MOTU BPM 1.5 (Mac/Win) Review

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My introduction to music production on the Mac came by way of MOTU Performer. Over the years, I''ve always found Performer''s workflow compatible with my own. When I learned that MOTU was releasing a rhythm workstation, I was eager to find out if that same simpatico sense of workflow extended into the realm of groove and beat production. I got a chance to find out when I briefly covered BPM 1.01 in a rhythm programmer roundup (see the August ''09 EM). However, version 1.5 enhances the experience while including a treasure trove of new sample content.

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FIG. 1: BPM 1.5 manages to arrange all of its functionality within a click or two. Here, I am painting in buzz rolls for hi-hats.

BPM ships with an iLok key and supports MAS, AU, RTAS, and VST plug-in formats. I tested it on a 2.8 GHz, Quad- Core Xeon Mac Pro and a 2.93 GHz Core 2 Duo Macbook Pro, using Mac OS X 10.6.5, and later, OS X 10.6.6. Once you launch BPM 1.5, you''re greeted with the familiar MPC drum machine-style topology (MOTU even included an MPC-style note-repeat button for drum rolls) with an easy-on-theeye design and access to the instrument''s deeper editing features all within easy reach (See Fig. 1). Significantly more than a drum machine, BPM 1.5 is capable of re-sampling its own output or capturing external audio with the included BPMSampler app. But that''s just the tip of the iceberg, because once BPM captures audio one-shots or loops there are many ways to get unique, creative results.

BPM is designed to let you layer grooves pattern-by-pattern, beat-by-beat. The lower left-hand area lets you switch between banks, which harbor drum kits and patterns. Just below the Bank buttons are Rack buttons, which load multisampled instruments and slice loops. To the right of each bank and instrument is an SP button, which emulates characteristics of the E-mu SP1200 drum machine. To my ear, this feature adds mid-range harmonic distortion and some presence and punch, along with a taste of 8-bit-style aliasing. There''s no control over the amount; it''s either on or off. But the effect is never overbearing, and BPM provides plenty of ways to “break” sounds, if you need to.

Directly to the right is the familiar set of drum-machine trigger pads. These serve multiple purposes depending on context. Besides triggering sounds, clicking on the pads while editing can select the samples or synthesized sounds assigned to that pad, or select events created by that pad for tweaking. Pads can also be used to trigger Scenes, which are composite structures of patterns and sequences.

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FIG. 2: In Live Mode, pads trigger entire scenes rather than individual notes.

Two buttons sitting below the banks and instruments switch between modes of operation that determine BPM''s overall playback scheme. Live mode takes a more improvisational approach, supporting selection of Parts and Scenes on the fly. Accordingly, the pads become buttons for Scene selection, and the pad labels change from kit pieces to Scene numbers (See Fig. 2).

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FIG. 3: A BPM 1.5 Rack can hold as many instruments and loops as your computer can handle.

Song mode compiles Scenes into song form. Sound-wise, a Scene comprises four Banks of percussion sounds and triggered loops and two Racks of multisampled instruments and slice loops. Don''t let the two Racks fool you, though: By default, each Rack opens to reveal several slots, or “parts,” which can hold both instruments and slice loops. You can add as many parts as your computer''s RAM can handle (see Fig. 3).

Each Scene can hold one of 16 patterns for each pad bank or rack slot. Each pattern for the Rack instruments can be up to 32 bars in length. I''m not sure why one component uses steps and the other uses bars; the difference in nomenclature can become confusing when you try to map out song strategies.

You can work with patterns in several ways, freely jumping from one workflow to the other, if that suits you. BPM harbors a ton of stylistically arranged patterns. If you want to go beyond basic looping, these are excellent jumping-off points. You can load patterns with kits, swap out kits or individual pads, load new patterns using different kits, or even drop MIDI files from the desktop. BPM is very flexible that way, thanks to an easy-to-navigate Browser on the far right of the instrument.

Begin by loading a drum kit or an instrument. BPM provides 19GB of sounds, including Beat Box Anthology, which harbors an absurd number of classic drum machine sounds. If you want to use your own sounds, just drag samples from the desktop and drop them onto pads; BPM supports WAV, AIFF, and REX formats. Conversely, you can create audio tracks by dragging patterns from BPM to your host program''s audio tracks. Once you have selected a kit or a Rack instrument, you are ready to sequence patterns. A large, orange window dominates the BPM interface. The window harbors work areas for sequencing and pattern edits, sound design, effects processing, mixing, Scene building, and song-form arranging. Switching between tasks is as easy as clicking on the buttons to the right of the window.

The sequence editor for the drum banks takes a step-edit approach, whereas the instrument racks rely on a piano-roll editor. If you click on the SEQ button while sequencing a drum bank, a familiar drumediting grid displays events across a left-to- right timeline and a top-to-bottom axis of drum-kit pieces. You can set the number of steps and resolution of the pattern at the top of the display and zoom in or out. The trick to tweaking drum events lies in the Graph window, which you access from a button on the upper left of the edit display. There, you can edit Velocity, create buzz rolls, draw modulation curves for filter cutoff, move start times, pan, and tune each event individually.

