Review: Akai MPC One

Note: This review was written based on software version 2.7. With software 2.8, released to the public on 20-05-14, Akai has addressed one major point of critizism from me. Rather than rewrite the entire review, I added an addendum for that.

Introduced at NAMM 2020, the Akai MPC One is the youngest member of this long line of sampling grooveboxes. It’s also a player in a highly competitive market where “dawless” is the second most hip thing directly after “eurorack”. How will it stand to the challenge?

Historical Context

By the second half of the 80s, Akai had just started their foray into samplers with their S-612, and was taking breath for creating a huge impact with the S-1000. At the same time, Roger Linn had sold/bankrupted his innovative Linn Instruments company, an early innovator in programmable, sample-based drum machines (and programmable drum machines in general). The combination of both resulted in the MPC 60, which started a product line that continued until today and will most probably continue for some time to come.

In the current generation, which also comprises the flagship MPC X, the battery-powered MPC Live (that will see a Mk2 pretty soon), as well as some controller devices, the MPC One is the smallest in the “standalone” category.

There is also an MPC software that you can run on your PC or Mac. All current MPCs can be used as controllers for this software, but only the so-called standalone device also can do their thing without the aid of a computer.

The MPC has always been a powerful sequencer paired with a sampler, and while further features have been added over time (such as virtual instruments and complex mixing/effects processing options), the MPC has always remained at its heart exactly this. Which also begs the question: Is a thing from 1988 still at home in today’s environment?

Hard Facts

Coming in a matte black enclosure, the MPC One is, with a surface area of 272x272mm, the second-smallest MPC (after the MPC 500), and also the only one that doesn’t have a “landscape” format.

As expected from an MPC, the center of the UI are 4×4 velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads, which in this generation have a black surface but light (programmable) shining out on its side.

The pads, which used to be 30x30mm on pretty much all proper MPCs, have fallen prey to the small package: at around 25x25mm, they’re considerably smaller, pretty much the same size as on the Roland MC-707, but way larger than on an Elektron Analog Rytm (ca. 18x18mm). I personally find them nicer to play than those on my Akai MPD24, but I have pretty slim fingers.

The second-largest individual feature on the front panel is the 7” multi-touch screen, which is actually a tad bit larger than on the MPC Live. Next are four endless and assignable rotary encoders, “Q-Link Knobs” in Akai lingo, and finally 31 dedicated backlit buttons which dwarf the MPC Live by comparison.

The general UI makes use of typically five soft buttons on the bottom of the touchscreen, which are rather slim even for my fingers. I would have preferred a set of buttons below the display for that.

The front only houses a SD card slot and a (1/8”, which is bad) headphone connector.

On the back, the differences to the other (current) MPCs, especially to the Live, become most visible: there’s merely one dedicated output and input pair (TRS), one MIDI In/Out pair, USB computer and device (MIDI input or storage) connection, Ableton Link via RJ45, PSU connector and, as a highlight, eight CV/gate connectors supplied as four 1/8” TRS jacks.

There’s even a stupid Kensington lock. Does anyone even use those?

To round it off, there’s a power button (which is a “soft” button similar to computers), and one knob each for input and output gain. Meaning the main outs and the headphones share the same gain knob.

Performance MPC.jpg
MPC One, Bass Station II and a small modular setup – works perfectly.

It’s interesting to see that both in the length and height department, the MPC One fits a Novation Bass Station II perfectly. It also happens to work well together with one.

Soft Facts

The MPC X, MPC Live and MPC One share the same processor and RAM configuration, which is (according to spec) a “quad-core ARM” (probably a 1.8GHz Cortex A17) and 2GB of RAM. There’s also 2GB of internal NVM, but that can be expanded both via SD card and USB drive to pretty much “more than enough”. While there’s pretty little pre-installed content, you can download a bunch of additional stuff from the Akai website (once you register there).

To understand what you can do with those resources, let’s look at the general concepts of the contemporary MPC.

The top-level thing is a project. A project is the thing you save to and load from disk, and if you do the latter, the MPC stops and you need to wait a little (for a mid-sized project, 30s is a good ballpark) – saving anytime is perfectly possible, though.

