MPC Live – Revisited

Prompted by my previous lack of ability to properly review the MPC Live, I decided it was time for me to roll up my sleeves and dive in.  Honestly, I feel like an ass for not digging into it earlier.

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An excellent pairing.

I did a little rearranging in the studio and put the Virus TI2 Darkstar above it to give me both a keyboard controller and to give me a sound source for sampling.    Connection was simple.  I used the B In/Out ports to connect the Virus and then took it’s main audio outs into the Sample Inputs on the MPC Live.   Inside the MPC, I merly had to set the audio input to live monitoring and I was off.

In addition to monitoring, the MPC allows you to apply up to 4 insert FX on the incoming signal to be sampled.  This is very useful, particularly with voice or drums.   This will be extremely useful if I ever get back to doing internet streams again, as I could route the Eurorack or another synthesizer or drum machine and use the MPC to give it some treatment.

Updates..updates for EVERYONE!

After getting the Virus setup, I decided to check the Akai website to see if any software updates had been released.   I hadn’t updated the unit in a long time, and I’d heard there had been at least one.  I proceeded to download and install V2.0.7, which is the latest as of this writing.

The update procedure on the MPC is simple:  Connect a USB cable between your PC and the unit, put the MPC in update mode, and then run the updator software.   It took all of about 5 minutes and worked on the first try.

After the update, I was very pleased to see they had obviously taken some time to clean up some of the menu screens.  It had honestly been so long since I worked with it that I can’t actually point out everything that changed, but suffice to say things just felt easier to find.   The menus were more intuitive, and I was able to operate it much less awkwardly.    This was feeling like working with the old, straightforward MPCs of old (of which I’ve owned every one).

As I read the release notes, there was a lot of stuff added, including AbletonLink, BlueTooth MIDI support.  None of this is stuff I can try out at the moment, but if I do I’ll amend this review.

A word about memory

According to specs, the MPC Live and MPC X both have 2 gigabytes of RAM.   Unfortunately, that is a little bit misleading.   While the motherboard does, in fact, have 2 gigs on it, that’s the same RAM that is shared by the OS, sequencer and FX (the latter two don’t really impact it much).  According to this article, you end up with roughly 1100 megabytes of RAM you can use for samples after all of that is used.  In my testing, this seems reasonably correct.

The question then becomes, is that enough?   I think that largely depends on your use.  If you’re expecting to finish whole projects in the MPC, or use it as the only piece of gear in a live set, leaving the laptop at home, you might find yourself a bit cramped.  For myself, coming from the days of 8 megabyte max RAM and 8, 12 and 16 bit audio quality, the MPC is a DREAM!  If you’re smart about the memory you have on hand, you should do really well.   I always bring other gear when I do live sets, but this will effectively mean I don’t need to take my laptop.

 

Organization

Anyone familiar with the MPCs of the past will have little trouble getting their head around how the MPC Live is organized.  The structure you will be most frequently working with is the Sequence, which contains all of your various tracks and their assignments.   Tracks are made up of tracks and each track can have a program of one type or another (more later).  Multiple sequences can be strung together to form a song.  I don’t think the basics of this have changed in the history of the MPC.

All of your samples are stored in a sample pool and can be accessed by any program or audio track.  Programs also are stored in a sort of preset pool, though they don’t call it that.

Files are stored using a standard file system of directories and folders.   You can store your stuff on either the internal hard drive (not recommended), on USB media or using the SD card slot.   If you feel brave, you can also pop the unit open and install a 2.5 hard drive or SSD internally.  For my projects, I acquired a 1TB pocket drive for $50.   That should hold me for a long time.

Voice Structure

Unfortunately, this is where the MPC shows it’s age a bit (or maybe I just show my rather high demands).   The MPC voice structure is rather spartan and speaks to a machine whose designer only had single drum hits in mind.   The voice structure is very simple with an almost insulting lack of modulation sources and destinations.  You’ve got 1 filter, 2 EGs (one for filter, one for amp) and 1 LFO and that’s it.   A Kurzweil, this aint.   It is obviously geared toward playing back pre-processed loops.   This is the one thing I would really hope could be improved, but more than likely won’t be.

