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Akai MPC Touch

Sampling Workstation
Published September 2016
By Simon Sherbourne

Akai MPC Touch

The MPC has always been about its fast, hands-on interface — can a touchscreen make it even better?

Akai’s MPC Touch joins the established line-up of current generation MPCs, but rather than simply adding another form factor it offers a fundamentally different interaction model. Like the Renaissance and Studio MPCs, the Touch is a hybrid system that pairs a controller with an app or plug-in running on a Mac or PC, but the touchscreen is a big change that promises (and largely succeeds) to unite software and hardware into a true hands-on production workstation.

The hardware in question is an attractively compact, solid slab, with the standard 4x4 pad grid to the left, touchscreen to the right, plus four rotary encoders, a larger data wheel, and a modest selection of dedicated buttons. The colour backlit pads are the same as those I recently enjoyed on the new MPDs, with their best-in-class feel and sensitivity. The other rubber buttons register your push with a satisfying click. On the back of the unit are audio inputs and outputs on quarter-inch jacks and a headphone output with volume control, evidence that the MPC Touch is also an audio interface that provides for direct sampling and monitoring.

Touchy Subject

Getting started is somewhat complicated, but thankfully Akai have provided a master installer that guides you through a series of software and driver installs, restarts and configuration steps. The complexity arises from the way that the touchscreen works with your computer. Rather than simply making a separate stand-alone touch interface that communicates with the MPC software, Akai have opted to use a DisplayLink driver that extends your computer’s desktop over USB. The MPC Touch UI is then essentially a full screen window running from your computer.

This initially struck me as a rather messy, even hacky, arrangement, not least because I had some teething troubles while setting up. Connecting the MPC messed up my main screen’s resolution, and I lost the ability to access my Dock, which is set to appear on the right of my screen. This I fixed by making sure my Mac’s Display settings had the MPC Touch screen arranged as a separate display on the opposite side from my Dock. The settings also needed to be tweaked a few times at first, for example when I changed resolution on my laptop or connected to an extra 24-inch screen. Eventually, my Mac learned these permutations and I could then run the MPC software or plug-in with just a brief flash of my main display as the MPC screen came online.

So why would Akai design the system like this if it makes configuration tricky and is a bit intrusive to the host machine? Well, this arrangement has a significant advantage: it lets your computer do the heavy lifting. The hardware doesn’t need its own CPU to render graphics and translate your input to the computer via intermediate control data. So the MPC’s performance is not limited by an internal chip, keeping costs down and allowing it to keep up with future MPC software development. This is preferable to basing the device around a lower-powered proprietary or Android front-end. In fact, the screen looks good, and has a fast and precise touch response. As a small bonus you can choose to use the MPC’s seven-inch, 1280x800 display as a regular computer screen when you’re not using it as an MPC (although it doesn’t respond to touch in this mode).

UI

The MPC Touch’s physical controls are dedicated to performance, transport, data entry, and access to a few key pages on the display. Above the pads are bank selectors, the obligatory Note Repeat button, Full Level and 16 Level buttons, and Erase. One of the many successful UI designs on the Touch is the way secondary functions on the buttons can be accessed by double-pressing. This is really effective, and puts you in reach of the four main views from just two buttons. The Menu button takes the screen to the top level view: a 4x5 grid that’s a jumping off point for all the MPC’s modes. While this is a daunting number of pages if you’re new to the MPC way of thinking, it’s much more accessible than the equivalent row of unlabelled icons in the MPC software.

The Main button puts you into the mode of the same name, and opens the same view in the software. All mode and view changes stay in sync across hardware and software with the exception that browse operations in the software do not interrupt the hardware view. Double tap Main and you’re in Track view, giving you quick control and selection of the instruments in the current Sequence.

