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AKAI MPC STUDIO - INTRODUCTION
Well, having just reviewed the Native Instruments Maschine Mk2, I am now lucky enough to get my hands on the recently released Akai MPC Studio with its slim silver looks to tempt anyone who is into the world of grooveboxes, loops and samples. There are many discussions and comparisons between Maschine and the different Akai MPC products and when you are trying to make the right choice it is therefore understandably very difficult. For this reason, whilst the main focus of this article will be on the Akai MPC Studio, I will also throw in the occasional comparison to the Maschine Mk2 to assist you folks sitting on the fence.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - HISTORY, MODELS AND EXPLANATION
In this instance I think it is a good idea to start by giving a brief history of the MPC. It was originally designed by Roger Linn and produced by Akai in 1988. The first model was the MPC60 and it was meant to be a powerful drum machine.
As the models have changed over the years it has moved away from its functionality as a MIDI Production Centre and become more of a Music Production Controller, with all of the software located on a PC or Mac, giving you a very powerful sequencer with the ability to sample and load your own samples onto 16 playable pads and create kits and loops to produce whole songs. The great thing about this is your sample and project collection can be as big as your PC or Mac storage can take.
The other models since the MPC60 in order of release are: MPC3000, MPC2000, MPC2000XL, MPC4000, MPC2500, MPC1000, MPC500, MPC5000, MPC2000 and now we have the (slim) MPC Studio, (the much larger) MPC Renaissance and (for the iPad) the MPC Fly. So as you can see, your first consideration could be that by buying an AKAI MPC you are dealing with a company that has a wealth of knowledge and years of experience in this field. However, (if only it were that simple) that is not to say that Native Instruments have not only caught up but overtaken in some areas.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - OUT OF THE BOX, LOADING, SETUP AND REGISTRATION
Like Native Instruments, Akai seem very generous with their extras. In the Akai box you have the slim silver Studio alongside a smart looking carry case for it, which leads me to Akai's thoughts on use here. Whilst they no doubt see their flagship model, the MPC Renaissance, as ideal for the recording studio, the MPC Studio (which has the same software) is also great for working with on the move due to its size. I can therefore see some engineers doing all of their main work on the Renaissance and then transferring it for use with the MPC Studio whilst they're on the move - great if you can afford both!
The size of the MPC Studio is 11.2" x 10.1" x 0.89" or 284 mm x 257 mm x 22.6 mm. It weighs just 1.96 lbs. or 0.89 kg.
As you open the box there is a two-sided A4 sheet to help you get familiar with the controls of the MPC Studio. It lists what Akai refer to as the 'Studio Basics' on one side and the 'Studio Advanced Controls' on the other.
Under this sheet is the bright red case, followed by a bag containing a USB cable, two MIDI breakout cables, a Quickstart Guide, warranty information and three DVDs (the main MPC Studio software, the Bank (with all of the samples) and an 809 Expansion DVD).
The Renaissance comes with all of the expansions, including one named 'Wub'. I would like to have heard this but I couldn't find any information as to whether you can purchase this separately. Akai's site shows them but just mysteriously mentions the fact that they come with the Renaissance. I think I prefer the Native Instruments Maschine expansions, although they are not cheap at 49 Euros each.
As you take the slim MPC Studio out of its box, you realise that it is not toy-like and flimsy but in fact very solid and professional. There are very few connections on the MPC apart from the two breakout cable connections and the USB port next to the power switch. In fact, just to quickly go back to the breakout cables, which seemed like an odd idea to me, but I suppose it allows for the MPC Studio to remain very thin and portable. That's it! Time to move on!
I found loading the software very straightforward. As my music PC has no internet connection, I had some additional work to activate it, but I found it much easier than I did with the NI Maschine. The main software bank then loaded without any codes or registration, as did the expansion bank, whereas the NI Maschine's expansions all require registration and activation individually.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - UNDERSTANDING THE LAYOUT AND PLAYING SOME SOUNDS
As you do, I initially couldn't wait to start using my new piece of kit and so I dived in and started making some sounds before I'd even attempted to understand how best to use the thing! My first impression was that with both the NI Maschine and the MPC Studio side by side, with both plugged into my audio interface, which was set to the same volume for each, I felt that whilst the MPC was smoother sounding, it was quieter than the Maschine. The Maschine could take the same sample and it would have much more oomph about it, but I could not complain about the quality of the MPC.
To me the hardware also seems better laid out on the Maschine Mk2 and there seems to be a bigger learning curve with the Studio. the Maschine Mk2 provides you wit two screens (rather than the one of the MPC Studio), multi-coloured pads (for easier identification of sounds at a glance) and better labelling on controls. Because of these features I would have to say that the Maschine seems better set-up for live performance purposes. This may of course be a crucial difference between the two and could be a deciding factor for you.
Whereas the MPC Studio has been designed to work on your studio projects whilst on the move, the NI Maschine can be mounted on a suitable stand for a solo performance. Taking this a stage further and looking at Akai's current product range, despite the number of models they have produced, perhaps they need another one for playing live.
