Akai/Linn MPC60 II
Warren Cann looks at the updated version of the MPC60, the most notable result of Roger Linn's collaboration with Akai.
Alright, hands up everyone out there who bought a Linn 9000... OK, the rest of you relax. Now, hands up you user/owners who alternated between thinking it was an innovative and incredibly happening sequencer/sampling drum machine one moment, and the next moment thought that Terminating it under a foundry press was too good for it.
Yes, the 9000 had its fans and its enemies. I was both. I always thought that Roger Linn had some essentially excellent ideas that were usually half realised and often totally screwed up in actual execution. The very first Linn, the LM1, was hailed due to it being the first drum machine which featured digital sounds instead of analogue representations. However, I have always felt that its true ground-breaking feature was the extent of its drum sequencing facilities. Then, when the LinnDrum came out, that suffered from the widely-held misconception that it was going to be bigger and better, the new, improved model, the culmination of all of the feedback that Linn had received. This was not the case; the LinnDrum had initially been conceived as a sort of LM1 Jnr, and due to ever increasing demand and pressure to get it out on the market, it ended up falling somewhere between the two. Despite the rabid desires of the public to get one, it ultimately suffered for it.
When its successor, the Linn 9000, was released it was obvious that many lessons had been learned; it showed great promise until horror stories of unreliability and constant crashing started circulating. I waited a year for the initial bugs to be sorted, then bought mine hoping that most of the glitches which only seem to surface once equipment is in the public domain had been found and cured. After canvassing many sources for other people's experiences, I came to the conclusion that had I got quite a good one. I've cursed it and kissed it but it's been reasonably well-behaved (for a Linn, for a 9000). I've done a great deal of useful work with it, won't part with it, and can only conclude that the 9000 is a classic of its kind.
After using the 9000 the only logical next step, as I saw it, was to get into personal computer sequencing, so I bought an ST and Creator. When Linn went bust I was subsequently often asked about the 9000's possible future lineage. Noting the entry into the musical instrument market of such companies as Casio, Technics and Akai, I remember saying that the best thing that could happen to Linn was that it be taken over by one of the new emerging forces — say, Akai — where their R&D dept, could iron out his ideas and build a machine that would work, reliably. I admit that I was most surprised to see exactly that happen.
The release of the Akai/Linn MPC60 (MIDI Production Centre) in October '87 was clouded by the bad reputation the 9000 had acquired but, nevertheless, quite a few people decided to give one a try; the concept of sequencer, sampler, and digital drum machine rolled into one integrated system is a powerful one. Linn's pioneering efforts in this area are seen everywhere you encounter equipment with even modest leanings towards the 'workstation' ideal.
Now we arrive at the latest offering from the collaboration between Akai Professional and Roger Linn, the MPC 60 II.
Superficially the Mk II appears similar to the Mk I, but it is now housed in a good looking, Akai grey, all-in-one unit rather than the bitty box-with-end-panels as before. The attractive blue LCD window (which can display 320 characters, and also graphics) and its contrast control are now incorporated into a sleek, sloping front fascia rather than the previous tilt-to-adjust unit which always looked rather tacked on. The 16 velocity and pressure sensitive rubber drum pads are in the same location as before, as are the data entry and command keys. The function keys/buttons (all 56 of them) give a satisfying tactile 'click' in use, and there are at least enough to do the job without getting brain damage because some genius in the design department thought that having only six 120-way multifunction buttons on the fascia gave the front panel a 'clean, purposeful look'.
The hi-hat decay fader, first seen on the Linn 9000, is again on the left, the data control wheel is central, and the 3.5" internal floppy disk drive is at the bottom right, and the headphone jack is at the far left. Finally, beneath the red Akai logo at the top left is the Stereo Mix Volume control. The overall effect is that of a well laid out production tool which hasn't been skimped over.
