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

Man Cave Review: Roland Clown

I have to admit some bias – that I have already paid for some of these ‘plug outs’ – both hard and software, and am seriously annoyed to have to rent (‘rent’ is such an ugly word when ‘subscribe’ sounds so charming) them again to be able to have the others. I acknowledge that Roland have some vague offer in mind for people that have helped them in this way, but it’s been long coming ‘soon’.

Like Adobe, Roland have found that holding their customers by the balls is rather warm and comfy – not for the customer mind you. And like Adobe, Roland’s cloud has some great stuff mixed with wiffy leftovers, and you can’t pick and choose. It obviously can’t compare to Arturia’s collection, which ranges across a wide swath of manufacturers, and even KORG’s small collection has more sonic variety, because KORG. I don’t know how hard things are for Roland at the moment, surely accordion sales are evergreen – but let it pass, we should talk about the software.

D-50_Marquee

Start with the good – By far the best deal in the box is the D50. It’s such a odd machine when you try program it yourself, but the people that made the original patches included here did an excellent job. The sounds are varied and useful, they complement the analogue sounds so popular at the moment. Yes, it’s ‘legendary’ but it’s also useful and you will use it. It comes with a reproduction of the original programmer which is a pity, that was a confused monster which was later improved upon by third parties. I would buy this.

Great disappointment that the JV1080 is CPU crazy, and unusable. From the moment you load it, the CPU meter surges up to 100 and bangs against it like a bird trapped in a house. It’s a ROMpler – why on earth does it need more CPU than the virtual analogues? Was the wiring in the JV that crucial? Same goes for the derivative SRX plugins – they aren’t optimised yet. I own a XV5080 and it’s a wonderful machine once you understand the way it thinks – just go the whole hog and give us an Integra-7. That’d be instantly worth the rent.

You’d think that the JUPITER-8 would be the one with the CPU problems, but it’s fine. I guess Roland has had to make it work in their little boutique boxes. I set it up next to Arturia’s JUP-8. Only this has original factory sounds so there’s much fluffing required to compare them – I found that the JUPITER was generally louder and more modulated/lively than the JUP, but with adjustment they were close. Other virtual analogues like the SH101 are much the same – where I know them, they’re spot-on, where I don’t, they seem spot-on.

I don’t really get some of the choices here – a software PRO-MARS doesn’t offer that much over other mono-synths and the SH2 is as dull as ditch water. The JUNO-106 is fair enough I guess, but the JX-3P was originally designed for people who didn’t care much for synthesisers, and it has maintained that distinction since. A collection should be based on sonic versatility, that each component has a virtue not covered by the others. The Roland ‘sound’ is here, repeatedly, and you’ll end up using only a few of these instruments for actual music.

I almost forgot to mention the TR808 and TR909. They’re fine. They sound like the old drum boxes, as do a thousand other replicas out there.

Back to me – and I did admit bias up front – the legendary thing is not working, because the SYSTEM-8 does all that stuff quite well thank you – as does alternatives like U-He DIVA. The D-50 is sonically different, as are the JV series. But how many things Roland actually sound different? They’re trying to sell breadth, where breadth isn’t their strong point. If I was running things, ASAP get the damn CPU under control, but try to get some un-legendary things like the V-Synth and Integra-7 in the mix so that everything in the box isn’t a different coloured spork.

Man Cave: The Arturia Strikes Back

IN our last installment of the Arturia franchise, the once diminutive Smurf village took on a certain virility, which having been mentioned allows us to enjoy this image all over again.

The 6th version of the V Collection doesn’t advance the collection as a whole, at least not in matters that appeal to me, but introduces four new instruments of mixed virility. Two of them remind me of the bad old days of weakling Smurfs. So much so that I’ve waited on the 6.1 update to see if this lethargy has been corrected – it has to some extent, but not to my satisfaction.

Clavinet V sounds like a clavinet. Take the time to blow a party horn once, sadly, and move on.

