LI'L FLIP >The six-line LCD admirably shows sequence data, a drum grid, continuous MIDI data, waveform editing and more in a legible, efficient manner and with a backlight.
After close to 20 years on the market, you'd think Akai would have run out of ideas on how to retool its MPC line of pad-based sampling sequencers. Not so. The latest incarnation, the MPC2500, combines features found in the MPC1000, 2000 and 4000 models. While its stripped-down, compact appearance may suggest that the designers cut corners, the opposite is true. They imported useful features from each of the other versions, added some that are exclusive to the 2500 and, best of all, made navigating it all a breeze.
In case anyone is new to the MPC approach, it's basically a rhythm-programming environment that combines sequencing, sampling, effects and mixing in one box. As the line has evolved, assignable sliders and knobs have joined the pads on the work surface, sample and sequence editing has been enhanced, and signal processing and routing have been improved. Though they're designed to function as self-contained units, today's MPCs also integrate smoothly into computer-based environments. Yet what has remained consistent through the years has been a certain feel that invites experimentation.
The MPC2500 is badass black in color, which looks better than all other MPCs so far. It weighs 13.5 pounds and has a surface area of 16-by-12 inches, so it's easy to cart around and takes up a manageable footprint. Everything on the control surface is squeezed together, but that is an advantage when working. Once you're used to how controls are distributed, having everything at your fingertips in close quarters seems natural, not crowded.
The 16 pads are classic MPC — a great feel paired with adjustable Velocity and pressure sensitivity. With four available pad banks, you can switch between them to access as many as 64 samples. Like previous MPCs, the pads can be set to play full level (fixed Velocity) or 16-level, which in the MPC2500 incrementally affects Velocity, attack, decay, filter cutoff, pitch or layer values. The pads can also perform other duties, such as track muting, soloing and on-the-fly sequence selection useful for live performances. When the Mode button is engaged, many of the pads serve to open other feature sets by accessing screens for recording; sample, program and sequence editing; song selection; mixing; slider assignment; MIDI/Sync; and loading and saving. The cool thing is that the MPC2500's layout makes enough sense that you can sort out navigating and operating without cracking the manual for a while.
To the left of the pads is the Q-link section. That essentially allows you to control pad parameters via a knob or a slider. There are two ways of manipulating the sound with Q-Link: Note On and Realtime. In the latter case, slider and knob movements made after a pad is struck change to sound in real time. In the former case, the sound is affected only by the fixed position of either the knob or the slider. One very useful feature is automating level, pan and other knob and slider values by recording their movements into the MPC's sequencer as data while in Mixer mode. In comparison with the MPC2000XL, the MPC2500 doubles the number of the sliders to two and adds two knobs to boot. Below the Q-Link sliders sit Erase and Note Repeat buttons that respectively erase pad events in a sequence and repeat pad strikes according to assigned parameters.
Across the top edge of the pads are six function buttons (F1-F6) corresponding to soft buttons on the LCD screen. What the screen lacks in size is balanced by an intelligent layout. There's nothing to complain about here. Everything is clearly legible, and even the waveform editing is decent.
On the right-hand side of the control surface live the Data and Control sections with standard transport functions such as start, stop, play, record and overdub (to punch in and out), and Locate buttons can jump back and forth within a sequence by steps or bars. Above the transport section are buttons for Main, which jumps to the default sequencer screen; Window, which goes deeper into a given parameter; Shift; and Undo, for erasing events just recorded into the sequencer. A four-direction cursor button skips between parameters onscreen, and a Tap Tempo key manually sets the tempo. Above that, a 12-button keypad lets you punch in parameter numbers, but I tended to dial them in with the rotary data knob or enter them using the increment/decrement buttons.
Another notable aspect of the MPC2500 is Input Thru, whose small button next to the Record Level and Main Volume knobs in no way reflects its creative potential. Input Thru allows combining an incoming signal with the output of the sequencer. You can even route the signal through internal effects and filters and assign Q-Link to adjust the level, pan, cutoff frequency and filter resonance. That feature is not found in any of the other MPCs available now.
The back of the MPC2500 offers 10 balanced ¼-inch outputs (a stereo output pair and eight assignable outputs); two balanced ¼-inch inputs; S/PDIF digital I/O; a USB connector for file transfer between a computer; and extensive MIDI I/O, including two inputs and four outputs, turning it into a MIDI production center. Along the front edge of the unit sit two footswitch connectors and a headphone jack. As with the MPC1000, the 2500 accepts Compact Flash RAM cards for storage from a drive in the front. Unfortunately, a CD-RW drive does not come stock with this unit, nor does an internal hard drive. Akai has a list of MPC2500-approved hard drives on its Website, but it requires the Akai CD-M25 ($249 MSRP) CD-R drive for the MPC2500. With that, you'll be able to burn Red Book audio CDs and not have to rely on memory cards for backup.
CLEAR TO SAMPLE
The MPC2500 has 32-note polyphony and comes standard with only 16 MB of memory. Maxing out the RAM to 128 MB with Akai's EXM128 memory card ($299 MSRP) will provide about 24 minutes of mono sampling time. The 2500 samples either mono or stereo material through analog or digital inputs. Sampling itself is a breeze. Once you've captured a sound, you can keep it, assign it to a pad location or discard it. As with other samplers, you can resample the outputs. The MPC2500 also can record samples directly while the sequencer is playing back, a useful feature when matching pitch and tempo to existing material. Less obvious is the Continuous Track feature, where long samples can be triggered to play before the start of a sequence.
