MPC Programmer 8
Computer-controlled Rhythm Sequencer
Some drum sequencer software that's as user-friendly as it's versatile. Paul White enthuses over MPC's latest little marvel.
Once again, those cunning MPC people have come up with something so devilishly useful, you wonder why nobody started making it months ago.
These days, it seems the part of the drummer is forever being taken by electronics. And if you don't happen to like the lack of tonal variation inherent in the way most drum machines go about their business, you've no alternative but to go for electronic drums or individual modules like E&MM's Syndrom. As yet, most electronic drum systems have been designed to be triggered from pads, but while this has undoubtedly been of great benefit to drummers fearful of being left behind by the onslaught of technology, it has the unwanted side-effect of making drum sequencing a real headache. It's in response to this dilemma that MPC have come up with an eight-channel rhythm sequencer that doesn't cost the Earth, and is readily interfaceable with three popular home computers.
The model sent for review talks amicably with the Commodore 64, and its ROM-based software means that the system is ready to go the instant it's powered-up. MPC also make versions for the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum micros, though in those instances the software has to be loaded from cassette and you have to forego the sync facility - more on this later.
Once you've parted with the requisite quantity of greenbacks, and assuming you've gone for the Commodore variant, you get an interface unit that plugs straight into the cartridge slot at the back of the 64, and this is linked via ribbon cable to a custom-designed trigger pulse box. In addition to the eight jack sockets that provide the trigger outputs, the top of the box contains eight pushbuttons and an equal number of rotary controls. An eight-pin DIN outlet is also provided to allow for direct connection to a Simmons SDS8 electronic drum kit. A bit cheeky, but useful nonetheless.
In the normal course of events, the trigger box's first seven outputs are used to trigger some arrangement of sound modules, while the eighth carries only accent pulses. However, if you feel you've got enough of an accent already, you can connect the appropriate socket to a further sound generator of some description. Meanwhile, the rotary controls above each channel pushbutton are used to set the output pulse height, though just in case you're unsure as to what this might mean, in most cases it corresponds to volume: the pot fitted to the accent channel sets the amount by which all the other outputs increase in level when an accent is programmed. The buttons themselves are used for real time programming, and work in a manner similar to that of the Tap button on dedicated drum machines such as the Roland Drumatix.
On powering-up, the system's menu is immediately displayed on your monitor screen, and presents the following set of alternatives:
1 Compose Bars
2 Make Sequences
3 Compose Songs
4 Save Songs
5 Load Songs
6 Download to MPC
In all, up to 52 different bars can be composed in step or real time, and to help you on your way if you select the latter mode of entry, channel six can act as a metronome output on every third or fourth beat as and when required.
The screen display itself is not unlike that of the Boss Dr Rhythm Graphic or Roland TR707, in that a grid is provided on which you insert and delete beats. The matrix is normally 16 beats wide by seven voices (plus accent) deep, but bar length can in fact be expanded or contracted by up to a maximum of 24 beats. Standard Commodore cursor controls are used to position beats within a bar, and these are easily deleted if you make a programming cock-up.
Each bar programmed can be named either by a letter of the alphabet or a shifted character, giving a possible total of 52 different bars. There's also a facility for linking adjacent pairs of bars together, should this be your desire, and to this end, the bar display is capable of showing two bars simultaneously at any time. You can even copy complete bars into other locations for further editing, which should be a boon for the positionally indecisive. Once you've programmed all the bars you deem necessary, the next job is to assemble complete sequences.
A sequence may consist of up to 64 bars. That might not sound like all that much at first, but if you make sensible use of repeat commands, you shouldn't have much trouble making up entire songs from stored sequences. You've got a maximum of nine repeats per repeat sign at your disposal, and provided that each of these ends with an end-of-repeat sign, you can even put repeats within repeats. A bit like BBC Television, in other words. Mind you, failure to comply with these regulations will almost certainly leave you with a mutinous computer on your hands, so watch it.
You can build these up from bars, sequences, or a combination of both, up to a total of 64 sections. Note though that once this point has been reached, not even repeat passages are possible, so you've got to make sure you implement these at the Compose Sequence stage.
One good thing about the way this part of the system functions is that once you've played your song through to its logical conclusion, it stops. Certainly a relief after those software packages that insist on returning to the beginning and playing the whole thing through again ad nauseum.
An entire set of 25 songs can be saved on cassette for future use (the whole process takes less than two minutes), or alternatively, they can be downloaded onto an MPC Drum Computer, should you happen to have one lying around. Another nice touch is the Configuration page ('7' on the main menu), which you can use to change the names of percussion voices if your module line-up changes at any time. And perhaps more importantly, this page also allows you access to this version's built-in Sync function.
Let's get one thing clear first of all. This system has only a sync output, so there's no way of inputting some external sync source such as a tape signal generated by the MPC Sync Track, for example. Unfortunate, but there you go.
There are two modes of sync operation. The first outputs 24 pulses per quarter note and is available from the DIN socket on the interface box. This conforms to the Roland DIN sync system and therefore allows the Programmer 8 to be used in synchronisation with such drum machines as the Roland TR606 and 808. The second mode provides one pulse per beat, and among other things can be used to step sequencers at semi-quaver intervals or trigger percussive patches set up on a conventional analogue synth.
The Programmer 8 system is incredibly easy to use, making the programming of entire drum parts a lot less onerous than it is on a lot of dedicated units. I've owned a TR606 for years, but I still find composing and editing songs a real struggle: this MPC innovation should change all that. A brief look at the handbook is all you need to start composing, and the bottom of the display incorporates a prompt sheet to remind you of any commands you might have forgotten.
Admittedly, Spectrum users are a little less fortunate in that they'll have to load the software from tape as well as foregoing the sync facility, and I do feel that a sync input that enabled the system to be run from a sync track on tape wouldn't go amiss. Still, it may be that pressure from the professional recording lobby will eventually persuade MPC to include such a provision on future models. I hope it does.
Even as it stands, the Programmer 8 is a joy to use and versatile enough to satisfy most realistic demands. After all, it's possible to store an entire live set's worth of rhythm tracks with this machine. Can't be bad.
This Commodore 64 version of the Programmer 8 as tested carries an RRP of £220 including VAT, while the Spectrum and ZX81 variants are both £199.
Review by Paul White
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