Man Cave : The MCP Live when used by people who don’t play bongos

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In 1985 I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a music technology magazine when an AKAI S612 sampler was sent in for review. I was able to record my first, very public, sample – an orchestral pomp. It’s a primitive machine, allowing one 2 second sound to be played across a MIDI keyboard at a time – but came at a price within reach of the average music maker. Fairlights and PPGs were expensive, the Emulator rather pricey and thus the popular history of sampling really starts here, at ground level.

I used an S612 on The Big Bigot but ended up buying an Ensoniq Mirage instead, progressing through the EPS16 to finally own an ASR10 in 1994 – at the time a pinnacle of music sampling technology. There are still things only an ASR can do, crazy things. AKAI and EMu had their own adherents, but we all ended up in the same collision – the laptop computer wiped hardware samplers from the market.

Now with laptops becoming increasingly bloated with cloud crap and cruft there’s a growing market for hardware samplers. I spent a lot of time looking around, often disappointed and decided on my second ever AKAI – the MPC Live. Here’s why.

MIDI Production Centres.

MPC’s have been around since the MPC-60 in 1988. That was designed by Roger Linn, who’d gone bust on the Linn9000 drum machine and joined AKAI. He didn’t like reading manuals, so he made it easy to use. It probably was easy to use so long as you created music by playing the bongos. Good for hip hop but utterly useless for me.

Cash register or instrument?

Cash register or instrument?

So why is the MPC Live now part of our live shows? Layer upon layer of revisions, additions, re-imaginings etc. have stacked on top of Linn’s ‘no brainer’ operation. Oddly the machine continues to be marketed as a ‘hit the pads’ box before any of the new processes on offer. If you skip over the whole pad thing (just ignore the first few chapters of the manual) and go straight for the more advanced operations, you’ll find this particular box quite good for chromatic music design – much like the old keyboard samplers.

How it looks.

It’s a chunky black brick with 16 pads, a touch screen and 5 knobs down the side – 4 quick knobs and one old-school AKAI endless data entry. No angles or curves or any of that stuff – you may need to prop up the back to see the screen better on a desk. About the size of a laptop, much the same guts – but with a 2-in 6-out sound card joined to the back of it. 2 MIDI in, 2 MIDI out and 3 USB slots. Not terribly heavy but such that you will resent sitting it on your lap. The power brick is separate. Runs on battery for hours, very good.

The glow effect is optional

The glow effect is optional

It’s still a computer but no bullshit, dedicated to one task, quick to start and free from daily updates, Facebook and cruft. No stupid Apple dongles. It’s one box you turn on and plug in the audio cables. This is what I need onstage. I wish it did video clips but maybe next year.

Most of the internal storage is already filled up with a not unreasonable collection of basic instruments. I bought it a 128Gb SD storage card, but the SD slot is a primitive thing with no cover and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t last a whole tour. I decided to install a 256Gb SSD instead, which was dead easy.

How it thinks.

Each composition is a Project, which makes a folder on the hard drive that contains (not just references) all the required elements. Within that are Sequences which are MIDI arrangements pointed at Tracks – unlike the usual situation of tracks that hold clips. MIDI tracks feed into one of several Programs, which are the instrumentation. Drum pads are only one kind of program – the keygroup program is far more useful for my style of music.

Audio tracks are long sections of recorded audio – vocals, guitars etc. I’m not going to cover them here, but you could use this as digital 8 track recorder, so long as you can keep all the bits in 2Gb RAM. Nor am I talking about sequences at this point as I’m playing it myself on a keyboard. But sequences seem pretty easy to create, by live playing or step sequencing. Many people use the box just for this.

