From the ashes of the ill-fated Linn 9000, Roger Linn and Akai have brought forth the MPC60. Simon Trask takes a look at this powerful drum machine and sequencer.
Akai's new baby picks up the ball where the ill-fated Linn 9000 dropped it - but does the MPC60 fulfil the potential of a combined drum machine and sequencer?
SOME INVENTIONS JUST don't bring much luck to their developers. Take Sinclair and the C5, Henry Ford and the Edsel, or Robert Oppenheimer and the Bomb.
In the annals of music technology, Linn Electronics met their Waterloo with the Linn 9000 drum-sampler/sequencer, which suffered from an over-inflated price tag, non-appearance of promised features and a reputation for crashing bettered only by Andrew Ridgeley. It was an ambitious product which unfortunately dragged Linn Electronics under.
Three years have passed since E&MM reviewed the Linn 9000, and during this time the sampler/sequencer concept hasn't exactly been widely adopted. Only Sequential have tried something similar, with the Studio 440 - and look what's happened to them.
Following the demise of Linn Electronics, company founder Roger Linn began collaborating with Akai. The MPC60 MIDI Production Centre (debuted at last year's BMF) is the first result of the Akai/Linn partnership, and, surprise surprise, it's another stab at the Linn 9000 concept. One thing's for sure: there's no way that Akai are going to go the same way as Linn and Sequential. So could this be third time lucky for the drum-sampler/sequencer?
AKAI'S ORIGINAL NAME for the MPC60 was the more modest "ADR15". Realising this was a limiting designation, A DRum machine became a MIDI Production Centre (as for the numbers, who knows?). Whether or not the MPC lives up to this name is something we'll discover in due course.
One thing is in no doubt: the MPC60 is a sturdy beast, yet manages to remain reasonably portable. The 16 velocity- and pressure-sensitive rubber drum pads have a substantial and comfortable feel, but are occasionally susceptible to double-triggering if you get overly physical with them. The MPC is 16-voice polyphonic for its internal drum sounds, and each drum pad can be triggered polyphonically.
Akai have provided the MPC60 with a built-in 3.5" disk drive, a necessity as the machine loses its memory when turned off. You can format and erase disks from the MPC60, and save and load individual or all sequences/songs and individual or all sounds. Being a user-friendly beast, the MPC60 keeps you informed of the size of each file and the amount of memory available on the disk. With the memory expansion it's possible to have a sound file which is larger than one disk; fear not, the MPC60 can handle saving a file over two disks. What's rather surprising is that there's no SCSI port to allow connection of a hard disk.
The sampler section employs 12-bit sample resolution with a non-linear format for reduced noise. Sample rate is fixed at 40kHz (giving an 18kHz frequency response), allowing the sampler's audio circuitry to be optimised for a single rate. The MPC60 comes with 750Kbytes of sample RAM as standard, allowing 13.1 seconds of sampling; a memory expansion option offers a further 750K, which doubles the total sampling time to 26.2 seconds.
Unlike Sequential with the 440, Akai haven't attempted to provide an all-purpose sampling section but have concentrated on the sampling drum machine angle; thus you won't find any looping or filtering features.
The MPC's sample quality is excellent: clear and crisp with minimal noise, and able to capture the delicate splash of a ride cymbal, the heavy-duty thud of a bass drum and the whipcrack of a tight snare with equal competence.
Akai's MIDI Production Centre comes with four sample disks which have been put together by Roger Linn and (Utopia) drummer Willie Wilcox. Each disk offers a different drum kit; Studio, Rock, Dry and Synth. These are all variations on the basic rock drum kit, with a few Latin percussion sounds and special effects thrown in for good measure. All the samples are of uniformly high quality and provide an excellent if not particularly contemporary starting point - for more unusual sounds you'll have to get sampling. All four disks also offer the same rather uninspiring bass guitar sound pitched across all 16 pads of bank two, and the same set of sequences and songs.
Incidentally, the MPC60 can transmit and receive samples using the MIDI Sample Dump Standard, and also allows you to transfer samples to and from an S900.
The sequencer side of the machine is used to sequence the drum sampler as well as external MIDI instruments. In addition to the sample memory, the MPC60 has 512K of dedicated sequencer memory, with a claimed memory capacity of 60,000 notes. The good news, then, is that you don't have to sacrifice sample time for sequencer notes or vice versa; the bad news is that sampling wipes the sequencer memory, so you have to make sure your sequences and songs are stored to disk each time you want to sample a sound. Still, the MPC60 has the good grace to warn you of the possible consequences each time you enter Sample mode.