The MPC2500 will import almost all data from the MPC1000, 2000/2000XL and 4000. If you want to get sounds off the MPC3000 or the Akai S5000/6000 samplers, you'll need a computer with USB to transfer the data. Older legacy products like the S1000 and S3000 aren't supported.
Once you've captured a sample, you can adjust its start and end times, normalize, pitch shift, reverse, time stretch, insert silence into or extract silence from the material. All those functions are straightforward, though time stretching can feel inconsistent; hopefully, that is a correctable problem in the OS. The best feature of the lot is the ChopShop function, which divides sampled phrases into regions. ChopShop can treat a phrase as individual slices that are assigned to individual pads, or as a Patched Phrase that exists as a single sample but contains the timing information for the constituent parts. That means that as the tempo of the sequence changes, the phrase sample responds to it. ChopShop further distinguishes the MPC2500 from the rest of the family.
To play back from the pad, samples are assigned to a Program. The MPC2500's Programs can combine as many as four samples per pad and contain excellent lowpass, highpass and bandpass filters (which can be internally linked); two amplitude and filter envelopes; and six LFO types. You can change the volume, tuning and range for each sample as well as use Velocity to control the sample volume. While the MPC2500 defaults to One Shot mode, where the sample is played back all the way through with each pad hit, there is also Note On mode, where the sample plays only as long as the pad is held down. If you need to conserve notes, you can toggle between polyphonic and monophonic playback.
One of the most appealing aspects of the MPC line is the sequencer, specifically its editing capabilities. Each of the MPC2500's 64 tracks has assignable MIDI, mute, solo, track type (drum or MIDI), Velocity ratio and loop length. The sequencer can correct the timing of a pad performance, quantizing either in real time or after recording. Quantizing note values range from eighth note to 32nd-note triplets, and there's also adjustable swing. While there is an Auto Locate feature to jump to specific positions in a sequence, the unit I had didn't allow me to go to any location. That appears to be a bug in the OS, so look for that to be resolved in the next version. Another known issue as this review goes to press is that the MIDI C and MIDI D outputs are problematic. Akai is aware of that and plans to address the problem.
Once you've laid down some tracks, you can choose between Step Edit and the wonderful Grid Edit mode — another feature imported from the MPC4000 — to edit the sequences. With the familiar step editing, individual events — including Q-link slider data — can be edited in detail. Step record is available as well. Grid Edit mode allows for editing several events at once and focuses on pad events — not MIDI events — from a connected MIDI keyboard, for example. It's an extremely useful way to view and quickly edit portions of tracks that aren't working. Just like in Step Edit mode, in Grid Edit mode events can be copied, pasted, moved and deleted, as well as step recorded. It doesn't take long to see that Grid Edit is gold.
Of course, you can compose a complete song within one sequence or map out groups of sequences and mix them from the pads using the Next Sequence button. The MPC2500 also provides a Song mode where multiple sequences can be played in series. While sequences can't be edited within that mode, songs can convert back into a long sequence for editing. The unit stores as many as 20 songs, and each song has a maximum of 250 steps, wherein a step is an individual sequence that strings together.
The onboard effects of the MPC2500 can sound very good if used appropriately. There are two stereo effects per pad sound, as well as a master effect for the whole mix. No doubt, there is plenty to choose from: 4-band EQ, compressor, phase shifter, tremolo, delay, chorus, flanger, a lo-fi bit grunger, flying pan (rotary speaker) and reverb. A less-is-more approach to the effects would be wise. Use the effects judiciously, and build resampling skills by experimenting with them. The effects can either give tracks the right lift or drain the life out of them. The key is to maintain control of the sound. It may seem basic, but overprocessing can ruin an otherwise good song.
WEIGHING THE BOX
I love the MPC approach to composition and relished digging inside the 2500. It's probably the friendliest MPC there is; the manual gathered dust in a corner for a long time until a few features needed clarification. Best of all, I was able to work fast. Save for a few early OS issues, the MPC2500 could prove to be a worthwhile step up from the MPC2000XL, although it would have been nice if Akai had included MTC and SMPTE. As this review goes to press, version 1.1 of the OS is within weeks of being released, and hopefully it will clear out some of the cobwebs of the 1.0 software.
Let's face it: Pad-based programming surfaces are appealing, but inexpensive, powerful, software-based workstations will make many folks pause before shelling out the dough for the all-in-one MPC2500. With a list of $2,999, it seems almost ridiculously priced, although the common street price is significantly lower. This newcomer to the MPC series, however, has several tools that musicians can use to quickly and efficiently make beats and grooves that sound and feel silky smooth. On that score alone, it is worth considering for its own merit or to sit alongside a computer-based rig.
MPC2500 > $2,999
Pros: Intuitive operation. Excellent sound quality. Phrase sampling, ChopShop and grid editing. Input Thru. Reads most MPC files as well as S5000/6000 samples. Accepts Compact Flash cards. Burns Redbook audio CDs (with optional Akai CD-M25 drive).
Cons: Too pricey. MIDI Outs C and D currently problematic. Comes with only 16 MB of RAM and maxes out at 128 MB. Auto Locate currently not functioning. No MTC or SMPTE. CD-RW drive is optional. No S1000/3000 data compatibility.