I need to set up multi-sampled instruments to play live. Each song we’re performing is a project. When I start a new project, it will contain one sequence, with one track, fed into one drum program. I delete the drum program and add a keygroup program, so to range samples across an attached USB keyboard. This program can actually have up to 128 individual keygroups, each with their own settings including key range, volume, pitch, panning, filters, envelopes, effect chains etc. So, I can have a voice sample on one note next to a range holding a piano, each with their own effects chain. (The effects are the same AIR effects that you may know from Pro Tools. They’re quite decent.) Each keygroup is also 4 layers deep, for switching between samples based on velocity, after touch etc. So, 512 samples in a program all up.

You can also use the layers to combine de-tuned samples and to offset their start points such that they can can be out of phase. Unfortunately this offset is not large and doesn’t appear to be open to modulation.

There’s also Plugin programs (OS 2.4). Without connecting to a computer, you get a choice of three AIR plugins – a Bassline, a Vacuum Polysynth and an Electric Piano, all of which are pretty good. (Connecting to a computer gives you AIR Hybrid and any VSTs you have installed which can be resampled to the box.) If you want to perform on a plugin as well as keygroup, you’ll not be able to restrict the plugin key range and will have to think about how the MPC arranges things. The first time I tried this, I made two tracks in my sequence so I could switch to one or the other (I could also give each a different MIDI channel, but my stage keys are too primitive). But I soon realised that two sequences, each with one required track, was much easier to switch on the fly as that’s what the MPC is about – switching between sequences. Just turn main knob, done.

There’s also Clip programs which are for switching phrases on the pads a la Ableton Live. And then MIDI programs send data out the two MIDI interfaces.

Sample editing.

Samples can be stored many formats but will always end up as full 32bit resolution in memory. There is no streaming from disc. You will need to rediscover the neat and tidy habits of hardware samplers – converting stereo to mono and trimming off the unwanted bits. Lots of useful tools here – normalising, time stretching, resampling and so on. The quick knobs can help you get your loops just so, although I’ve not been too good at it so far. The touch screen is good for zooming into zero crossings, but after a few days I’m still getting some clunks and clicks (but some excellent HP filters help). There’s a cross fade on the forward loop – again, not working well for me just yet. Loops can also alternate.

Nothing too fancy available mind you – only one loop and no it’s not an ASR10, you can’t modulate the position. No transwaves.

Knob twiddling.

One small disappointment is that the four ‘quick’ knobs can only talk to what is happening on the screen being shown, or to a limited number of destinations across a project. For example, yes, you can assign knobs to adjust the mixing settings anywhere, but some cool stuff is restricted to individual drum pads in a drum program, not keygroup programs, and not for per-sample effect settings or plugins. So if you want to change the sounds on the AIR Polysynth on the fly, you must be seeing it on screen, having dug through the menus. This also seems true of MIDI mapping. Such a shame for live shows.

If you are mad keen on that level of sample mangling then you really should look at the Elektron Octatrack which can do all the crazy things the MPC neglects, while lacking polyphony – something which amazes me. What is it about pads and drum machines? Would it seriously kill Elektron to play a few notes at once? Meh.

Pad thumping.

Perhaps I’ll start to thump a pad or two. At this moment I’d happily saw half the box off and lose the pads, but you never know there’s some cool thing that punching a plastic rectangle might do. If I could punch a pad to change the synthesis of a note I’m playing on the keys…

… but laying down phat beats, never.

MPC’s in the 21st century.

It’s been a long time since the S6000 back in 1999. I think we’ve regained that lineage, maybe by accident but still, we’re back to a box that goes with a keyboard. It weighs less, it holds more, it still has a knob that goes around and round. I hope that more people encourage AKAI to start thinking outside the drum machine. Having a physical sampler inspires my learning to use it like a main musical instrument, digging away at all the nuances that Kontakt doesn’t quite inspire.

I could do most things on stage with my iPad… but the day I showed up at a gig and the iPad wouldn’t start because the battery was flat – because I hadn’t used an Apple approved power pack – I decided that life is too short for apps, dongles and squidgy screen-presses.

I could use a laptop… but the day I got a loud beep onstage as a mail notification came on screen, I remembered that being a jack of all trades makes it master of a dull boy or something like that.