A project is then made up of sequences. A sequence is the thing that is playing at any given time. Sequences in turn contain tracks. There’s audio tracks, which are just that, and MIDI tracks, which in turn control programs. The programs then do something with the data from the MIDI tracks: play back different kinds of (mostly) multisampled instruments (drum and keygroup programs), play back audio clips (clip programs), run virtual instruments (plugin programs), send it to a MIDI output (MIDI programs) or to a CV/gate port (you guessed it: CV/gate programs). Then, there’s a mixer which brings together the audio from the audio tracks and the drum/keygroup/plugin programs.

MPC Concepts.png
The general architecture of a project, (c) Akai

There’s places to add effects all over the place: in individual keygroups or pads in the drum/keygroup programs, in the programs as a whole, in subgroups and on the 2bus. There’s four effects slots everywhere, plus a total of four effects sends.

Speaking of effects: The MPC comes with a big variety of effects, in two groups (one by Akai, one by AIR, whoever that may be). They all get their job done, but there’s also not a single one where I’d say “good effect” immediately – maybe with the exception of the DJ staples such as Kill EQ and Tape Stop. Speaking of which, there’s a XYFX, which is essentially a Kaoss Pad-inspired thing you can play on the touch screen. They all have a slightly different user interface, too, so it’s not fun to work with them, either.

By the way, why not just slap an EQ onto every channel? There’s a reason why serious mixing consoles have been made that way since the dawn of time.

Another sidenote: due to the limitation to one stereo in/out pair each, using an effects loop over an external effects box is pretty much out of the question.

A noteworthy fact is that you can pretty much automate everything, and either record automation or edit it on the screen. A powerful feature.

Powers of four play a big role, with their doubles playing a minor one: there’s 4×4 pads, a maximum of 64 MIDI tracks, 128 keygroups in a keygroup program, 128 programs, 128 sequences and eight audio tracks. Audio tracks are definitely a low number – or, if you see it the other way around, 64 MIDI tracks per sequence (!) are most probably more than you’ll ever need in such a small box.

On the Project Architecture

This is unlike other solutions (both native and embedded) I’m aware of, and I have a hard time directly comparing that to your usual DAW like Cubase, Live (Ableton, not MPC) and the like, and that for the reason, that the track configuration is separate for each sequence, rather than defined in the project context. Another thing that immediately surfaces is that the audio tracks are a completely different animal than the MIDI tracks in the MPC world: they have separate tabs in the so-called main view, they don’t require a program etc. I rather would have preferred just tracks and then adding “audio programs” – it seems to be an issue of adding new features while trying to maintain a more than 30-year-old workflow.

Them Programs

I’ll start with the drum and keygroup programs in one fell swoop, as they are pretty similar and more or less form the sample-based synth engine here: you get four layers (velocity- or round-robin/random-switched), two envelopes, one filter and one LFO. The filters are pretty bland, the envelopes and the LFO are standard. While in drum programs each pad (corresponding to a MIDI note) gets its own sounds (meaning the four layers), for the keygroup programs you get up to 128 per program, which you can freely map to key ranges. So this could be a four-velocity-layer-multisamples instrument over all 128 MIDI keys, a grand piano with 5-6 velocity layers per key (although this will require some odd programming) etc.

MIDI programs are as simple as they can be: you assign a port (which, on the MPC One, is the only port you have) and a channel, and program change and bank. The programs furthermore have parameters for all CCs – and using automation, you can record/edit and use complex sound design thingies for synths that make use of CCs heavily – which could be something like a modern Waldorf, or an old SCI like the budget Six-Track.

The same goes for CV/gate programs: you can assign one CV/gate port to pitch, gate, velocity and modulation, and in addition, have access to all eight outputs for automation similarly to the CCs in a MIDI program. Sadly, no gimmicks like envelope generators, and due to the way this things works, completely smooth LFOs etc are cumbersome, but there’s a lot of possibilities – and simply using one pair to control a basic synth voice is a breeze.

Clip programs are a collection of one-shot or looped samples (up to 128, you guessed it) which you can then trigger/switch via pads. A thing similar to mute groups (i.e. if you start a new clip in said group, the other one will stop) are easily and freely configurable. This is the closest you get to an Ableton Live workflow. Time stretching etc. works really easily in this (as it does in any portion of the MPC).