The saving grace to all of this is the FX architecture.   This is one place Akai went more than a little crazy.

There are 4 master inserts, 4 send/returns, 4 program inserts and 4 inserts on each pad.  You can basically insert an effect anywhere a long the signal chain, providing the unit has the DSP reserves to allow it.   Compared to prior MPCs, this is insane!  My only gripe here is that the FX list are relatively tame.   It would be nice to have a few more sonic manglers in there along with all the rather dull and tired delay and reverb types.

Connectivity

This is another place where they really got it right with the MPC Live.   The live features 6 audio outputs, stereo sample input, stereo phono or line level input (selectable), two each MIDI In and Out, USB Host and USB device jacks.

The USB host jacks are particularly interesting.  Not only do they allow for you to connect storage, but they also allow you to install class compliant MIDI devices, such as keyboards or other controllers, which can then send MIDI into the MPC Live.   I tested this with a Synthstrom Deluge and Alesis pad controller and both worked flawlessly!   The USB ports even provided enough power for those devices, meaning you could take them to a gig and leave the brick PSU’s at home.   Slick!

Unfortunately, the host adapters do not, at this time, support midi output nor do they support class compliant audio.  This is a shame, but I guess the line had to be drawn somewhere.

One final note on connectivity is of the wireless kind.  With the latest update, both BlueTooth and WIFI are supported.  I did not have a bluetooth MIDI keyboard to test with, but I have no reason to believe it wouldn’t work.   I setup the WiFi but have not yet had a need to attempt AbletonLink with it (though I intend to experiment with this and my iPad soon).  I can’t believe I am going to say this, but I think Akai is actually ahead of the curve with this stuff.  None of the other major OEMS are building this stuff into their hardware.

In Use

A lot of people may wonder what use an instrument traditionally associated with dance music styles would be to someone who does more experimental and ambient/industrial works.   Quite a lot, actually, thanks partly to that HUGE RAM!   Often, in performance, I need access to a large bank of sounds that I can trigger and layer and process.   There aren’t that many devices out there that give you the power of the MPC when it comes to the total package.   The Elektron Octatrack is close, but it’s limited to 8 channels of audio, and those are usually reduced since you end up using multiple tracks to process single long bits of audio.  In practice, my OT never has more than 4 or 5 sounds loaded into it.   The MPC Live has no such limitation!  And with 16 pads on it, I can trigger entire song structures and backing tracks from it and then process to my heart’s content!

There is one glaring omission on the Live, however, for this use case:  Real Time control.  The MPC Live has only 4 assignable Q link knobs (which can be banked, granted) which is just simply not adequate for an entire live sets control.  Also unfortunate, there has been no provision for mapping external MIDI controllers to sound or FX parameters.   That is borderline tragedy!  If you care about such things an MPC X may be a better investment for you (and to be honest, that’s where my head is going).

For the most part, the Live is a dream to use.   Once you figure out the basic idea of how the UI works, the touch screen controls make it easy to get around.  This took a little getting used to for an old MPC warrior like myself, accustomed to the functions being accessed from the pads instead of the screen.  Once you get use to it, it’s easy and obvious.

High marks have to be given to Akai for the touch screen implementation they chose.  By this point, I’ve had several devices that have had touch screens, and most of them have been negative experiences.   Either the touch points are too small (Korg Kronos) or it seems like they took a regular UI and just enabled touch without any other thought (V-Synth GT).   In the MPC Live,  it feels completely natural and works as you’d expect in the age of iPads.

Conclusions

I am probably more pleased with the MPC live than I have been with any pieced of gear I’ve purchased in the last 10 years, and that is no exaggeration.  It does exactly what It says it does and does it really, really well.   Everything about it feels like an MPC for the modern age.

Overall, I really have to give it to Akai for making the MPC awesome.   When the MPC Touch came out, a lot of us die-hard users were annoyed at what could have been…now we can all be amazed by what is.   I can’t wait to see how they follow this up.

 

 

 

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