Looking at the back we find a reasonably well appointed assortment of connections. Although there is only one stereo pair of main output sockets there is a total of eight individually assignable Mix Output sockets should you wish to process any of the signals separately. The manual reveals a big surprise — these are not individual voice outputs as I assumed, these are individual mix outputs, each of which can carry any combination of the 32 possible total sounds the MPC60 can hold at once. That's what I call service. Your eye is immediately caught by the sight of six (yes, six) MIDI sockets: two for In (both inputs merge together), four for Out. The four independent MIDI outputs permit a possible total of 64 output MIDI channels.
There is an Echo Mix Out socket plus its own Output Level trim control (well done Akai...) adjacent to a stereo pair for Echo Return; you can access an additional internal mixer function which gives you 32 mono mixer sends to, say, an FX unit. You could use it as an auxiliary mono mix for any purpose, however, or as a 9th individual Mix Out.
The single Record In socket is used for sampling new sounds. A nice touch is it that it accepts a balanced input if you have one available; just use a lead wired up correctly to a stereo (3-conductor) phone jack. Next to it is a three position 'range' switch giving you Low, Medium, and High positions which you use to roughly set your record level — there is a 99 level digital 'volume control' internally available in conjunction with this to fine tune record levels.
There is a pair of sockets for Sync In/Sync Out plus a rotary trim control for Sync Input level. The MPC 60 Mk II will work with seven types of sync, though only one is active at any one time (obviously not a hardship): FSK24 (the standard, general purpose tape sync code used by most drum machines and sequencers); SMPTE; MIDI Time Code; MIDI Clock w/Song Position Pointers; MIDI Clock; 1/4 Note Clicks; and PULSE96 (stands for 'Pulse sync at 96 high/low transitions per 1/4 note') which is for syncing to other sequencer-type devices only and not for tape sync. 96 ppqn is also the internal clock resolution of the MPC60. The Sync In socket has a dual function, in that it can also be used as the input for an external signal (preferably clean and constant) to trigger one of the drum sounds. Triggering is non-dynamic.
To the left of the sync sockets there is a Metro(nome) Out jack, whose level and note value is defined internally. Next to that is a pair of footswitch sockets each of which can be assigned to a number of different tasks: Play/Stop; Overdub In/Out; Erase; Record In/Out etc. These can contribute greatly to a more efficient operating environment. If your keyboard is some distance from the MPC60, or if you're playing guitar along to your own sequences, you'll appreciate this feature's options.
Also on the rear panel you'll see a small blanked-off panel where an optional SCSI port can be fitted, should you wish to store all of your sound and sequence data on hard disk rather than floppies. Finally, there's a rocker switch for power on/off, a Euro mains socket, and a two-position Voltage Selector switchable from 240V to 220-230V for operation in the EEC (pity they didn't throw in a 110/120V capability as well).
The manual is good, taking you through operations logically, one step at a time, and giving examples of what you should see on the screen. Amongst those who actually read manuals (a practice I strongly recommend), no doubt some will feel it could be improved upon. Yes, certainly, but bearing in mind everyone has different priorities and varying levels of experience, it'll get you up and running through most operations easily.
"The concept of sequencer, sampler, and digital drum machine rolled into one integrated system is a powerful one. Linn's pioneering efforts in this area are seen everywhere you encounter equipment with even modest leanings towards the 'workstation' ideal."
The first thing to do is insert one of the floppy disks that come with the MPC60 and power up. The disk contains one of four sets of drum sounds, and a set of demonstration sequences common to all four disks. Here we discover that every time you power up the MPC60 you must re-load all drum sounds and sequences from disk because all sound and sequence memory is lost when you turn the power off. This may prove rather disconcerting to those of you used to drum machines which hold their memory via battery back-up when power is off. Akai's rationale is that the MPC60 requires a lot of memory, and low-power memory (kept active by battery) is much more expensive than that used when mains power is on tap. So, a lower price is traded off for the 'minor inconvenience' of saving work to disk before powering down.