DX7 V is very exciting at first glance. The original DX7 was such a inscrutable closed fist of a thing that I’m amazed I got anything out of mine. Every software replica is an improvement in that you have increasing hope of rapport with the sound, and I think Arturia have come up with the best interface so far. It would be the bee’s knees – if it could only manage more than piffling polyphony.

dx7-v-image

Like the bad old days of the first V Collection, the CPU meter is halfway up the scale before you even play a note. I have a fast i7 machine, other complex tools run fine, Native Instrument’s FM8 runs fine, but DX7 V shits itself with any more than 6 or so notes. Something is trying to emulate the constant buzz/fuzz of the old Yamaha circuitry and it’s really not needed at all. Allow us to turn it off. I know that some accuracy will be lost, but it’s a tool, not an idol.

When it does work it’s a pleasure. The way in which operators are selected, tuned, filtered and modulated are all intuitive and effective. You must like being able to place on a resonant filter on a modulator, along with feedback, otherwise you’re heartless.

The other instrument with the problem is the Buchla Easel V. I see these come up on eBay for stupid amounts of money and I ask myself – why do the same people that complain about the short throw of the System-1 put up with that nasty touch keyboard? Where is the filter? No filter is like having a mouth with no lips. Humph. I don’t get it and I don’t like it, and so when it overloads the CPU I just don’t bother. There’s already Aalto out there, and I guess that’s enough of this sort of thing for me.

Which leads us to the two big ticket items, well big ticket in 1980 something. The Synclavier was the first, the Fairlight CMI 2x was next, both were insanely expensive and both rather laughable in this day and age … or not?

Synclavier V has the advantage of the original programmer leading the project. It was always a synthesiser foremost, and all sampling features have been left out, being a little quaint. Unfortunately that includes the ability to convert a sample via Fourier synthesis. What you get is additive synthesis by frames, plus complex FM modulation. You can find better additive synthesis in Apple’s Alchemy and IL’s Morphine, but the FM is more than a bit special, getting you to complex DX7 like sounds quickly and elegantly. And there are 12, not 4 channels of this which stack up rather nicely into lush space boings. Do you like ooooiiiiimmm-aaaaah-klunk? I do.

The Fairlight was sampler foremost, and inspired a whole chapter of music. Which is all the more impressive when you hear, yet again, how utterly crap the sampling quality was and is. No one in their right mind is going to swap Fairlight V for Kontakt. It’s probably there because you can re-synthesise the audio and get busy with Fairlight V’s own synthesis features. Two main techniques are on offer – a Spectral synth (not in the original machine) which bows through harmonic clusters to make a cool relative of a filter sweep, and the Time synth which moves through additive frames much like the Synclavier V.

What pumps this emulation are the Assigns and Function Generators, which map LFOs, envelopes and controllers to just about any part of the synthesis process, sensible or not. The rather stolid sampler becomes a wonderland of stupid unexpected what-the-fuck as you bend and stretch parts of the sound that we never supposed to do that sort of thing. If you love the Ensoniq ASR, you will love this too. There is hope for Arturia yet, I think they are letting their hair down.

There is also Page R. You may blow your party horn again, forlornly.

Man Cave VS Sample Robot

Congratulations! You’ve bought near a thousand synthesisers, and now spend all your ‘quality time’ swapping internal batteries, making line diagrams, racking and unracking, piling up dead Behringer patch bays and all kinds of other non-music related busy work. You’ve just bought a keyboard you already have, same as the one under the one propping up the table on which all the Korg boxes sit dust farming. This is out of control!

store pct #30_full

Sometime in the last year you managed to create some patches on one or more of them (which ones it’s not clear, maybe a black one) that would sound great on that tune you’ve been nursing forever. How the hell do you get all those sounds in a place where you can actually use them?

The simplest way is to sample the sounds. Plug the keyboard into a sound interface, play each note over MIDI, and cut them into individual samples. The first few times you don’t mind doing it manually, but you soon realise it’ll become yet another task that’ll keep you away from actually being creative.

