As the Akai APC40 was to Ableton Live, so the Akai Fire hardware controller is to FL Studio. It looks like the step sequencing grid you see when you open FL, and it was created in collaboration with Image-Line. So can it bring something new to the integrated controller world?
Okay, so the pitch here is easy: yes, you can use any number of controllers with FL Studio. But first-time users may want an integrated package, and dedicated hardware can be pre-mapped to do useful stuff.
What you get from the Fire is a big grid of buttons, four encoders, and then a whole bunch of triggers including transport and other functions. It’s clearly descended from Akai’s own APC and Novation Launchpad (the latter still features in product images for FL software). The difference: more triggers for software functions, and the grid is 16×4 instead of 8×8.
Shifting from 8×8 to 16×4, though, makes a real difference in workflow. It mirrors the iconic step sequencer that has always popped up first when you load FL Studio (back to the first Fruity Loops), and it makes programming rhythms easier, since you can see a whole bar’s worth of sixteenth notes.
And Akai are positioning this with trap and hip-hop in mind. That makes sense, as those music styles – both in terms of listeners and producers – are growing fast.
What you don’t get, though, is velocity sensitivity, as on the MPC (original and current) and rivals like Maschine. So instead of playing in those velocities, you’ll dial them in with encoders. But while Akai is the brand that popularized that way of working, it does seem that programming in rhythms fits the FL ethos.
$199 buys you a lot of power, though, not only because of the shortcut triggers but also the inclusion of the OLED display – those these little OLEDs currently showing up on entry-level hardware will require a bit of squinting.
What can you actually control, apart from obviously that step sequencer?
Load/audition sounds. Plug-ins and even project files are accessible from the browser.
Step sequencer. Since this can be combined with samples and you can, for instance, dial in pitch changes and the like (see videos), this does look fun.
Trigger patterns, performances. Hardcore FL users have hacked live rigs for a while this way; now you get hardware that can do it out of the box. Performance mode can trigger both patterns and audio. So yeah – this is absolutely an alternative to Ableton Live.
One-touch mute/solo. Okay, no volume faders (Fire alongside a Novation LaunchControl XL, for instance, would be killer), but one-touch mute/solo is also essential for live jams.
Note mode, drum mode. Yes, you can also use those buttons for pitch and drums, even mapping the first 4×4 grid MPC-style to FPC and SliceX.
Transport, record. Countdown, wait, and metronome settings are also friendly to doing takes.
Parameter control. The four encoders also map to both device parameters and channel and mixer settings.
And if you’re really crazy, Akai wants to let you know you can connect up to four Fires at once.
More detail in the videos (selected – they just dumped a bunch)):