The Graphical Editor for Rack-instrument parts is a greatly simplified version of the one in Digital Performer. You get a marquee tool, a pencil tool, and an eraser. You can snap notes to a grid, change the grid to reflect different timing values, and freely drag notes to alter duration, pitch, or time. Graphs let you “paint” complex modulations quickly, with pinpoint accuracy, though I wish that the editing of Velocity and timing shared the simplicity of the Rack''s Piano-Roll window; it''s much easier to just grab an event and move it where you want it. Shift-clicking on an event and dragging up or down to edit its Velocity is easier than going to a Graph window, selecting the kit piece from a pull-down tab, finding the occurrence you wish to change, and dragging a bar up or down to change its Velocity. One word of caution: the Undo function in BPM 1.5 is barebones—it only applies to recording. You can''t undo most edits, nor is there a Redo button. So, save early and often.

Clicking on the Edit button lets you access basic, but important sound-shaping features. For example, you can select a sample by clicking on its pad or with a MIDI note. A waveform display lets you set start and end points for a selected sample, adjust its amplitude, assign it to an exclusive group (as used in hi-hat programs), set its polyphony, and more. Control-clicking brings in reverse-sample playback, normalizing, among other things. The FX tab is where you can add reverb (with or without convolution), delay, modulated effects, bit crunching, and amp simulation. A very flexible routing scheme lets you situate effects as inserts for a sample, the entire part, or a bank, whether as aux sends or dedicated bank aux sends, or at the main outputs.

Bank pads and Rack instruments all have basic synthesizer parameters attached, such as LFO and modulation assignments, as well as overall transposition, pan, glide, and more. Sample playback isn''t the only sonic option BPM offers; you can design any and all kit elements from BPM''s drum synthesizer. Right-clicking on an empty pad loads a synthesizer oscillator, which offers a raft of excellent presets and starting points for various drum elements. Or you can shape your own from scratch. These sound terrific, and they go well beyond the typical 808- and 909-type sounds.

There''s plenty more in BPM 1.5, such as FlexLoops, which present the presets in multiple forms—kit with pattern; kit only; pattern only; and slice loops. This allows you to drill down into a loop and change any aspect of it, from an individual sample used on a pad to the bank effects. You also get plenty of real-time tweaking with easy MIDI-control assignment and compatibility with other MOTU and Universal Sound Bank products (see the sidebar The Stylistics). If you have the faintest notion of how an MPC or other groove engine works, you could probably build your entire song in a single, nonstop BPM session. Yet overall, MOTU''s intuitive, easy-to-navigate design philosophy lets you find whatever you need with a minimum of fuss. As a smart, great-sounding groove machine, BPM 1.5 is worth checking out if you''re looking for a one-stop, nonstop virtual groove machine (especially if you''re fond of the MOTU workflow or a musician transitioning from an MPC-style groove sequencer). And the expanded library alone is worth the upgrade from earlier versions of BPM. I recommend it enthusiastically.

BPM 1.5 ups its content formidably over earlier versions with more than 19GB of sample content. To accommodate the new material, the pattern library has also been expanded. You can load kits, patterns, or both simultaneously. The kits and patterns divide into 15 folders, grouped by musical style or sound, among which are Big Beat, Dancehall, Dirty South, Electro, Hiphop-RnB, Minimal, Ragga, and Vinylized.

The content derives from the original BPM library as well as Beatbox Anthology, which is a collection of classic drum-machine sounds ranging from the inevitable Roland TR-808 samples to the more recent sample-playback drum units from Yamaha and Alesis. Among my favorites were some of the Ragga and Vinylized kit-and-pattern sets (See Web Clip 1). BPM 1.5''s library isn''t long on unprocessed, realistic kits, but you can always use your own samples. If you own MOTU''s MachFive sampler, you can import factory kit presets or your own drum-kit creations.

In addition to its sound Library and it''s ability to import raw samples, BPM 1.5 can draw from just about any Universal Sound Bank-compatible product. Using MOTU Ethno2 in BPM is an unmitigated joy. After installation, Ethno automatically showed up in the BPM browser. The variety of sounds added drives BPM 1.5''s potential through the roof, with percussion maps and loops, including Indian percussion and instruments, Kora performances and Griot singing, accordion loops, log drums, Taiko loops, and more: a seemingly inexhaustible supply of instruments gathered from all over the globe. You can sift through Ethno''s offerings geographically or by instrument type.

Since version 1.05, BPM has added a highly configurable arpeggiator for its Rack instruments, and you can put this to great use with some of Ethno''s tuned percussion. The log drums, sanza, and kora were particularly satisfying (if not ethnically accurate) when played through a variety of arpeggiator presets. Of course, you can configure your own patterns, as well (see Web Clip 2).

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the BPM 1.5 product page.