What do you say when it’s all been said? We felt it was time for a fresh perspective on the MPC phenomenon — one a normal review couldn’t provide. So we got the opinion of our friend, samplist/producer and Segue member Dave Dri. And the verdict: there’s still something about an MPC — even if it suggests why there’s also something about software, too. But it involves dust. Here’s his op-ed:
Recently I had the task of reviewing an MPC5000 for a local street press magazine. The MPC part of it was fine — the word limit was trickier. Over the last decade I have reviewed the MPC2000XL and the MPC1000, with a lot of time and gigs passing between them. From early days in a live breaks act to my current progressive house act, an MPC has been right under hand. In the week that I reluctantly handed the 5000 back to Musiclab, the drummer that guested in my band at the Big Day Out festival asked me to play keys and samples in his band at a local festival. [Ed.: Our own Jaymis filmed the Big Day Out gig if you want to check it out.] I found myself in a chance conversation with a friend from the live breaks act Bitrok and the very next day, somehow, I’m on stage with his MPC2500 — a unit which I have since bought. So why did reviewing an MPC5000 lead to me buying an MPC2500 after years of happy service from an invincible MPC2000XL?
If you’re reading this, you probably know what an MPC is, and you can readily review any number of link-bait Google results for the product mentioned in the title of this post. [Ed. Hmmmm, link-baiting MPC's, huh? "10 Ways an MPC is Like a Cupcake"? "15 of the Best MPC YouTube Videos Featuring Hot Women MPCers?" perhaps? -PK]
What you probably want to know is what it’s really like. So I will tell you.
Changes, Rants, and Internet Haters
It’s big. Really big. In fact, it’s so large that it couldn’t fit on the Jerker desk that forms the core of my studio rig, and spent its review loan period on a keyboard stand. In a particularly amusing moment I happened to glance at a nearby MacBook with an Akai MPD-16 controller plugged in to it and formed an unfounded suspicion that the sheer size was simply a ploy by Akai to appeal to some demographic that might use the MPC5000 as the core, if not entirety, of their studio. Would Akai deliberately oversize their hardware to appeal to bling-savvy producers?
It’s got a new screen. Getting past the size, the next comment is usually on the screen. Long-time MPC users with older models are delighted with the display being adjustable in both position and contrast. As one might imagine, navigation and editing benefits immediately, and the old Shift+Number menu system is replaced with context-sensitive Mode and Window buttons. By this point things are getting off to a great start. All the basics work as they should, and getting around the unit is old hat to anyone who has touched an MPC.
It’s a synth – but will it replace other synths? Then we find ourselves exploring the onboard synthesizer emulation that Akai claim “eliminates need for external analog synth modules or buggy software based synthesizers.” We will touch on the concept of buggy software in a minute, but I think we can safely ground the private fantasy jet that Akai seem to be flying around in with the notion that their VA emulation is somehow a replacement for external analog synth modules. As you would expect, the preset patches have a liberal use of the word “Moog” and sound nothing like one. Even worse, it soon becomes clear that you need to load a patch into memory to even preview it. As Just Blaze says on his MPC5000 rant, this is 2008. Having to spend studio time loading a synth patch just to preview to it is ridiculous, and was something that Yamaha seemed to avoid with their RM1X back in the mid to late 1990’s.
