FIG 1: The MPC2500 sports a set of 16 solid-feeling pads. Four Pad Bank buttons at the instruments upper left let you trigger as many as 64 different sounds.
Of all the self-contained groove machines, Akai's Music Production Center (MPC) series has endured longer than most. The MPC retains a place at the top of almost every hip-hop musician's list, in spite of their general migration toward using software instruments. The MPC's survival is due in part to the convenience of its solid, all-in-one, drum-machine-style interface. Each successive model has managed to reinvent itself through expanded connectivity, storage, RAM capacities, and additional new features, all while retaining most of its predecessors' familiar design. Other factors contributing to the instrument's success include the MPC's much-vaunted feel, which has inspired numerous groove-quantizing algorithms in software sequencers.
Akai's latest addition to the series is the MPC2500, which has assimilated recent developments in groove-oriented software instruments — most notably, the ability to alter the tempo and feel of loops by slicing them into smaller components. The MPC2500's outward appearance has changed only slightly since the MPC60, which was introduced in 1988, enabling users of older units and devotees of drum-machine-style, pattern-based sequencing to adapt to new features comfortably.
Hit and Run
The MPC2500 has a solid heft and feels like a small tank. My review unit came with standard fixtures, including a CompactFlash card slot with a capacity of up to 2 GB, and a 16 MB CompactFlash card, which you need to have to be able to store projects. You can expand the unit's stock 16 MB of RAM to 128 MB. A USB jack on the rear panel lets you save and load data (including samples) to and from your computer and update the MPC's operating system.
Central to the MPC's operation and its controls are 16 heavy-duty, 1.25-inch-square foam-rubber trigger pads and a tilt-angle 240 × 64 — pixel LCD (see Fig. 1). The size of the pads makes it easy for the most ham-fisted of programmers to build a groove, and yet the pads are very responsive. If you aren't satisfied with the response, you can edit each pad's Velocity curve (try doing that with a keyboard). Each pad plays samples in as many as four Velocity layers. Although you can modulate between samples with Velocity, you can also use the instrument's Q-Link feature for that purpose. Furthermore, you can assign each pad's sounds to one of eight analog outputs in addition to the main stereo-output pair.
The Q-Link controls, comprising a pair of knobs and two faders, occupy a strip directly to the left of the pads. You can assign each Q-Link control to sound-shaping features such as filter frequency and resonance, so you can record data to animate sounds on playback. Each Q-Link control features a mysteriously named After button, which overrides previously recorded data for manipulating sound during playback — a handy feature for DJs.
Below the Q-Link section is an Erase button that deletes any notes triggered by a given pad when you hold the button down along with that pad. The Note Repeat button lets you program rolls based on the resolution you choose. Although the pads do not send Aftertouch, they are pressure sensitive and, along with the Note Repeat button, can continuously alter the dynamics of rolls with variations in pressure. Although pad pressure does not modulate between sample layers, altering the pressure helps achieve a small measure of realism and imparts interesting dynamics to buzz rolls.
You set the roll's note resolution using six function buttons that sit below the menu in the LCD; the menu and associated function buttons are context sensitive. For example, in the Note Repeat menu, you can select values ranging from 8th notes to 32nd-note triplets, and in the Main window, selections include setup for time correction (quantization value), click, track selection, muting, and soloing. Knobs at the top panel's upper right adjust recording-input gain and monitor level. The Input Thru button allows you to process external audio through the MPC2500's filters and effects.
FIG 2: The MPC2500''s rear panel sports a generous complement of inputs and outputs. In addition to stereo analog ins and outs, you get eight assignable analog outs, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, two merged MIDI Ins, and four independent MIDI Outs.
The MPC2500 furnishes coaxial S/PDIF input and output on the rear panel, but you can apply the filters and effects only to the analog signal path. Also on the rear are two MIDI In and four MIDI Out ports, the analog inputs and outputs, and the USB port (see Fig. 2). The CompactFlash slot, two footswitch jacks, and a stereo headphone output are on the unit's front.
If you plan to make the MPC2500 the center of your music-production hub or use it as a standalone instrument, you should consider adding the optional CD-RW drive and an internal hard disk. Because my review unit arrived without the CD-RW option, I was unable to test the added feature set. Although the MPC2500 can render individual WAV files to audio CD, it does not render songs or sequences as audio data; you must upgrade the unit's operating system to version 1.1 to write to CD. If your computer can burn CDs, however, the MPC's built-in USB connectivity makes purchasing a CD drive a bit redundant. Likewise, the USB link obviates a built-in hard disk if you have a computer to store files.
A set of eight buttons sits below the Rec Gain and Main Volume knobs; the top row of four buttons engages pad banks A through D, bringing the total number of pads in a program to 64. Two buttons fix Velocities at maximum value or quantize Velocities to 16 levels, which is useful if you are a beginner with an unsure hand at dynamics. The Next Seq button calls up a menu of available sequences, and the Track Mute button summons a page that shows the tracks and the data contained therein; you can mute any track by tapping on its associated pad. One function button lets you toggle between track soloing and muting. Selected tracks are highlighted in the menu display. Visual confirmation is especially handy, given the difficulty of memorizing which pad in which bank triggers which one of the 64 possible tracks.
In the data-entry section, you can change values or navigate to the next song using the data wheel, enter values directly using the numeric pad to the left of the wheel, or change values incrementally using the plus and minus buttons. Use the 2-axis cursor buttons to navigate to the parameter you want. A Chiclets-size button to the left of the cursor buttons lets you instantly change tempo by tapping quarter notes.
The red Mode button calls up additional pad functions such as saving and loading data, setting loops, recording and programming samples, and other tasks. Similarly, the Shift button accesses additional context-sensitive functions, such as entering text characters in file-naming procedures. However deep you find yourself in the instrument's page and menu hierarchy, the Main button takes you back to the top. The ever-popular Undo button is to its left. The lowest two rows are devoted to familiar transport controls for locating, recording, and playback.
The MPC2500 plays and records 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio in WAV format only. The instrument supports a limited amount of proprietary data, such as PGM, SEQ, and SND files from previous MPC units, but only as far back as the MPC1000.
Sampling is simple and has remained relatively unchanged since the early days of Akai sampling instruments. To start sampling, press the Mode button and the pad labeled Record. You can sample through the left and right analog inputs or the digital inputs, or choose the MPC's main outputs for resampling through effects and filters. Surprisingly, although resampling is done internally, it stays entirely in the analog domain. The MPC2500's effects sound adequate but pedestrian; the most exotic is the distortion and bit-reduction algorithm. The best-sounding effects are the filters.
To assist in setting a threshold and sample time, horizontally arranged level meters give you visual feedback. Press the Record function button, and either the instrument will wait for a sufficient level to initiate the sampling process or you can manually begin sampling by pressing the Start function button.
New to the MPC series is the unit's Chop Shop feature — Akai's take on loop slicing as exemplified by software applications such as Propellerhead ReCycle and Spectrasonics Stylus RMX. After you access the Trim window and press the function button for Chop, you can either divide the sample into 2 to 64 equal segments or let the MPC2500 use amplitude measurements as slice points. If you choose the latter, you can tweak time and amplitude thresholds for peak detection as well as the unit's sensitivity to variations in attack level. Each of those parameters provides settings between 0 and 100. The default settings worked just fine for drum and percussion grooves, but it was flummoxed by samples that had weaker attacks, such as organ pads and the like. To be fair, sounds with weaker envelopes are usually difficult to divide into rhythmic slices.
You can then choose one of two methods for playback: Patched Phrase or Sliced Sample. The first assigns the entire loop to a single pad, and the loop will adapt to the MPC's tempo. The second assigns each slice to its own pad, letting you trigger phrase elements in any order you choose, change the feel or omit elements of the phrase, apply effects or alter the tuning of individual elements, and perform other operations.
The tempo-detecting features worked well, and they accurately interpreted several drum loops I had imported. Once you have determined a file's tempo, you can use one of several time-stretching algorithms. Time-stretching worked well for limited deviations of 10 bpm or so, but changing a 100 bpm drum loop to 120 bpm caused the kick drum to lose its punch.
As a sequencer, the MPC2500 offers the expressiveness of linear sequencing and the convenience of pattern-based song construction. A single track can hold data from any or all of the pads, and sequences can hold a maximum of 999 measures and 64 tracks. If that's not enough for a full-blown composition, you can link as many as 250 sequences to create a song (if RAM permits). You can even link a total of 20 songs for a magnum opus.
The MPC2500 serves well as a MIDI pad controller for external instruments. You can control up to 64 external MIDI channels thanks to the unit's four independent MIDI Outs. The MIDI Thru setup is as flexible as any I've seen. You can designate one, a pair, or all of the ports to echo incoming data, making the MPC2500 useful as a MIDI hub for live performance without a computer. The two MIDI In ports are merged instead of independent, but more than 16 MIDI input channels would probably provoke the bandwidth gods.
You can assign any pad to a different MIDI note. Along with the Note Number and pitch, the LCD shows the name of the General MIDI drum sound mapped to that note. That's handy for controlling external hardware, because many manufacturers use the GM note map for drums.
MIDI recording resolution is 96 ppqn, which is pretty coarse given what the state of the art is. Quantizing options are also relatively stripped down, with choices ranging from 8th notes to 32nd-note triplets and no percentage quantization, except for the amount of swing (limited to from 50 to 75). You can either quantize data on input or fix the timing after recording.
On the surface level, recording, sequencing, and playback of the MPC2500 is easy to understand, but a page system selected by pads can lead you down a few blind alleys. For deeper editing, you will need to keep the manual close by. Unfortunately, the manual is among the worst I have seen, rife with typos and confusing directions.
Providing a generous startup library for samples has become a common practice for hardware and software groove instruments costing far less than the MPC2500. I was disappointed in the MPC2500's set, which consisted of a few banks on the 16 MB CompactFlash card. The sounds and loops are quite usable but not exceptional.
The feature set is impressive, but at $2,999 retail, the MPC2500 is overpriced. For that much, I would expect higher sampling rates and bit depth, more RAM, a built-in hard disk, and a CD-RW drive as standard issue. Nonetheless, MPCs have become something of an industry standard in the hip-hop world. Even if you are caught up in the unit's cachet, for the same money you could pick up a fast notebook computer with plenty of RAM, a decent audio interface, some sequencing software, a few sample collections, and a good pad controller (Akai makes a fine one).
Constructing songs using the Akai MPC2500's resources can be challenging (particularly when compared with using a computer-based sequencer) but also great fun. Anyone who's accustomed to MPC-style music production can fly on the MPC2500. It excels as a pad-style controller for external instruments, but the omission of Aftertouch transmission is a head-scratcher, especially considering that the pads are pressure sensitive. Likewise, the low MIDI-event resolution is puzzling, especially in light of claims for the instrument's classic feel. I hope that Akai will address some of these shortcomings with a future update (currently in the works, according to Akai) or in a next-generation instrument.
Contributing editor Marty Cutler likes to bang on things even when he isn't frustrated.
FEATURES 3 EASE OF USE 3 AUDIO QUALITY 3 VALUE 2
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Easy sampling. Terrific MIDI controller features. USB connectivity. Versatile loop slicing. Responsive pads with adaptable Velocity curves.
CONS: Overpriced. Poor documentation. Disappointing sequencer resolution. Optional CD-RW drive does not render songs to audio. Stingy sound set.
Akai Professional USA
MPC2500 SPECIFICATIONS Sound Engine 32-note polyphonic sampler Audio Format 16-bit, 44.1 kHz WAV Analog Audio Inputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS Analog Audio Outputs (8) balanced ¼" TRS, (1) ¼" stereo headphone Digital Audio I/O coaxial S/PDIF in and out Data I/O (1) USB 1.1, (2) MIDI In, (4) MIDI Out (switchable to MIDI Thru), (1) CompactFlash Control Inputs (2) ¼" footswitch jacks Display 240 × 64 — pixel backlit LCD Pads (16) 1.25", Velocity- and pressure-sensitive (no Aftertouch) Sampling RAM 16 MB, expandable to 128 MB Sequencer (64) tracks, (99) sequences × (999) measures, (20) songs × (250) steps (each containing a sequence), 96 ppqn Effects insert effects (2 simultaneous): chorus, flanger, bit grunger, 4-band EQ, compressor, phase shifter, tremolo, pan, reverb, delay; master effects: 4-band EQ, compressor Dimensions 16.34" (W) × 3.68" (H) × 13.11" (D) Weight 13.56 lbs.