It's good practice to regularly save data when sequencing (at least every half hour for the truly paranoid), and not just when you're finishing. But take the machine to a session without those disks and you are stranded. And beware of reaching around back for that mains switch at the end of a long stretch of sequencing when your concentration is wandering... oops! You forgot to back-up to disk, and your work has just been voided into the cosmic dumper. Therefore, you must maintain rigid discipline regarding saving-to-disk when working with the MPC60. The contents of the data fields and other minor settings are retained, however. You won't need to reset commonly used parameters every time you power up.
Once the sequencer has booted up from disk (one minute and 35 seconds later) the display presents you with the Play/Record screen, the main operating mode. The display is yellow text against a blue background, and it's sharp and clearly legible even in very bright light but I'd rather have seen black text for higher contrast. You can record up to 99 sequences, each of which can contain up to 99 individual tracks (the numbers start at one rather than zero, which I appreciated). A 60,000 note sequencer (512K bytes RAM) is now at your fingertips.
Finding your way around the screen and the software architecture of the MPC60 using the cursor keys is straightforward and, if in doubt, you have a Help key which will replace the screen display with a paragraph of explanation regarding the function the cursor is currently resting on. This is an excellent feature which will endear the machine to those who find manuals just 'get in the way' of their creativity. Let's face it, nothing blows your cred like having to stop for a moment to look something up in the manual. A quick stab of a button, a surreptitious peek, and your image is intact. You can then make a mental note to do some homework.
You also have four 'soft' keys to help you navigate your way around, these are basically non-user-definable macro keys which provide single-button execution of many functions without additional dedicated buttons. The Stop/Start/Play/Record buttons operate the familiar multi-track tape recorder style. You have a choice of two different record modes: 'Record' (erasing while recording) and 'Overdub' (add to existing track). An Autolocation feature lets you instantly go to any of three location markers within a sequence, and automatic punch-in and punch-out is supported for recording. The Data Wheel scrolls you through the onscreen data in steps which you can feel 'click' as you increment or decrement the value.
The 16 velocity sensitive pads are big enough that even the fattest of finger should have no trouble nimbly and accurately stabbing out that mega beat. The review machine may have been slightly ill because I occasionally noticed a double-hit off some of the pads, then the problem would disappear. You can have up to 32 different sounds resident in the machine at one time via a second bank of 16 sounds. The Akai/Linn is 16-note polyphonic, ie. a maximum of 16 drums sounds can play at once. Repeated strikes of a drum are all voiced — earlier strikes are not cut off, which in practice gives much more authenticity to the feel of your percussion programming.
For more expressive programming you can allocate one sound across all of the pads at 16 different dynamic levels, or one sound across the pads at 16 different pitches. Just the thing to bring a little life to percussion which is in danger of sounding staid, and perfect for adding 'human' expression to the pitch of that snare roll or variation to the groove of a ride cymbal pattern. While 16 different levels is adequate I would have been more thrilled to have seen some form of range control whereby the 16 levels could have been narrowed or expanded to suit; each step in the default setting is on the borderline of being too much; the ear is discerning enough to require finer control over these parameters. However, this problem is endemic to all drum machines at present.
The four floppy disks which accompany the MPC60 each have their own set of drum sounds: Studio Set; Rock Set; Dry Set; Synth Set. The first set of sounds I tried was the boldly titled Studio set. Nothing outrageous here, just strong, fairly neutral and hence very adaptable sounds. It takes just over a minute to replace all sounds currently in memory with those on disk. Loading individual sounds rather than the whole set is, naturally, much quicker.
The Rock set contained some useable sounds but, aside from the kick, snare, and toms having loads of gated ambience, it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. I'd hoped the actual sounds themselves would be harder — you know a killer bass drum when you hear one, and you don't have to stick FX on it to prop it up. Another disk change and this time I tried the Dry set. Exactly as expected, everything was crisp and (virtually) 'dry', no sugar coating of reverb, just the bare sounds via the MPC60's 40kHz sample rate for 18kHz frequency response. 16-bit A-to-D and D-to-A convertors are used, and samples are compressed into an 'exclusive non-linear 12-bit format providing much lower noise than standard 12-bit linear systems'.
