Following the release of MPC2.4, Chris Lyth checks out Akai's flagship one-box solution
Not so long ago, new products weren't released until they'd been extensively tested and revised, so that they worked straight off the bat. More recently, though, some companies seem happy to beta-test a product on paying customers without so much as blushing!
Now, to be fair, the MPC Live was actually pretty good when it was released – but recent software upgrades (full details of the lastest version, MPC 2.4, can be found here) have catapulted it forward to a stage where it's a different proposition altogether.
So let’s have a look at what’s under the hood, and see if it can re-establish itself as the techno and hip-hop producer’s weapon of choice in 2019…
Firstly, as you would expect, the overall build quality is very good and the unit feels sturdy. I would have no hesitation taking this out on the road, or indeed perhaps using it as a shield if things got a bit tasty. At the back we have plenty of options for connectivity: there are balanced jack and RCA inputs and six balanced jack outputs. MIDI is handled by two ins and two outs, plus a pair of USB ports that can host class compliant MIDI devices. There’s also an SD card in addition to USB for transferring content, and a port to connect to your computer of choice.
The touchscreen is the most noticeable change from MPCs of yore, but I’ve found that it enhances the hardware rather than undermines it. It works in much the same way as a phone screen, allowing you to zoom and expand with thumb and forefinger, and it’s responsive and sensitive enough to use with the piano roll for detailed editing.
The pads, as anyone familiar with MPC will expect, are rugged and responsive – far better than those on some other manufacturers' 'MPC-style' machines. There’s an option to fit a hard drive, which makes it possible to store a massive sound library if required. The Q-Link encoders feel superb and cleverly map themselves to the parameters that you are using on the screen, which is great for editing and live performance where you can have control over synths, FX etc.
The icing on the cake is a lithium-ion battery that will give you up to six hours of mains-free wanderlust.
Sample and sequence
Sampling, sequencing and performance have always been the bread and butter of any MPC, and it’s no hyperbole to suggest that this is a next generation machine.
The fundamental workflow and modes of operation are consistent with the MPC legacy machines, so both newcomers and MPC veterans will feel very much at home with the MPC Live. Patterns can be recorded by using the pads or MIDI keyboard, or entered via the step sequencer. Once your pattern is played in, you can edit it to your heart's content using the touchscreen.
Akai has taken great pains to preserve the traditional MPC workflow, an approach which has its pros and cons, the main 'con' being that the arrangement function is a bit clunky and long-winded by modern standards. The big 'pro' is that at last we have a tactile instrument that combines MIDI, sampling, mixing, sequencing and audio recording into one compact, purpose-built machine.
All mod cons
If you're more comfortable with triggering loops and scenes on the fly, Ableton-style, you will enjoy the inclusion of the clip program function. A clip program is like a standard kit program, with samples assigned to each pad, but is instead set up for playing loops. Hitting a pad plays the assigned loop, and it's set up with mute groups in such a way that one loop is played from each vertical row at a time. Very Ableton indeed, as is the timestretching, which takes its cue from the Master Tempo to keep your loops in time. This would be very handy for remixing or playing live.
Another powerful addition is the Audio Tracks function, which allows you to record multiple tracks at a time and import audio by dropping samples into the audio window.
While its standalone functionality is its key feature, switching the MPC from standalone to software controller mode is fairly painless as both hardware and plug-ins use the same project file format.
Once you have the MPC and your computer connected via USB, the MPC hardware acts as a controller with the computer taking on all the processing. The MPC software can be hosted in your DAW environment, and allows you access to your favourite VST plug-ins, bounce your MPC parts out into your main DAW and have more outputs for extra processing. You can also drag and drop sounds in and out, which is very handy for building kits quickly from your own sample library.
One limitation that should be noted, however, is that when you start a track in software mode with a VST plug-in, if you try to load the project into the hardware, the VST plug-in won’t work.
Arps and synths
While third-party VST's will not load in standalone hardware mode, all is not lost as three standalone synths, Tubesynth, Bassline and Electric have recently been released, all of which are very, very good.
Tubesynth is capable of largely any sound made by an analogue polysynth. It can do thick leads, warm, sweeping pads, gritty stabs and comes with all its controls mapped to the Q-Link encoders. As per usual the presets are okay, but you are required to spend a little time playing with it to customise. Once you are up and running with it, it’s pretty obvious that it’s a powerful tool and great for textural sounds that move and evolve.
Electric is the standout for me personally, as it has a rich set of editing possibilities that can move it away from the obvious electric piano sounds into otherworldly tones, especially when you start adding some FX.
Bassline is very much what you would imagine: it’s a simple enough monosynth with plenty of low frequency grunt, and will fit into your mix nicely. I may sound a tad lukewarm about it as there are so many bass-focused mono synth plug-ins to choose from, but in fairness, to get something that sounds this good in a single device with this level of functionally is a programmer’s equivalent ofthe Labours of Hercules, and Bassline stands up to any similar plug-in on the market.
The new inclusion of a comprehensive arpeggiator function is also very welcome, especially when using the MPC to sequence external synths.
The 2.4 update has given users the final piece of the jigsaw – studio quality FX for standalone use! The original FX, if I were being charitable, would be described as basic at best, and would only be used under extreme duress. The new Air FX, however, are superb and are up there in audio quality with what you would expect from Waves, Native Instruments et al.
The overall look of the FX is fairly utilitarian, in order to save precious processing resources, but when stacking the reverb up against some heavyweight third-party players it more than held its own. The same goes with the delays, compressor, EQ, distortion and channel strip. This genuinely is a game-changer, as now a track can be written, arranged and mixed to a releasable standard entirely inside the unit.
The joy of a standalone hardware set-up is that once you are au fait with the workings, you can get something going very quickly without the myriad distractions of a computer-based DAW. What the MPC gives you is a rock-tight master sequencer, DAW-level editing and now, with the 2.4 revision, studio quality FX. It’s very feasible to create an entire track without touching a computer. It may have some niggles and it doesn’t yet give you the slickness of a computer, but unlike a computer the MPC feels like a focused, immersive musical instrument.
Words: Chris Lyth
Screen: Seven-inch multi-touch display
Pads: 16x velocity/pressure-sensitive RGB pads
Sounds: 10GB pre-installed sounds
Analogue inputs: 2x 1/4-inch, 1 x dual RCA stereo
Analogue outputs: 2x 1/4-inch (master out), 4x 1/4-inch, 1x 1/8-inch (headphones)
MIDI: 2x In, 2x Out
USB: 2x 3.0 Type A, 1x 3.0 Type B
Additional media storage: SD card, USB port, 2.5-inch SATA drive connector
Software: MPC 2.4 software
System requirements: Mac OX X 10.9.5 or later / Windows 8.1 or later
Power supply: 19V DC power supply (included) / rechargeable Lithium-ion battery
Dimensions: 41x224x69mm (HxWxD)