There are two types of sequencer track: drums and nondrums. One of the 16 available MIDI channels is designated as the drums channel (16 seems the most sensible choice); setting a track to this channel automatically defines it as a drums track. Simple, really. You can also set up MIDI receive and transmit notes for each sample/pad, so that the MPC60's drums can be played from an external MIDI device, and layered with other sounds via MIDI. However, because of the way the MPC records drum tracks you can't turn a drum track into a non-drum track or vice versa.
The front panel layout is well-ordered. As well as the drum pads on the left half of the panel you get a 320-character (8X40) backlit LCD screen with adjustable contrast and viewing angle - better than the displays on many dedicated sequencers and drum machines, but to my mind ultimately not as effective as a monitor screen.
Beneath the LCD are the Command buttons, most of which call up their own LCD page and set of parameters. All editing is accomplished with the alpha dial, +/- buttons and numeric keypad, while you use cursor keys to step around the data fields. A neat feature is the four "softkeys" - buttons whose functions change for each page. Finally, beneath the Command keys are the Play/Rec buttons, which are modelled on familiar tape recorder controls.
As you might expect from an instrument that will be used extensively in recording situations, the MPC60 can interface to a variety of sync codes. For a start it can generate and read SMPTE at all four frame rates, and allows you to set sequence or song start point to any SMPTE time. You can also choose to display tempo readout in frames per beat instead of beats per minute, which will obviously come in useful if you're working to picture.
The MPC60 can read MIDI Time Code but doesn't generate it, while on a humbler level, Akai have included FSK tape sync so that the MPC can sync to recordings which use a sync track generated by Roland or Yamaha machines. Finally, Akai's device can generate and read MIDI clock and song pointer information, and sync to quarter-note clicks (which could be a metronome click or any cleanly-recorded percussive audio signal), while any one of the MPC's sounds can be controlled from an incoming audio trigger.
All in all, then, a fine array of sync features which should go down well in the studio. However, the first official release software (version 1.0) has a couple of bugs in the sync routines, which manifest themselves when you slave the MPC60 to SMPTE or to MIDI clock with song position pointers. Akai are aware of these, and they should have been fixed by the time you read this review. The RS232C port lurking on the rear panel has no function at present.
The MPC60 has two MIDI Ins and four MIDI Outs, but I should point out that all is not what it might seem: we're not talking 32-channel record or 64-channel playback here.
"Pre-Record Time is useful for capturing attack transients of percussive sounds - sampling starts before the threshold is reached."
Although the MPC60 can record from both Ins simultaneously, remember that it can only record on one track and one MIDI channel at a time. Akai look upon the second input as a means of syncing to MIDI clocks or MIDI Time Code whilst recording into the sequencer, which seems sensible.
Similarly, although the hardware is there for 64-channel output Akai have missed a golden opportunity. All you can do is assign each of the 16 standard MIDI channels to one of the four Outs. Granted this may help to cut down MIDI delays, but 64 channels needn't mean four times the density of 16 channels. These days a commercial MIDI studio could use up 16 MIDI channels just on-sending patch changes to a rack of MIDI'd signal processors - hardly a heavy data load. What's more, as an increasing number of multitimbral instruments appear, it can be more convenient to hang different instruments off different Outs.
THE MPC60 STORES a maximum of 32 samples in onboard memory. These can be assigned in any order to the 16 drum pads, with each pad playing one sample. Pressing Bank Two switches you to a second set of pad assignments - effectively making all 32 sounds equally accessible.
Maximum sample length is 5.2 seconds (not six seconds as the manual states), but, with this one proviso, you can divide up the total sample time any way you like. Sample time is set in milliseconds (so 1.5 seconds is entered as 1500). Anyone into sampling rhythms as well as individual sounds, can get two 4/4 bars into a single sample at any tempo above 92bpm. For instance, two bars of 4/4 at 120bpm takes up four seconds. However, one point to bear in mind is that the MPC60 always plays each sample up to its current end-point. This is deliberate, the intention being that longer drum samples (for instance a crash or ride cymbal) should always be allowed to play for their full duration rather than being unnaturally cut short. This comes into its own when you're recording in sections, dropping in and out of Record, or using real-time muting. As I said earlier, the MPC60 is intended for drum sampling and playback - something you need to bear in mind if you want to stretch its application.
Cliched though this may sound, sampling on the MPC60 is simplicity itself. You define sample time, pre-record time, threshold, and record level (it provides a simulation of an analogue level meter, with exclamation marks to indicate clipping). Akai have also given the MPC60 a three-position level switch on its rear panel, allowing it to accept a wide range of audio inputs. Pre-Record Time can be particularly useful for capturing the attack transients of percussive sounds, as it allows the sampler to start sampling a few milliseconds before the threshold is reached.