The Dry set is particularly useful because if you can afford this machine you're liable to have access to a few FX units. And until you've managed to build up a library of your own favourite samples, you'll want to tailor the reverb/ambiences to suit your needs without having to battle away against the factory choices. Finally, I tried the Synth set. Let's just say that it could've been worse. Generally, the kit sounds all have that Simmons bend-swoop and white noise attack that comes back to haunt us every so often.
Each time I loaded up a new disk I was expecting a further 16 different kit sounds when I pressed the Bank 2 button; what I got each time was a bass sample, one per disk. So, expect 64 factory sample sounds with the MPC60, not 128. The drum pads are numbered consecutively; the bottom row is 1-4 left to right, the next row up is 5-8 left to right, etc. Pad #1 corresponds to C3 on my master keyboard, pad #16 corresponds to D4. Get your tuning together and you won't need a keyboard to programme that snappy bass line.
You can tune samples independently over a one-and-a-half octave range in 0.1 semitone steps. Each drum's tuning is displayed as a number from '-120' (one octave down) to '+60' (half an octave up). Each of the 99 sequences has it's own set of tunings which can be saved to disk and will change automatically as you select different sequences.
Manipulation of the sounds is not limited to velocity and tuning. You can reverse sounds, and amplitude envelope controls include a drum-related 'fadeout' parameter which allows the sound to be faded down starting at a pre-determined point and ending exactly at a selected end point, preventing samples from sounding chopped off. Dynamic controls allow note velocity to control sound start time address and envelope attack.
"For those with a taste for more control over their work than the onboard sequencer in their keyboard synth allows, but who are not inclined to venture into personal computer-based sequencing, and who value Akai's integrated approach, the MPC60II may be the answer."
While the MPC60 is by far much, much more than just a drum machine, people will inevitably compare it — at least in terms of sonic choice — with drum machines costing a fraction of its price. True, it doesn't come with 60 different snares, 60 different bass drums, etc. However, as far as having a set of stock sounds for getting on with, the supplied selection will do the job. However, the sampling side of the MPC60 is there to be used. So, no more buying additional sets of sounds on memory cards sold at exorbitant prices! If you have an S900, or any sampler that supports the MIDI Sample Dump standard, then your library of sounds can take up immediate residence in the MPC60. Or you can transfer the sound over from the MPC60, perhaps to take advantage of certain editing/manipulation facilities, then dump it back again.
When sampling your own sounds, you must be aware that the new sound data will displace the sound data already in the destination pad — the sound in the pad you're sending that sample to will be lost. If you haven't saved it to disk, then do so before continuing. Also, all sequence memory is erased to provide maximum space for new sampling. Again, save to disk any sequence or song information you do not wish to lose, then proceed. You are given a warning message on screen but I can see that some people will just steam on past it and then regret their rashness.
The MPC60 has a maximum of 13.1 seconds of sampling time (expandable to 26.2 seconds) but the maximum for each sound is 5 seconds. Even if all of the sampling memory is free you won't be able to record that gong for more than 5 seconds. I'd certainly prefer to see that restriction lifted; cymbals have a very long decay, and whilst you are not likely to notice artificially short decays in faster, dense songs, you certainly can in slower, sparse tracks. The cymbal samples on disk are very good indeed, but it does seem silly to not have the option of being able to use all your sampling memory on one sound if you want it.
On the mixing page, the screen displays a graphic representation of a 16-channel stereo mixer. Via the Data Control wheel you can raise or lower the volume 'faders' and move the rotary 'pan controls' between 15 positions. Level and pan changes can also be made globally, and there is also select a mode in which all mix changes made in real time while recording will be remembered and replayed on playback, just like an automated mixer.
All changes can be saved to disk. Brilliant. The echo send mixer provides an additional 32-input mono mixer specifically intended to provide a signal to a reverb device; as described above this can also be used as an auxiliary mono mix for any purpose, or as a 9th individual mix output. Providing you have the outboard toys to take advantage of it, this facility will ease the strain on your mixer's capabilities.
