Over the years I always felt the urge to go back to hardware and ditch the computer. Unfortunately each hardware device had some shortcomings, which never let me leave the Macbook in the closet. I’ve stayed away from the Akai MPC Live so far, but with recent updates I heard more and more good things about it. It promised to be a complete independent workstation which doesn’t require a computer to make beats. Four weeks in, I feel confident writing an MPC Live review and summarize my main takeaways so far.
The MPC Live looks slick! It has the iconic 16 velocity sensitive pads and a bunch of buttons and encoders, but a lot of complexity is hidden behind the big beautiful touch screen. As someone who likes a clean user interface, this is definitely appreciated. You are not afraid to jump into making a beat because you feel overwhelmed with too many button choices. Something that I hate about making music with digital plugins. The downside is that this minimal interface requires some doube taps & shift presses to get to less used options. I can live with that though.
On the rear panel you find enough connections to make most beatmakers happy. You can easily receive and send audio data via USB. You have USB slots for external hard drives and USB drives, as well as one SD card slot. For connecting to other external equipment and your audio interface, you have 2 midi in and 2 midi out connections. For sampling, you get dedicated line and phono level inputs, and to get the sound OUT OF the MPC you find 6 outputs plus a headphone output for monitoring. This is really all I need at this point.
A great way to learn the ways of the MPC live is to load one of the demo projects and see how its put together. I’ll tackle some basic things in this review, but for diving deeper I suggest getting the MPC Live Bible. It helped me a lot navigating around the machine during this MPC Live review and developing a basic workflow I’m comfortable with.
Once you checked out some demo projects, I would suggest you open an empty project and start with a blank slate. Within the project you find sequences, tracks and programs – these are core MPC terms and it helps to familiarize yourself with them as soon as possible!
Sequences, Tracks & Programs
Sequences are building blocks for songs, think verse, chorus, bridge, intro, etc. Tracks hold the instrument or audio file that’s going to play. And a Program is a set of samples which the instrument plays plus all the parameters like sample start, envelopes, pad assignment, etc. drumgroup, keygroup (chromatically), clips (live jamming) and midi (external device). You can save these programs as presets and load even programs from older MPC with ease.
The MPC Live comes with 10 gigabyte of preinstalled content called the Vault. It’s a great starting point, so you don’t have scour the internet for sounds. Simply hit the Menu button twice. Check in the content folder and it will show you categorized programs. The selection is really decent, so for banging out your first beats these are totally sufficient. Eventually you want to graduate from these bread and butter sounds and develop your own sonic palette, but even today I find myself quickly grabbing a quick strings or piano patch if the track calls for it.
If you are already producing, you probably bought this machine to use your own sounds. It’s a sampler, not a synth after all. I’m especially picky about drums, so first thing I did was load my own drum sounds in the MPC LIVE…
Connect your hard drive or USB drive to the MPC Live, then go to the browser, to “Places” and navigate to the right folder on your connected storage device. Now you load MPC programs, samples or even complete sample folders into the current project. Navigation is pretty intuitive and once you get a hang of the filters and how to navigate around your files, loading samples will be a breeze. The instant audition of samples is also great and a lot snappier than on the computer!
I noticed during the MPC Live review, that a lot of people stress about adding an SSD drive to the MPC Live as second internal drive or connect it as external hard drive. While an SSD has speed advantages over SD cards and USB sticks, for me it’s not a main priority, because all the sounds you store on there will be loaded into the internal RAM of the MPC Live, so while composing you won’t have any increased speed really. The initial loading of the samples does go significantly faster, but MPC Programs are generally not multiple GB like you are used to from software samplers like Native instrument Kontakt. The MPC Live has only 2GB of RAM anyway. I have a dedicated SSD hard drive for my MPC Live on my shopping list, but it’s not at the top.
Sampling fresh sounds
Whatever sound source you connect can be sampled. If you’re a purist, you can sample from vinyl, or you can simply connect your iPhone and get some sounds from youTube.
Simply go to menu and choose Sampler. Make sure to check your input levels and outputs. Click Monitor so you can hear what you want to sample. I suggest to keep your input level around -9db to avoid distortion, and then – hit sample! Once done give it a name, so you can find the recording later and assign it to a pad. Congrats, you’re off and running!
Next you want to edit the sample. In typical MPC fashion, we can chop the sample into slices and assign them to different pads to be able to replay the sample in a different order.