The MPC Touch’s rear panel includes a USB port, knobs for recording and master volume, stereo I/O on quarter-inch jacks, and headphones and MIDI I/O on 3.5mm jacks. The MPC Touch’s rear panel includes a USB port, knobs for recording and master volume, stereo I/O on quarter-inch jacks, and headphones and MIDI I/O on 3.5mm jacks.

Before we dive into the MPC Touch workflow, I should say a couple more things in general about the user interface. First, it’s better than the software or plug-in. In many similar systems, using the hardware controller feels like a mental dance as you try do something that would just be simpler with the mouse. The reverse is true here. Second, there are multiple ways to adjust settings, all of which are good. You can interact with knobs, faders, envelopes, waveforms and lists directly where they are on the screen. You can double tap any control to open in a zoomed view for fine control or list selection. The Q-link controls are always assigned to four parameters in the current view, and can be tabbed through other banks for traditional knob control. The physical + and - buttons let you step through lists or nudge any value. Finally, one of my favourite options is simply to tap any parameter on the screen, then adjust it with the large data knob.

Secret Source

Anyone fluent with MPC workflow and project organisation will hit the ground running with the MPC Touch. The software/plug-in is exactly the same as that used with the existing Studio and Renaissance editions. However if you’re new to MPC, there’s a good chance that very little will make sense at first. An MPC Project is a container that stores your song’s Sequences, Programs and Samples. Programs are your basic sound sources, which can be Drums Kits, Key Groups (sample-based instruments), VST/AU instrument plug-ins, or external MIDI devices. Sequences are the high-level building blocks of your song. A Sequence has a set length in bars, and can contain several Tracks, each of which houses a single Program, and a single MIDI sequence, pattern or loop. Each Sequence can have a unique length, tempo, and set of Tracks.

While most DAWs and workstations have a track-centric structure, MPC thinks more in terms of a pool of sound sources that can be used by the other building blocks of your song. So the first step is often to gather together some sounds, make a kit, or sample a loop. Double-pressing the Menu button will put you into Browse mode, which is essentially a file/folder browser that closely mirrors the software equivalent. There are preset locations, but you can navigate your computer’s file system freely. Within any folder you can tap icons to filter by Projects, Sequences, Kits/Groups or Samples. If you have a kit Program currently focused you can load samples into it directly from the file browser. With Auto Audition enabled it’s a joy to scroll through a list of samples with the data knob. The Browser also has a Sample Pool tab, where you can load pads with any samples in the current project.

The Main mode controls most aspects of an MPC Sequence.The Main mode controls most aspects of an MPC Sequence.

This is all fine, but there are still some holes in the browsing functionality. There’s no search option whatsoever, and there’s certainly no concept of file tagging or smart sorting by types from multiple places. It’s all old-school folder navigation. MPC does have the concept of Expansion Packs (which much of the factory content comes as), and the software has a dedicated Expansion Browser view. However, there’s no obvious equivalent on the Touch interface. Eventually I found you could access the Expansions list by double tapping the file path field in the Browser and get to the library of pre-made kits and instruments. Here, though, my gripe is that you can’t directly audition kits or instruments, either from the pads or in an existing track (although some presets have an in-built sequence for auditioning). Worse, you can’t directly load anything into a Track. You have to import a kit blind in the Browser, then switch to the Main view, choose or create a Track of the correct type, and only then select the newly loaded Program.

A Slice Of Sampling

Direct sampling and manipulation of loops and phrases is core to the MPC and its fans. The most recent MPC software updates have included some really strong new features in this area. For example, using different modes you can slice a recording to the pads in real time, (either during or after recording), tap pads as you’re recording to sample directly into them, or have pads record momentarily while you hold them. I used this last mode to make a kit in less than a minute from a mixture of me recording myself hitting random stuff and some sorry attempts at beatboxing.