The MPC60 provides comprehensive facilities for creating and editing sequences. You can write traditional drum machine-style patterns, using 99 tracks. Each track can be assigned either to MPC60 internal samples, in which case you would use the pads to program the track, or a MIDI channel, in which case you would probably choose to use your master keyboard. The four independent MIDI outputs gives you 64 channels to play with (certainly more than most people ever need), and helps to minimise timing problems with very dense data streams. You can create up to 99 of these sequences, and then chain them together into Songs. Besides the usual copying, merging, inserting and deleting options, you can shift data forwards or backwards in time by individual clock beats, or transpose it in real time. A sequence can be set to loop back to any bar (not just the first) once the sequence it has ended, a small touch, but a nice one. You can loop a portion of a sequence while overdubbing, great for fast editing, and all changes can be 'undone'. Timing correction maintains the original note duration and only affects notes — pitch bend and other controllers are recorded as played. You always know where you are in a sequence because current position is always displayed in both bar:beat:clock and SMPTE position.
The usual assortment of MIDI facilities is well represented. You can filter out selective portions of the incoming MIDI data so as to not take up excess memory, map outgoing drums to MIDI note numbers, or even assign the MPC60 to the humble duty of 32-voice drum expander. Sustain pedal messages are specifically processed so that multiple overdubs on the same track of a sequence may have independent uses of the sustain pedal without undesirable interaction. You can assign MIDI Program Changes to each track, and these are automatically sent out when the sequence is selected. System exclusive messages, including patch data dumps, can also be recorded into sequences.
You can trigger drums from an external audio signal, but only one at a time, and only while the Trigger screen is displayed. Therefore sequences cannot be played while you use the audio triggering function, so forget about recording the triggered drum data into the sequencer while it's running. If dynamic triggering, or triggering of more than one drum is required, then you'll need a trigger-to-MIDI convertor.
Akai tell me that only modest software revisions were necessary to tidy up from the Mk I version of the MPC60, so I shall interpret the minimal changes as a good sign. The cosmetic overhaul and small but practical hardware additions tend to make me think that Akai feel they basically have the machine right. The biggest change is the price drop from around three grand for the Mk I to the Mk II's RRP of £1,899 which, while not exactly cheap, is far more realistic. Sequencing tasks are well catered for, you can sample your own sounds with adequate, albeit rudimentary, control, and you have enough MIDI channels to enable you to use it as the 'brain' of a MIDI based studio. It's a drum machine, it's a sampler, it's a sequencer, so where does this leave us? Who's going to be interested in this machine?
If you're already using hardware sequencers and feel comfortable with them, the you may feel the MPC60 is an attractive progression without the drawback of having to learn the multiple operating systems involved in a modular set-up. Everything is in one box and ready to go. Those who have spent time with computer-based sequencing will appreciate aspects of the MPC60, but would suffer acute withdrawal after giving up the encompassing display of a monitor screen. Akai take pride in their 'large LCD display screen' (yes it's good, but it falls prey to the common problem of endeavouring to display too much information in too small a space — hello eye strain and fatigue-induced mistakes) and its 'small, portable design'. Do those words evoke thoughts of portable/laptop PCs? Now there's a thought — slap a carrying handle on one end and put a folding lid on the thing, with a decent laptop-type screen inside, with all of the manual in ROM, then you'd have something! Then again, that kind of portability would require some re-engineering to ensure a high enough level of road-worthiness.
You could assemble a package to do what the MPC60 does with a 1040ST, Creator and an Alesis SR16, and still have enough left over for a DAT recorder and several rack FX units, but you'd forfeit the crucial sampling and sacrifice the integrated system concept. Not everyone wants or needs the total control over every MIDI event that the high end software packages revel in so, for those with a taste for more control over their work than the onboard sequencer in their keyboard synth allows, but who are not inclined to venture into personal computer-based sequencing, and who value Akai's integrated approach, the MPC60 II may be the answer.
£1,899 inc VAT.
Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Warren Cann
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