In Manual mode you can hit Slice to manually chop while the sample is playing – I find this great for musical samples. If I recorded a drum break I went for Threshold because the transient peaks in drum breaks are usually quite pronounced, so this mode is mostly spot on with little manual effort. Region and BPM mode I haven’t used much but they basically chop the sample into equal parts. Once you are happy with the chops you hit Shift + Convert to convert it to drum program. Pick non destructive from the options to not save it as separate samples – that’s just wasting space…
Here’s a Ninja Tip I discovered during this MPC Live review when working with drum breaks! Instead of creating a drum program, create a Patched Phrase. This will create a new sample that will play based on the tempo of your project. Basically it chops the sample AND creates the midi triggers so the sample slices/chops replay like the original. From there it’s great to just dive in and move some midi notes to add a variation to the original drum break.
After chopping it’s a good idea to spend some time to tweak the chops to your liking. You can change pitch, start/end time and much more – either for each pad separately or for the whole program. One lo-fi specific thing I like to do is adding the signature wobble of the Roland SP-404. You can get something similar by going to the LFO, slow it down and assign the Pitch to it. Lastly add a Vintage Mode (I like the MPC60 best) and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent lo-fi sound from any sample!
The Overall Sound
The biggest selling point for me is the sound – and I didn’t expect that! When I say sound, I mean MPC drums are known to have some serious knock. I loaded some of my favourite drum kits into the MPC Live and when I started banging out drum beats, I had to double check if I really loaded the right kit! It sounds that much better on the MPC Live!
People talk about the sound of the MPC 60 and MPC 3000 a lot, but usually end up hating on the modern MPC sound being too clean and digital. I can’t front, the MPC Live definitely doesn’t have the Lo-Fi or Boom Bap out of the box, but you can dirty up sounds quite easily.
The 2.4 Upgrade
Akai just released the 2.4 upgrade for the MPC during my review time, so I didn’t get to test out all the new features yet. At the core though, this update brings industry level effects inside your MPC. The 16 effect plugins by Air are used in Pro Tools so you know it’s quality stuff. An easy favourite is the Lo-Fi effect, which let’s adjust bit depth and sample rate, perfect for lo-fi tracks.
One of the most requested MPC features also finally made it’s way into the machine – proper sidechaining. The effect is titled Motherducker and has two components. One is placed on the track that should duck (usually your bass or sample), the other one is the trigger – you would place that on your kick and sometimes even the snare. Motherducker alone makes the MPC even more of a standalone machine now! Side chaining is essential in hip hop these days, no matter if you produce lo-fi, boom bap or trap beats.
Concluding the Akai MPC Live Review
Not much to say which I haven’t covered in the previous paragraphs. This machine is straight fire from build quality to sound to the newly built-in effects. And the MPC Live really has shown me a new workflow. Well, actually it’s not new at all, it’s the traditional MPC workflow. It’s now the piece of gear that I open up first when I want to make music. There’s two things that are still missing from making this a true DAW killer for me though…
The first one is Sample Key Detection. This would certainly be THE killer feature which would let you find out the key of the sample you just chopped. Once you know the key you can easily dial in a bassline to go with the sample as well as layer some pads and melody lines to complement the sample. Being a sampler with a long running history and competitors like Serato Sample on the computer, it baffles me that Akai didn’t add this yet.
Other than that, I wanted this machine to be like Ableton in a box. Now Akai recently released the Force to be just that, but the MPC already has a clip launch mode. It just doesn’t work for a live setup, since I found every time you switch to certain pages and parameters, the clips stop playing. There’s a workaround by recording the clips and then using track mutes to transition, but I would wish this to be more intuitive like on the SP-404. I would love for it to be a basic clip launcher and pair it with the effects of the SP404 or KP3+ for a powerful lo-fi live setup. No computer needed. Maybe it comes with the 2.5 update?
Anyway, if you come from a hardware based setup, the MPC Live is a no-brainer. If you worked in the box but looking for one device to cut the chord and free yourself from staring at a monitor all day, the MPC Live is it. If you are an Ableton Live user, you should probably test drive the new Akai Force first, it’s almost like the MPC Live but with Ableton’s clip based workflow which you are used to. I have yet to lay my hands on one of them, but a review will follow once I get it.
If you are still on the fence, stay tuned – following this MPC Live Review I will edit a few short tutorial videos on how to use the MPC Live with some tricks and tips I picked up on the way and post here in the coming weeks.