As to the marketing claims of “avoiding buggy software”, this is, of course, a point of instant ridicule for anyone who has owned first-generation Akai hardware. If there is any company deserving of an award for consistently disappointing software programming it would be Akai. Optimists like to say that 1.0 OS implementations are likely to have a few issues that soon get fixed, but that kind of logic in the automotive industry would cost lives. In the same sense, broken functionality or crashing operating systems can limit creative output. For a device that costs as staggering an amount as the MPC5000 (MSRP US$3500), it is inexcusable to release such a flagship product without appropriate testing and debugging. It’s not like the world was clamouring for a massive, heavy, expensive hardware sequencer with onboard virtual analog synth emulation. Again I will point to hip-hop producer Just Blaze and his rant at Akai for the state they released the MPC5000. [Ed.: This is not an official CDM comment or my comment on Akai's reliability, because, frankly, I haven't used one. So if anyone wants to add to the rants here or question them -- and perhaps comment on how firmware updates have settled -- I'm all ears; please do so in comments! -PK]
In Australia right now, for the same price as the MPC5000, one is able to purchase a rig such as an Asus laptop, Motu Ultralite audio interface (site | on CDM), Ableton 7 and an MPD drum pad MIDI controller interface. Then again, you couldn’t simply turn it on and start making music out of the box. Despite the need for hardware that simply works, Akai simply cannot afford to rely on Roger Linn’s (on CDM) clever idea from the 1980’s any longer without actually following through on their product promises. Akai commentary aside, this isn’t an outright attack on the MPC5000. Not by any means. The parent company may attract comments on internet forums like “they be smoking crack mangz”, but their products do have a place in the market. This is where anyone left reading can take a deep breath and bask in some hints of genius.
MPC5000′s Brilliant Bits
The MPC5000 does indeed have enough promise to warrant its place on the shelves of your favourite music store or in the database of your choice of online retailer. For a start, the filters and Q-link faders are stunning. Noticing the in-built pre-amp (that Akai have finally copied from their competitors) included in the MPC, I hooked my trusty Vestax turntable and randomly grabbed a record – in this case, one of those James Last records you can’t but trip over in Australian record stores. With it spinning, I pushed record, grabbed a good 20 seconds, mapped the sample to a pad and the pad to a program. Going into sample edit mode, I enjoyed the large screen and multiple faders for adjusting start and end points without the 2000XL style scrolling or shift fader. On a whim, I bumped the resonance on the filter. It took about 5 seconds for me to fall in love with the potential of these filters. Sweeping low, I turned Tijuana trumpets into a resonant sub bass that swept up with my fader movements into the kind of pitched build-up that is still all over progressive house. Sample transformed.
Grabbing other samples from sources less dubious, I began to simply enjoy the hands-on creativity that sampling so effectively enables. Whether you’re a fan of the Sonalksis TBK filter or run your samples through an old Korg MS-20, there is something to be said for the creative aesthetic that comes with a simple sampler, some records and some decent filters. Do I see some heads nodding in agreement over in the French House corner?
Conclusion: Dusty Fingers
So, after a lengthy rant, I managed to say some nice things about the filters and the aesthetic of the MPC. Unfortunately, all specifications and feature sheets aside, the legacy of the MPC series is and always will be the elusive concept of feel, aesthetic, and groove. Once upon a time, this might have been currency to spend on lengthy, impassioned essays to enraptured audiences. These days, the proponents of the tradition of MPC groove tend to get short thrift amongst their contemporaries, who program the same boom bap beats in Fruity Loops, on Roland Grooveboxes and — lest we forget — Madlib’s infamous Roland SP303. There’s a certain element of buying an MPC that’s just down to being down with the MPC format. Plenty of internet forum arguments are waged over hardware versus software, Akai versus Roland, this versus that, purple versus magenta.
Ignoring the actual conflict, it’s obvious that there is something passionate about the range. For me, the MPC5000 reignited a passion that had fallen behind with the 2000XL’s user experience, compared to my workflow in Ableton and Battery. Despite relying on the old grey box for live shows, I had forgotten the unique outcomes of dusty fingers, hands on vinyl, samples on sampler. And it managed to do that in spite of its size, cost, weight and bugs. Once Akai iron out the last of the issues, there is no doubt that this will be a success amongst those producers who are set on hardware sequencing in the box with all the trimmings. For me, the MPC range has been an extension of DAW workflow more than an alternative. In that light, I am content in the MPC2500 bringing crate digging and sampling enjoyment back into my studio and replacing my trusty 2000XL in the flight case at gigs. If the idea of the MPC5000 appeals to you, then I would urge you to test it out for yourself. If you already have then let us know how you found it in the comments below!