Once a sample is in memory you can redefine its start and end points in millisecond intervals. This is nondestructive unless you select the Cutoff Ends function, which discards the relevant portions of the sample. Each pad can be assigned its own sample start/end points, so by assigning the same sample to several pads you can chop it up however you want (particularly useful for sampled speech or rhythms). The sample remains intact then - as Cutoff Ends is inoperative if a sample is assigned to more than one pad.
The MPC60 also allows fading out a sample to its current end-point. Again this is pad-specific and is specified in milliseconds - for instance, a 500-millisecond fade-out on a one-second sample fades out the second half of the sample. Fade-out doesn't affect the sample data itself, so you can adjust the fade-out time as often as you want.
Each pad (banks one and two) can be given its own tuning over a 1.5 octave range in 0.1 semitone increments (+7 semitones and -12 semitones from the sampled pitch). Obviously you can play melodic parts or even chords on the MPC60 by assigning pitched sounds to different pads. You load the source sample from disk onto each relevant pad, even though it's actually only stored once in memory (a great memory saver).
In addition to tuning you can assign pan and level values to each pad in banks one and two on the Drum Mix screen which simulates a 16-channel mixer. You can also set up a mono echo mix, intended to be a send signal to a reverb. This mix doesn't include panning, but does allow you to set the amount of pad/drum signal routed through the reverb (which could be no signal at all for some drums).
Alternatively you could use this as a straight mono mix or as a ninth individual mix output. Similarly the two echo return jacks can be used as general-purpose inputs dedicated to the left and right sides of the main stereo mix.
In addition to the stereo and mono mix outputs the MPC60 sports eight assignable mix outputs. Each pad/drum an be assigned to any one of these, so you could have bass drum on one, snare on two, open and closed hi-hats on three, and a marimba spread over four pads on output four. High, mid and low toms could be assigned to the next three outputs for external panning while the final output could send the cowbell (two tunings) and congas (high, low and muted).
To the left of the MPC60's pads are several dedicated function buttons and a slider for controlling hi-hat decay. I've said the MPC60 can hold 32 samples, but in fact the hi-hat pad is a special case in that it can be assigned three samples. The idea is that you can play open, mid and closed hi-hats from the one pad, using the hi-hat slider position to control which of the three sounds is heard. You can either adjust the slider as you record, or with the After button switched to superimpose new slider settings on an already-recorded hi-hat part. Of course you can assign any combination of sounds to the hi-hat pad, so its creative applications are literally in your hands.
The Full Level button defeats the velocity sensitivity of the pads, causing all the samples to be played at full dynamic level, while 16 Levels assigns the last-played drum sound to all 16 pads at 16 fixed dynamic levels from very soft to very loud. Another great feature is Double Play mode, which allows any pad/drum to automatically play another drum sound as well; you can use this to create new sound combinations, beef up a sound, chorus it or create pseudo-stereo samples.
Holding down the Timing Correct button together with one or more drum pads while recording enables you to record repeated notes at the current timing resolution. By varying the pressure on the pad(s) you can dynamically change the volume of the drum sound (s) being repeated.
Note repeat can also be used with non-drum tracks, by holding down the relevant notes on your master instrument. In fact you can play a sequence of notes and the MPC60 will interpolate repeated notes where appropriate.
Finally, the pressure sensitivity of the pads has another use. When you're doubling on-board drum sounds with external MIDI sounds, the aftertouch sensitivity of the pads allows you to control the "on" time of the MIDI sounds (a note off is only sent when you release the relevant drum pad). Neat or what?
SEQUENCER ORGANISATION IS familiar enough: 99 sequences each consisting of 99 tracks, and each sequence being from 1-999 bars long. Although you always have to define sequence length, if you just want to sit down at a keyboard and jam away there's nothing to stop you setting maximum sequence length and chopping it down later.
"Although you have to define sequence length, to sit down at a keyboard and jam away you can set maximum sequence length and chop it down later."
Each sequence can be given its own 16-character name and its own tempo (30-300bpm). Good news is that you can store as many tempo changes as you want within a sequence - and because the MPC60 can read SMPTE, these changes won't be lost as soon as you sync it to tape (as with sequencers which rely on an external SMPTE/ MIDI converter). You can also set tempo manually using the Tap Tempo button. This can be done while a sequence is playing, but changes made in this way aren't stored.
Each track within a sequence records and plays back on a single MIDI channel. The MPC60 quantises on record, so playback of corrected notes is instantaneous; quantisation retains the duration of each quantised note, so you won't have notes being elongated or cut short. Setting maximum resolution (96ppqn) is essentially the same as playing without quantisation. You can also requantise a track at any time.
Global track-mute settings are stored for each sequence, but, although the MPC60 allows you to turn individual tracks on or off while it's playing back, it can't store these changes. By setting Solo to on you can step through any number of tracks and whichever track is the current one will be solo'd - you can have a lot of fun piecing together a new piece of music from existing tracks in this way.
