Industry Profile - MPC Electronics
Innovators of The Kit and the Music Percussion Computer, MPC explain their approach and hint at some new products to come.
There can be few people in the UK who haven't seen, heard or played a Kit. The invention and manufacture of this micro drum machine caused a storm in the music industry and a revolution in home recording (where traditionally the drums were either out of the price ranges and musical capabilities of most musicians, or were poorly recorded from muted drum kits).
A year has passed since the release of The Kit, and in that time almost 10,000 of them have been sold. What most people are unaware of is the company and the inventors behind both this capable little instrument and the new Music Percussion Computer: MPC Electronics. So, since they inhabit the same glorious acres as E&MM in sunny (?) Cambridge, we took a trip out to see who they are.
Outside the celestial city, in the village of Willingham, set amid forested acres of apple trees, lies the administrative heart of MPC Electronics. The imposing house that fronts the road hides a group of small offices, where we found Mike Coxhead, organiser, Managing Director, troubleshooter, patron de la Kit, and raconteur. He told us first about the origins of MPC.
'Well, the company was first thought of when Clive Button came to see me with a small grey box that he had put together. It was a basic idea for an electronic drum kit that you could play with your fingers. It all sounded a bit far-fetched really - and my bank manager was horrified when I told him I was thinking of backing the idea. But I thought the idea was sound, and we both started work on getting the grey box into a respectable looking unit that we could take over to the NAMM show in Atlanta.'
From the initial meeting of the two up to the NAMM show gave them just a year to design and build the embryonic Kit. With redesigned cosmetics and a host of new ideas in it, they managed to cobble together one single prototype Kit. Mike slipped it into his briefcase and headed for Atlanta.
The problem was that we just had the one Kit - apart from the Grey Box - and while it was being demonstrated on the stand, occasional technical problems would crop up and we would have to dive behind the curtains at the back of the stand and tell the public that the press were reviewing it! Then we'd repair it in double-quick time and get it back out there.'
Despite this, The Kit won the 'Product Of The Show' award, and the orders started to flood in - a bit too fast for such an embryonic electronics company.
'The reaction over there was incredible. It made me realise that I was right, that the risk was worth it. All the way along I knew that it was a gamble - but it all excited me and I felt that, given the right marketing possibilities, it could be a very serious contender to the Japanese. But from a businessman's point of view I was very naive when we started in the electronics business. I had no grounding in factories or in the making of any sort of hardware. I just thought that you got the components together, built the units and marketed them. I also thought that, if you were unlucky, you might get 5% of them of them back for repairs... In the event it was nothing like that. We originally had the casings made in Israel because that was the only place that could deliver fast enough. They were a disaster and we had to find a UK maker to take over. Then the parts were late. It was hair-raising.'
But with time, MPC Electronics managed to get the Kit into production. And heartbreak time came round again...
'We managed to make up the first 20 Kits to send over to the states just after the trade show. There we were at four in the morning and the time came... we tried them, and they didn't work!'
Happily, after that things began to go right for them. With MXR taking on the USA distribution and promotion and Atlantex in the UK, the word began to spread. The shops began to shift them like hot cakes, and soon everyone was tapping away. The rest is history.
Mike Coxhead's history in the music business is as interesting as it is varied: roadie for the Who, Pink Floyd and Santana, guitarist and lead singer with innumerable bands (including The Clones), and now his interests lie, as well as the electronics, in the diverse building industry.
'I had never really seen a drum machine before Clive popped up with the Grey Box. I'd always worked with 'real' drummers and I wasn't a drummer at all. That was, I suppose, one of the reasons I liked the Kit, I always tap things, and finding a piece of equipment that could help me tap like a drummer was amazing!'
(Surprisingly, neither Clive Button nor Mike play drums at all - but no real problems there - Leo Fender can't even tune a guitar...) But even as the Kit was selling they started work on another project, the Music Percussion Computer.
The M.P.C. unit itself is basically the next generation on from The Kit. In the early days we always harboured an idea for a much bigger unit that could be played with sticks. We also had specific ideas of what the unit was supposed to do. We especially wanted it to be able to take in a whole pattern of drums, and then replay them - while the pads were being played over the top of them.'
Work was started on the M.P.C. in November of 1982. Like the Kit, they had a trade fair deadline - Frankfurt in February 1983, and again they turned up with a prototype - and, in the best of show biz traditions, stole the show - again. Back in blighty, they started to manufacture the M.P.C. as a saleable item.
