Akai have updated the classic sampling sequencer concept last embodied in the MPC2000XL, but have they managed to preserve the magic formula that made the series a success?
You'd be forgiven for viewing Akai's new MPC2500 as something of an anachronism, packaging as it does a MIDI sequencer and a sampler into a single stand-alone unit, long after computers have all but annihilated the hardware market in these areas. The unit's raw feature set does little to dispel this impression: the sequencer has fewer frills than the Ikea catalogue, while the sampler has very basic modulation options and no proper multisampling.
I doubt, however, that Akai are too concerned by these apparent handicaps, because the MPC2500, like illustrious forebears such as the MPC60 and MPC3000, is sure to be welcomed with open arms by producers of hip-hop, the most lucrative musical style on the planet. This is a genre where weeks can be spent digging through old vinyl for just the right source material, but where spontaneity and speed are the rule of the studio. In this context the MPC becomes a beautifully adapted production tool, providing just what's required to get the job done at high speed.
Let me demonstrate what I mean. Picture the setup: pretty much any MPC, some turntables with a DJ mixer, a couple of sound modules, a MIDI keyboard. You've dug out a piece of vinyl you want to build into a track. Your DJ mixer's already connected to the sampler's recording inputs, so a couple of button presses records your chosen snippet. Hit one of the MPC's rubber pads and assign the sample you've just recorded, set the tempo with the Tap Tempo button, and loop-record a four-bar pattern, triggering your sample wherever you want it. Five minutes work, tops.
Now, load some of your own personal stash of drum hits from disk (most hip-hop producers will have their own hand compiled collection) into some of the other pads and tap in your drum parts, letting the sequencer's input quantisation take care of any timing inaccuracies. Another five minutes later and your main beat's done, the sequencer never having left record mode.
Dial up a bass sound on one of your modules, and work out a part on the MIDI keyboard while the pattern plays back. Record the line bit by bit, using the Undo button to replay any duff bits as you go. Add pad, keys, and/or cheesy orchestral patches on other tracks as well if you like, and maybe the odd cymbal or sound effect as 'fairy dust' from the MPC's sampler — playing everything in real time
Twenty minutes from when you started you have a four-bar pattern which can act as the basis for a complete backing track. You can then create variations in the arrangement by muting and unmuting tracks at different points in the track, either using facilities built into the MPC, or by farming the MPC's 10 outputs to an automated mixer or multitrack recorder. After half an hour, you're ready for the MC to walk in and lay down vocals alongside the backing track.
Now I'm not saying that the process is always as simple as this, because you'll often want to edit, say, a sample's start/end points or tuning, or its playback filter settings or envelope times. Crucially, however, the simplicity of the sampler and the elegance of the operating system mean that such adjustments don't actually slow down the track-creation process at all.
And speed isn't the only card the MPC has to play. For a start, it's robust enough for live use — it is, after all, designed to be hit frequently! Its software also has a reputation for reliability which has remained untarnished despite a few cock-ups in this area on some of Akai's past hardware units.
Decent synchronisation facilities form another part of the MPC's appeal, because they mean you can run the backing track live alongside a fairly low-spec multitrack recorder which only deals with a few live overdubbed parts — or, alternatively, you could use a high-spec recorder and throw all the tracks at the task of creating a layered vocal sound for an R&B track instead.
Photo: Mark EwingHeading up the improvements to the MPC2500 sequencing experience is the new Grid Edit page, which provides a graphical display of the track data from up to 16 pads simultaneously. Delete, Copy and Paste functions are easy, and I'm sure I won't be the only one to find this mode more friendly than Step Edit for basic sequencing tasks.
Given that track muting has such an important role in hip-hop track arrangement, it was only a matter of time before Akai made it possible to record Track Mute Events alongside all the other sequence data. Fortunately, the sequencer's track solo function is independent of these events, rather than being implemented through the track mute switches.
Live musicians using the MPC's pads as mute switches to arrange tracks on the fly will be pleased to know that you can now also group tracks so that their mute switches toggle together. Things can go a bit amiss if you have Track Mute Events on some grouped tracks and not on others, because these events operate their respective tracks independently of their mute grouping, but I don't imagine this will cause too many problems in practice.
All these aspects of the MPC magic formula are already present in the MPC2500's closest forebear, the MPC2000XL, which we reviewed in SOS in December 1999, so why have Akai felt the need to tinker with it? One simple reason is that data storage has moved on since 1999. In place of the floppy drive, the MPC2500 sports a Compact Flash slot for storing your work in progress. Although the review model shipped with a derisory 32MB card, capacities of up to 2GB are supported, so in a live situation you could benefit from the robustness of a system with no moving parts by running your whole set off Compact Flash.
In addition to the card slot, you can install both an internal hard disk (five different models are currently supported, with capacities of 20-80GB) and an internal CD-RW drive. (Neither were shipped with the review unit, though, so I couldn't test these out.) If you install the CD burner, you can apparently use it to load CD-ROM sample libraries and back up your Sequence, Program, and Sample data to cheap CD-R or CD-RW blanks, as well as to burn audio CDs one track at a time.
Until recently, these kinds of optional onboard drives would have been pretty much essential for serious users, but I imagine that the appearance of a USB socket on the MPC2500's rear panel will now make them something of an irrelevance for most users. After all, if you have a computer with spare hard drive space and/or a CD/DVD-RW drive, it probably still makes sense to use it for non-real-time file-management tasks, even if you prefer to use dedicated hardware for your actual music-making.
With the MPC2500 switched into a special USB transfer mode, you can connect it up to your the computer. Mine recognised the Compact Flash card as an external storage drive, allowing me to drag files to and from it much as I would with any other drive. A variety of Akai sampler formats are supported, but 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files can also be read directly, which allows fairly easy access to practically every one-shot and phrase sample library you might want. When you're done whisking files back and forth, it's advisable to properly dismount the external drive before disconnecting the USB cable, although there's no need to power down either MPC or computer at any point.
One final thing to mention here is that you also get about 5MB of Flash ROM built into the MPC2500 as standard — there was an 8MB FMX008M option on the MPC2000XL, but you had to fork out for it. Although Akai don't make a big song and dance about this, it's actually quite a handy little extra. All data is lost from the MPC's main RAM whenever you power down, but the Flash ROM is non-volatile and can be set to automatically load into the main RAM when you switch on. This means that you can set up your own custom startup template, complete with a small library of your own favourite general-purpose sounds (kick, snare, hat, bass, and sound-effect one-shots, perhaps), ready for you to get straight to work.
Where effects were on an optional EB16 board for the MPC2000XL, you get them built in on the MPC2500. They comprise two assignable multi-effects and a master EQ and compressor over the main outputs. There are only 10 multi-effect types, and which one you choose determines whether the effect operates as an insert effect for just one sample or as a send effect available for all samples.
The insert effects include chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, autopan, compression, EQ, and Bit Grunger (a digital lo-fi process), while the two send effects are reverb and delay. All the effects keep the number of editable parameters to a minimum, in line with the general no-nonsense MPC ethos. The processes are all nice and characterful — the Bit Grunger effect, in particular, is great — but they're also sonically fairly low-spec, so don't expect much in the way of reverb realism, for instance.
When it comes to the operation of the MPC2500, Akai have sensibly chosen to port the functionality of the MPC2000XL over to the new machine pretty much unscathed, but have then carefully tucked any new features into nooks and crannies of the OS in such a way that you don't really notice they're there until you need to use them. The main way they manage this feat is by using the Window key — just as on the MPC2000XL, the LCD normally shows just the most important settings, but highlighting some of these parameters lights up the Window key, whereupon you can press it to get to a page of extra options.
The most useful of the additions are the new sampler features. Long overdue, in my opinion, was some improvement on the simple resonant low-pass filtering of the MPC2000XL, so I'm pleased to report that the MPC2500 now has two multi-mode filters in series for every sample, each filter offering high-pass, band-pass, and two flavours of low-pass. The resonance of all types is variable, although only the second type of low-pass response can self-oscillate. In addition, you can link the second filter's operation to the first, thereby exaggerating the default 12dB/octave filter responses to 24dB/octave. You do need to be a little careful here, though, as the filter has a fixed digital headroom, and it's easy to introduce a fairly nasty digital clipping if you crank up the resonance too far, even with the built-in filter attenuation at maximum.
The new filter options really make a difference when it comes to working with phrase samples for hip-hop and dance styles. The most obvious example is that drum breaks can now have the kick and/or snare filtered out of them so that they don't conflict with your drum programming. Some hip-hop producers like to chop their sampled music loops into frequency bands with crossover boxes so that they can have more control over the instrument balance, but this powerful technique is now possible within the MPC by triggering several copies of a sample with different filter settings. It would have been nice to have EQ-style peaking and shelving filters as other options here, but what there is already gives you ten times the sample-mangling power of the MPC2000XL.
It's great, too, that Akai have finally added in a tempo-sync'd LFO for every sample, and that its rate and onset delay settings are usefully expressed in beats and ticks. Triangle, sine, square, sawtooth (up and down) and random waveforms are available, and they can control a sample's pitch, filter cutoff, level and pan settings. This one addition effectively gives you vibrato, autowah, tremolo and autopan effects for every sample, which again expands the sonic options enormously.
The other sampler upgrades are useful time-savers. First of these is an automatic sample assignment utility which assigns your chosen sample to all the 64 pad slots in a new sampler Program, letting you play it across a 64-note chromatic scale. There's no fancy Melodyne-style jiggery-pokery going on here, so the pitch-shifts are created just by speeding the sample up and down, but the function is still very handy for creating bass lines from one-shot samples, and I'm sure that this addition is in response to demand from hip-hop producers.
Photo: Mark EwingA couple of other updates address some annoying problems you encounter if you use long phrase samples: firstly, when you stop the machine's transport, any long one-shot samples continue playing; and, secondly, if you don't start the transport at the beginning of the looped sequencer pattern, the likelihood is that the main sample around which your track is based won't be triggered until the next iteration of the loop. Both of these problems have now been addressed. One new option ensures that all one-shot samples are automatically muted when the transport is stopped, while another specifies any given sequencer track as a Continuous Sample Track, which means that samples triggered from the MPC's sampler should always play back correctly, no matter where you start playing from in the sequencer pattern. I did find that this latter function wasn't entirely foolproof when I had multiple MPC samples triggering from a single sequencer track, but for a single long phrase sample it seemed to work flawlessly.
Finally, there's an improvement on the MPC2000XL's Slice Sound option, which originally just chopped drum loops into 16 equal slices, leaving you to fine-tune the slices to match the audio beats. The MPC2500's new Chop Shop page still lets you do the same thing, but can also be set to automatically detect drum transients in the sample, in a similar way that something like Propellerheads' Recycle does. You get three different parameters with which to tweak the slicing algorithm, although I found it sliced up a drum loop pretty well even with the default values.
Once the slicing has been done, manually or automatically, you can edit any slice boundaries you wish and extract individual slices as new samples. In addition, you can convert the whole sliced loop in two different ways: as a series of individual samples assigned to different pads in a new sampler program, so that you can make your own patterns from the slices; or as a Patched Phrase (Chop Shop's equivalent of a REX file) which will automatically play the loop slices in sync with changes in the sequencer's tempo.
The Chop Shop is clearly a significant advance, but it's hamstrung slightly by the fact that automatic beat slicing can only be carried out on mono samples, or on one side of a stereo sample. This is a shame, because while beat-slicing is best suited to drum loops, I imagine most people are going to want to keep their drums in stereo. However, even if you don't use Chop Shop to slice up your main drum loop, it'll still make it much easier to pull out individual hits from mixed loops and vinyl recordings.
The MPC2000XL was never a cheap unit, and the new MPC2500 remains roughly the same price in the UK. In these times of Far East manufacture and ever-dwindling prices in other market sectors, I'm sure there will be some of you who will grumble about this, but in Akai's defence the new machine includes a variety of MPC2000XL cost options as standard: not only the Flash ROM and effects processing which I've mentioned elsewhere in this review, but also the eight individual analogue outputs and stereo digital I/O previously only provided on the extra IBM208P card. This means that, overall, the MPC2500 will only set you back about 60 percent of what a fully expanded MPC2000XL would have, and it makes a much more appealing package at the base price than its predecessor.
The MPC series began life as sampling drum machines, and maybe it's this heritage that accounts for the paucity of modulation options which have typically been available within their sampling engines. The MPC4000 is, of course, a dramatic exception here, but it's much more than a typical MPC. The MPC2000XL made some attempt to remedy this with its Note Variation slider, allowing you to encode one variable sampler parameter (such as tuning, filter cutoff, or envelope attack time) with every recorded Pad Event in the sequencer. This was better than nothing, but you could still only create one type of Note Variation data per note, and any continuous controller-style modulations, such as filter sweeps or pitch contours, were out of the question.
The arrival of Q-link controls on the MPC2500, trickling down from Akai's flagship Z-series rack samplers via the MPC4000, changes all this. You can still encode Note Variation data (using the Q-link controls or the 16 Levels pad mode), but you can now also enter Real Time Events (Akai's brand of MPC-specific Continuous Controller). These let you adjust sample tuning, filter cutoff and resonance (per-filter and globally), mix level and pan.
Photo: Mark EwingThere are four Q-link controls on the top panel, two faders and two rotaries, each one with its own 'After' button. Any control can be assigned to any pad (thereby affecting its assigned samples) and can either adjust one Note Variation data type or one Real Time Event type. Setting up a Q-link control to generate Real Time Events is about as easy as it can be, with the control-range settings relating directly to the filter and tuning parameter values, so you always know exactly where you are.
The After button, on the other hand, needs a little explanation. If the After button is lit during playback, the corresponding control's setting overrides any sequenced data of that type that you've already recorded. If the After button is unlit during playback, the control affects the sound for any pads that you hit while listening back, but doesn't override previously recorded events. Slightly confusingly, any control generating Real Time Events will continue to send them to the assigned sample even when the After light is off, and because these won't override any recorded Real Time Events, the two sets of data will fight for control of the sample. For example, if you try to pitch-bend a track when there's already data on it, any movement of your Q-link control will only affect the sample's playback until the next recorded Real Time Event comes along. When recording, the After light simply determines whether newly recorded data is merged with existing data or overwrites it.
If the After button's operation sounds a little confusing, that's because it is, and the manual's opaque explanation is little help in clarifying matters. However, it doesn't actually take too long to get the hang of, and the extra expressive options afforded by the Q-link controls make it worth the effort.
It's also worth mentioning a couple of neat little time-saving tricks provided by the Q-link controls. The first is that you can use them to edit the beginning and end points of a sample in a rough and ready way, before refining the edit with the data wheel in the usual way. This alone will raise a cheer from most users, I suspect, but you can also use the Q-link controls to quickly adjust pad levels and pan positions in the mixer page. Double hurrah!
The MPC2000XL was already the culmination of a series of classic machines which have evolved to perform particular tasks with the utmost efficiency. By adding in proper filtering, a tempo-sync'd LFO, and the Q-link controls, Akai have managed to transform the MPC2500 into something closer to a musical instrument, allowing a producer's creativity to extend beyond sample selection and note input into studio sound design. Just as importantly, however, they've done this without killing the streamlined concept — in fact, by introducing labour-saving solutions to a number of real-world hip-hop production tasks, the unit is, if anything, even quicker to use than before.
The icing on the cake for me is the USB connection, because managing and backing up your sample library via a computer is much more efficient, and you can also export samples for further processing if you find the MPC's own facilities fall short in any way. Furthermore, these core MPC features, while still not cheap, have never been as affordable as they are here.
If you do any type of music based around sampled loops and phrases, then you should certainly consider the MPC2500 as an option if you feel that a computer's complexity and/or unreliability may compromise your work rate in the studio. If you're producing hip-hop, then the MPC2500 is pretty much the easiest route to success, leaving you free from distractions in the studio so that you can concentrate on bottling your inspiration while it's at the peak of its freshness. .