Finally, the plugin programs are virtual instruments. You get a choice between Electric (an electric piano), TubeSynth (a 2-osc analogue-style synth) and Bassline (a synth reminiscent of a 303). While Electric is a pretty deep affair, from the way it works more like a physical modeling instrument, the other two are pretty bland by comparison – good to get your techno/trance track pumping in no time, but nothing to write home about for deep synthesis.

Summing Up Programs

Generally, everything with the word “sample” in it is both powerful and easy to use on the MPC. On the other hand, once you get to the synthesis aspects, it’s nothing really powerful. It just doesn’t add true character (which might also be considered a good thing if samples is what your art is about). It gets the job done, but given the depth of this device in many other aspects, I’d be really happy to at least have a third envelope everywhere – or maybe only in the instrument/drum programs.

Sound Libraries

Included are licenses for a lot of sample packs available for download from Akai’s website. Sadly, some of them only work in the MPC Software (as opposed to the actual MPC), but if you’re looking for a set of the usual acoustic/hip-hop/techno/trap/house and whatnot drumkits and tuned instruments, you’re set after you’ve installed them onto your MPC. There’s a big number of high-quality things included, but due to the sheer number you might need to search for some time. You’ll need an SD card for that, because those are big and the MPC One’s internal memory is small. No problem though, SD cards are a cheap commodity (that also work with pretty much every other piece of gear you might have).

In the context of sounds, I took the time to import an old, 500-odd-MB sample set from a Steinway D grand, and although it took some time, am happy with the results. It’s definitely better than the supplied grand piano – but then, you don’t need pristine grand pianos for trap, or house, or future bass.

Playing it: General

The overall UX is made in a way so you can do (in theory) pretty much everything on the touchscreen, and there’s a pretty straightforward workflow using only touchscreen and pads. You can also make use a lot of both the buttons and the Q-Link encoders, but especially with the Q-Link encoders having a different setting in about every screen, it really takes some time to memorize this (at least you can configure them).

The UX also has a pretty strict “you’re always in one screen and then work only in that screen” approach. Which means that, although it might be possible given the UI components, editing a track and at the same time easily muting and unmuting other tracks is not easily achieved.

Playing it: Sequencer

The sequencer really is the core of this machine, and within the general project architecture, I can’t find any real shortcomings. This is true both from a feature set and from a workflow perspective: recording a drum part and then deciding to quantize the hats only (or anything but the hats) later on, or add some parameter automation for a delay on the snare, programming stuff in step mode, there’s an easy to understand and at the same time feature-rich workflow for almost everything.

Some limitations, or things that require a workaround if you will, have to do with odd rhythms and meters. The sequencer supports binary and ternary divisions (aka normal notes and triplets), so if you want to do septuplets and the like, you need to calculate that yourself and can’t rely on the step sequencer or quantization options. Having said that, that’s pretty much the same on pretty much every similar (i.e. not full-blown DAW on a computer) product.

Another thing is the use of polymetres: the metre is set on the sequence level (where it can easily change within one sequence), and the tracks are set to have either the sequence’s length or a number of beats. All tracks restart when the sequence restarts, so to do polyrhythmic stuff you need to do your calculations (such as described here), and then might have to make creative decisions how to set the meter on the sequence level, as this affects the display of the tracks’ content in grid or step mode.

Something I find really cumbersome is the logic of deleting/erasing/clearing and copying tracks and sequences: to me, those aren’t always part of the corresponding UI section (track or sequence) and the different similar commands don’t make sense to me. One example: using “Clear” on the track level will completely remove said track, while for removing the events in the track, you need to use “Erase” on the sequence level. I’m sure those choices are deeply rooted in the long history of the MPC and I’ll eventually grow to understand them – they’re still not intuitive.

With all that said, I still consider it great. If you’re happy or not with it really comes down to the design choice that everything is housed in a multi-track sequence – which makes it pretty much impossible to perform Terry Riley’s “In C” in a sensible fashion, but on the other hand is the sensible way to go when you’re making something resembling a song (or a symphony).