The touchscreen really makes a difference to sampling, from the simple and visual way you set a trigger threshold and arm for recording, to editing and slicing waveforms. As ever there are multiple ways to edit, either by directly dragging (for example) Start/End markers, tapping them and using the big wheel, or using the four knobs, each of which gives you progressively finer control. Waveform views are zoomed with the familiar two-finger pinch/spread gesture. The multiple slicing modes can all be accessed and controlled easily from the screen, and it’s easy to save out your chopped loop to a new Program with or without sequence notes.

Waveform editing and slicing has the best of both touch and encoder control.Waveform editing and slicing has the best of both touch and encoder control.

Go With The Flow

With your sound palette in place, the quickest way to start capturing some beats or music is on-the-fly, dropping in and out of Overdub in the workflow shared by most similar systems. Selecting Grid view on the Touch mirrors the familiar piano roll display form the software to the touchscreen. It’s fantastic having this visual confirmation right in front of you by the pads, and is very helpful when using Erase to pick out hits that you want to remove. What’s more, you can directly add or edit notes from the touchscreen. You can select individual events or drag out an edit selection. Notes can be dragged around, or you can nudge selected events from the buttons or wheel. Velocity can also be adjusted with the wheel, or you can open up the Velocity view at the bottom and move the velocity bars on screen. All this works pretty well, although I did sometimes find it fiddly to select and move smaller individual notes.

Step sequencing works from the pads the same as on other MPCs, but the screen adds a new dimension. In Step Sequence view you can simply use the pads to choose which sound you’re viewing, tap your pattern on to the screen and adjust velocity as required. On-screen buttons provide a further way to move between pads and select the bar to view.

While the Grid and Step views are great, you’ll probably spend much of your composing time in the Main and Track views. The first displays an overview of the current Sequence block, and is where you create Tracks and assign Programs to them. This is also where you nominate what type a Track is: drum kit, sampled instrument, plug-in or MIDI output. Double-tapping the Main button switches you to a more traditional track list, where it’s easier to switch between the parts you’re working on. To make changes to a kit, instrument or plug-in you switch to the dedicated Program Edit view, where you can mix kit levels, layer samples, adjust filters and envelopes, and access plug-in parameters. This is also the place to add built-in or VST/AU effects.

Grid view on the software...Grid view on the software...

While the way you interact with any particular view on the MPC on the Touch is good, what slows you down is having to move around so much. For example, to get from the Main or Tracks view to adjust the sound you’re working on you need to switch to the top level Menu, then tap the Program Edit button. It’s the same for editing a sample. You really want more direct links between actions, for example the ability to go from Main or Tracks directly to Program Edit.

...and Grid view on the hardware....and Grid view on the hardware.

Songs

Getting from loop ideas to songs is for me the biggest test of any production system. There are a few ways to approach this with the MPC. The simplest is just to create loops in the MPC and export them to your DAW for arrangement. This is achieved in much the same way as NI’s Maschine, with the MPC plug-in offering two buttons for exporting audio or MIDI versions of a Track. Clicking the audio button renders the part in the background, and it can then be dragged to a DAW track.

If you prefer to stay inside the MPC plug-in environment, or work stand-alone in the app, the usual workflow is to create multiple Sequences and arrange them into longer parts or a song. Many MPC users like the song arrangement features, although for me it has some major workflow blockers. The main issue is there’s essentially no concept of pattern variations. Each Track in each Sequence is a single MIDI clip. A new variation means a whole new Sequence. And there’s no quick way to duplicate a Sequence — you have to go through a multi-step process of copying and pasting and renaming the current Sequence. In Maschine or Live you’d typically make a number of loop variations and fills on the fly, ready for assigning to Song Scenes later. In MPC each Sequence is a fixed block, so you need a different Sequence for each variation you might make in any Track. It’s frustrating because the concept of patterns as distinct from tracks would fit perfectly with MPCs object-based structure.

On the other hand, MPC is better than Maschine (although not Push/Live) at generating a Song structure in real time. An MPC Song is simply a playlist of Sequences. In Song Mode you assemble this list and choose how many times each step loops. Assembling a list feels pretty old school, but it’s also possible to use the Next Sequence mode to trigger Sequences and generate a list in real time. This list can then be bounced as a new longer Sequence, or sent to Song mode. Songs themselves can be bounced back to a Sequence, or mixed down as audio.

Performance

MPCs, and the Touch in particular, have some great performance features. For a start there’s a Looper mode, allowing you to dub audio inputs (or resample sound from the MPC) into a loop. Samples you’ve captured in this mode (or any of the sampling modes) can be dropped directly to pads in a Program. There’s also a number of brilliant Pad Perform modes, offering preset Scales, Chords, and Chord Progressions from the pads. And Akai have made full use of the touchscreen by adding an X-Y pad control mode for effects. XYFX mode turns the display into a Chaos Pad style effects and automation controller. There are a range of preset effects provided. The default Beat Repeat LPF is the most fun, with the two axes on the screen controlling filter frequency and beat echo tempo.

Live triggering of Sequences is straightforward, and there are Track Mute and Pad Mute modes for making more interesting arrangements. Again, though, it’s painful to have to switch between all these different views for these functions. Compare Maschine, which has dedicated buttons for Track mute, and immediate momentary access to Scenes, Patterns, Mutes and Solos from mode buttons. Another shame is that it’s not really possible to improvise a performance over the top of Song Mode. Pretty much any action stops the Song playing and parks you in the current Sequence. The closest work-around is to bounce your whole Song to a Sequence.

Summary

I was prepared to be disappointed by the MPC Touch. It could easily have been a good idea let down by under-performing hardware or a touch UI that missed the point of using a hardware controller. I’m glad to say that the Touch brings nearly everything about the MPC interface to the surface in ways that genuinely speed up your workflow. Far from a secondary, compromised view of the MPC software, the touchscreen in fact offers a better user interface. Not hard, you might say, and it’s true that at this stage the rather charmless and cluttered MPC software is letting the side down a bit.

If you already like the MPC and its way of working you’ll love the Touch. The Renaissance still has some advantages with its multiple MIDI outputs, 16 knobs, and more dedicated Mode buttons for getting around, but in all other respects Touch leaves previous MPCs in the dust. There are still things I find frustrating about the MPC environment, and I’d love to see Akai iron out some of the workflow kinks, but I really enjoyed the immersive hardware experience offered by the Touch. It’s the first system of its kind where I could genuinely say I did long sessions without even thinking about looking at the computer. The MPC Touch puts Akai back in the game as far as beat production hardware goes, and hopefully give them the platform for an equivalent evolutionary leap on the software side.

Alternatives

As a complete package the MPC Touch competes head to head with NI’s Maschine and Ableton’s Push. Qualitative comparisons are difficult, as each system has a different approach with its own fans. Live/Push of course offers the most complete DAW functionality, and is also exceptional at capturing improvised arrangements. Maschine is very slick and has brilliant integration if you use other NI products; it’s also strong as a performance instrument. The MPC rules for sampling, and the Touch’s screen makes it the most immersive hands-on experience.

The MPC Touch is aggressively priced: it’s cheaper than Maschine Studio and Push with Live Standard, but is the only one that offers built-in audio I/O. And of course it’s the only one with a touchscreen. However, if money is no object, and you’re really looking for that original stand-alone workstation experience, you might want to wait and see what Pioneer’s Toraiz SP16 offers.

Package

The MPC Touch comes with a well-rounded bundle of sound sources in the form of both sample packs and VST instruments. In addition to the Factory Drum and Loop packs, you can download the EDM & Future House, Essential Instruments, and The Vault MPC Expansions for free. Two MPC plug-in instruments provide legacy sounds: 809 has classic drum machine kits; The Bank is a general instrument library of diverse sounds. Last but not least is the excellent AIR Instrument plug-ins, Hybrid 3, Loom, Vacuum Pro, Velvet, Xpand! 2, Mini Grand and DB33.

Published September 2016