If you set a track to Loop rather than Stop-at-End it will automatically switch from Record mode to Overdub after the first pass. You can also set auto punch in/out for any segment of a track, while two footswitch inputs can be set to a variety of functions including Play Start/Stop, Record Start/Stop and Tap Tempo.
Probably one of the most interesting features is Edit Loop, which is essentially a drum machine-style loop-in-overdub - but it can be applied equally to non-drum tracks. The Edit Loop can occur at any position in a sequence, but has to be on a bar boundary and a whole number of bars.
If you choose to overdub on a track (whether it's drums or non-drums) you need to be able to delete selected overdubs. In the case of the drum sampler this follows standard drum machine practice, but you can also erase notes from a non-drums part by holding down the Erase key together with the note(s) you want erased.
You can copy one whole sequence to any other, delete from or insert bars, and copy "all tracks" - this allows you to append one sequence to another.
Akai have included Shuffle and Timing Shift functions which are applicable to any drum or non-drum track individually. Both can be applied either as you record or "after the event". Shuffle can be applied to even 8th or 16th notes and to any part of a track. The amount is variable from 50% (no shuffle) to 75% (66%, for instance, gives a triplet feel). Timing Shift is for relatively small adjustments in track positioning rather than big delays, and can be either earlier or later.
The only time the MPC60 crashed on me was after I'd been using Shuffle and Shift Timing on several tracks and then played with the length of the sequence. Once again this is something that Akai are working on and hopefully will have sorted out by the time you read this.
Step recording and editing is of the event list variety, with the advantage that the MPC's large LCD displays up to four events at once (though they must all exist at the current location). These events will most commonly be drum or keyboard notes, but can also be the usual array of MIDI data types. Additionally you can insert drum mix volume, mix pan, echo volume and drum tune changes at any point in a track. Notes and drum-hits an be entered from the appropriate source at the current position, and you can use the Fast Forward and Rewind buttons to shuttle to whatever position you want.
The MPC allows you to record SysEx data into a track in either real or step time, to a maximum of 512 bytes at a time. This is hardly universal SysEx storage of the type offered by Hybrid Arts' GenPatch (for the Atari ST); it's probably most useful for recording SysEx-conveyed edit changes from a synth.
Once you've recorded your sequences you can chain them together into a song. The MPC60 can store up to 20 songs in memory, with a maximum of 256 steps per song (and each step can repeat up to 99 times).
Finally a word of praise for the instructional backup that Akai have provided. As well as the manual (which is clear, well organised and includes a halfway-decent index - things are looking up) Akai have built Help screens into the MPC60 which can be called up at any time and give information on the current data field.
Akai have also produced an hour-long video in which Roger Linn himself talks you through the MPC60 in typical laid-back Californian style. It's worth getting, though you'll have to cough up £5 for the privilege (but then if you've just spent £2999 I guess £5 isn't much).
BY CALLING THEIR machine a MIDI Production Centre, Akai are claiming a role for their sampler/sequencer which is perhaps too open-ended to fully substantiate. What should a MIDI Production Centre be capable of in the commercial MIDI studio of the late '80s? Clearly it should interface with SMPTE in some way, but as MIDI Time Code breaks into the studio it may also be expected to assume Cue List management and MTC sequencing functions. And there are many other things musicians and producers might expect of their MIDI production centre - running universal SysEx storage software, patch librarians and editors for numerous instruments, scorewriting software with laser-printer output capability and intelligent compositional software...
All these requirements are met by an Atari ST- or Apple Mac-based setup, where the available MIDI software constitutes the capabilities of the "production centre". Korg appear to have taken account of this "open architecture" approach with their new S1 Production Workstation (see In Brief elsewhere in this issue), which looks set to give the MPC60 a run for its money.
In contrast, the MPC60 will receive software enhancements in the form of ROM updates, but is essentially a "closed concept" device. I mention this merely to put Akai's MIDI Production Centre in a wider perspective. But considered on its own terms the MPC60 is undoubtedly a powerful machine, with many well thought-out features which should please professional users. It's a workhorse device, sturdily built yet portable enough to transport between home and studio, or studio and studio - or to take out on the road. Many people still prefer to deal with a purpose-built device, and such features as dedicated transport controls are always a blessing.
Taken separately, the drum sampler and MIDI sequencer are both excellently conceived; put them together and you've got a music production system with more than enough power to drive a sophisticated MIDI setup (if only Akai get round to making proper use of those four MIDI Outs).
With the late '80s' musical emphasis on rhythm and experimentation with sounds, perhaps the MPC60 embodies a concept whose time has come...
Prices MPC60 £2999; EXMOO3 sample memory expansion, around £250. Both prices include VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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