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Akai MPC One

Sampling Workstation By Simon Sherbourne
Published May 2020

Akai MPC One

The MPC One offers the most affordable way into the latest generation of Akai's celebrated sampling workstation.

The MPC One seems to have triggered a swell of new interest in the MPC. It mainly repackages existing elements from the established MPC Live and X, but at a more affordable price. The appeal may also be that it looks like a traditional MPC such as the classic 2000. It also comes just a few months after Native Instruments didn't release a stand-alone Maschine, as had been anticipated, at a time when more and more people are looking to enjoy music production outside of their laptop.

While the One extends the MPCs into a lower price bracket, the range doesn't really follow the traditional Good, Better, Best template for a product range. Rather, each model suits particular needs. The chunky, top-of-the-range X is intended as a studio centrepiece, while the Live is all about portability. The One could be seen as a compromise of the two: it's very compact, in fact smaller and lighter than the Live, but crams in many more dedicated function and mode buttons (and some CV connections) like the X.

All the core MPC features are present on the One, but a number of economies have been made to hit that new price and size. Audio I/O is basic stereo, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are absent, and there are fewer storage options. I was disappointed that there's no internal battery power, which is such a compelling feature of the Live.

Overview

To recap, the current generation of stand-alone MPCs are multitrack workstations that offer sample-based drum kits and instruments, loop launchers, audio tracks, internal synths and MIDI/CV sequencing. They use a hybrid touch and hardware input system, which presents the same user interface whether you work with the internal stand-alone engine or control the MPC app/plug-in on your computer.

The MPC One has a 7-inch touch-screen like the Live. This takes up quite a chunk of the square front panel, showing how compact the device is. Like the other MPCs and the Force, the One is quite thick: the MPCs are essentially stand-alone ARM-based computers under the hood. In order to fit all the other controls in, the main trigger pads are a fair bit smaller than those on the Live or X.

Again like the Live, the One has four rotary encoders that can bank through parameters, and there's a master data encoder and increment/decrement buttons that will adjust whatever element you tap on the screen. The buttons are hard and click like on the X, and provide direct shortcuts to most of the many views, without needing to visit the main screen menu.

Go With The Flow

MPC projects have a particular structure and methodology that is consistent across all the models and the MPC software/plug-in. This has its roots in the earlier MPCs, and is quite different from, say, Ableton Live or NI Maschine (or indeed Akai's Force) which build Scenes from a pool of Clips. MPC Projects are built from Sequences, which are more like Patterns on a typical drum machine, or Elektron's instruments. Each Sequence is its own little world, with multiple tracks, which could be different and use different sound sources from one Sequence to the next. It could be an idea, a variation, a song section or a whole song.

MPC Projects have a central pool of samples and 'Programs' that can be accessed from any track. Programs are sound sources such as drum kits, multi-sampled instruments, loop players or internal synth patches; or MIDI or CV configs for controlling external instruments. Audio tracks are grouped separately and can play back or record audio linearly, but always bound within the current Sequence.

Due to reduced internal storage capacity, the One does not arrive with the same pre-loaded 10GB factory sound library you find on the Live or X. Instead you get a new 2GB pack and 2GB of user storage. Akai say this pack is new for the One, complied from a number of popular content producers.

Most of what comes on the unit is drum programs and hits, representing various urban and dance styles. I've raved about MPC drum programs before: they range across up to 64 pads and feature up to four sound layers per pad. Drum programs have their own internal mixer and can use any of the many internal plug-in effects on individual pad channels or the whole kit.

As with the Force, it's strange that the factory library has no sampled instrument patches ('Keygroups'). However, you can add Expansion packs to the One via an SD card. The F9 instrument Expansion can be downloaded when you register the One, and provides a basic palette of sampled instruments. I also used the export tool in the MPC software to transfer over some other Expansions I have on my Mac.

New Toys

Since we reviewed the Live and X the sonic scope of the MPCs has grown hugely thanks to internal synth instruments and an auto-sampling feature. You now have access to three soft synths even when you're running stand-alone. (If you're in hybrid computer mode you can run any VST plug within the MPC environment).