There are tools that will automate this, the most prominent one being SampleRobot. That’s because it’s been around for a long time, back from when a MOOG was something you hired by the hour. Venerable it is, and venerable it looks, a little bit-mapped interface that would look right at home on a 90’s beige CRT. (The authors are aware of this and promise a new version soon that will stretch). Actually it’s not just the size of the interface that confounds people born after 199x, it’s the metallic robot/car/can opener detailing. Little metal buttons on little metal remote controls.

SampleRobot_V4_white

I am old and had an Amiga so I understand where this aesthetic comes from. I also understand that coders used to be free to develop their own interface rules. SampleRobot will often send you back to the manual trying to figure out WTF is going on. For example, having bought the Pro version, I get a tool called WaveRobot, which helps edit loops. I kept wondering how the hell to get the ‘Open File’ menu item to be available, eventually discovered that it’s disabled, and you can only load by right clicking an on-screen keyboard in SampleRobot. Of course.

A ‘wizard’ will set you up for your first sampling adventure. It’ll ask you questions about what you’re trying to achieve and set up the numerous parameters for capturing the sounds (is it a pad or a piano? How many keys did you want to capture?) If you try to do it yourself you’ll find the parameters spread over a number of dialog windows all over the screen. Chances are good that you’ll miss one of them and so you’ll be wizarding for a while.

Assuming you’ve got it set up properly, you then start the recording and the robot plays each key over MIDI, waiting a while between each, attempting to find loop points. It’s not the best at looping (that would be Zero-X Seamless Looper which sadly has left this world on the sky train) but if you take some time to practice with all the settings you can get close to a good loop straight off.

More likely you’ll want to load up each sample in WaveRobot, which as I said took a lot of figuring out, as did the controls to make the waveform sit properly on a large screen. But, like the old hardware you’re sampling, once you get the logic of how it works you can get quick at it. It leans a bit on the crossfade, and you will need to tune things. The overlapping visual waveforms at the loop point are very helpful.

Now hopefully you’ve produced a set of samples that you can work with. Although it claims to save out Kontakt files, it actually saves out Reason’s sampler format which Kontakt must then convert (as NI licenses Chicken System’s Translator software). If you aren’t careful SR will save new truncated samples into its own folder, inside C:\Program Files which is evil, and probably why they want you to launch the software on an admin account (double evil).

Now you have a monolith file in Kontakt … and no more frigging around with MIDI cables, patchbays or that kind of vibe-killing drudgery. Kontakt of course has its own filters, envelopes and so on, so you might sample some of your sources as pure oscillator and enjoy tweaking the filters later, making up multiple versions.

I started with the UltraProteus, from which flows very long complex sounds. It was difficult to get the start point right, and SampleRobot had little chance of finding a loop point by itself. Although it looked like my volume level was good, my first samples came out much too quiet. Turning up the inputs revealed that the UP makes a lot of hum, which of course pitches up and down as the samples are played. I made it not too noticeable. I really liked being able to attach effects to each sound in Kontakt, which isn’t really possible with the UP hardware.

Sampling the MR Rack makes perfect sense as (a) it has no inbuilt resonant filter and (b) the battery is flat whenever you want to use it – but no sense because (c) transwaves don’t play back the way they are supposed to and (d) neither do the wacky FX. SampleRobot wasn’t much help here, and the best thing to do is manually play each transwave, load in Alchemy or Morphine, translate that into an additive wave which will then pitch shift nicely over the whole keyboard without multi-samples. You then modulate the wave point and get perfect Fizmo like results.

p_p_MorphineGeneratorAPanel

Really the process is best for sounds that don’t rely on your active or programmed modulation. It’s fine for an MKS-80 bass, perhaps for Korg Radias chime, but not much use for a modular sequence. Getting SR working is a complete pain in the ass up front, but I know it beats playing each note by hand and then editing it apart manually.

And once you’ve grabbed Lately Bass from your TX81z you can leave that turned off forever.