Could Akai be on to a winner with their cheap and compact sample player?
Akai's MPX8 is a stylish sliver of hardware that combines drum pads with a potentially huge collection of samples stored on an SD card. The concept is simple, the price lower than you'd expect and, in a short time, my biggest question changed from: 'could I use it for anything?' to 'why did nobody do this before?'
At a casual glance, the MPX8 could be the removable front panel from an unreleased Akai sampler. Instead, it's a slim, dark and compact sample player delivering eight simultaneous samples from rubber pads that are both velocity and aftertouch sensitive. These are tastefully lit to reflect their status, so when a sample is loaded and ready to play, the colour is orange. When a sample is playing, the pad glows green and when 'selected', a brooding red. The 'selected' pad is simply the last one to be hit but, more importantly, it's the one whose parameters fill the display.
The MPX8 is constructed of light-but-rigid black plastic, with audio available from two balanced outputs at the side, plus there's a (minijack) headphone socket conveniently at the front. Lack of individual outputs is hardly unexpected at this 'cheap as chips' price. The MIDI In and Out ports are slightly unconventional; they're accessed via short 3.5mm adapter cables, as seen previously on Akai's MPC Studio. Computer-based users need simply connect the USB cable for bi-directional MIDI, positioning the MPX8 perfectly for on-the-move laptop work. Power can be drawn from USB, providing it's a regular PC or Mac USB port, but in a computer-free environment,the same cable plugs into a conventional mains adapter and therefore covers pretty much all the bases except battery power. Incidentally, the USB port isn't one of those tight connections found on the latest MPCs and it should therefore be treated with a little respect (or a blob of Blu-Tac). In terms of connectivity, there's only the SD slot left to mention. I'm sure you've seen them before; this one will accommodate SD or SDHC cards of up to 32GB formatted to FAT32, which should be enough for most occasions.
The Glorious 8-ease
Few items of music technology, new or old, can rival the MPX8's ease of use. With just a single page of parameters, four buttons and a data wheel, getting lost is not an option. Each of the parameters has a fairly coarse resolution, which only serves to remind us it's all about loading prepared samples that already sound right. Don't expect to do radical transformations in the MPX8 itself. Other than the obvious dynamic control when a sample is triggered, you can slap on a few dabs of generic (but still usable) reverb and indulge in limited transposition, but that's about it. The maximum pitch shift in either direction is four semitones, and panning offers an equally limited nine positions in the stereo spectrum.
By far the most interesting parameter is 'TRIG', which determines how the sample is played. The options are One Shot, Hold and Loop. One Shot is well suited to drums; whack a pad and the sample plays to its end. If you pick Hold, the sample plays for as long as you keep in contact with the pad, leaving Loop, which works as you've probably guessed. Loops continue to play until you hit the pad again or take the 'stop all' option by holding both volume buttons at once.
Before loading any samples, it's worth getting a feel for the MPX8 as a drum controller. Despite the plastic, it felt more than up to the task and, while the pads didn't inspire the level of confidence of Akai's MPC range, the response was definitely up to scratch. Only the very lightest finger-strokes failed to get a reaction but I soon adapted to it. On MIDI's 7-bit scale, the lowest velocity I could accurately hit was 5, rising to the maximum 127 over a reasonable spread of finger speeds. Each pad also transmits polyphonic aftertouch, making the MPX8 one of the most affordable devices ever to do so. Whether it's driving a software drum kit or a chunk of MIDI hardware, aftertouch can be brilliantly expressive on many types of percussion; for example, for pitch-bending tablas and talking drums. I should point out right away that aftertouch has no effect on the MPX8's own playback of samples, it's purely a MIDI thing.
There's no way to adjust the velocity or aftertouch response, but the main screen does contain a field for the selected pad's MIDI note. Change this and you change the note transmitted and received for that pad. When triggering the MPX's voices from an external controller or sequencer, the only other information you'll require is that the MIDI channel is fixed at 10.
Until you source an SD card, the audio output will be limited to the 21 internal samples. Arranged into eight kits, the samples are mostly drums, the majority taken from Roland's TR808 and TR909 (inevitably). Several voice samples (of debatable value) are included too, plus synths (equally debatable) and sound effects. Percussion is the main focus, however, and the samples are clean, usable and difficult to take exception to. A competent finger drummer could happily jam with just them. However, dig out an SD (or SDHC) card, plus a card reader, and the options increase exponentially. I'm even moved to wheel out that hackneyed but thoroughly applicable phrase: the only limit is your imagination. OK and possibly your patience too, but we'll come to that.
Wham Bam Sample RAM
For a sample to play, it must first be loaded into RAM and there's 30MB to go at, divided amongst the eight pads any way you like. RAM management is fairly unsophisticated though, with sample sizes always rounded up to the next MB. So if a sample is 10.1MB it'll eat up 11MB of RAM. Not that this ever felt like a major restriction: 30MB of 16-bit audio is quite a lot; it works out at around five minutes, or half that for stereo files.
Samples are grouped into kits, with the name of the current sample shown in larger text. With a quick turn of the data wheel it can be replaced by another sample and you can save this updated kit directly from hardware. This is fine when auditioning a few drum hits, but it's far nicer to perform tasks of this nature from a computer, especially if you're making many kits (the card will hold up to 100). Fortunately, Akai supply 'MPX Editor', a plain but functional software servant to get you fully kitted out. My Mac was suspicious of it at first but, after being reassured it wasn't an alien infestation, grudgingly allowed the installation to proceed.
Available for PC or Mac, the MPX Editor's sole purpose is to make kits and store them on your SD card. Via its USB connection, the MPX8 functions as a class-compliant MIDI device, but apparently is not capable of being a card reader. Therefore you need to manually copy all the samples you plan to use to the SD card's root directory. Having located the card within the editor, it's then as straightforward as selecting a pad and picking a sample. When you've made your choice(s) and any adjustments (to panning or trigger types, for example), you save the completed kit. There's no way to audition it at this stage and you need to keep an eye on file sizes so the eight samples don't breach the 30MB limit. Nor is there any way to name kits, they're always just numbers, but the real rub is this: there's no guarantee, having made a batch of new kits, that they'll actually work! To find out, you eject the card from its reader, pop it into the MPX8 and select a kit. Only then are any problems highlighted because the samples are only verified on loading into RAM.
Akai's advertising blurb (possibly due an update) lured me in with: "Load virtually any sample” and I confess I didn't read far beyond that. I understood there was a firmware update to be applied so stereo files could be handled, but was surprised 24-bit samples remained a no-no. Actually, the majority of my first efforts ended in miserable failure, so I did some digging to establish the guidelines for pain-free construction.
Here goes: the MPX8 can load 16-bit stereo and mono WAV files, with supported sample rates of 48, 44.1, 32, 22.05 or 11.205 kHz. Anyone intending to fill a card with samples should also be aware of the following naming recommendations: if possible, filenames should be eight characters. Spaces should be avoided, as should any of the following special characters: " * / \ : < > ? |. Even knowing all that you're still not out of the woods. This is because not all WAVs are created equal. Some applications (for example Logic X) export them with a BWF (Broadcast Wave Format) chunk of added metadata. Unfortunately this renders the WAV unreadable by the MPX8. When I finally realised this was the source of my problems, I was able to quickly sort them out by having Steinberg's Wavelab eliminate the metadata. I couldn't help thinking how nice it would have been if Akai's own kit-making software had done this.
Once over those hurdles, everything became much brighter. After building a dozen regular drum kits, I went on to assign more diverse material to those handy pads. It was only after I began to introduce longer samples that the shine faded a bit. If I tell you that a two-minute 16-bit sample takes approximately three and a half minutes to get from SD card into RAM, you'll probably agree this rates as 'leisurely'. Should you accidentally select a kit containing a long sample, this could be a potentially embarrassing silence so, perhaps in recognition of this, an 'abort' option has been included. Loading kits is a manual process and you may need to think about arranging them in the order they'll be needed, or use a piece of paper to record names for your kits. If you mainly concentrate on shorter samples, such as drums and loops, loading speed shouldn't be an issue.
What a sample player like this can do for each of us is going to vary wildly. In many cases it will be an ideal repository for favourite drum hits, loops, spot effects or NASA samples. But why not fill it with exotic drones to accompany you whennose-flute busking? For fun, I chopped up some prime Stephen Hawking and spread his synthesized words across the pads before triggering them with random notes from a hardware sequencer. It's true I don't get out much.
Should you be in any way embarrassed by the size of your personal sample hoard, Akai offer a free 300MB Loop Library download, and a second library — Drum & Percussion — to give it a shot in the arm. I downloaded them and, having listened to a cross section, would gladly do so again.
Akai have hit on a neat idea: that of producing a portable, affordable drum controller with on-board samples. Since SD or SDHC cards are generally cheap and available, the prospect of carrying 32GB of your favourite material must be appealing for many jobbing musicians. Whether as MIDI module or controller, the MPX8 is a prime candidate to slot into minimal laptop setups. With so many desirable attributes, it would be a shame if Akai didn't apply the finishing touches. Specifically: life would be so much easier if any WAV file could be played, or if the MPX8 Editor consistently built working kits.
It's mildly inconvenient to keep swapping the SD card between card reader and MPX8, but the only genuine operational niggle remains the slow loading of large samples. However, at the price, what's amazing is that there aren't more shortcomings or grumbles. I wouldn't ordinarily suggest this, but if longer samples are important, the possible solution of 'buy another' isn't totally crazy. Ultimately, as a controller and carry-anywhere box of samples, the MPX8 could be an impulse buy for many of us.
- A compact sample player for a potentially massive collection of samples loaded from SD card.
- A drum controller that outputs not just velocity but polyphonic aftertouch too.
- The price is right.
- Can be fussy about the samples it plays.
- Editor software blissfully unaware of fussiness.
- Slothful loading of long samples.
A portable sample player that's a drum controller and a MIDI module. Excellent value for money.
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