With battery power and built-in speakers, the MPC Live II is ready to rock some blocks.
It's been two years since we reviewed the MPC Live, which was Akai's return to stand-alone music workstations. A lot has changed since then. The Live was joined by a flagship studio model, the MPC X, and recently by the compact and affordable MPC One. The MPCs have seen numerous software updates, and now feature on-board synth plug‑ins and Ableton Live control.
Along the way the Akai Force emerged, sharing many of the MPC's features and technology, but with a different approach to making and performing music. This latest revision of the Live hardware shows that MPCs aren't being phased out in favour of the Force; the two will run in parallel, and might hopefully cross-pollinate in cool ways.
All the MPCs are the same at the core: they are multitrack production workstations with dedicated track types for drum kits, the three on-board synths, loops and MIDI/CV sequencing. The Live's defining features within the portfolio are its form factor and internal battery. Take this to a gig instead of your laptop, and it'll keep running when someone kicks out the power cable. The MkII has the same internal workings as the original but refines the externals, with an expanded panel layout and CV connections to match the other models. Oh, and they added a big-ass sound bar along the front.
Wait, what? What looks like a new arm rest (adding about an inch to the device's front-to-back measurement) is in fact a metal speaker grille. Is this a moment of madness, or a moment of genius from the Akai Pro product team? I was sceptical... the speakers in my Circuit and OP‑1 have little useful function. But having played the MPC Live II, I quickly came down on the genius side.
The angled, front-firing speakers kick out a surprisingly big sound, with respectable, punchy low end and an appreciable stereo width from the playing position. It's comparable to home sound pods like the Amazon Alexa, or a basic TV sound bar. Or — and this is what got me thinking — an old-school ghetto blaster. This is a portable music workstation you can take out to jams. B-Boy/Girl mat not included.
In April 2020 I'm not getting out much, but the built-in speakers meant that I frequently plonked myself down around the house for a few minutes of play time. It's surprising how off-putting dragging a PSU out from under the desk and finding headphones can be. Using the MPC Live also felt less anti-social, like picking up an acoustic guitar instead of plugging in an electric. (My fellow inmates may beg to differ!)
Something I've criticised about the MPC is the sometimes disjointed nature of its various views and modes. The software update that comes with Live II takes some big strides here. One that has my name on it is that the pads now remember their positions from one track and view to the next. You can now continue playing your selected scale while in, say, Program Edit or XYFX modes. This was super frustrating before.
Also really welcome is the ability to switch Track focus from anywhere. Simply hold Main for a second and the track selector pops up on screen. (If I was being picky I'd say there's no need for this to be a long press). There's now a global switch for Time Correction (Quantise), accessed from the screen or with a double-click of the new TC button.
The software update that comes with Live II takes some big strides here... the pads now remember their positions from one track and view to the next.
Which brings us on to the reorganised panel. The compromise with the Live is limited panel space. The MPC One is also small, but made room for more function buttons by reducing the size of the pads — I'm glad they didn't do this on the Live. However, as the MPC user interface sprawls across multiple views, direct mode buttons really speed things up. A while back the Live gained shortcuts from the drum pads, but the MkII goes one better and squeezes in some extra dedicated buttons.
The Pad control buttons along the top of the unit have shuffled together to make room for four more, along with a much better master volume pot. Undo and Copy have moved here, and are joined by the TC button and shortcuts to the Step Sequencer and Automation editor. Below the screen we've gained buttons for Mix, Mute and Next Seq. views, which all make performing with the Live more fluid. I wish Akai would implement a momentary view toggle to 'peek' into these views. We have this on the Force, and also on the Live II's new Track select shortcut. Nearly all modes can now be reached without needing the main menu or pad shortcuts; the obvious exception is Program Edit.
Until now, current MPCs have been unable to properly manage or route multiple MIDI sources. You could sequence several connected devices, but you couldn't use the MPC itself as a multitimbral instrument, or have multiple MIDI controllers playing different tracks. This is now taken care of with a detailed port manager, and some new record and input monitor modes.
A big strength of the MPCs is their ability to directly host USB MIDI devices. Now you can connect and use USB MIDI interfaces, and also connect devices via a USB hub. I connected the Retrokits RK006 interface that I have on test, and boom: 10 new MIDI output ports on my MPC! The port manager lets you name ports, choose whether they output sync, and whether they are for notes or control, or both.
There are even a couple of features that I wish were on my main software DAWs. You can nominate MIDI inputs as Masters, which makes them behave like the MPC pads in that they will always play the currently focused track, regardless of its monitor state. Complementing this are enhanced MIDI track input monitoring options. As well as the more familiar Input, Auto, and Off modes, there's Merge, which give you both playback and input monitoring at the same time.
To test all this, as well as hooking up my MIDI interface and synths I connected a master keyboard and a LaunchPad Pro, with the hope of playing a synth track from one and a drum program from the other. Port routing was easy to assign in the main Track view or the Track List view, and I took advantage of a new Record Arm preference to simplify arming of multiple tracks. Hey presto, I could play the two tracks from the individual MIDI controllers. I even set up a fader CC page from the Launchpad to control the MPC program levels.