TubeSynth is a classic analogue-style polysynth. It's really rather powerful and sounds great. Bassline is a grungy monosynth. Electric is a modelled electric piano, which sounds terrific. It's simple to flip through sound presets from the MPC's Main view, or you can bring up a plug-in style UI for detailed sound design.

Interaction with the instruments, like any of the MPC's main views, can be directly through the touch-screen, or via the four physical 'Q-Link' knobs, or by tapping any parameter or field and using the main encoder. The Q-links can be banked through different targets with dedicated buttons, but you can simply touch any on-screen element and the knobs will jump to that section.

It's a shame the excellent Hype synth has not made its way from the Force to the MPCs yet. I hope that will happen. Akai have also been teasing some drum synths that will bring dynamically generated sounds to the Drum Programs, which have previously been entirely sample based.

Sampling

MPCs are strongly associated with sampling and the One has all the capabilities of its siblings. Audio can be captured in the dedicated Sampling mode, or recorded directly to tracks. There are fast and efficient ways to chop up sampled audio, assign parts to pads or kits, or create sliced or time-warped loops. Loops can be played in audio tracks or on the dedicated Clip Programs, plus you now also have the ability to time warp individual samples within a drum program.

The MPC One's back panel features a master volume rotary control, quarter-inch audio outputs, a recording volume rotary control, MIDI I/O 5-pin ports, four 3.5mm CV/Gate sockets, two USB ports and an RJ45 Link port.The MPC One's back panel features a master volume rotary control, quarter-inch audio outputs, a recording volume rotary control, MIDI I/O 5-pin ports, four 3.5mm CV/Gate sockets, two USB ports and an RJ45 Link port.

The pair of audio inputs on the MPC One are line level. So you'll need a preamp of some kind if you want to sample or record in from a mic or guitar. The MPC has a sophisticated internal mixer, with Submixes, Returns, output Masters and plug-in slots at each level. It's a shame then that even the MPC X has only four inputs; if Akai released or supported a USB audio interface expansion option for the MPC/Force you could really use it as a complete production environment.

Auto Sampler is one of the many features added since we last reviewed an MPC, and it's genius. If you connect the MPC to an external synth via MIDI, and route its audio outputs back in, the MPC can go through a process of triggering the synth and recording it. You can set the note range, note lengths and tails, and up to four velocity layers. You can even ask it to create crossfaded sustain loops within the samples. When the process completes Auto Sampler creates a ready-rolled patch linking to all the samples.

MIDI & CV

The MPC One has a single standard MIDI input/output pair, but it also has a USB MIDI hosting port, where you can directly plug a MIDI keyboard controller — one of my favourite features of the range. With a keyboard controller attached, and your MIDI synths and sound modules chained from the regular output, MPC One starts to feel like a real hub for your studio. From the Main screen or Tracklist view you can flip between your tracks and play any of your hardware sound sources. MIDI control sources can be mapped to parameters, including within programs and the onboard instruments.

As with the other MPCs you can record directly into MIDI tracks or use the Step Sequencer from the pads or screen. You can also edit and write directly into the piano roll MIDI screen. Automation and MIDI CC data can be accessed in either of these views. In the Piano Roll you can view and draw automation as a detailed graph. In the Step Sequencer you can override to per-step values.

Given that the One's connectivity has been pared back, it's a nice surprise to find CV ports (of which the Live has none). And even though there are four ports compared to the X's eight, there are still eight discrete channels, accessed by stereo splitter cables. This is actually rather convenient: you can run a gate and CV pair to a synth from a single port. CV Programs also let you assign ports for converting Velocity and Mod Wheel data, and you can manually modulate all eight outputs with the encoders from within the Program Edit page.

Whichever way you look at it, the MPC One is an incredibly capable workstation for the money.

One Vision

I really enjoy playing with MPCs, and I'm always blown away by the depth and power of certain features like the drum programs, the mixer, the Kaoss Pad-style XYFX, the onboard synths and the sampling. But I do tend to hit stumbling blocks when it comes to putting it all together in a fluent way. Things like cueing a Sequence change, or muting tracks always require switching to another mode and back (where these are fast, top-level actions in the Maschine, Live or Elektron universes). You can't use the XYFX on the screen with the pads in anything but track note mode. Pads don't remember which bank they were on for each track. These little niggles build up. Addressing these, along with other user requests like sample disk-streaming and being able to use multiple MIDI inputs could be transformational.

