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.

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.



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.


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.


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.




Eurorack Module Reviews Project

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.

My little rig.

What to expect from my reviews:

  1. They will be highly, highly subjective.  Expect to disagree with me.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Decisions: Can’t keep them all (Part 4)(MPC Live)

Feeling the odd man out

I don’t know what it is about the MPC, but I always have one in my studio.  I’ve owned the 2000, 1000, 2500, 5000 and now the Live (never had the 4000…hmm.).   In the gaps between when I haven’t had one….I’ve always found myself lusting for one.  I even have the MPCPro iOS app on my iPad (for when I need a fix on the train).   I guess that makes me an addict.

So here we have the Live, which I’ve had for a good 6 months now.   I hate to say that this is the hardest review to write so far because…well….despite having it for 6 months, it hasn’t seen much action.   I poked it a bit the first days I had it.  Then Reason 10 was released and I became suddenly obsessed with software workflows based around that and Kong.  While I’ve been doing that, this lovely box has largely been gathering dust.

And that is a damn shame!  By all accounts, it’s the MPC I’ve been waiting for.   Battery power, HUGE RAM, better FX, touch screen interface…why haven’t I been using this?  Why has it not become the center of my rig as MPC’s have in the past?

Part of it is definitely the UI.  I don’t know why, but despite a touch interface, I often find myself getting lost trying to find what I’m looking for.   While the touch screen promises a simpler interface, this is one case where the old way was better.   I could *fly* around the older MPCs since their operation had changed little since the 80s.   The live upsets that rhythm (as I imagine the X does as well).

I feel like I haven’t really given this box enough of a fair shake to pass judgement on it, though…which is making me second guess this entire exercise.   I think I need to really force myself to use this deep beast and build something with it.  Or maybe I should take the last 6 months of non-use as a sign that I’m never going to use it?

Let me know in the comments what you think I should do.

Previous entries in this series:

Decisions: Can’t keep them all (Part 1) (Elektron Octatrack MkI)

Decisions: Can’t keep them all (Part 2) (Synthstrom Audio Deluge)

Decisions: Can’t Keep them all (Part 3) (Elektron Digitakt)


Octatrack (mk1) cheat sheet

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, so might as well now.

It seems that Elektron Octatrack was built with a built in neuralizer.  Despite having had it for years (almost since it came out) I can never seem to remember what combination of masochistic finger oragami I need to do in order to get to the parameters I want beyond some of the basics.   The manual for the OT is….just terrible, too, which doesn’t help (it’s a maze of partial explainations, and references to other parts of the manual that drive me bonkers).  I decided a while ago to compile a cheat-sheat of my own and post it here so it may help others.

Obviously, the list of functions below is not nearly complete.  I’m going to document it as I go and look for things so I an avoid the manual in the future.   I also plan to do this with other pieces of gear that seem equaly inscruitable.  I hope this is helpful.

To be honest, with as difficult as it is to use, I am amazed at how much I love the Octatrack.  I haven’t really even considered upgrading to the MKII (Though if a deal crosses my desk, it would be hard not to add one).  But I do, I love the thing.  It’s one of the enduring keepers in my studio.

Octatrack cheat sheet (in no particular order):
[name] = single tap
{name} = double tap
+ = press both together
(name) = hold button
<name> = knob turn
[RECORD] – enters grid record mode
[PLAY] – plays the current pattern
[RECORD]+[PLAY] – real time record mode
Record Triggers:
– Activate Grid Record
– Press [FUNCTION] + [BANK]
– Arrow down to record triggers and set what you want
– (optional) To make them ‘one time’ triggers press [FUNCTION]+[TRIGGER]. The step  LED will turn yellow.
– Press [NO] to go back to main screen
– Press [YES] to arm recording

– Press [Play]

Accessing Trigger Conditions:
– Activate Grid Record
– Press and hold the trigger you want to set a condition for
– Press the < or > arrow to bring up the micro timing display
– The Level knob sets the trigger conditon
– [UP] and [Down] set the number of triggers
– [<] and shift the trigger on the grid

Decisions: Can’t Keep them all (Part 3) (Elektron Digitakt)

(This year, I bought too many drum machines.  This is the third part in a series where I’m thinking out loud about which I should keep and which I should sell.  You can find Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking the links)

Ahh, the Digitakt. Of all my drum machine purchases, this one was the most impulsive.   I had literally *just* bought an MPC Live (the next one in this series) when an open box deal came across my desk that I couldn’t pass up.  I watched a few demo videos on it and, perhaps stupidly, snapped it up.

This is not to say that I am disappointed in the device…far from it.   I really do enjoy working with it…when I actually do work with it.  Which hasn’t been all that much.  Which is very, very unfortunate.

What attracted to me to the Digitakt is that Elektron seemed to be trying to do something I always wish they’d do: Cut out all the bullshit and just make an instrument that was straight forward and fun to use (I love my octatrack, but it’s not really fun).  They all got into a room and just said “Lets make a simple drum machine” and BOOM: digitakt.   But…then they started thinking…hm….maybe we can add some sample inputs….and 8 MIDI tracks…and…and….

