Since many have asked…
I’ve come to a major decision in my life and my music – I’m selling almost all of my hardware instruments.
Those that have known me for a long time will realize how strange this sounds. Some of you will think I’ve gone mad or that I am suffering some sort of depressive episode. Neither of those are true. In fact, I think this is the cure for my maddness.
You see, hardware has become an increasingly large pain in my ass. Be it the physical space it takes up, the costs of buying or the ancillary costs in infrastructure and power; having it means having a lot of other stuff and having to deal with a lot of stuff you just *don’t* with software.
But “hardware is rock solid stable!” you’ll say. “It just works”.
That was the past, when instruments were simple and there was no such thing as a software update. Now, products are raced to market with half baked operating systems lacking even the features that were promised in original ad copy that made you pre-order it. Then you wait for updates while dealing with bugs and, if you’re lucky, the company actually follows through. Almost every company does this now a days with their hardware (elektron, i’m looking at you) and the beta-culture is one I am just done with.
And if you think about it, there is no incentive for the company to do long term support aside from reputation building (and it seems no one cares about that anymore). Without a financial incentive, they have to move on to new products on a rapid cycle.
Oddly, software doesn’t have this problem as much, since the upgrades are paid. This creates an incentive to create new and exciting things in each release. So, yes, I am upgrading XYZ soft every year, BUT…I’m getting value for that. Bug fixes are often free patches. It’s at least not as bad as the hardware these days (and, no, I can’t believe that I’m typing that sentence.
The other big factor in this decision is my very limited time. When I do get time to sit in my studio, I don’t want to be futzing with shit to make it work. Since moving to my Mac and Reason, I spend a LOT less time futzing. With hardware, any time you get a new instrument, there is figuring out where to put it, connecting it, setting MIDI channels, etc. There is a lot of engineering that goes into just *having* a studio of hardware instruments. Installing drivers….etc. And all of that gets completely fucked up by one..bad…MIDI cable.
Here is an example. A few weeks ago I got a Korg Radias as part of a trade. The radias sat in the box for 3 days before I could get to it. When I did, I had to find desk space to put it on, since I wanted its controlls available. After I find a place, I had to find MIDI cables that could reach it. Great, did that. Now I need audio cables. FUCK! audio cables don’t reach to where I want to put it. So I can go out and buy new cables, or find a different place to put it…you get the point. For this priviledge, I paid $700 abouts.
Last night, I bought a reason instrument that was on sale for $20 and I already have half a song written with it. Right there, hardware is done.
With all of that said, I’m not going to get rid of all of my hardware, but rather focus on a few pieces that I do actually feel are worth the struggle. Those items are my Korg Kronos, Akai MPC Live, and of course my Eurorack Modular. I’ll be selling Access Virus TI2 Darkstar, Korg Radias, Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver, Elektron Octatrack and Elektron Analog Keys. By getting rid of that stuff, I’ll be able to shed my Yamaha 01v96v2 mixer, a pair of smaller mackie sub mixers, my iConnectivity MIO10, a TON of stands, cases and racks, and I’ll be able to recycle a metric fuck ton of cables. METRIC FUCK TON.
When I think back to my Dust album, it was written when I had, due to financial contraints, retracted my studio down to the Korg M3, my Korg EMX1 and my Eurorack Modular. Maybe that had something to do with my happiness and creativity in that time? Who knows. Anyway…here goes…
This week, I finally caved and bougth a Spectral Multiband Resonator (SMR) made by 4ms. It’s a thing of wonder and beauty.
Just looking at the front panel gives you a sense that this module is an instrument unto itself, and that is certainly the correct impression! There is so much going on here, I don’t even know where to begin.
Basically, it’s a totally different type of sound source or processor. It reminds me quite a bit of the comb filter oscialltor types on my prophecy but far more subtle and alive. It’s a drone makers wet dream! A little reverb and a chorus and you’ll be the special focus on Galactic Travels in no time!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a little writing exercise, I’ve decided to underake writing reviews for all of the modules I currently have in my eurorack rig, and for any modules which I acquire in the future. This is mainly for my own practice writing, but also because I think some will find it useful.
What to expect from my reviews:
- They will be highly, highly subjective. Expect to disagree with me.
- I will not be hooking them up to a scope and going ga ga over the purity of their sine wave. I care about the musical results I can get from a certain piece not about its technical achievement.
- I am, by nature, an asshole who can find flaws in anything. You’re going to think I hate every module I touch, even though that is (oviously) not the case
In the next couple days, I’ll start writing them and then start publishing them as I finish them. As I do, I’ll update this page with links to all of the reviews. This will make it easy for anyone looking to find them.
So I thought about it…maybe I should keep the blog around, if only for jotting down a few thoughts and keeping my mind on music.
I’ve been considering my goals for the next album. Aside from the usual ‘pushing myself artistically’ and so forth, there are some things I’d like to do that are more about process than art. There are some tools in my studio I’d like to find a way to shoehorn in to this process.
First and foremost, I’d like to make a lot of use of the hours and hours of audio I’ve been capturing on my field recorder the last few years. I’ve got gigs of back yard recordings, walks in Chicago, construction sights, coffee makers, garage noises and every noisemaking toy my son has received since he was 3 that I can draw from. All of it is poorly cataloged and completely unorganized. That actually might be a good thing, since not knowing the source of a sound makes it easier to divorce your mind from that source and to think of the sound as something else. I’ll be making heavy use of Adobe Audition for this, which I didn’t have the last time I did an album.
Another thing that needs to make it into the workflow is the iPad. Ideally, I’d like to start a track on it, or develop assets for a track using the various apps on it. I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could do an entire track in Korg Gadget and Akai iMPC Pro. Samplr and probably the Thor app by Propellerheads would probably be a good fit.
I’d like to find someone who plays hand drums to work with. A drummer would be really cool. Vocalists, obviously. I wish I could find an actual writer to help with the lyrics/thematic material.
That’s just a few of the points I’d like to hit. Obviously, there are modular workflows i’d like to explore as well. I’ve never really done percussion on the modular, and maybe that’s something to be explored as well.
I’m not going to guilt myself with deadlines or promises that I may not be able to keep, I’ll just say that I’m going to make progress, steady progress, and it will be done when it’s done.
Do you want to contribute to my next album or broadcast? Contact me, and let me know what you have in mind.
Aside from an absolutely DISASTEROUS hockey game I watched, I spent some time in the studio. I started playing with something yesterday that is evolving in my mind as a long form ambient broadcast. Tentatively titled 'Lethologica', it's got a nice modular noodle with some beats and samples under it. I'd like to do some more sound design for it and load up the Octatrack before I record it. The hard part, as always, will be finding the time to do so. Maybe I need to take a Work From Home day Thursday…