WINS: one box runs on batteries, does 80% of what you want, good quality, no cruft – it just does one thing.

LOSES: crappy SD slot, odd operating system takes a while to fathom, some things not quite finished in the knob department, the 20% it doesn’t do makes me sad at night, a bit pad-centric.

Man Cave : Ring a ring a rosie

Somewhere in Japan, in an office high above the confusion of the streets, a man dressed in an impeccable business suit sits at a neatly arranged desk. This is a sunny corner office, with an excellent view to both the north and the east. Anywhere else in the world this would be a sign of success and honour. But here in Japan it has the opposite meaning – this is the untouchable that came up with the Zoom ARQ-96.

arq

Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the ARQ that is not wrong with every MPC style ‘drum machine trying to be a grown-up compositional tool’. All of them are inscrutable, arcane and involve the kind of jargon that usually is associated with Scientology. Whenever you see anything with pads in a grid you can be pretty sure it’s for making sonic LEGO. The difference is while most MPC tools gaze at you with cool disdain, the ARQ holds the gaze of Bozo the Clown. You will not look like you’re DJing on stage, you will look like you are folding balloons at a child’s birthday.

I’m grateful to DJ2mn for pointing out ARQ-96s being dumped online for less than cost. I was compelled to add it to my musical sin bin. We have matching balloon animals!

It’s justified that musical phrases travel around in a ring – obvious even. But the colours on the ring are many and varied – they can represent instruments or notes or audio channels or set off light shows. The interface is unstable – a map where the continents are sometimes oceans. You must refer to the central LCD display for help and be reminded that this is a Zoom product – by God that LCD gets a workout. Have you ever used a Zoom recorder? Kissing Cousins.

I cleared out a ‘pattern’, and then cleared out the associated ‘kit’ of cheesy techno blips. I then found an instrument that wasn’t too bad and mapped it over the whole ring. Push the select knob and the ring becomes a round piano, which is somewhat surreal. I played notes while adjusting the instrument’s filter sweep and resonance to get a nicer sound. Each instrument can combine samples and oscillators, the enveloped filter is pretty good, there’s individual effects and it best of all it can be POLYPHONIC – which beats Elektron’s vastly more expensive boxes for example. I hit record and play and attempted to tap a melody line into the loop using the ring. That wasn’t so great. Actually, it was shit – this is NOT a great way to enter a melody.

I tried to use a MIDI keyboard with wireless (I have a MicroKorg AIR). The ARQ will see it but pays absolutely no attention. Bugger. There’s a USB port but it goes to a host computer, not to another USB instrument. (If you have a computer onstage then why use this?) Playing the ARQ as a sound module is not a plan.

Once I had achieved a reasonable melodic loop, I twisted the filter knob up and down, tapped in a few moments of delays and flanges and ended up with a quite decent wibbly phrase. I guess. I mean, it wasn’t the Blue Danube. You can also pick the ring up off the base unit and wave it in the air to control the effects, which impresses cats, but who the hell knows what it is doing what where and how.

I hit the sample button and the whole phrase was sampled on to the SD card to become a single audio file wrapped around the ring. That’s pretty easy.

It’s not a bad toy for wibble making and I can imagine coming up with a live performance using the ARQ as the central conceit. Maybe two performances. But it’s not really solving any of the issues in phrase-LEGO music making. That is, stitching together tiny little blocks of sound to make flowing music is not any easier on the ARQ than on an AKAI MPC, in fact the ring interface makes it harder to find your place in bars and beats by wrapping them on a clock face. It looks cool but it’s not going to sound better for being made on a ring than a grid.

For the original asking price that’s just not good enough. At ¼ the original price you get a hell of a LED light show under MIDI control and that’s cool. Even cooler would be connecting a real MIDI keyboard without a computer, which would then make the ARQ a pretty fine sound module.

A discussion that eventually becomes helpful:

https://www.gearslutz.com/board/electronic-music-instruments-and-electronic-music-production/1058700-zoom-arq-5.html