There are quite a few controls on the MPC Studio. If you exclude the LCD and the 16 Pads, there are 54 physical controls. It's as if they have taken practically everything from the Renaissance and fitted in on a smaller surface area, which means some of the controls are just a tad on the small side, but having done so they have made a good job of it and it is sensibly arranged.
The main area is obviously the 16 pads. Most would argue that these feel better than Maschine's pads. Personally, with the improvements NI made with the second version of their hardware, I don't think there is much in it. The Studio pads certainly have a firmer feel though, whereas there is a bit more give in the Maschine pads. Akai say that all of their user interface controls have been designed to ensure that the MPC workflow is maintained.
The controls on the hardware are touch-sensitive and all work very smoothly. The pads are firm and typical MPC Pads. People obviously love MPC Pads as I have seen Youtube clips instructing how to change your NI Maschine pads for MPC ones!
On the left-hand side of the MPC Studio you have five dials that adjust the Q-Links. These are used to adjust various parameters and settings. The dials can control one column of parameters at a time. For example, when you look at the 4 x 4 Q-Matrix on the software you will see that Column 1 highlights Q1, Q5, Q9 and Q13. To get to the next column Q2, Q6, Q10 and Q14 you need to use the Scroll Dial.
There are three other controls under the Q-Link dials. The first is the Q-Link Trigger. If you hold this button down, then touch one of the Q-Link Dials, you can make that dial's parameter value jump to its minimum or maximum. This of course depends on the parameter you are adjusting in the software because not all have a minimum or maximum position.
Next down (and unusually placed in my opinion) is the Erase Button. As you are playing your sequence, if you hold this button down and then press a pad, it will delete the note event for that pad at the current playback position.
Lastly on the left-hand side you have the Note Repeat/Latch Button. If you hold this button down and press a pad you can retrigger that pad's sample at a rate based on the current tempo. If you hold the shift button down first and press this button you can latch on to the Note Repeat feature.
Ok, moving across you have the main playing area of 16 velocity-and pressure-sensitive pads. The outer part of the pads light up with different colours, depending on how hard you play them. Apparently yellow is the softest up to red, being the highest velocity. The pads can also be used as a standard numeric keypad to enter values according to the numbers that are printed in green above them.
Above the pads and under the LCD are controls called 'F-buttons'. No, these do not provide something for you to swear about when you make a mistake! I would assume that the F stands for 'function' as these six buttons relate to the corresponding tabs/functions that you can see on the LCD above.
I felt that the LCD (360 x 96 dot graphic) itself was a little bit packed with information, showing everything relevant to MPC Studio's current operation. However, you can see most of this information much clearer in the software on your PC or Mac screen so it really isn't a problem. To use the LCD, you need to use the cursor buttons, the Data Dial and then -/+ buttons. You then need to use the 'Mode' button to change what page is displayed and as I have already said, use the F-buttons to choose what tab is displayed. If you want to, like most LCDs today, you can also adjust the contrast to aid visibility in different environments.
Moving over to the right-hand side (where everything is tightly packed in). From top to bottom you first have 20 controls (four rows of five). The first row contains 4 buttons for you to select the Pad banks (A-H). You need to use the shift key to get to E-H. The fifth button is a Pad Assign/Pad Copy button.
The next row of five is a mixed bag. It starts with a Full Level/Half Level button, which when activated, forces the pads to always play back at either a maximum velocity (127), no matter how hard or soft you hit them or at half-velocity (63).
The next button is called '16 Level' and is a handy feature and something the NI Maschine does not have. Apparently when you activate this, the last pad that was hit will be temporarily copied to all 16 pads and the pads will now output the same note number as the initial pad, but a selectable parameter will be fixed at set values regardless of how hard you hit them. The available parameters are velocity, tuning, filter, layer, attack or decay. I looked at the set values and they seem to go up in eights from a starting point of 7; therefore Pad 1 has a value of 7, Pad 2 is set at 15, etc. up to Pad 16 with a value of 127. The third and fourth buttons relate to the Step Sequencer and viewing it, and the last button in this row is the Track Mute/Pad Mute button.
Onto row 3 and you have a button to view the Program Edit screen and with the Shift key you can assign a parameter to a Q-Link. Then there's a button to view the Program Mixer screen, a sequencer edit mode button and a Sample Edit and Sample Record button and a Song/Other button to view either the Song Screen or Other mode for things like pad threshold and sensitivity.
Row 4 has five buttons that all relate to folders in the file browser. You have Project/Folder 1, Sequence/Folder 2, Program/Folder 3, Sample/Folder 4 and No Filter/Folder 5.
Well, if you think that is quite enough to be going on with, there are in fact yet more controls! Under these 20 controls is the main Data Dial with three buttons: a Main/Track button to see either the Main screen or Track view, a Browser/Save button to either view the file browser or save the current Project and a Numeric button to use the pads as a standard numeric keypad.
