Review: Akai MPD232

Updated pad controller is twice as nice
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The original MPD32 lasted years as a popular pad controller for music, DJing, and other MIDI applications. But the MPD232—the flagship of the new MPD2 line—steps up the game in just about every respect (see Figure 1).

As the bottom line on any MPD product, the 16 pressure- and velocity-sensitive pads have been modernized with 16-color illumination around their edges and a new feel to their playability. There’s also iOS compatibility, a 64-track/32-step sequencer, four pad banks, three control banks, and 30 presets, including factory templates for popular DAWs. Two massive drum libraries are included (see “The Big Bang Facts” sidebar).

PADDING THE NUMBERS

Fig. 2. The MPD232 comes with adapter cables for 5-pin MIDI I/O connections. All the new MPD controllers slim down their frames for greater portability and extend less than two inches above the tabletop. That makes the MPD232 too thin to accommodate full-size 5-pin MIDI ports, so adapter cables for the MIDI I/O ports come in the box (see Figure 2).

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The newly configured pads feel a lot more firm (rather than squishy) as well as more responsive. In fact, the lack of give on the pads may cause noobie finger drummers a little discomfort, but that’s all the better to build up the strength of those digits. And those who require the utmost precision in their pads should appreciate how the MPD232’s pads respond precisely all the way out to the corners, perfect for two-fingered rolls. And if your drum rolls need help, you have the Akai MPC legacy Note Repeat button for playing drum rolls from a single pad press and the Time Div button for setting the Note Repeat value from 1/4-note to 1/32-note triplets. You also get the classic MPC Full Level and 16 Level buttons for the pads; the latter lays out the sound from the last pad touched across all 16 pads in incremental volume levels.

Pad Banks A-D offer 64 pad controls, grouped by color in the presets. On the other side of the unit, a set of eight endless rotary encoders, eight button switches, and eight 45mm faders also come with Control Banks A-C, for a total of 72 controls. The encoders possess a smooth action and are well spaced apart, while the faders have a familiar plastic-controller feel and are certainly adequate for slight, incremental movements or quick, toggle-like fades.

The smaller options in the MPD2 line—the MPD226 ($399) and MPD218 ($199)—pare down the available control sets and the number of banks.

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PRESET & DON’T FORGET

Each of the 30 presets encompass all three Control Banks and four Pad Banks—136 assignable and editable controls in total. Fourteen of the presets are factory set for software—mostly DAWs, such as Ableton Live Lite (software included), MPC Essentials (included), Bitwig Studio, Propellerhead Reason, PreSonus Studio One, Pro Tools, Cubase, FL Studio, Sonar, and Logic.

The Live Lite preset works perfectly fine for the full version of Live 9, including transport controls, but don’t expect it to be a substitute for a dedicated live controller such as the Akai APCmkII or Novation Launchpad. The MPD232 doesn’t have the same controls for navigating devices and launching clips that those others do. The Reason preset assigns the MPD232 to the currently assigned MIDI device in the rack, and does a fairly good job of covering important features with the hardware controls.

However, should you want to fine-tune the presets to your needs, you can do so straight from the hardware’s four-line display or from the included MPD232 Editor software. It’s quite simple to edit on the hardware display, cursor keys, and push-button dial—starting with a factory template, tweaking, and saving it to another slot. Then the software editor is great for archiving. The controller’s four control types can send different messages, but together they cover note, MIDI CC, Program Change, Program Bank, Aftertouch and increment/decrement messages.

You can set the on and off color for each of the pads to one of 16 colors or none. But one of the coolest—and certainly most practical—additions lets you assign ASCII keyboard shortcuts to the eight button switches by selecting two key values in the Edit menu (see the “Tips: ASCII, Templates and Sequencing” sidebar). In this way, you can devise any keyboard shortcut for your software, such as shift-alt-S, alt-option-2, and on and on (alt equals Command on a Mac keyboard).

