The MPC3000's dedicated sequencing and drum sampling control surface aims to tempt high‑level musicians away from their computers with its luxurious hardware approach. David Mellor puts in a hard day's night and gives it the thumbs up.
In earlier days of sequencing, there was a great debate among those who thought that a sequencer should come on a floppy disk which you inserted into your computer, probably your Atari ST, and those who sang the praises of dedicated hardware sequencers. Now that music technology is reaching the latter years of its adolescence, we realise that there is no single 'right' approach; people adopt whatever technique they feel they need. I don't think it hurts to emphasise the point that hardware sequencers are still valid. In fact they always were, but many of us were seduced by large, bright and informative computer displays, and we thought that more information, more clearly presented, would necessarily lead to better music. This is a tempting assumption, but next time you are in a studio with a computer‑sequenced track playing, take a furtive look at the people around you. They will all have their eyes glued to the screen, watching the cursor creeping across and giving that their full attention rather than simply listening to the music. The computer screen is like a magnet, drawing your concentration away from what is really important. A piece of advice sometimes given to aspiring orchestral conductors is 'the score in your head, not your head in the score', meaning that you shouldn't rely on looking at the printed music; you should have absorbed it and know it by heart. Hardware sequencers actually encourage this attitude, because you only look at the display when you are actively doing something; as the music plays, you'll probably just sit back and listen.
Another advantage of hardware sequencers is, of course, that they are portable. Carrying a computer around with you from gig to gig or studio to studio is no fun, and there is always the risk of losing the dongle along the way. A third advantage is that when a piece of equipment is dedicated to a task, after you become sufficiently experienced in its operation, your fingers will seem to know their way around the control panel without conscious intervention. Once again, this allows you to pay more attention to the music, and that's what can make the difference between a good production and a merely adequate one.
This latest incarnation of the hardware sequencer has some prestigious forebears. The front panel of the Akai MPC3000 bears the signature of Roger Linn, who was the original proponent of the drum machine over a decade ago. Japanese manufacturers often seem to be more interested in functionality than usability, which is great for those who find the process of learning powerful but difficult systems pleasurable in some strange way. Akai obviously realised that Roger Linn could bring the very valuable feature of ease of use to their equipment so they put him on the payroll. This was a sensible thing to do, and the partnership has borne fruit of a very high quality.
The forerunner to the MPC3000 was the MPC60 drum sampler/rhythm programmer, a powerful piece of equipment that I never felt achieved the reputation it deserved in this country. There was also the ASQ10, which contained the sequencing component of the MPC60 without the drum sampling facilities. I owned an ASQ10 myself for a time, and now I kick myself that I let it go. At the time I was seduced by computer sequencing and didn't have the foresight to realise that I could have run both types of MIDI sequencer side by side and had the best of both worlds. The Akai units are particularly good for drum programming, as you might expect, and computer sequencers find it hard to keep up. I found only two drawbacks to the ASQ10 (after the software had reached a mature version), one of which was that it frequently had to take time out at length to 'analyse the sequence'. The MPC3000 uses a faster processor, so this isn't a problem. I'll mention the other drawback later, since it is retained in the MPC3000, but I will say that I now find it less of a problem and more a part of the character of the machine.
It's all very well employing an arty designer to make a product look good in the shop, but most of us really do want to use the equipment. In this respect, Akai's traditional beige colour scheme and black printing make the MPC3000 a real pleasure to use.
The MPC3000 is large and chunky — thoroughly workmanlike in appearance. You do need to put in quite an investment in time with this machine, but since it is a mature system, and very precisely directed at its task, you'll probably find yourself getting more out of it, faster, than with a computer sequencer.
The MPC's control surface has nine groups of buttons and knobs, and the groups all have a distinctly different look about them. I'm sure arty designers would say that it doesn't really look aesthetically pleasing, but once again I would say that it's a machine meant to do a job, and the most important thing is that your finger should fly to the right button almost of its own accord.
There's an interesting range of rear‑panel connections, including a stereo output and eight individual mixed outputs — rather reminiscent of Akai samplers, in fact. Could there be the guts of an S3000 lurking inside the MPC? The analogue audio connections appear on quarter‑inch jack sockets, and there is an SPDIF stereo digital input on the usual phono connector. The digital input only works at 44.1kHz, so don't bank on using it with your 48kHz DAT machine. Also on the back are eight MIDI sockets arranged as two Ins and four Outs. I don't know what happened to the MIDI Thru on such an otherwise well specified piece of equipment; there is a soft Thru, of course, but to my mind there is no substitute for having a genuine Thru which mimics exactly the data present on the In connector .