(For a full review of the M.P.C. - see the August edition of E&MM.)
And to confuse matters even more nicely - they also continued work on the 'add-on' units for the Kit. Like the Clap, the bass drum pedal and the tympani - building up from what is essentially a simple drum machine to a whole modular system of units that can be linked together - the latest addition to the collection being the Sync Track which allows the home recordist to perfectly site the drum sound with the rest of the tracks. And it all came from a small Grey Box... or, more accurately, the capacious mind of Clive Button. So, our next stop was the modern factory complex that MPC Electronics have set up on the outskirts of Cambridge and it was here we found Clive, plus a new addition to the MPC company - Chris Reed, a design technologist. Surprisingly, they won't let anyone else deal with the final quality control - each and every Kit, M.P.C. and accessory goes through their hands at some time or another to ensure that everything works perfectly. The day that we descended on them Clive was perfecting the latest advance for the M.P.C. (yep, they're advancing that too...) in the shape of stage pads. He explained:
'We asked a lot of drummers to come in when the M.P.C. was first on the boards, and they gave us a lot of valuable information. The unit contains all the useful functions of the Linn, plus the computer interface and all. What we didn't have was the capability to interface with an electronic drum kit. That sort of thing just didn't exist.'
So they built one. Stage pads as such are familiar to most drummers, so, for those of us with a fretted and key'ed background a brief explanation: they are rather like practice pads, but they contain a 'trigger' that activates the various sections of the M.P.C. Thus a complete electronic drum kit can be built up from the M.P.C. But more of that in a future issue.
Now that MPC Electronics have 'gone direct' selling direct to the public - (they felt they wanted more of a face in the market), the feedback is also coming directly into them. This is one area that Mike Coxhead loves - hearing how and why people have bought the equipment, and what they use them for. All too often the music business can be a vacuum, manufacturers putting their equipment together not knowing their market or even the shortcomings that may be present - not so MPC. They take a very serious look at the comments that come in, and they act on them.
'Yes, the feedback we are getting now is both gratifying and surprising. I suppose that the first surprise came when we found that The Kit, which was basically designed for the home recordist, was being bought, and played, by drummers. After that, the ideas started to come in. A lot of them we can't really deal with - people don't understand that we can't make minor modifications to each and every Kit! On a synth or something that costs several thousands that might be feasible, but with the volume we turn out it isn't really practical. But, the Bass Drum pedal, for example, was the result of feedback. Players wanted to free that bass drum and get it onto the floor. They also wanted the hi-hat to be foot operated, and we made that too.
'But the letters I love are those from bands who tell us about what they do with The Kit. There was one that I really treasure from a guy in Brooklyn in the USA. He wrote and told us that his band were due to be thrown out of the venue they played in because of the volume of the drums, and the space. So they got The Kit. That saved both their gig, and the venue, and now they've turned professional.'
Their design and development policy is also an eyebrow raiser, they, in Mikes' words 'want to try and come up with equipment that no one else is doing - they may be based on existing markets but we want to fill in all those niches that still need to be catered for.' To this end they recently started work on a new keyboard - again with the deadline of Frankfurt in February.
'I obviously can't say much about the new keyboard... even for a sneak preview! Suffice to say that it will be in the area of the Fairlight, but it will retail for under the £1,000 mark.'
As E&MM readers shake their heads in studied astonishment at this statement, those of a fretted nature may like to dwell on this: 'We've also started work on a new fibre optics guitar - but this won't be available for at least a year. The idea is that the musician will play it like any conventional instrument - except that the strings will be like beams of light - you will, I suppose, be bending light.'
And to add something for those who like a good stereo...
'Somewhere deep in the back of Clive's mind is a brilliant new hi fi system and that I'm shutting up about completely, except... it won't use speakers'
Speechless? We just have to wait. And patience, as they say, is a virtue.
So there is a brief profile of one of the youngest, but certainly one of the most a successful of the UK electronics companies. With The Kit, the Kit's accessories, the M.P.C. and the M.P.C. accessories, plus the host of ideas that spring eternal from the fertile minds of Clive Button and Chris Reed, coupled to the matchless marketing of one Mike Coxhead, we shall be hearing lots more from MPC Electronics in the future. Let's hear it for the Grey Box!
Gear in this article: