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Akai MPC Key 61

Sampling Workstation By Simon Sherbourne
Published July 2022

Akai MPC Key 61

The MPC Key isn’t just an MPC with a keyboard, it’s a completely new species of 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.

I’ve Got The Key

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.

Sound Canvas

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 XL is the MPC’s new flagship synth engine.Fabric XL is the MPC’s new flagship synth engine.

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...

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