Say “MPC,” and what comes to mind is a big, solid piece of hardware – a pickup truck of a drum machine, all metal beneath its rubber pads. And yet, a whole lot of what an MPC can do is now on your phone.
Akai’s iMPC is available now for the iPhone. At a US$2.99 intro price, this one’s pretty much a no-brainer, but here’s a look at what the app does.
As with Akai’s other iOS efforts, the app is developed by seasoned iOS devs Retronyms, so you get a beautiful, polished app from the makers of Tabletop. The interface is skeuomorphic, mimicking real hardware, but never in a way that’s overstated – it mostly makes the UI easy to read. (Skeuomorphism has been much maligned in the design community of late, but in sparing amounts, seems to work perfectly well for music software.) And that UI works well, though the problem isn’t how it looks – its that sometimes it’s too hard to get to parameters (like switching what the Variation fader controls), or they aren’t there at all (cough, sampling levels).
iOS already has advanced all-in-one drum machine/groovestation workstations, most notably the crazy-deep BeatMaker 2 from Intua, one of a handful of early apps that launched the iOS music-making revolution. iMPC isn’t that; it’s more of a simplified drum machine sketchpad, which puts it squarely in competition with Native Instruments’ iMaschine. Like many of you, I’d expressed some frustration with iMaschine’s lack of updates – partly because I found it unparalleled for quickly grabbing sounds and making kits. (After all, sometimes you don’t want to make an entire track on a cramped phone screen, but do want to go out to the park and capture some fun sounds.)
I’ve been trying out iMPC with that in mind. It fits a nice niche, and it could be the best option for Akai fans. The bad news: iMPC actually falls short of the two-year-old iMaschine in some key respects as a simple drum machine, and behind BeatMaker for breadth.
This is just a very brief first hands-on preview, not a review, but with some screenshots you can get an idea of where this app fits in.
The good news:
You get a lot of sounds. There are 600 samples in the app to get you started.
You can sample into pads. Sample from the mic, a line in, or load up tracks from iTunes and sample them via a cutesy turntable UI (see image). The mic sampling works similarly to iMaschine’s (with some unfortunate caveats). But the track sampling is loads of fun, and it means I’ll be using iMPC to resample some old tracks of mine on the go and turn them into new kits. And (cough, iMaschine) you can easily set in and out markers for samples.
MPC performance features are built-in. Note repeat is there, of course, and there’s also a variation slide with the ability to drag parameters up and down (like the filter or length), or map parameters across 16 pads. These features can get a bit cramped at times, but it’s still possible to perform most of what you’d want. There’s also a unique 3D performance mode that uses tilt sensing.
There are some nice built-in effects. You get a tempo-syncable delay, bit-crusher, and compressor/limiter. Nothing new, but Retronyms’ implementation and UI are rather nice.
You can cue up sequences. Here’s where it’d be useful to use iMPC alongside other tools.
Built-in sharing. SoundCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and WAV export are built-in, and Akai promises the ability to share tracks with MPC Renaissance and MPC Studio software.
AudioCopy / AudioPaste support.
…and some disappointments, so far:
Unfortunately, iMPC maddeningly reproduces some of the frustrations of rival iMaschine, while actually failing to fully match up to my favorite feature.
There’s no level setting for the impulse threshold. You’ll see a meter while you’re sampling, but you can’t adjust what threshold will trigger sample recording. There’s also no visual feedback as you capture multiple samples. That means for now, I can’t replace iMaschine with iMPC.
No MIDI support or sync. No AudioBus, no JACK.
Sometimes it’s hard to access controls. A draggable menu shows up with different parameters to control on each pad, but going in and out of it can be clumsy. Ironically, the 3D Perform mode gives you dedicated controls for switching between tuning, length, filter, and gain, but other modes don’t.
You can’t export individual samples? I’m researching this question further, but iMPC seems to export an entire pattern at once, so it’s not useful for capturing kits unless you use MPC Renaissance or MPC Studio. (Also, for now I couldn’t work out how to do the latter – I didn’t see song files showing up in iTunes File Sharing. That might just be me, though, and I don’t have the other Akai software to test, so I’ll talk to Akai about this one and report back.)
Let me be antisocial? CloudSeeder’s SoundCloud features constantly show you who’s uploading, nag you to share each time you record (until you tell it to please don’t ask again), and still prompt you for SoundCloud integration even if you want to export only to desktop (you can hit cancel). Enough, already.
For drum machine lovers, this one’s an absolute must-have. It’s fun to play, particularly quick for laying down patterns, and at $3 I’d have it alongside my other drum machines (like BeatMaker and iMaschine), if you’ve got room on your device.
I also imagine that it should be useful as a round-trip tool with Akai’s MPC software if you use it, much as Maschine fans are enjoying iMaschine. (That is, if I can figure out how this feature is even supposed to work.)
But there are some missed opportunities from Akai so far. iMaschine might be a little too simple to be useful. You’ll find an iPad vastly more usable than an iPhone in this case, because of the lack of screen real estate. The iPhone version could be more useful as a “satellite” to other drum machines if you had more control over triggering sample recordings and exporting those raw sample files. And while the iPad iMPC app supports Korg’s wireless Sync Start, Akai badly needs a drum machine app that supports real MIDI and MIDI sync.
Lastly, while sharing is great, obtrusive sharing is not.
In the meantime, iMPC is still a lot of fun. But I wouldn’t hesitate to continue to recommend BeatMaker as the most powerful solution around – and I eagerly await an iMaschine update someday.
Stay tuned for more details on how the workflows function with Akai’s different software – I’ll be following up with that.
Oh yeah, and Akai – I think I speak for countless drum machine lovers when I say I’d love to see new MPC hardware.