The MPC Key isn’t just an MPC with a keyboard, it’s a completely new species of production workstation.
When Akai Pro’s MPC Live II was here on review I mostly had it sat on my desk on a laptop stand with a USB keyboard plugged in. Almost by accident it became my go‑to synth and sound module. It was standalone and simple to fire up, and it had decent onboard sounds and synths. The MPC Key 61 takes this idea and runs with it. It’s an MPC tuned for keyboard players, live performers and synth composers, and of course beat‑makers who share these roles.
The MPC Key 61 takes the latest generation of MPC and integrates it into a full‑size keyboard. MPC‑wise there’s nothing left out; it’s an MPC, and in fact has an upgraded hardware spec. But it’s not simply an MPC Live bolted onto a MIDI keyboard. Akai have built a new layer on top of the MPC OS which transforms the sound browsing and loading experience, and lets you treat the Key 61 like a workstation keyboard when you prefer. The result is a new instrument that can perform multiple roles: synth/sampler, performance instrument, live control hub, or beat production centre.
Physically, the MPC Key 61 is impressive. It’s a solid, plastic construction with a semi‑weighted keyboard and performance wheels along the front plane, then a gently raked rear section that contains the screen and all other controls. For the best of both worlds you also get a 4x4 MPC pad grid, using the same compact pads as on the MPC One and MPC Studio. You also get the Touch Strip, as first seen on the MPC Studio controller. This can operate as a Note Repeat speed selector or mirror the encoders, but is most effective as a dedicated controller for the Touch FX plug‑in.
Like the Live, there are only four rotary encoders plus a data dial. This steers many of your interactions toward the 7‑inch touchscreen. There are enough buttons for modes, views and common operations to avoid most trips to the menu screen. As we’ve come to expect from modern MPCs, the rear panel is packed with connectivity options. So you get audio I/O (including mic/instrument pres), MIDI, CV, and USB host and client ports (see the ‘Expansion’ box for more).
The keys have the semi‑weighted ‘synth’ action that feels right on a keyboard that’s not primarily aimed at pianos. They are around 7mm shorter than the comparable keyboard on my MkII Komplete Kontrol keyboard if that makes any odds either way. I found them very playable (if what I do can be called playing): they feel stable and the aftertouch comes in smoothly without the scary feeling that something might break, as you get with some lesser spec’ed keybeds.
Powering up you see a new MPC OS splash screen followed by the familiar MPC project/template browser. There’s a slew of new demos here that show off the new instruments in the context of mini song arrangements, but the best place to start is probably the Play Sounds project, or of course the Empty Project option. Whichever starting point you choose you’ll arrive at a place that looks distinctly un‑MPC‑like. Rather than the grey collection of boxes that make up the classic MPC Main view, there’s a more welcoming and engaging graphical sound browser grid.
The anthemic default sound, ‘Awakenings’, loads up via the new flagship workstation synth Fabric XL. From here you can step through more presets, or you can tap the Fabric XL icon, or that of any of the instruments, to dive into the categorised preset library. Sounds load almost instantly and are ready to play, even when changing to a different instrument plug‑in.
You might associate the MPC chiefly with drum kits, sampled instruments, chops and loops, but actually in the last few years it’s gained several virtual instruments that run natively on the MPC hardware and inside the MPC plug‑in. I noted in the review of Akai’s Force that the Hype instrument (now on MPCs too) is a versatile workstation‑style sound module, with multi‑mode wavetable, virtual analogue and sample‑based oscillators plus built‑in effects. Hype was an indicator of things to come, and is still very much in evidence, although Fabric has taken the top spot.
Fabric follows a classic dual‑layered, sample‑based synthesis approach. It’s fully programmable from scratch (Hype uses preset starting points); you can choose from several banks of seed sounds and blend. The ‘XL’ variant of the Fabric engine has a third percussion layer. There are then multiple pages to adjust the usual filters, envelopes, modulation and effects.
Fabric and Hype between them cover a wide sonic palette, but they are by no means the only synth engines that drive the Key 61. There are also several keyboard instruments, some synths, and the MPC collection of drum synth engines. Pianos are covered by two different plug‑ins. AIR Stage Piano features four different multi‑sampled models: Yamaha C7, Steinway D, a Bechstein upright and ‘Workstation’. They are crystal clear and responsive. There’s also a Fabric variant dedicated to pianos, which can also do realism but ventures into experimental patches too. For electric pianos you have three engines to choose from. AIR Stage EP has Rhodes, Suitcase, Wurli and Pianet models with tons of tweakability. Again there’s a Fabric breakout, plus there’s the Electric plug‑in that’s been on the MPCs and Force for a while now.
Rounding out the classic keys collection is the terrific Organ plug‑in. This is tons of fun (I enjoyed the reggae patches) and the touchscreen is ideally suited to the drawbar interface. There’s multiple vibrato emulations of classic models, and an amp+rotary speaker. Clearly Akai are serious about making the Key 61 a no‑kidding stage master keyboard. In fact one of the first things I noticed was the three pedal inputs, which you wouldn’t find on your average MIDI controller or synth.
Like the pianos, the Studio Strings plug‑in shows off the Key 61’s abilities and provides some big lush orchestral goodness. You can play any part of the string section individually, or as a full ensemble, with various articulations. These are not real‑time switchable like some of the big computer‑based libraries, but thanks to the expanded RAM in the MPC Key you can load up more than one instance and split or layer the keyboard. There are tweakable ways to control vibrato, strength and glide based on the mod wheel, aftertouch and velocity.
On the synth front, the package includes all the plug‑ins we’ve seen on recent MPCs and the Force, including the workhorses Tubesynth and Bassline, and the Solina, Odyssey and Mellotron emulations. But the new star is OPx‑4, a modern take on the FM synth which opens up the sound‑design possibilities. Being super greedy, there still feels like there’s a space waiting for a really badass modern wavetable synth along the lines of Massive or Serum to stretch the quad‑core ARM processor. But as it happens, Fabric does cover a lot of ground. As well as enjoying the cinematic stuff it does well, I immediately noticed that many of the subs, basses and synths have this low‑end shake that really feels like some air is being moved, even in headphones. This turned out to be a bit of secret sauce from an effect module in the synth called Flavor, which is also available as a plug‑in you can use in any channel. Flavor emulates a number of amp and speaker types (I’m guessing it’s a convolution process) alongside some vinyl effects. It’s brilliant.
Unlike a more traditionally (rigidly) structured synth, the panel has no dedicated sound‑shaping controls. The rotary encoders default to Screen mode, which means that they auto‑map to parameters in the current screen view, and can be moved to different on‑screen sections either by tapping or paging. With the sound browsers open (at least on my version of the software) the encoders assume they should be controlling channel parameters and timeline position. A preference to have them in Program (instrument) mode while on this page would be nice.
To take control of a sound you press the Edit button (or on‑screen equivalent), and the screen will bring up the full user interface for the instrument (or kit). This is the familiar Program view from MPC, where you use the encoders, focus elements to the data wheel, or take touch control on the screen. The latter is by far the most immediate, and many of the instruments and effects are laid out to take advantage of this (organ drawers being the most obvious). Smaller on‑screen knobs can be tweaked more accurately by tapping and using the encoders. Fabric’s main page has eight knobs laid out in a row, making me wonder if the designer had Force more in mind.
The browser gives you buttons to move between multiple tracks, and you can assign different sounds to each. You can hold the Main/Track button and jump directly to any track from the pad grid or on‑screen display. As on the Live MkII, this is a ‘long press’ gesture with a built‑in pause, which seems unnecessary and a bit annoying.
You can have up to eight different instrument plug‑in instances running in a single project. However, like a ‘regular’ MPC, you can have up to 128 tracks running sample‑based drum kits, key groups (sampled instruments), and clip groups (loop launchers). These have also been folded into the new browsing experience, giving you a slicker way of viewing the content in your installed packs than the raw filing system.
Another new view as part of the new play and perform layer is Key Ranges. Here you can assign your loaded sounds to areas of the keyboard to create layers or splits. In traditional keyboard terminology you’re configuring a Combi. In the background, the regular MPC project structure is being used but presented in a different way. Each of the sound layers is a track with a different instrument or Program loaded. Tapping on a layer selects the track and arms it for MIDI input and recording. In this view, the drum pads take on the role of track mutes.
If you’ve started a project from scratch, only one sound at a time will play, even though Key Range will show all tracks assigned to all keys. Only the layer you tap will play, which may be confusing. To play (or record) sounds in a layered or split fashion, you can arm multiple tracks with the Shift key. Another option is to change the MIDI input mode of tracks to Merge, at which point they’ll respond to notes regardless of whether they are selected or record armed. To do this you need to dive into the standard MPC interface to access track controls in the Main or Track views.
The Main view gives you detailed control over each track individually, including level and effects assignments. However, when playing and performing you can access mix controls for all your instruments in the dedicated Mix view. This shows your Programs in a grid for easy muting and soloing, and focusing for mix control and insert effects assignment. There are also routing options here, and access to the MPC’s submix groups, returns and masters, all of which can have insert effects, allowing the possibility of custom mixer structures for any project or situation.
The MPC Key 61’s browser is not just a one‑way street, it has various user bookmarking features. Any device patch that you like or create can be stored in a slot in the Favorites tab. There are also tabs called Performances and Set List, both of which can be used to get organised for a live performance. The slots in both of these sections simply store MPC Projects. The idea is that Performances would be a good place to store particular Combis or configurations. Set List would typically be a series of Projects that you need to open in sequence throughout a show.
There’s no set way to use these features, and whether you even use Projects or not may depend on the situation. If you’re taking a typical keyboard player role, you might be able run your whole show from a single project. Your different setups could be recalled in single Tracks, but using Sequences is also a powerful option, as each Sequence can have a different track structure. You can’t exceed eight separate instrument plug‑ins in a single Project, but of course you can switch presets within each instance.
At the other end of the complexity curve, there are many live shows you could pretty much run from the MPC Key 61. Backing tracks or stems can run from audio tracks, loops can run in Clip Groups and of course you can play or sequence other drums and instruments. If you’re a vocalist, or performing with one, you can run the mic through the keyboard and store and manipulate vocal chains and effects as part of each Project in your Set List.
When there’s a Drum Group in your project and you’ve used the Drum Split option, you can have the drum kit on the pads for triggering samples and still play another instrument on the keyboard. However, if you change to any mode that uses the pads you will lose access. This probably wouldn’t be an issue for the most part, but it does highlight one of my long‑term MPC feature requests: I want to be able to lock the pads to a function. Often the pads follow the screen mode, and simply double up what they do, which is wasteful in a live situation.
Of course more encoders or faders wouldn’t go amiss either, but there is already a way to get this. You can plug in USB MIDI controllers, a Novation Launch Control for example, and map more physical controls to mixer, track or instrument parameters.
Although we’ve focused a lot on performance and live applications, the MPC Key 61 has all the same elements that make the previous MPCs popular with beat‑makers and electronic music producers. Chief among these, of course, is that it’s a sampling drum machine.
There’s some pretty cool things going on with the drums in this new system. For a start, there’s a pack of new kits built especially for the Key 61. MPC factory kits are always outstanding, but these are literally epic as they spread out across all 61 keys. These extended palettes have been filled with extra loops, one‑shots, and melodic sections, such as a whole octave of 808 Bass in the 808 kit. I found having the keyboard alongside the pads makes step sequencing much more usable. While the pads are devoted to setting gate patterns, the keyboard provides instant sample selection to focus the pads, and you can still play and record live into the drum sequence with the keyboard.
There’s also a welcome new feature for playing samples in a kit melodically. This is traditionally done on the MPC by switching the pads to ‘16‑Levels’ mode and assigning them to pitch. A new alternative is to select any sample, then tap the keyboard icon in the Program editor and the sample will be converted into a Keygroup instrument in a fresh track. You can now play it from the keyboard and benefit from scales, polyphony and so on.
The MPC sequencing and song composition structure has evolved from drum‑machine DNA, so it works in multitrack chunks (Sequences), rather than clips and scenes like Ableton Live or Akai’s own Force. You can string these chunks together to make a song, although most of Akai’s own video tutorials show a dub‑style workflow: extending out a single Sequence and using mixer and mute automation to carve an arrangement from the loop on the fly.
While the MPC’s MIDI arrangement has never come naturally to me, what I think it does better than any other standalone is audio recording. The workflow is essentially DAW‑like: you make audio tracks, you assign inputs and you record clips into the timeline that you can edit and move. The Key 61 takes full advantage of this potential, with mic inputs that can provide phantom power to ‘proper’ mics. Previously only the MPC‑X had this luxury. Combine this with the AIR vocal effects that provide auto‑tuning and harmonising and the Key 61 really does start to look like a one‑stop shop for many modern music styles.
I was particularly pleased that the inputs can also handle instrument signals for guitar and bass recording, and that there’s now an amp/cab sim plug‑in with a selection of tones, which is a big step up from the older tube and overdrive effects. There’s even now a tuner built into the MPC, with a large, effective graphical meter. This is handy for analogue synths as well as guitars.
The MPC Key 61 is the performance synth for beat workstation users, and the beat workstation for synth performers.
So what to make of the MPC Key 61? You may be a seasoned MPC (or rival beat workstation) user interested in what the new form factor and OS update brings to the table. Or maybe you’re a keyboard player or composer curious whether this could take the place of a performance synth workstation. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the MPC Key 61 is that it straddles these two traditionally separate categories, arguably founding a new one. And when you start comparing it from either direction, it stacks up remarkably well.
The display and interaction with instruments is better than on most devices in either sector. Likewise, audio track handling — and same for connectivity and storage options. Its mixer and effects are deeper and more configurable than any traditional performance synth. Expandability through USB hosting and audio interface support are very compelling for a live setup. Being able to connect something like a Tascam Model 12 mixer and split your outputs over USB sans computer... yes please!
As a beat‑making and production hub, this is an MPC so has nothing to prove. That said, there’s a strong element of preference when it comes to workflow. The MPC has often felt a bit clunky to use compared to some of the competition, but this release sees many rough edges smoothed off, and the new high‑level user interface feels much friendlier. Song arrangement and finishing is still simpler in Akai’s Force, but the MPC is great at capturing ideas and audio tracks standalone and then bringing them into a DAW via the companion plug‑in.
I’m sure there are many like me who have migrated from the classic multitimbral synths to a messy spread of standalone samplers, synths and soft synths. It was a joy to rediscover the pleasure of exploring and playing a ‘proper’ keyboard. So I guess the MPC Key 61 is the performance synth for beat workstation users, and the beat workstation for synth performers.
If you were following the newsfeeds from Superbooth you may have seen Akai Pro’s Andy Mac demo’ing a sneak peak of the MPC Key’s sound browser... but on an MPC Live II. With all the range (and Force) built on essentially the same technology platform, new developments benefit all. It’s not just the sound and performance management system, there are numerous features and UI refinements. A simple but profound one for me is making the Save and Create Project buttons easy to find. You can also now customise the main menu screen and rearrange the grid. Probability makes a welcome debut in the sequencer, where it appears as an automation parameter.
And it’s not just the new features; the instruments are also going to be made available to all the MPCs. For this Akai Pro are trying something new: paid add‑on plug‑ins. We’re already used to buying expansion sample packs for the MPC, and it was just a matter of time before Akai and their InMusic stablemates AIR Instruments started creating premium MPC‑native plug‑ins for the market place.
By the time you read this you should be able to visit www.thempcstore.com and purchase the Fabric Collection, Stage EP, OPx‑4, Organ, and Studio Strings. These are activated on your MPC over Wi‑Fi, with content installed via SD card. Pricing is to be confirmed, and there will likely be offers available at launch. With this new market place and delivery system set up for MPC plug‑ins, we’ll hopefully see even more new stuff coming.
If there’s one thing the MPCs have nailed it’s connectivity and expandability, and the Key 61 is no exception. As well as audio and MIDI there’s the full complement of eight Eurorack‑compatible modular outputs, which can be freely defined as you require. One of my favourite things about this MPC is the storage options. The Key 61 already has 32GB internal flash storage (twice that of the other top‑end MPCs), but you can connect USB storage devices around the back. My personal favourite is the SATA bay inside the belly of the beast, where you can install an SSD drive. I bought a 240GB drive back when I had the first MPC Live and it has all my sound and projects ever on it — today a drive of that spec is less than £30$50.
Another superpower is USB hosting, for USB MIDI devices, and also MIDI and audio interfaces. Plug in a USB‑enabled MIDI instrument and the MPC Key 61 will see it and communicate with it. Need more instruments? Connect a USB hub, or a MIDI interface. Perhaps the coolest thing though is that you can connect a class‑compliant audio interface, and switch the MPC’s audio device from the built‑in ports to the external unit. I plugged in my Zoom L12 mixer/interface, and was able to route its inputs directly into the MPC, and run two pairs of outputs back from the MPC. The MPC can support devices with up to 32 ins and outs.
- Huge sonic palette.
- Graphical touch plug‑in interfaces.
- 48V mic pres and instrument inputs.
- Versatile connectivity and USB expansion.
- Eight encoders would have been better.
- Some MPC workflows are still clunky.
Hugely versatile standalone workstation for studio or live.