximum which helps and makes the sustain so long that in practical application, it should serve the same purpose, but if you wait long enough the sounds will still gradually decay. There is an option to use the pedal (or a button if you’d like) to toggle on “latching” but that’s not the same as sustain, as when you play a new note or chord, the first one stops.
I also have been trying to figure out an optimal workflow. You can save user “Voices” (single sounds you have modified) but I find myself wishing I could save full setups with a name. Remember, at any given time you have 3 separate “Voices” or sounds that you can turn on/off as well as a fourth “Left” voice if you want a split, the 3 custom button and joystick settings, the “Chord” settings (for the easy left hand chords if you want them), the “Style” settings (accompaniment styles), and the Phrase Pad that you have loaded. You can store all this to a memory location in a bank, and you can name banks, but you can’t name individual memory locations which is exactly what I often find myself wanting to do. So I rename “Bank 001” to “Main” (or whatever you want) and then put a couple of my main piano sounds in Memory Location 1, it would be cool to be able to label that location with a title like “Pianos” or maybe a song title if it’s a couple of sounds for a specific song. Also, the list of Banks is alphabetical by name and that is your only choice. No other options.
Another quirk I found peculiar is that there is no way to tell it turn the speakers off if you connect to line out (like I would be doing live). You can tell it to auto-mute the speaker if you plug headphones in, but this does not apply to the line out. You have to set the speakers to “Always Off” if you don’t want them while using the line out.
I mentioned the “Phrase Pad” which lets you press 4 different buttons to playback pre-recorded phrases. There’s a bunch included though I don’t know what anyone would use those for. Recording your own isn’t intuitive. At first I thought there was no way to record your own, but then I read the manual. The only way to get to the Record function is to first Edit one of the Phrase banks already there. Then on that screen you have the option to make a new bank and can record your own little phrases up to 32 bars, and have them loop if you like. One very weird side effect I came across was that I had recorded a simple piano slide in the Phrase Pad, then had selected a “Style” and played that style to play along with. After that my piano slide phrase suddenly had delay on it. It was not on the original phrase and if I switched Memory Locations and pulled up my custom Phrase Bank there was no delay there either. I finally figured out that only after playing a Style, the Phrase Bank would take on the effect assigned within the Style Editing page and I could find no way to get rid of it other than going into that Style Editing page and turning that Effect all the way down and then saving it as a new custom Style. I’m still searching for a better way to get the FX off my Phrase Pad after having a Style Effect infect them.
You can hook up a mic but only via 1/4″ not XLR. You can have separate effects and such on the mic and there is a built in vocoder which I haven’t tried yet. There’s also a built in arpeggiator with all the options you could ever need. This afternoon for fun I recreated the iconic “Hungry Like The Wolf” arpeggiator line. I’m not sure if this is a bug or not but I did notice that any time I edited the sound it would reset the arpeggiator to 1 octave and I had to keep resetting it to 2.
You can hook a sustain pedal and an expression pedal if you like, as well. There’s lots of memory for your own sounds, songs, styles, etc. MIDI ports, USB ports and a port for a USB drive to import sounds or do firmware updates. It comes with a music stand you can easily attach or detach.
I personally found the “Grand Suite” software pretty useless for my needs but it seems capable if you want to dive in to creating your own songs/styles or sounds from your own samples to import. I couldn’t seem to edit anything on the actual keyboard itself via this software but it’s so easy to do on the board itself, that I can’t see why I’d want to anyway.
Even as long as this post is, I have only scratched the surface of this thing. I am certainly no expert on keyboards by any means, but I’d be surprised if there was anything even remotely comparable at this price point. In that video I linked to, Jeremy See seems to think this keyboard is better than most twice its price. I also got the impression from his video that this keyboard is in a whole other league from most of Medeli’s other offerings which seemed to be less than pro quality.
Even with all its quirks (and likely many more I forgot to mention) I’m completely happy with it. It’s a pleasure to play and use and I look forward to gigging with it.