Playing it: Sampling and Recording

A definitive strength is the use of samples, and that includes sampling and recording audio, also in the midst of a performance.

Again, if I had to name one shortcoming, it would be “too many options”. You can record audio using the “Sampler”, the “Looper” or an “Audio Track”. In the end, however, you can always arrive at your goal, even if that goal changes mid-way, so it’s still possible to turn a recording into a beat-sliced drum program if you’ve recorded it into an audio track, it only takes a few more button presses.

Something I’d like to really point out is the ease of use of the beat-slicing thing, both considering how feature-rich it is and how little experience I have with it: taking a turntable, recording a few bars in sampler mode, throwing away everything you don’t need and then mapping the individual beats/notes from that to a drum program you can immediately start playing is just so easy and at the same time gives you all the complex features an advanced user might need.

Playing it: Integration

So how do you play the MPC One together with other gear, preferably as the center of a (computer-free) performance setup?

One pair of audio line inputs/outputs, USB MIDI in (but not usable as an out), and one MIDI pair means it’s got everything, but only the bare minimum of it. The four pairs of CV/gates (in an impractical format, but you can make cables yourself for about 2.50 each) are the only thing really outstanding in this department. This does come with the size (and let’s not forget the price) of the unit, but we still need to keep it in mind.

The inputs, differently to many other MPCs, are line and line only. Meaning you’ll need a pre for a record player, for a microphone, and a DI for a usual electric guitar.

With the loads of features on the software side, it means still everything within the limitations of the connections is easily achieved: for example, connecting a Korg Volca Beats, syncing its sequencer to the MPC and then sampling a groove from it was a matter of minutes. Connecting my small modular setup works easily as well, and you don’t even need to use MIDI-to-CV.

MPC plus KVB.jpg
A MIDI-synced Korg Volca Beats is sampled by the MPC. The USB keyboard visible on the bottom connects seamlessly (and is powered) via the MPC’s USB port.

So you could connect a, say Novation Bass Station (but you’d need a MIDI Out and USB for it, or MIDI In and Out), and a small modular rig that you drive with CV/gate, and a Korg Volca that runs its own sequencer and is synced via sequenced pulses in the MPC, or a Folktek Mescaline, mix that to stereo within the modular setup, and then go to into the MPC’s stereo inputs: that would work. You’re still suffering from the shared volume knob for headphones and main outs, so you’d need a separate headphone pre/mixer for any sensible situation.

The lack of a separate headphone knob is a big one. Apart from that (and one thing I believe could easily be changed in software): please add the option to use the USB connector for MIDI Out as well as for MIDI In. It would just stand to reason that with the MIDI track count being 64, more than 16 channels would be nice (plus, would simplify wiring in a time where many equipment makers violate MIDI spec by not providing a Thru port).

For the reasons noted above, and also because of the somewhat cumbersome and separate handling of MIDI and Audio tracks, I’d most probably recommend to use a mixer (optimally with an aux send/sub bus to feed the MPC) in such an integrated performance situation.

Usability Revisited

I’ll once again look at the two main use cases I could see for this, which I introduced in the MC-707 review:

Use Case: Creation

You’re sitting around and want to write a song. Can you do that with the MPC One on its own, or at the center of attention?

The current MPC (in general, and this also applies to this one) may be best suited to this use case among all the devices available today. Within its workflow, you can create sequences for instruments, record audio tracks, create a song structure, automate, mix, add effects and render to a finished file all within the box. MIDI controllers and synths, and even your treasured modular system, can be connected directly, and adding preamps etc. the same is also true for acoustic sources, electric guitars etc.

As an added plus in this scenario, porting the result to a computer for the finishing touches can be done in a variety of ways: you can render stems (for individual instruments for your drum programs if wanted) and simply pull them into your DAW of choice, you can use the included MPC Software (basically an MPC that runs on your normal computer), directly move the project you’ve created and use the MPC as a controller for it, you can run that software as a VSTi in the DAW of your choice.

It uses a pattern-based approach, but with the large size of sequences (just had to check – it’s 999 bars) and the option to have loads of meter changes in a single sequence, plus the 64+8 track count, you could easily build even a progressive rock magnum opus within a single sequence (and if that duration of about 30 minutes isn’t enough, you can then use the next one of the 127 remaining sequences).

