Quick Pick: Akai MPD32

Read the January 2009 EM Review of the Akai MPD32 pad controller
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Armed with multiple banks of pads, faders, knobs, and switches tied to comprehensive MIDI implementation, the Akai MPD32 is the rhythm programmer''s Swiss Army knife.

It would be a stretch for my capabilities and my available studio space to use a MIDI drum kit to sequence drum parts. For that job, I like the fat, can't-miss, drum machine-style pads and solid feel of Akai's MPC-series instruments. However, I also prefer the editing capabilities of my sequencer software and the luxury of using software instruments with streaming, high-capacity sound libraries. For those who share my rhythm-programming preferences, Akai's MPD32 ($499 [MSRP]) could be the perfect fit. It's a full-fledged controller with capabilities way beyond simple drum-pad triggers.


The MPD32 is built like a brick house and occupies a modest footprint (12 inches deep by 15 inches wide) on your desktop. The unit draws power from a USB port or an optional 6V power supply. USB 1.0 provides 32 channels of MIDI communication, and you can use the controller's MIDI In and Out ports to address an additional 16 MIDI channels on external hardware.

At the heart of the MPD32 are its four columns and rows of pressure-sensitive trigger pads, which are large enough to accommodate a couple of fingers on a single pad for flams and rolls. The pads supply sufficient resistance to wring dynamic beats from even the most ham-fisted programmers; if you need more give, just scale the pad's Velocity response to your own needs. You can edit the MIDI Note Number each pad outputs and select a port and channel for each. This was great for playing composite kits built from software instruments and my mothballed Roland TD-7 sound module.

When used with the Time Division button engaged, the Note Repeat switch delivers anything from simple quarter-note hits to 32nd-triplet buzz rolls. Varying pressure dynamically alters Velocities, avoiding static-sounding rolls. With Time Division disengaged, the buttons can send discrete MIDI controller values or serve as track solos or mutes. The row of eight faders and the eight knobs at the lower right default to conventional volume and panning tasks, respectively, but each is also assignable to the MIDI message of your choice. This means you can use them to control software-synth voice parameters, among other tasks. Best of all, the array of faders, buttons, and knobs has three banks, easily accessed from the A, B, and C buttons to the right of the trigger pads. Four separate banks govern trigger pad assignments.

Familiar transport buttons offer MIDI Machine Control or System Real-Time commands, but these can also send discrete MIDI continuous controller messages. A solid rotary-control knob lets you page through parameters and commands or choose presets; you can confirm a selection by pressing down on the knob. Just below the rotary control are cursor buttons to navigate through any of three Mode menus (Preset, Edit, and Global). You also get buttons to quantize all Velocities to 127 or spread a single hit across the pads, each with a different Velocity. The latter makes nailing Velocity-crossfade instruments a breeze. All knobs, faders, and buttons are solidly ensconced and smooth in their response.

Finally, among other functions, the bright blue LCD will clearly display every editing parameter and every MIDI controller and value you can send, including Channel Pressure from the pads. I love the little data indicator in the corner of the display that updates values numerically and graphically.


There were too many templates to test fully, but one standout was a setup for Spectrasonics Stylus RMX. RMX Multis generally require dragging each part's MIDI files end to end into multiple host tracks. With the MPD32 template, track building was a real-time musical joy. Each switch in the first bank started and stopped a part, allowing me to build layers of percussion on a single track in a quick, musical, and less abstract manner. I've always regarded FXpansion Guru as a sort of software MPC; pairing it with the MPD32 was a thing of synergistic beauty. The MPD32 is not limited to drums and percussion; I found useful templates for Ableton Live and Steinberg Cubase, soft-synth plug-ins from Spectrasonics, and several sequencer and instrument-specific Propellerhead Reason setups.

Akai packed more MIDI implementation and programming features into the MPD32 than I can cover here. It even bundles an editor-librarian and lite versions of FXpansion BFD and Ableton Live to start you off. Documentation is clear and thorough and includes a printed quick-start manual, a PDF operator's guide, and a comprehensive list of presets with details on installing and playing them (you can download them from Akai's site to learn more). Solidly constructed, with versatility and plenty of physical and musical heft, Akai's MPD32 should be a runaway hit.

Value (1 through 5): 5