Next is the main Cursor control surrounded by four buttons: Shift, Window/Full screen, Tap Tempo and Undo/Redo. Finally there are 10 buttons (two rows of five) giving you all the transport controls, including an overdub button.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - SOFTWARE, MODES, SECTIONS, PROGRAMS AND PROJECTS
There is obviously a lot to the software, making it difficult to sufficiently cover in a review like this. Basically, the software is divided up into the Browser, the upper and lower section and the Grid. Apart from the software menus there are also 12 modes: Main mode, Program Edit mode, Program Mixer mode, Track Mixer mode, Track View mode, Song mode, Next Sequence mode, Sample Record mode, Sample Edit mode, Pad Mute mode, Track Mute mode and Step Sequencer mode. Most of these modes are always visible.
A Program in the MPC Studio is a file, which contains a list of all samples used and settings for each sample (i.e. pad assignments, loop points, pitch tuning, effects, etc.). The Program Edit mode allows you to edit and assign samples. The MPC software can hold a total of 128 programs in a Project. You will see that there are two types of Program: Drum Programs (which is mainly where you create your drum parts and assign samples to a Pad) and Keygroup Programs, where you can assign one or more samples to one or more keys and play them chromatically via a MIDI keyboard or the MPC hardware pads. This is very useful as you don't then have to sample every note of a keyboard like a synth or a piano. You can also load all projects from earlier MPC models if this is of use to you.
The upper section contains the MPC's tabs as well as further control for selecting Programs, Sequences, Songs, etc. The lower section contains global data/controls, such as the measure/tempo display and the transport controls. The Grid is the section where you can record, program and edit your sequences and arrange your songs. Main mode gives you an overview of the most used functions. If you want to go to Main mode at any time you can either press the Main/Track button on your hardware or just simply select the Main tab in the upper section of your MPC software.
There is certainly a lot here and a bit of a learning curve. However, both the Akai MPC Studio and the NI Maschine have some very user-friendly aspects to their software that you can instantly get to grips with without reading the manual. Nevertheless, there are also those other controls that you just stare at thinking 'what?!', before either reverting to the manual/forums or figuring out by trial and error. As a couple of examples, on the MPC Studio, the Q-Links don't immediately make it obvious what they do or how I should use them in my opinion. And just to make it clear that most products have functions like this, with the Maschine I understand the idea of Scenes, but I'm still not too sure how I should be using them!
It is all very well saying that if you are used to MPC controls then the Studio will be very familiar, but Akai need to think about the fact that this will only help existing MPC users who are deciding to buy a more modern version.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - SOUNDS AND EFFECTS
As I have already said, you cannot fault the quality of the sounds that come with the MPC Studio and the range that comes in the box is also great! You get a massive 9 GB+ sound library, including all the sounds of the classic MPC3000 and the additional sounds included in the 908 expansion bank. There are thousands of quality drums, percussion hits, stabs, noises, effects, instruments, pads, voices, sounds for Dubstep, RnB etc. It is an awesome collection and if you add that to your own existing sample collection you have a wealth of sound possibilities at your fingertips to go wherever your grooving mind takes you!
The Maschine Mk2 also has quite a collection, giving you a 6 GB library. It also provides you with the awesome synth Massive software synth as well as Komplete Elements. On top of this they give you a download choice to choose from any one of their nine expansion packs.
The MPC software offers various effects for processing samples and sound programs as well as offering different ways to load them. On top of this there are mastering effects and again, like the Maschine, you can also use plug-ins.
The effects included with the MPC Studio are: Flanger, Flanger Sync, Chorus 4-voice, Chorus 2-voice, Autopan, Autopan Sync, Tremelo, Tremelo Sync, Phaser 1, Phaser 2, Phaser Sync, LP Filter Sweep, LP Filter Sync, HP Filter Sweep, HP Filter Sync, Auto Wah, HP Filter, LP Filter, HP Shelving Filter, LP Shelving Filter, PEQ 2-Band, 2-Shelf, PEQ 4-Band, Delay Mono, Delay Mono Sync, Delay Stereo, Delay Stereo Sync, Delay LP, Delay HP, Delay Analogue, Delay Analogue Sync, Delay Tape Sync, Delay Ping Pong, Delay Multi-Tap, Distortion Fuzz, Distortion Amp, Distortion Overdrive, Distortion Custom, Distortion Grimey, Transient Shaper, Compressor Opto, Compressor VCA, Compressor Vintage, Compressor Master, Reverb Large, Reverb Large 2, Reverb Medium, Reverb Small, Reverb In Gate, Reverb Out Gate, Decimator, Resampler and Frequency Shifter. That is a very impressive range of effects so that not only do you have over 9 GB of sounds, but you can add effects to them and change them into something new.
AKAI MPC STUDIO - CONCLUSION
There is a part of me that says you just should not compare the Akai MPC Studio with Native Instruments Maschine. In many ways they are two different beasts, designed for different needs. If you are trying to decide, you should first decide what your needs are. If cost is very important to you, then the MPC Studio is noticeably cheaper.
If you are not worried about portability or live playing then you may wish to have a look at the bigger Akai MPC Renaissance. At the end of the day, it is all good fun whatever model you choose and allows an alternative way to make music, so what are you waiting for - give it a try, you will be pleasantly surprised as I was.
Just one last thing... I have just heard that the MPC software is to be updated very shortly, they were aiming for 15 February 2013 but it has been slightly delayed. I'm excited to see what the new update brings!
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