With all the shortcomings I’ve mentioned above, I still consider the MPC One the best option for this scenario (unless you want battery power, or more connectivity, and can live with bigger size and higher price, in which case you’ll simply get the MPC Live or X).

Use Case: Performance

That can be either the “at home” (in quarantine) or the live situation: you’re playing with a setup centered around the MC-707 and go through your pieces, and your set.

The Project->Sequence->Track hierarchy allows for (at least) two different ways to go about this: one would be to put each piece into a project and live with the fact that you’ll have a short interruption between pieces. The other one would be to have each piece be one or more sequences – and if it’s more than one, you can have up to 32 songs with 999 steps (a step being a repetition of the same sequence) each. Finally, you could also put everything into one sequence and make use of the 64 MIDI and 8 audio tracks and move through your set by muting/unmuting. In the last two approaches, you might need to import sequences/tracks from other projects where you created them: this is easily possible, especially on the sequence level.

The shortcoming here is the lack of sufficient input options and the missing headphone level control, which for everything with the exception of the most basic scenarios might make you want to use a mixer with this. They’re affordable these days, though, and the price difference to a MPC Live, let alone a MPC X, already gets you a working one.

In the performance context, the big and powerful feature set might actually be a hindrance, together with the very limited real-time controls (the Q-Link knobs), so if I did prepare for something like this which is not most of the action happening in a connected modular rig, I’d think about connecting a MIDI controller box (and that way, one MIDI In or the USB In would already be occupied).

Summary

“MPC” stands for “Music Production Center”, and for producing music in one box (i.e. going from supporting the writing process early on up to a mix or set of stems I can send to an engineer), the MPC is second to none when we look at richness of the feature set.

It’s true strengths lie in the ares the MPC had been known and loved for since day one: a powerful yet easy-to-use MIDI sequencer for both live and production use, and recording, chopping, editing and then musically working with sampled stuff.

If we’d leave it at that, I’d consider it a pretty perfect solution (and I say that often). However, with the loads of additional features, I will point out that I find everything related to synthesis (sound-shaping options of the sampling instruments and plugin instruments) somewhat lacking – and the same goes for most of the included effects.

Another big strength is how it’s integrated into a computer-based workflow. Be it using powerful rendering functionalities, or via the included MPC Software, I have yet to find a competing product that even comes close.

Regarding connectivity, you get what you’d expect considering size and price. Everything’s there, just not in the quantity you might need. Still, I consider the lack of a headphones level knob a huge oversight, and would think that expanding the USB in to do MIDI Out and maybe even Audio In would vastly increase the possibilities. Fortunately, Akai have been pretty good in providing functional updates to their firmware, so let’s hope…

In the final analysis, you get a super-powerful groovebox with some qualitative shortcomings outside of its focus of sequencer and sampler. The system is so powerful that usage, especially in a live scenario, is sometimes a little cumbersome – so be prepared for that. Integrating it with maybe one synth and/or a small modular setup works like a breeze at least in the creation scenario – for everything slightly larger you will want to add a mixer. That is, however, only to be expected.

This is your best choice for a sample-based groovebox as a creation tool that can go all the way to a finished song. As a performance tool, I’d rather pick the MC-707 over it.


Software 2.8: MIDI Multi (and other things)

With the software release 2.8 (available as a free download to all MPC X/Live/One users), Akai has added a few features, among which “MIDI Multi” stands out:

You can now use the USB connector to connect a pretty much unlimited number of devices with MIDI-over-USB and class-compliant MIDI interfaces for both input and output.

I have briefly tried this with a few fitting devices, among them the Bass Station 2, the Hermod and an old E-Mu XMIDI interface, and can confirm it works on the level I did my analysis.

Where’s the upper limit? Akai doesn’t specify one, but judging from the way USB works there will be one. Still, it’s safe to say that using a bunch of multi-port interfaces, controlling more than 40 ports (that’s 640 channels) should work.

This change has vastly increased the MPCs’ ability to serve as a master sequencer in a MIDI-heavy setup and makes it the #1 choice for large, synth-heavy, DAWless setups.

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