Thankfully, the meeting ended and they didn’t add everything and the kitchen sink to it.  What they were left with was still pretty straight forward.

What happened next…eh.  I don’t know.  It seems like the ordered the hardware, started work on the firmware and then let marketing publish the specs and features they hoped to have two years form now.  Why?  Because what arrived on launch day was *not* what everyone had hoped.   To put it mildly, the system was buggy, overbridge wasn’t even implemented and there were a number of issues with the MIDI track.   Oh and, yeah, they didn’t bother to build in a song mode.

Yeah.. Read that again NO SONG MODE.

So…lets get this straight.  They made a great sequencer with great external control that can’t be used to chain those patterns into songs?




Of all the decisions Ive seen developers make, this is the most blisteringly stupid.   A drum machine with out a song mode?  Ok, that’s fine for a Roland TR reissue or maybe some machine trying to emulate an analog workflow…but this was positioning itself as competition for an MPC, and an MPC IS ALL ABOUT MAKING SONGS!!!

I love Elektron..but I will never understand their decision making process.

Back to the question at hand.  Do I keep it?   The answer is…maybe.   Even without song mode, the thing is really, really good : As simple to use as my EMX 1, but with a better sound and a lot of cool slick tricks.   I haven’t sampled with it, but loading samples in was cake (the +drive is Elektron’s best idea ever) and because of that, I’ve got a huge library of sound that’s a button push away from being in a track.  Slaved to the input of the Octatrak, it’s a great sound source.  All of that plus Elektron’s history of great software updates makes me want to hold on to it for a while and just see what develops.  Maybe even it will get a song mode…




Decisions: Can’t keep them all (Part 2)(Synthstrom Audio Deluge)

(I buy to many drum machines / groove boxes.   I’m in love with the concept.  I need to get rid of some.  Lets think out loud to figure out which).

Synthstrom Audio Deluge

In a technical sense, I have not yet bought the Deluge.   I have it on loan from Atomic Shadow on a try-to-buy deal.  As such, I’ve got the least level of experience with it of any of the gear I am presenting here.  These opinions may change radically as I use it, as my opinions on gear often evolve.

When I first heard of the Deluge, I was intrigued by its concept (of course).   Its a sampler, synthesizer and sequencer all in one box that runs on batteries.   Its from a new company, crowed funded, and is an example of the good things that can happen when developers work very closely with their customers.    The unit is in very active development from the manufacturer and new operating systems with bug and features additions are being released regularly.  There is a very active Facebook group dedicated to the product where you can ask questions and get good support.  They also are on twitter, which is where I’ve had a few of my angry rants quite calmly addressed.

This Is all very good because the written manual, frankly, sucks.   Its written in a very conversational sort of way but seems to take for granted that you already know how to use the device.   They don’t publish it as PDF but rather a google doc and forgo having an index because you can just ‘ctrl f’.   This all sounds very good and clever, but in practice its terrible for finding what you want.  They excuse this by putting out training videos you can watch on YouTube.   Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I HATE this.   When I’m working with a piece of hardware, I generally DON’T have my computer screen where I can be staring at it.   Also, the videos aren’t redone every time functionality or features change, so you often stumble across outdated information.   This has created a greater learning curve for the device than I think it deserves (I have started taking notes on all the functions with the intention of creating my own ‘quick start’ guide.  I’ll post it up here when it’s done).

All of that said, I still the deluge is pretty awesome.   With it’s 8×16 grid, it is very easy to get a multitrack pattern going.  Because of it’s lack of a display, I have not done any sampling on it, but loading samples in is easy enough and once you do great things can happen.   I could seriously see this as the bedrock background machine for a live set.  As a test, I loaded the stems to one of my new tracks onto it and I was up and running with simple backing tracks within a few minutes.   No laptop required!

If I could fault it in anyway, I’d say the display is my only complaint.  Yes, I get that all those buttons mean you don’t need to display so much, but a proper OLED would have given it so much more potential with regard to sample editing and other utilities.  As is, it’s like learning a new language with all the indicator lights being used to inform you of state.  Hopefully, some day there will be a Rev II.

Another area of disappointment are the FX.  They aren’t bad, but they aren’t very good either.   It would be nice to be able to have FX blocks you could select and edit like you can on the Octatrack or MPC.  This is particularly important because the Deluge only has one stereo output.   That is, more than anything, a problem for a unit of this type.  Moving work done on it into the DAW for mixing is going to be….laborious.

I guess the final question is if I will buy it.  I am 90% sure that I will.   I think it’s workflow will be very welcome along side the Analogue Keys and Octatrack.   Its small and light which makes it ideal for live use ( and battery powered!).  Once I get past this learning curve, I expect years of productivity out of it.


Ableton Live 10

Hmm…should I bother?

Nope. I think I’ll skip this one. I don’t really use Live much anymore except in specific instances. Those use cases are covered in Live 9.

I have no use for the Max integration. I should probably just export my stems and sell the license. That’s more work than I care for right now.

What do you think? Live 10 worth it?