Music Percussion Computer
It all began with the Kit — that electronic drum set-up which sat in your lap. There were four circular pads that would emit passable impersonations of bass drum, snare, hi-hat and tom-tom whenever you thumped them with your fingers. Sticks were too heavy handed.
Here, for once, was an electronic drum box you could play rather than program.
The Music Percussion Computer was originally called the Kit II — just as well they changed it, since there's very little in common with the original machine. The MPC has come a long way — a hybrid of electronic pads and computer controlled programming, and one of the only devices that straddles the border between rhythm machine and drum kit.
The MPC announces its intentions from the moment you bust open the cardboard box. It's built into its own flight case, the bottom half carrying the eight drum pads and myriad of controls, the top section supplying extra storage for mains leads, cables and the computer interface.
Physically it's 24in long, 13in wide and 4in deep when the lid's off. Obviously it's meant to be played live — no namby-pampy 'I-live-in-a-studio-and-my-mum-says-I-can't-do-PE' excuses here. Two thirds of the top panel are taken up by eight octagonal, cream, plastic pads which act as the MPC's skins.
They're hard so-and-sos, and don't flinch when you clout them with your best, matched pine saplings. The booklet says: "It is not necessary to hit the pads very hard, the MPC has been designed for optimum response to allow entry of rhythms with a fairly light touch". That, frankly, is a bit of a fib since my sample wouldn't trigger from a firm thump from the flat of your hand. Bongos, they ain't, which is a pity. It HAS to be a drumstick.
The rest of the panel is occupied by a 16 key, calculator style pad for entering in numbers and instructions, and wrapped around that are more control knobs than it takes to raise Tower Bridge — 38 in all.
Though there are eight skins, there are ten sounds altogether — bass drum, snare, hi-hat open, hi-hat closed, cymbal, clap, and four tom toms, so some pads have to be shared. The bottom row of four pads will always trigger the snare, bass drum, closed hi-hat and open hi-hat. The top row can either operate the four toms, or toms 3 and 4 plus cymbal and handclaps. A small push button decides.
Each sound has a red topped control for volume, and there's a final level for the overall mix output. Selections such as the bass drum, snare and toms all have pitch and decay controls to alter their tone, and the toms can also be given a certain Simmons-esque edge. As well as the basic imitative 'plonk' of a skin, they can turn out a few 'biffs' and 'baffs' courtesy of a white noise source that can be mixed in.
Beat, the first. I was not overimpressed with the MPC's drum sounds. Though the programming electronics is almost state-of-the-art, the basic noises have barely moved on from the original kit.
The bass drum was bright and snappy, but sounded more like an extra low tom than a true air shifting kick drum. It was clear and stood out well in the mix but had none of the dance-inducing click that comes from the frenzied collision of beater and skin.
The toms had a similarly lifeless character and were not much improved by fiddling with the pitch or decay controls. The hi-hats scored better marks. They were part way between white noise crash and ring modulated 'ting' — a good compromise, and I especially liked the way the hi-hat could be tightened to an instantaneous 'tick', or loosened for the floppier footwork of rock'n'roll where you want more of a splash to the timekeeping sixteenth notes.
Same goes for the cymbal where the decay was just long enough to turn it into a reasonable crash. One trick that prolonged fiddling discovered was performance pitch changing. Set up a basic funk rhythm, turn the bass and snare down low and shift the pitch of the hi-hat and cymbal as the pattern's playing. It sounds as if it's pissed, and singing — distinctly 'scratch', and deeply fab, as the ass-ed would say.
The handclap's okay, but it would have benefited greatly from a loosen or tighten control as featured on the hi-hat.
Back to gadgets. Perhaps the single most brilliant realisation the MPC's designers had was that other people had beaten them to it. Not, in the format of drum machines, but in memory space. Why spend money adding memory chips and programming controls when everything that's required exists in a ready made box and has the words 'Sinclair ZX81 computer,' printed on the outside. Considering they're £40 new at Boots (£20 secondhand if you look round), it was a piece of cash flow genius.
So, the MPC on its tod does have some programming and memory functions, but to meet the full potential, you need the ZX81—MPC interface unit and a TV — colour if you want, but it won't do you much good since the display will be in black and white.