STEP TO THIS

Regardless of your original intention, once you sit in front of a pad controller, you inevitably start creating rhythms or phrases, and you want to quickly capture any good ideas that come about from that doodling. The MPD232’s step sequencer helps you do that. The sequence can be 1 to 32 steps, and there is a sequencer track for each of the 64 available pads.

The row of 16 buttons below the faders let you punch in note events, or you can record in real time. A Step Bank button toggles the sequencer buttons from 1-16 to 17-32. This is convenient for quickly putting down pattern ideas, but you need to record those ideas to your DAW to keep them; there is no sequencer pattern memory.

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YOU CAN TAKE IT WITH YOU

The iOS mode is also most welcome. A specific procedure turns on the MPD with a lower level of power so that the iOS device can power it, but the display, pad, and control illumination still work fine, and my apps recognized the controller instantly.

Overall, the MPD232 makes for an excellent full-featured pad controller. The pads feel great and respond well; the extra banks for the pads and other controls expand its utility massively, and it is straightforward to edit from the built-in display. Highly recommended.

Tips: ASCII, Templates, and Sequencing

To save keyboard shortcuts to a template on the MPD232, pick your DAW template (or a blank one), press a switch you want to reprogram, and press Edit. Use the Enter encoder and arrow keys to change the switch’s Type to KeyStroke and change Key#1 and Key#2 to the keyboard command. For example, to create a new MIDI track in Ableton Live, on the MPD display you would change Key#1 to T and Key#2 to SHIFT-OPT (equivalent to Shift-Cmd on a Mac). Press Preset to exit the Edit menu. Now press the right arrow to initiate Save, change the template name and memory slot if you wish, and press Enter to save the template to memory. Repeat to assign more keyboard commands to the template.

To record a sequence in real time, simply press Seq Rec, play the pads, and press Seq Rec again to stop. Then press Seq Edit to edit the pattern or to step-sequence patterns from scratch. In this mode, select a pad to edit (the selected pad turns green), and then enter or delete that pad’s notes in the sequence on the 16 sequencer buttons in the bottom right-hand corner. You can also edit each note’s velocity from the display. Repeat that process for every sound you want, and then record the sequence to your DAW if you want to save it. To delete an entire sequence so you can start over, press Edit, then press Seq Rec, and then select Clear:All on the display and press Enter.

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The Big Bang Facts

Two virtual instruments—Sonivox Big Bang Drums 2 and Big Bang Cinematic Percussion 2—come with all three of the MPD2 controllers. They include more than 28 GB of drum sounds—a huge haul for a controller bundle. And it’s not a case of quantity over quality. Big Bang Drums, an acoustic drum-kit instrument, gives you many velocity layers and versions for each drum and cymbal sound in a kit. And the more than 400 presets of classic and modern rock-genre drum kits mix and match from more than 15,000 total samples.

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Cinematic Percussion feels even more impressive due to the novelty and distinctiveness of its nearly 16,000 samples that cover a ton of ground for orchestral, ethnic, and special effect drum and percussion sounds. They are organized into more than 200 “ensemble” presets according to cinematic genre, drum type, ethnic percussion type, etc.

With either plug-in loaded in a DAW track, you can switch the MPD232 back and forth between your DAW template and the BigBang template. The Cinematic Percussion plug-in is more tightly integrated with the MPD template; its sounds line up to Pad 1 of Pad Bank A, and some other controls are mapped to faders. The Big Bang Drums sounds start on Pad 12 of Pad Bank A, but with the MIDI Learn functions of each plug-in, you can edit and add more controls to the MPD template without too much trouble.

STRENGTHS

Pads are firm and responsive. 30 editable and storable preset slots. Includes templates for DAWs and plug-ins. iOS mode.

LIMITATIONS

No memory for storing sequences. No cable for direct iOS connection included.

$599 MSRP
$299 street

akaipro.com

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools.