With the electronic music world abuzz about hardware that takes attention away from screen staring and mouse clicking, Akai has seized a ripe moment to bring back a flagship MPC hardware audio workstation. The comprehensive MPC X carries all the hallmarks of a good ol’ fashioned standalone MPC but with new-school advantages, such as a 10.1-inch color touchscreen, 16 Q-Link encoders with mini-displays, and exacting control over the updated MPC 2 desktop software for when you do want to plug in (and to use software plug-ins).
The MPC X benefits from the same modern price/performance ratio that have made sub-$500 analog synths such a hit. Going so far as to support Wi-Fi connectivity for using it with the Able-ton Link hardware/software syncing standard and Bluetooth 4.0 for wirelessly connecting MIDI controllers and/or QWERTY keyboards, the MPC X simply gives you far more than any MPC before it at a price never before possible. It costs less than two-thirds the price of the far inferior MPC5000 when it debuted 10 years ago.
Just as important, features like the dynamically updating Q-Link knob displays, large touchscreen, and super-fast internal processing make the MPC X a fast and powerful production environment for people who prefer the distraction-free, head-down experience of a standalone workstation. Far from a lone wolf, the MPC X also provides expansive hardware control over CV and MIDI hardware, as well as MIDI software (see Figure 1).
BEYOND BASIC BEATS
The MPC X internal software basically mirrors the MPC 2 desktop software, so that in Controller Mode, the hardware controls the computer software exactly, and you can save files both to and from either your computer or the MPC X internal 16GB hard drive. While MPC 2 has added fully linear audio tracks, making it more like a full-on DAW, the workflow of the MPC X in Standalone Mode is based on Sequences that you can string together in Song Mode and then export as MP3, AIFF, or WAV at up to 32-bit floating point/96kHz.
You start with a Project file. Each Project can have up to 128 Sequences, and each Sequence can contain up to 128 MIDI tracks and eight audio tracks (or 128 audio tracks in the desktop software). Each MIDI track feeds into one of six Program types: Drum, Keygroup (melodic instruments), Clip (sets of looped samples), external MIDI, CV for controlling analog gear, and Plugin, which is only available when using MPC X to control the desktop software.
You can play the Drum and Keygroup programs with the eight banks of 16 pads, and each pad can hold up to four Layers of samples and up to four insert effects from the comprehensive selection of 50+ internal effects. You pull samples from the 10GB Vault collection and other free expansions that Akai includes, record your own samples, or import them from connected USB drives or the SD card slot.
On the MPC X there are multiple ways to perform almost any function from the touchscreen, the Q-Link knobs, or using the cursor keys, numerical keys, and large Data Dial. It’s the same for creating MIDI sequences. You can record them in real time with the pads with or without quantization; step-sequence using either the pads, the Q-Link knobs or the touchscreen; or by inputting the notes directly on the Grid View of the display, which also provides hands-on note length, velocity, and transposition editing.
The very responsive touchscreen does so much for MPC X, with many function buttons sending you directly to view modes like the Browser, Pad Mixer, Track Mixer, Sampler, Sample Editor, and more. Additionally, the F-Key mirrors the six function buttons below the display to the onscreen buttons. The main Menu view serves as the window to the MPC X’s many treasures, such as the Pad Mute, Track Mute, and Song modes; the Pad Color editor; and the Looper, which lets you record with endless overdubbing in real time and export the results as a sample.
The Pad Performance mode is a vital way to enhance song creation and musical performance for melodic MIDI Programs. It lets you assign specific notes, chords, or chord progressions to the pad banks in the scale of your choice. And the XYFX view takes full advantage of the touchscreen as an x/y touchpad for adding effects to a full mix or as an insert effect on individual tracks or pads. The XYFX has 17 of its own effect programs, most of which are tempo-synced with their timing varying along the horizontal axis. You can use the XYFX spontaneously on playback or record its movements into a Sequence.
If the five selectable modes of Q-Link control aren’t enough for you, Q-Link Edit lets you customize the Q-Link encoder assignments. Chop mode in the Sample Editor is also great fun and very useful for slicing loops into their own samples at transient points, and then triggering them from the pads and/or laying them out as MIDI notes in the Grid View.
Besides the previously mentioned wireless capability, the MPC X doesn’t skimp on the wired connections for either recording or sequencing external gear. The four audio inputs start with combo XLR and 1/4-inch TRS jacks with optional phantom power for Inputs 1/2 on back, 1/4-inch TS instrument-level jacks for Inputs 1/2 on the front, and Rear/Front switches on the top panel selecting the active inputs. Inputs 3/4 are a pair of 1/4-inch TRS jacks or a stereo RCA input with Phono/Line switch and a grounding post for turntables. The top panel has input level knobs for Gain 1, Gain 2, 3/4 Rec Gain, and LED level meters for monitoring both input and output levels.
There are eight 1/4-inch TRS outputs on the back, and you can route any Drum, Keygroup, or Clip program track in the MPC X to the output pairs 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, or the individual outputs 1-8. Meanwhile both 3.5mm and 1/4-inch headphone outputs are simultaneously active on the front with Volume and Mix knobs.
A welcome addition to MPC hardware, the MPC X has eight CV/Gate outputs on the back panel for standard 3.5mm cables. You can assign any CV program track in your Sequences to a CV output and a Gate output. There are also two 5-pin DIN MIDI In and four MIDI Out ports. For every MIDI track in a Sequence you can assign the MIDI channel, Program channel, and MIDI Out port. Two powered USB-A ports can also receive MIDI messages from external MIDI gear, but they are most useful for connecting USB drives for additional sample storage. The single USB 3.0 port connects the MPC X to a computer as a controller, and it also makes any additional storage drives on the MPC X—USB drives, an SD card, or an optional internal SATA drive—available to the computer.
With the MPC 2 software open on your machine, the MPC X in Controller Mode works very similarly to how it works in Standalone Mode, with the difference being that what’s shown in the software adapts to fit properly on the MPC X touchscreen. You can open the same Projects from the MPC X drive in MPC 2, with the extra ability to use VST and AU plug-ins on MPC 2 tracks. You can also view the name of VST plug-in parameters in the Q-links.
MPC 2 also works as a VST, AU, or AAX plug-in, so you can load it into any DAW. For that case, you can use the MPC X MIDI Control mode to create a custom MIDI map for its pads, buttons, Q-Link knobs, and XYFX touchpad to control the host software when needed.
RETURN OF THE MACK
Clearly the MPC X wields a huge amount of creative power and control capability, but it also performed very well in my testing. Older standalone MPCs could test your patience as you waited for samples to render from processing, but the MPC X churned out sample pitch shifting, time stretching, normalization, and so forth with the speed of a modern laptop. It was fast and fluid in all areas of mode and view switching, recording, editing, timing, XYFX, etc.
The touchscreen supports two-finger pinch zooming and felt sensitive and highly responsive. The latest firmware was stable, and I did not experience the glitches, crashes, or bugs that very early testers sometimes mentioned.
In short, this is the true renaissance of the standalone MPC. The MPC X keeps everything that MPC fans love about producing and performing with the series, and just adds bells and whistles from there—more of them than ever before. The price tag may still be a bit much to convert a ton of new MPC heads. However, with the scope of its color touchscreen, high-quality control systems and 24/96 audio interface, and generous connectivity, I frankly am impressed that the street price stayed this low.
Comprehensive computer-free workflow. Fast internal processing. Responsive touchscreen and pads. XYFX. Pad Performance mode. Sample Chop. Q-Link with displays. Wireless connectivity. CV/Gate.
Markkus Rovito writes words and music from the Urban Hermitage in San Francisco, California.