I don't think it hurts to emphasise the point that hardware sequencers are still valid. In fact they always were.
There are connections for synchronisation, so that you can run the MPC3000 with a multitrack via SMPTE (with the SMPTE option installed), and there is a SCSI connector for an external hard disk. Finally on the rear panel are two footswitch jacks which you can assign to a number of functions.
Spec‑wise, in standard form, the sampling time available is 21.9 seconds mono or 10.9 seconds stereo. This can be expanded up to 188.3 seconds mono or 94.1 seconds stereo with the addition of more memory. As in the S3000, the data format is 16‑bit, and the sampling rate is 44.1kHz. You can see a full spec elsewhere, but I'll mention here that the note capacity of 75000 notes should be adequate for most normal sequencing applications. The resolution of 96 pulses per quarter note may be seen by some as rather coarser than many computer sequencers allow; whether this is a problem or not depends on the user, but it's something to be aware of. One spec that will be of interest to loop users is the tempo resolution of 0.1bpm. Getting a four‑bar loop to cycle correctly without noticeable glitching requires precise adjustment of the tempo of the sequence, and some keen‑eared loopists may find this resolution insufficiently fine, though I think it's OK. I'll tell you more about how easy it is to loop using the MPC3000 later.
Sampling can be a pleasure or it can be a chore, but when was the last time you found it a pleasure? Probably when you first bought a sampler and the novelty hadn't worn off. I can't see how sampling could be simpler than on the MPC3000. Since it's dedicated as a drum sampler, you won't find a looping option. (Is there such a thing as a sustained percussion sound?) And since there is no keyboard on the unit, mapping the samples to the pads is a doddle. If you want sounds to respond to particular MIDI note numbers, you'll find that each pad has an assignable number which you can leave as it is or change as you wish. Of the various ways pad and note number assignment could have been implemented, I think this is the optimum. If I go through the sampling procedure in a little detail, this will also give you an idea of how the unit as a whole works.
In the top right corner of the MPC3000's front panel is a bank of buttons labelled 'Commands'. One of these is the Program/Sounds button, which you press to get to the sampling and programming functions. Once this button has been pressed, the display will offer a list of eight options. To sample a new sound, select number 5. The display will now offer options such as analogue or digital input, mono or stereo samping, and sample duration. There is also a stereo meter display with 'T' and 'P' indicators for the sample triggering threshold level and peak level. If you give the input too much level, the 'P' peak display will go all the way over to the right and change to 'P!' as a warning. As with most of the screens of the MPC3000, the Sample New Sound screen has soft keys — in this case, one to arm the sampler and another to reset the peak display. Unlike a conventional sampler, there is no need to set the MIDI pitch of the note being sampled, since for percussion sources the concept of pitch has a somewhat reduced meaning. Once the sample is taken, the soft keys change to 'Playback', 'Keep & Name' and 'Discard', whose functions are obvious. One negative point here which could easily be fixed in a software update is that if you're dealing with long samples, once you start playback the sample will play right through to the end. This applies when a sequence is running, too. I would have thought that the Stop key of the sequencer should stop sample playback too, since there really isn't any point in continuing the sample once you've made up your mind that you want to stop and do something else. For short sounds, of course, it makes no difference.
Some editing of your sample will probably be required but, once again, the drum‑orientated nature of the MPC3000 makes this easy. Start and end points are easily set, and there is a 'Best Start' soft key to find the attack portion of the sound accurately for you. Other simple but essential items are sample volume, which will then act as a master volume for that sample for all programs and sequences (very useful for creating a well‑balanced kit from the outset), and tuning, which may often allow some improvement on the original sound. These are all temporary changes which can be reversed if necessary, unless you choose to make the truncation of the sample permanent to save memory. In a separate area of the same screen are editing functions which alter the sample data itself. You can mark out a zone within the sample and copy it to a temporary storage area. Then you can splice it to the sample's start or end, delete the zone, silence it or reverse it. The one thing you don't seem to be able to do is insert it somewhere in the middle, but would you want to? There is a useful number of options for auditioning the sample and/or zone you have set. You can play the whole sample, the zone, the contents of the temporary storage area, up to the start of the zone, after the end of the zone, up to the start point of the sample or after the end point. So whichever part of the sample is wrong, you can home in on it pretty efficiently and zap it. Sometime in the future I think it would be very useful if Akai provided a feature for cutting up a long sample into pieces. This would make it easier to take samples from a sample CD rather than having to set up each one separately.
When all your samples are honed to perfection, you'll need to assign them to the drum pads. To do this go to 'Sel pgm, asn snds' — I'm sure you understand Akai's abbreviation — and hit the first pad you want to assign. Now simply move the cursor to the appropriate place on the screen and dial in the sound you want to allocate to the pad. You can set up to three samples in different velocity zones, and you can set three decay zones to play different samples according to settings associated with the small slider at the bottom left. There are other options that help the MPC3000 give a good account of itself in performance, including an amplitude envelope which allows you to soften the attack or decay of a sound, velocity modulation of that envelope, and variable tuning and polyphony. It's possible for the start of any note to cause the cessation of another, in this case up to two others. This is necessary for realistic simulation of a hi‑hat, where a closed or pedal hi‑hat sound must cut off a preceding open hi‑hat. There's also a sweepable filter with adjustable resonance, which is great for electronic‑sounding drum tracks. Kraftwerk should definitely have one!
Before I describe the sequencing abilities of the MPC3000, I should mention the pads and associated controls, since this is where much of the input will be carried out. There are 16 large rubber pads which are velocity and pressure sensitive. Since 16 drums and cymbals are never enough for real drummers, there's no reason to suppose they would be enough for the sequenced equivalent. But rather than setting up a ton of wood and metal on scaffolding, all you have to do is press the pad bank switch and you have four sets of 16 sounds at almost instant disposal. If subtle dynamics are not to your liking in sequenced drum tracks, there is a 'Full Level' button to set the volume of each pad always to maximum. Another possibility is to set the 16 pads to play the same sound at 16 different velocities, tunings, decays or a couple of other options. This style of operation can be combined with normal operation in a single sequence, on the same instrument, on different overdubs if you like.
With the MPC3000, if you find yourself in difficulties in the midst of a sweaty studio session, just surreptitiously press the Help key.
'Note Variation' is an interesting trio of controls which allows continuous real‑time variation, via a short slider, of the tuning, attack, decay or filter setting of a sound. This can be done during recording or afterwards as an overdub, and, once again, this style of operation can be combined with the standard method.
Without the luxury of a computer‑style display, sequencing on the MPC3000 is a matter of working in numbers rather than graphic objects. I have been known to complain about this style of working, and I used to say things like, "One day, computers will show MIDI data graphically rather than as long tedious lists." Well, I haven't changed my tune, but I do now realise that there is a lot to be said for working in bars and beats and, after all, composers have been doing it for hundreds of years.
At the bottom right corner of the MPC3000 is an array of larger keys which offer transport functions and five major functions you will want to have close to hand. Obviously, 'Erase' is going to be a very important key, and, as you would expect, it will scrub out anything recorded on any note you hold as the sequence plays, or you can erase by track or by bar number. You can even identify a particular type of data to be erased. 'Timing Correct' sets the quantise level; the MPC3000 can quantise as you record or after recording has taken place, and it can swing too. I remember that on the old version of the MPC, when you tried to advance or retard a whole track, there was a tendency to mess up whatever clever quantising you had done earlier. Here this is corrected; overall track timing can be adjusted either way without changing the quantisation.
The 'Tap Tempo' key is a great way of setting the tempo without having to clog up your brain with numbers. Your taps can be averaged over two, three or four hits, according to your preference. But when it comes to creating musical loops, the Tap Tempo function really shows its worth. Trying to set a tempo to get a loop to cycle in a regular and glitch‑free manner is usually a matter of trial and error. With Tap Tempo, you create a sequence with the same number of bars as the loop, which will repeat automatically unless you instruct it not to, and hit the pad to which the sample is assigned on the first beat of the first bar. Then, as the sample plays, hit the Tap Tempo button in time with the rhythm and, amazingly enough, the tempo will be very nearly right for the loop. You'll have to make some fine adjustments, of course, but you have saved in an instant half the time and effort it usually takes.
The 'Main Screen' key takes you back to the main sequencing display, wherever you happen to be. It has the secondary function of acting as a life saver in case you're halfway through doing something you didn't really want to do. Just press the Main Screen key and nothing is spoilt. I could still use an Undo key, though!
The Help key will be used a lot by newcomers to the MPC method, providing information on whatever screen and cursor position you happen to be in. With the MPC3000, if you find yourself in difficulties in the midst of a sweaty studio session, just surreptitiously press the Help key and no‑one will even know what's going on. The help given is clear and concise, and usually adequate, unlike most computer manuals (on all three counts).
The lower two rows of keys are for Transport and Locate. There is a three‑position autolocator, as well as two types of fast forward and reverse to move through the sequence by quantisation interval or by bar. Two record keys are provided, one to record and erase existing material and one to overdub. There are also two play keys: one to play from the beginning and one to play from the current position.
Before I run out of space, maybe I should tell you a couple of things I don't like about this unit to balance out my overall enthusiasm. Firstly, I have to say that the unit before me is a pre‑production model as far as the UK is concerned, so I don't think it's appropriate to comment on a few problems that are known to Akai and which they intend to fix before the MPC3000 hits the streets. Something that strikes me as odd, however, and is mentioned in the manual, is that the machine will randomly play or miss out the last 20ms or so of a sample. This is only significant if there is something you particularly want to cut out at the end of a sample, probably from a sampled drum loop. You need to make sure that you really have cut it off properly, and then all will be OK. Another point is that, although you can edit any aspect of the MIDI data, it isn't possible to easily change the timing of a single note. I would have liked to be able to position the cursor on the bar/beat/clock reference of a note and dial in a new value. To ameliorate this, however, there are cut and paste functions, and you can also step directly from one event to another without having to scroll through a lot of potential quantisation intervals that don't happen to contain a note.
In conclusion, I have to say that the Akai MPC3000 is a great piece of gear. Not because it does everything and has a million functions, but because its designers have thought out very thoroughly what it ought to be able to do, and then have made it do it as simply as possible. I can't promise that it can replace your high‑end computer sequencer, because you will probably have become used to the facilities it offers, but you must consider whether all that extra baggage is weighing you down, because contained inside the MPC3000 there may be everything you need.
Not with the video output option. With the IB‑CRT you can connect the MPC3000 to a VGA monitor which will mimic the LCD display exactly.
You may be surprised to learn that the MPC3000 doesn't come with timecode sync as standard. It needs another chip fitting before it can read timecode, although this is not necessary to write it. Perhaps Akai reckon that there are plenty of SMPTE to MTC convertors around, or perhaps they relish an extra earning opportunity. I think they should change their mind and provide timecode synchronisation as standard.
- Display: 320 character LCD
- Disk drive: 3.5" HD (1.44 Megabyte)
- Sampling rate: 44.1kHz
- Memory: 2Meg standard (21.9 seconds mono); Expandable to 16Meg (188.3 seconds mono)
- Data format: 16‑bit linear (S1000 and S3000 compatibility)
- Dynamic filtering: 12dB/octave dynamic resonant lowpass filter per voice
- Maximum sounds in memory: 128
- Number of programs: 24
- Sound assignments per program: 64
- Simultaneous voices: 32
- Maximum notes: 75000
- Resolution: 96 pulses per quarter note
- Sequences: 99
- Tracks per sequence: 99
- MIDI output channels: 64
- Song mode: 20 songs, 250 steps per song
- Drum pads: 16
- Drum pad banks: 4
- Sync: MTC, MIDI Clock, FSK 24, quarter note clicks, SMPTE (optional)
- Inputs: Stereo analogue and digital
- Outputs: Stereo; 8 individual outputs
The unit tested had software version 3.0.
- Professional piece of equipment in every way.
- Well thought out.
- Straightforward sampling.
- No fuss, no hassle sequencing.
- The MPC60 brought up to date.
- No SMPTE sync as standard.
- Difficult to change the timing of a single event.
A drum sampler and powerful sequencer for pro users who can't be bothered with computers and can live without graphic editing. Akai can leave the MPC3000 with me for as long as they like!