One advance that isn't available on the MPC One is Ableton Live control. This comes under the category of cross-pollination, as the feature was primarily developed for the Force. Both the MPC X and Live can toggle into Live control mode from the main menu screen. What's cool is that you can do this wirelessly. I'd already connected my Live II to my home Wi-Fi, and when I fired up Live 10 to try this out, it connected and configured automatically. Even better, the Live's own tracks can run in parallel, sync'ed via Ableton Link over the same connection.
Ableton mode provides a clip launcher, mixer and device control. The launcher view is your typical 8x8 grid of tappable clip slots, complete with animated loop progress bars in each clip. The pads also work as a tactile launcher, though of course showing a smaller window into the Session view. Scenes can be launched, and you can initiate recording into clips or into the Arrangement. On the buttons you get transport control and some other basic options.
Mixer mode provides a touch mixer, with a simple faders-only view, a more detailed view with mute and so on, and a Sends view. Device view gives you control over Live's devices and instruments, displaying parameters in banks of eight horizontal sliders. The encoders can be also be used if you bank them to the right place.
Nobody is doing anything comparable in the stand-alone space.
Multi-MIDI is not the only new MIDI feature. The 2.8 software adds MIDI routing between tracks, and a Retrospective Record feature. The latter keeps track of notes you're playing when not in Record, and lets you capture them. If the MPC was in Play while you were noodling, the notes drop in in time with where you were (though you have to stop first). The MPC also buffers notes you play while in Stop. Shift-Rec then punches them in at the current timeline cursor position (though they'll probably be out of time!).
The Retrospective feature does highlight the limitation of MPC's linear Sequence structure. If I capture, say, 16 bars in a track, I want to be able to set an in and out loop point on that track. As it is, I'd have to cut and paste the section I want to the beginning of the Sequence.
Unlike the Force and MPC X, the Live and One encoders (Q-Links) don't have displays. I've generally found the red outline on the screen to work fine for showing what the encoders are controlling, but the new version adds a graphical overlay that pops-up when you touch the encoders. This is especially helpful if you're not in Screen follow mode, and is great in most of the instrument and mix effect views, as these have margins at the sides. For other views, though, the overlay obscures what's on the screen, and I ended up turning the feature off.
There are a lot of significant improvements here, with some workflow unblockers that disarm gripes from our recent MPC One review. And multi-port MIDI handling was probably the top item on most MPC users' request list. Of course, there's always more to ask for...
Probably the second most common MPC feature request is disk streaming. The MPCs still need to load all samples in a project into RAM. This shackles two of the MPC's otherwise good features: audio track recording and multi-song live sets. MPC's project structure has more in common with a drum machine or Elektron device, where each Sequence is an independent entity. You could have a whole live set loaded up, but memory puts a limit on this for now, especially if you want to use audio tracks.
For me, while MPC Sequences have great potential for live sets, they still don't provide a fluid scene system for combining song ideas and building arrangements. This is where it would be great to see some of the Force's ideas bleed over into the MPCs. On the hardware side, Live II would have hit perfection if it had had a mic/instrument input as well as line ins. As it is, you'll need a separate preamp or mixer if you want to plug in a microphone.
From the Touch and Live onwards this generation of MPCs has been characterised by, if you'll excuse me, thinking outside the box. Nobody is doing anything comparable in the stand-alone space. But adding what amounts to a sound bar to the Live MkII? Have Akai lost the plot? I don't think so!
What they've done, with perhaps unfortunate timing, is build a more social workstation. Heading out with your Live II could be the modern-day equivalent of running off a beat tape to stick in a collaborator's ghetto blaster. And this boombox offers Ableton Link over Wi-Fi and the potential to record any vocal freestylings your composition happens to inspire. On top of this, the software update fixes a number of long-standing MPC niggles. I'm excited to see what comes next.
We tend to focus on the stand-alone functionality of these devices, but let's not forget that the MPC can plug into your computer and become a controller for the MPC software or plug‑in. For me, while I prefer how Akai Pro's Force works in stand-alone mode, it's a difficult choice as the MPC has a killer solution for progressing a song on your computer. Transferring your project to the plug‑in gives you the individual elements in their native form (and still tweakable from the hard-ware), routable to individual tracks in your DAW.
It's also pretty compelling that the MPC Live II can act as your (2-in 6-out) audio interface while you do this, and any USB, MIDI and storage devices become available on your computer.
- The built-in battery is still king.
- The sound bar-style speaker is actually lots of fun.
- More buttons, more connectivity.
- Multi-MIDI input management.
- Pad modes now follow more intelligently than previously.
- No disk streaming still.
- Encoder overlay can obscure the main UI.
A solid MkII update to my favourite MPC, helped along by real workflow boosts in software.