Let's quickly skirt round the onboard programming, which works on a metronome system. Set the counter going and hit the pads on the appropriate beats. They'll be recorded into the memory, and if you miss the beat the first time, wait until it comes round again. Importantly, ALL the pads can be played at once, like a real drum kit, and their impacts will be scored down on the memory. In this way you can record four patterns of 16 beats — not much, it has to be said, so we'll shove on to the ZX81.
If you've never encountered a Sinclair before — a proposal we at One Two find difficult to believe — they're small, black plastic boxes, not much bigger than the average paperback, and with a typewriter style keyboard on the front, built up from touch switches beneath square white membranes.
They run off a 9V DC supply and connect to the aerial socket of your TV, where, after tuning to the right frequency, somewhere beyond channel four, strange computer-type messages will appear to frighten pets and puzzle parents.
At the back of the ZX81 is a slot which reveals the edge connections of a circuit board — those in the know would call this a 'port'. It's into this harbour that the MPC interface cruises. It's another upright, black plastic box with an edge connector that marries up to the ZX81. Once in place it takes over the Sinclair, feeding it a program which will run the MPC. Once disconnected, the ZX81 returns to normal, so you can use it to cheat on homework, fool the taxman or bomb the slimey green Arachnids from the planet Gob.
Beat, the second. This is not a Physics exam. You need absolutely no knowledge of computers to operate the Sinclair and MPC in conjunction. Like all the best software, the interface does the understanding for you, and the keyboard of the ZX81 becomes an extension of the controls you might find on any drum machine — in fact, simpler than many since with the alphabet and 10 numbers to play with, you don't have to worry about running out of switches, and finding that some have two or three functions.
The first message to appear on the screen is what's known as a menu — a list of the major functions the program can perform, and a code number to call up each one of them. There are six in all — compose bars, make sequences, compose songs, save songs (dump onto tape), load songs (dump from tape) and download (send all the information to the MPC's onboard memory).
Sidetracking for a moment, that download is a vital feature. Though the MPC has severely limited onboard programming, it has a FULL memory capability. The ZX81 interface can construct 25 different songs, each one up to 25 sequences long, each sequence made from 26 bars. The MPC can store the lot, so you can take it along to a gig without the computer or the screen, and playback the entire set.
Still off on another tangent though, the interface has the capacity to create all those sequences and songs, but the ZX81 doesn't, have enough room to store them — daft isn't it. The MPC can absorb 25 songs — the ZX81 can only keep check on nine at any one time. So to hit our absolute maximum we have to make one more purchase — a Sinclair 16K Ram Pack. This cartridge piggybacks onto the upright MPC interface, and acts as a memory warehouse.
The first stage is to compose a bar. Press 1 and the screen clears to reveal a more complex arrangement... a list of seven drum sounds on the left, followed by a 16 step grid. The layout is duplicated underneath, and at the bottom of the screen is a series of code letters and the instructions they represent.
Patterns can be formed in two ways. The first is to plot every beat. Using four directional keys on the ZX81, you can move the cursor — a flashing black square — to any position on the grid. Say you want a bass drum on the every fourth beat. Move the cursor down so it's on the grid line level with bass drum and covering the first of the 16 dots in the line. Press the 'Q' on the ZX81 (the plot key), and a star appears at that position of the grid, while the cursor moves on to the next dot.
Repeat the operation at the fifth, ninth and 11th dots, and your bass drum pattern is programmed in. The same system applies for all the other voices until the bar is complete. Then you press the play key and listen to your composition.
The second technique is the equivalent of the MPC's own real time programming where you set the metronome going and strike the pads in time, except now you can see the beats appearing as stars on the screen.
Each bar can be given a name (A-Z, hence the limit of 26) and the screen will nominally show the first and the last bars in the memory.
Composition of sequences is easier still. This time the screen shows a smaller grid of dots, each of which represents a slot in the memory. You simply tap out the bars on the ZX81 keyboard in the order you want them to be heard — A, B, C, C, A, D, for example and they take up their places in the matrix.