The MPC One in its natural habitat.The MPC One in its natural habitat.

The other question is always how to progress from an idea in a single Sequence to something like a song. I don't understand why duplicating a sequence is still a long-winded multi-step process. The Song mode, which strings Sequences into a playlist, can be assembled in real time, but you can't really do much afterwards unless you bounce to a new long (and awkward to edit) Sequence, or export to audio. In fact even Akai's own demo videos tend to show automating track mutes in a single long Sequence as an arrangement workflow. This can work really well, except that you can't see MIDI and Audio tracks at the same time in Track Mute mode.

But it's not all gripes! The MPC has a strong story if you want to transition projects to the computer for continued arrangement and mixing. You can transfer and open your project directly into the MPC software or plug-in (AAX, VST or AU). The MPC can then be used to control the project as it's running in your DAW. You can route multiple outputs from the plug-in into your DAW's mixer, or print to tracks. If you're an Ableton user, you have the option to export Sequences as Live sets, either as MIDI clips or bounced audio clips.

Final Thoughts

Like the other modern MPCs, the One is a powerful production hub. It can do a lot on its own, and also integrates well with MIDI, USB and CV synths and controllers. Within any function the operation and UI are great, but there's still a degree to which the MPC's host of powerful features are fragmented. Akai have solved many of those problems on their Force, not just by using a simpler, more open project structure, but by letting the screen and pads work independently. But there's a lot to be said for how the MPC does things too, with independence of tracks and sound sources, and internally structured song sections. Whichever way you look at it, the MPC One is an incredibly capable workstation for the money.

Alternatives

There's a lot of choice now within the Akai stable, with three MPCs and the Force. All are more expensive than the One. The Force is closest in price, and is a different beast in various ways. While built with some of the same technology and code, it takes a different approach, more like Ableton Live/Push or NI Maschine. If you've used these systems you'll feel more at home with the Force, while the One is a natural progression for legacy MPC users. The One is the only device across these ranges that doesn't feature an Ableton Live control mode, so that may be a factor.

Outside of MPC world, the Roland MC-707 is very nimble for both composition and performance, but more limited in numerous ways. Likewise, depending on what you're looking to achieve, Elektron's instruments offer fast, focused playability, albeit without the MPC's depth.

If you're studio based, Maschine or Push might tick all your boxes, so long as you don't mind relying on your computer to run the show in the background.

Logical Progressions

Since we reviewed the MPC Live and X, Akai have delivered a number of juicy updates, most of which also benefit the One and Force. The biggest is the internal AIR synths: TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric, which are a real boost to the MPCs as stand-alone devices. Auto Sampler helps no end if you want to suck your hardware sound sources into the box and go.

Electric, the MPC's new modelled electric piano.Electric, the MPC's new modelled electric piano.

There's now an Arpeggiator. New modes have been added to the excellent XYFX. Side‑chain pumping has been implemented using a new insert effect called Mother Ducker, which has a companion key input plug-in that can tap a signal from anywhere in the project. The mixer now features submix groups in stand-alone, not just in the MPC desktop software.

The Browser has seen some updates, not least being a direct integration with the Splice online sample subscription service. Auditioning of loops is now sync'ed with your project which is really handy. If you're sampling sounds in, you can now assign them directly to pads in a program.

Finally, while the One has been left out of the Ableton Live controller mode, it does feature Ableton Live project export.

Pros

  • Compact form.
  • Lots of buttons.
  • Extensive stand-alone capability.
  • Computer-hosted control mode.
  • USB hosting.
  • CV outputs.

Cons

  • No internal battery.
  • No mic or guitar inputs.
  • No multi-outs.
  • No Ableton Live control mode.

Summary

The most affordable stand-alone MPC is like a 'lite' version of the X with all the core MPC functionality.

information

£639 including VAT.

www.akaipro.com

Published May 2020