If you've been hammering out drum tracks on MIDI keyboards, the tabletop Akai MPD16 USB/MIDI Pad Control Unit ($349) offers an attractive alternative. Its surface is fitted with 16 pads, each roughly 1.25 inches square, inherited from Akai's MPC-series workstations. Accurate drummers might get away with playing its closely spaced pads with drumsticks, but the MPD16 is designed to be played with your fingers, and using drumsticks might damage it. The pads are sensitive to both Velocity and Polyphonic Aftertouch.
Welcome to My Pad
Alongside the MPD16's pads are four buttons (each with a status LED) and a slider to edit the unit's MIDI parameters. The Full Level button fixes the Velocity of all pads at the highest possible value (127), regardless of how softly you hit the pads. Pressing the 16 Levels button lets you assign a different Velocity value to each pad and plays the note assigned to the last pad struck in the previous mode. The Bank button toggles between Bank A and Bank B pad assignments, letting you control a total of 32 different sounds. Pressing the Active button alternately enables and disables the MPD16's slider, which dynamically adjusts the value of whatever continuous controller has been assigned to it.
The MPD16 has three ports: USB, MIDI Out, and DC In. The USB port connects directly to your computer using the supplied cable, providing power, MIDI data output (on the Mac, for OMS-compatible applications only), and communication with the included MPD16 USB MIDI Pad Editor (Mac/Win) utility software. The MIDI Out port accommodates data output to MIDI devices that lack a USB port. When you use the MPD16 without USB, power is supplied by plugging in the optional MP-9 9V AC-to-DC adapter ($20) to the unit's DC In jack. The MPD16 has no power switch.
You can edit the MPD16's parameters either directly from the unit's front panel or by using the included utility software. By successively pressing different combinations of the MPD16's 4 buttons and 16 pads, you can independently edit each pad's MIDI note assignment, the slider's continuous controller number, and the global MIDI channel. Because the MPD16 lacks a data readout, you'll need an external MIDI device (with a display) to verify the values of any parameters you edit from the unit's front panel.
The Pad Editor software allows you to view and edit each pad's MIDI Note number and corresponding GM Drum Set name, as well as adjust and visually confirm the unit's global MIDI channel and the slider's controller number. The software also lets you copy settings from one Bank to another, save and load settings to and from your computer, and restore factory default settings.
In addition, the software offers 17 different Velocity curves that you can set independently for each pad. The ability to select a Velocity curve is especially noteworthy, as you can't edit the pads' Velocity sensitivities directly from the unit. Because no Velocity scaling is offered and all 17 curves can produce the full range of MIDI Velocities, the effects produced by choosing alternate pad sensitivities are fairly subtle, but nevertheless useful.
I used the MPD16 to trigger drum programs in Native Instruments Kontakt and BitHeadz Unity Session, both running as plug-ins in MOTU Digital Performer. As I edited the pads' note assignments, making the Editor's window active muted the drum sounds, preventing me from immediately hearing the result of my tweaks. Fortunately, when I ran Kontakt and Unity Session in standalone mode, they responded instantly to changes I made in the Pad Editor. Considering the MPD16's computer connectivity, though, I wish the Editor could operate as a plug-in within all popular sequencers.
I also wish that the Editor could communicate bidirectionally with the MPD16. The software sends parameter changes, but it doesn't update its settings when you change the MPD16's front-panel controls. Bidirectional communication would have let me use the Editor as a graphic user interface under hardware control.
Though the MPD16 offers many pluses — great-feeling pads, alternate pad-assignment banks, USB connectivity, Aftertouch response, an assignable data slider, dedicated editing software — it can be awkward to set up within a sequencer environment. I hope that Akai will update the Pad Editor to address those concerns. Setup is much easier when you're controlling a virtual instrument in standalone mode or an external module that has its own display. If you don't mind working around those limitations, the MDP16 delivers a generous feature set for a modest price.
Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 3