Finally, there's song composition. A sequence may comprise a number of bars that make up, say, a verse or a chorus. The song section is how you arrange the sequences into verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight... etc. But unlike many other arrangeable drum boxes, you're not limited to using just sequences. You could drop a single bar into the middle of a set of sequences, perhaps to make room for a fill.
Beat, the third. How does the keyboard operated programming compare with say a Roland TR606 or Drumulator where plain, ordinary switches have to do the job?
The major advantage is clarity. The visual readout leaves you in no doubt as to which drum falls where, and if a pattern sounds wrong, it's easy to transfer beats to the right position by using the cursor, plot and unplot keys.
But the MPC falls down in a couple of surprising areas. Most irritating is the tempo. How often have you written a drum pattern, set it running, then changed the speed until it felt right. You can't do that on the MPC. You have to stop the playback, punch in a new rhythm figure, then start the pattern again — it could take three or four goes until you get it right.
And for all the cursor and plot options, the editing facilities are positively frugal. If you've made a mistake in a song structure, you can go back to the list of sequences and change, say, sequence 1 for sequence 2. But you can't insert new material in the midst of a song. You have to rub out everything from that point and reprogram. Neither can you remove an unwanted sequence and close up the gap that its left.
The truth is that having played with the MPC for a month, I initially found it easy to grasp and program. But after a while the ZX81 interface turned out to be quite limited in what it could do and didn't offer the breadth and fine detail of control you might expect from a computer link up. It doesn't, for example, offer the short cuts, editing tricks and personal touches that the Roland MC202 exhibited when we reviewed it last month.
And there are other odd quirks. The ZX81 will trigger two of the MPC's tom toms, leaving you to play along on the additional pair. But it will only trigger them in their normal tom sounding mode. You can't write a pattern that features the 'biff' and 'baff' sounds created by white noise. Those will only appear when you belt the pads manually.
While we're talking about play-along pleasantries, this is one of the MPC's major strong points. All the pads remain functional when the computer is running, so you can add in fills, extra handclaps or whatever, to embellish the rhythm. This makes it an ideal crossover instrument for a band that wants to keep its drummer but get him to behave like a drum machine. He can feed in basic patterns - maybe just the bass drum and high hat — and personalise the rhythms as the gig unfolds. Still, if you're a percussionist who has always detested Simmons kits because of their table-top plastic pads, the unforgiving octagons of the MPC are not likely to win you over.
Also, one of the jams you can get away with on a Roland or Korg is mid-rhythm changeover. As one pattern's sounding, you hit the switch for another and it swaps at the end of the bar, without missing a beat. You 'play' the programs. The MPC doesn't like such mind changing, and has to be stopped before any alterations can be made.
Beat, The fourth. Access to data. The MPC is a friendly chap, very approachable. Every sound has its own jack socket output so you can eq each drum individually — compression on the bass drum, ADT on the handclaps, reverb on the snare; it all helps dramatically. There are 11 sockets in all, running down the right hand edge of the case and they include the overall mix and headphone outlets.
The back panel carries the usual Euro mains socket, plus jack sockets for dumping songs onto tape (the ZX81 forgets everything as soon as the power is disconnected). There's the 25 pin socket that links via a ribbon cable to the ZX81 interface. Further along the back edge is a second 25 connector, pins this time, and they link to a stage box so you could drive the MPC sound generators with a remote set of pads — perhaps a real kit, fitted with pickups to supply a negative pulse. And, in full realisation that there are other drum machines in the world, its been gifted with two Din sync sockets that will link up to Roland sequencers, bass lines etc.
1) The MPC is a clever and talented compromise between playable drum synth and programmable rhythm machine — but a compromise nonetheless. It doesn't triumph over the opposition in either area.
2) The Sinclair ZX81 provides cheap memory space and makes the arrangement of patterns and songs easy to see and understand — but it doesn't DO any more than the built in controls of an Oberheim DX, Roland TR606 or Drumulator — in certain cases, it does less.
3) In some ways computer operation has designed the MPC into a corner. It should have a simple, old fashioned tempo control, and be expanded so all its sounds — including the white noise tom tom voices — can be included in a pattern.
4) For all that, if you're a band that needs an all purpose piece of electronic percussion for performance, recording and use by a real live drummer, then the MPC is on its own in this price range.
Review by Paul Colbert