MOTU's BPM takes some obvious cues from Akai's MPC range — but can a groovebox work in software?
You know how it is with beat production workstations: you wait ages for one, and then two come along at once. In the last issue of SOS we looked at Native Instruments Maschine, and this month it's the turn of MOTU's BPM.
Like Maschine, BPM provides a dedicated environment for playing, sequencing and arranging drums, loops and other sampled instruments. Both NI and MOTU have taken hardware drum machines and Akai's MPCs as inspiration, but while Maschine is focused around its own dedicated hardware controller, BPM is software only, running either as a stand‑alone app or an MAS, RTAS, AU or VST plug‑in. It's compatible with both Mac OS 10.4 or higher and Windows XP and Vista.
BPM's user interface is of the photo‑realistic hardware variety, defaulting to a 4x4 pad layout with a pattern sequencing matrix displayed on a virtual screen above it. The screen has various editing, mixing and arrangement modes, which can be selected from a strip of buttons to its right. More buttons switch the panel between four banks of drums, or re‑focus the pads to Scene selection in BPM's Live mode. Clicking the Rack A or B buttons replaces the pad display with a mini‑rack of sampler modules.
A browser column gives access to BPM's 15GB factory library, other UVI sound banks and your computer's regular filing system. Tabs provide shortcuts to different categories of sounds: Kit+Pattern combos, Kits, Patterns, Loops, Samples, Instruments and User. Only the factory sound bank can be browsed via these specific categories; everything else is accessed via the User tab.
You can create Favourite directories within the User tab, but this is not as slick as Maschine's tag‑based browser, which displays your own files in its main categories. However, BPM makes up for this by letting you drag and drop files from the desktop. You can, for example, drag samples straight onto pads, loops straight to Rack devices, and MIDI files to the piano‑roll sequencer. A more significant advantage is that BPM loads patterns and kits independently of one another, whereas Maschine always overwrites patterns when a new kit is loaded.
Auditioning the Kit+Pattern presets leaves you with little doubt about where BPM makes its stand musically. In sound, production and style the factory sound bank is predominantly a library of American R&B and hip‑hop beats. Although the repertoire is limited, it's extremely well done. The patterns are convincing and contemporary and they don't sound like presets. The kits were mastered at Sterling Sound in New York, and the sounds are warm yet clean, with a gloriously tight and punchy low end. This ready‑mixed quality is great if you want to put productions together quickly, but some may find that BPM tends to impose its own sound if you stick to using the factory sound bank. The only real criticism I have is that most of the kits only differ in the first eight pads, pads nine to 16 being basic 808 sounds in most cases.
Amusingly, the same section of the MOTU web site that boasts of BPM's 1000‑plus loops and preset patterns kicks off with the following blurb: "Sound libraries these days are awash with loops. And what is a loop, exactly? Someone else's beat.” OK, someone had too much coffee, but let's take it on board and take a look at making your own patterns. You can draw patterns into the grid sequencer with the mouse, or record pad clicks in real time, but recording patterns is easiest with a MIDI controller (see the 'Controller Setup' box).
Pattern recording works in much the same as any drum machine. Choose a loop length, press Record during playback and play your pattern. Input Quantise is available via a button in the transport section and an Overdub button allows you to record parts one at a time within the same pattern. So far, so good — it's all pretty much as you'd expect.
However, there are a couple of snags. Firstly, quantising after recording is painful, as there is no traditional Quantise function. To alter the timing of recorded notes you have to go into the Graph editor, switch to the Time Shift graph (which shows the deviation of each note from the grid), then right‑click and choose Reset. Seriously. Oh, and you can only do this one pad at a time; you can't quantise the whole pattern. There's also no way to partially quantise by a percentage, it's 100 percent or nothing, unless you want to manually tweak each note.
Another problem is the awkward method for switching between patterns or duplicating the current pattern. Short of changing the Scene (which we'll get to in a moment), the only way to change the pattern is via a drop‑down menu using the mouse — there is no specific way to change patterns using the pads or MIDI. You should be able to switch patterns or duplicate quickly from a controller. Instead, duplicating means clicking a small Copy Pattern button, switching to a new pattern via the drop‑down menu, and then clicking a Paste Pattern button.
BPM aspires to being a complete production solution, so in addition to being a drum machine, it's a capable sampler and loop player. Audio files can be dragged onto pads for simple playback, but more sophisticated sample handling is provided by the Racks. Each Rack module is a sampler instrument that can play back samples in a traditional keyboard‑pitched fashion, or use time‑stretching or beat‑slicing to sync samples to a tempo. The slicer can read REX files or analyse and slice standard audio files. Each Rack also has its own piano‑roll sequencer for recording melodies.
While BPM's loop library puts Maschine's to shame, balance is restored by the rather paltry selection of multisampled instruments supplied for use in the Racks. If you were going to use this aspect of BPM regularly, you would probably need to invest in an extra UVI sound bank or two.
Unlike most instruments that describe themselves as samplers, BPM actually samples, and the Clip button opens up a separate window for recording and sample editing. A cool feature is the BPM Sampler plug‑in — you can drop this into a track in your DAW and it creates a direct conduit to the BPM plug‑in without you needing to configure the routing. BPM also gives the option to resample its own output.
Sound-shaping features for each pad and rack object occupy the right‑hand section of the main part of the plug‑in window. These include a filter, pitch control, envelopes for filter, amp and pitch, and three aux sends. Rack samples also have a modulation section with four LFOs and a mod matrix. Additionally, a large and impressive selection of effects can be added to individual pads and racks, whole banks or the master output. These effects include EQ, compressor, filter, delay, reverb, phaser, distortion and most of the other usual suspects.
BPM also has a multi‑page mixer which provides control over the levels of individual pads within banks, and the banks and aux channels in the main mix.
Just like Maschine and FXpansion's Guru, BPM uses the concept of Scenes to manage song arrangements and structure live performances. A Scene recalls a single pattern from each bank: ie. one pattern from each of the four drum banks and one for each Rack device. Thus, Scene 1 might be a single drum pattern for the introduction, Scene 2 brings in a bass line, Scene 3 changes the drum pattern and adds a loop, and so on.
There are two modes that use Scenes: Live and Song. Live mode displays a matrix for assigning patterns to Scenes and allows you to trigger Scenes from the pads. Scene changes can be instant or synchronised to the beat or bar, and can restart patterns or play them from the current loop position. Song mode is used for assembling an arrangement, by clicking and dragging Scenes from the pads to a miniature timeline in the display, creating blocks that you can trim to the desired length. When Song mode is open, BPM syncs playback to the host DAW, or to Beat Clock in stand‑alone mode.
This is an easy scheme to grasp, and it represents a tidier, if less visually informative alternative to Maschine's Scene arrangement system. There are some notable limitations, though. You can only move or trim the Scene blocks to whole bar positions. Once blocks have been added to the timeline, you can only move them one at a time, and you can't move them over or past neighbouring blocks. So to insert a bar into a song you have to shuffle every block down the timeline one at a time. There is also a maximum of 16 Scenes.
Like Maschine, song arrangement is an off-line, mousey affair, instead of a real‑time recording operation. In Song mode, you should be able to hit record, then trigger pads to capture Scene changes onto the timeline, but you can't. Furthermore, Song mode locks you out of doing anything else. If you switch away from Song mode during playback to, say, play with a filter or effect or change a pattern, BPM stops syncing. And when you go back into Song mode, BPM resumes playback out of sync.
At least BPM lets you switch Scenes via MIDI notes, instead of the awkward Program Change system used by Maschine. In fact, if you're working in a DAW, it's better to arrange a song this way using Live mode, and bypass Song mode's limitations.
BPM packs a lot of punch for the money and provides a very focused environment. It is more at home as a desktop production tool than a performance instrument, especially when compared to alternatives like Maschine and Guru. Even with a MIDI controller hooked up, its approach is more mouse‑oriented, and Maschine will win over those looking for the traditional hardware feel. BPM's rich feature set makes it more capable as a stand‑alone production centre, although, like Maschine, the lack of MIDI out limits you to internal sound sources. For me, problems with the workflow, issues like pattern selection/duplication and the lack of Undo would probably prevent it from becoming something I'd reach for on a regular basis. However, there will certainly be others who feel more comfortable with BPM's way of doing things. If you want to recreate the MPC experience in your computer, make sure you check out BPM.
Native Instruments Maschine: Although fundamentally using the same concept, there is plenty to differentiate BPM and Maschine in their approaches. A read of both reviews is recommended if you're weighing them up.
FXpansion Guru: A clear influence on both BPM and Maschine, Guru's strengths are its workflow and strong MIDI control flexibility. If you need a drum and loop workstation plug‑in, rather than a self‑contained production centre, Guru should be on your shortlist.
Ableton Live: To reiterate the what I said in the Maschine review, if you're a Live user, you already have much of BPM's functionality in front of you, but there's still something to be said for using a focused tool for a particular job.
One of the BPM features that most stands out for me is the drum synthesis module. Any pad can use the synth engine instead of playing back a sample, or you can layer both. Rather than different synth configurations that specialise in particular sounds (like, for example, Linplug's RMIV does), there is a single synth used for all sounds. This features a simple oscillator with pitch mod (which can do FM), mixed with a filter‑shaped noise source. A sizeable patch library shows what is possible with the synth. You can create classic kicks, snares, toms, hats and claves, but you have to work hard for cymbals and claps. Hats off to MOTU for including this.
Obviously, a groovebox without a hardware component is not ideal, so the first thing most BPM users are going to do is hook up a MIDI controller. The simplest option is to use your MIDI keyboard. The drum banks respond to the keys from B0 upwards, following the General MIDI drum-mapping system. In Live mode, the Scenes are mapped chromatically from C1, which makes for intuitive control. BPM ships with templates for several widely used pad controllers, including the Akai MPD range and M‑Audio's Trigger Finger. For everything else, you can either program the controller to follow BPM's default mapping, or open the preferences and change the MIDI assignments in BPM.
I had no problem setting up a template for Maschine to control the pads and transport. Unfortunately, the remaining options are limited. Knobs or buttons can be assigned to the main parameter controls, but these are linked to a specific pad (to facilitate automation). Also, these learned assignments are lost if you change kit. More frustratingly, you can't map anything to the Bank buttons, or the Live and Song mode buttons, so there's no way to switch to enter Scene change mode without reaching for the mouse. Room for improvement.
A regular cause of frustration while testing BPM was the lack of an Undo function in either the plug‑in or stand‑alone version. Even the simplest operations, like deleting a note or changing the timing, must be manually changed back if you change your mind. If you record an overdub and don't like it, you have to pick up the mouse, right‑click on the pattern display and clear the line. Not good for your flow. Auditioning sounds or kits is another major issue here: there's no easy way to go back to the original sound after trying something different.