From Then 'till Now
The first time I laid eyes on an MPC, the 60 was in1989 whilst I was working retail at an LA music shop. The first thing that grabbed me was the high price. The next stunning thing about it, apart from the industrial grade construction, beige color, and luxurious arm rest, was that it had no sounds in RAM. Everything had to be loaded from a floppy disc.
While my fellow salesmen and I wondered how we could possibly move a machine which cost more than twice the top offerings of Yamaha and Roland, and didn’t make a single sound when you turned on the power, sonic pioneers hands were already loading, slicing, and trimming their own samples, re-assigning them to the 16 pads and using the now legendary “MPC Feel” in the sequencer to reinvent music production.
The MPC (Midi Production Controller) might best be thought of as a class of instrument, rather than a brand or model. Think of it like a piano; there are spinets, uprights and grands, Yamahas and Steinways, Nords and Korgs, but whether acoustic or electric, if they have a black and white keyboard, they are unmistakably pianos.
In the same way, any sample-based drum machine / sequencer with pads, from the Roland MV-8000, the Maschine, to the current Akai MPC Renaissance, are all variations on the original concept of Roger Linn. Rhythm machines of various types predate Linn, (think of the Roland CR-78 used by Phil Collins on “In The Air Tonight”) but when it comes to digital drum sampling, Roger Linn is clearly the Cristofori of the beat box. Linn was a guitar player and songwriter in the early 70’s. He toured with Leon Russell, and wrote Eric Clapton’s “Promises” and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Quitting Time.” But, Linn says “I always had an interest in technology… I was always working on little gadgets.”
His first attempt at a drum machine came by hooking up an early Roland pre-programmed rhythm machine to a computer, so the musician could see on the monitor where the beats were positioned on the grid. After showing the early prototype to Stevie Wonder, he realized his machine was too visually oriented, and decided to work on instruments where “the feedback was something you could hear, instead of seeing.” In 1979, at the age of 24, he started Linn Electronics and brought out the LM-1 Drum Computer, with a retail price of $5000.
It was the first drum machine to use sampled sounds (although it didn’t have enough memory to include cymbals). Three years later he followed up the LM-1 with the LinnDrum, which was cheaper; it also had more memory so cymbal crashes were now included in the sound set. The company’s final project, the Linn 9000, was, by Linn’s own admission, a complex machine fraught with software and hardware problems, leading to the eventual demise of Linn Electronics in 1986.
Prince had a special relationship with the original LM-1, using it to make the signature ‘knocking’ sound on ‘When Doves Cry’.
AKAI: The MPC 60
At the time Linn shut the doors at Linn Electronics, Akai was a decades-old Japanese consumer electronics company which specialized in gadgets for the home, tape machines, video recorders, and the like. Their recently opened “Akai Professional” division was making products geared for the recording studio and modern music production, including multi-track recorders, synths, and samplers.
The 12 bit S900 Sampler, released by Akai Professional in 1986, was a hit, so it was only natural they would be attracted to the man who introduced the world to the sampled drum machine. Linn, by his own admission “a terrible manager,” accepted the opportunity to work out his ideas under the umbrella of the well-established Akai Corporation.
The first fruit of the collaboration between Linn and Akai was the MPC 60, which debuted in 1988. The specs are laughably primitive by today’s computing standards; the 60 was a 12 bit, 40khz sampler. It shipped with 750 k of sample memory, which translates to just over 13 seconds of recording time. Sounds were loaded and saved via 3.5” floppy disk.
However, the 60 was a pro piece of kit. It had a full complement of sync options, including SMPTE, MTC, FSK24, and Midi Clock. It also had a stereo out, 8 assignable outs, 4 midi outs, and a send and return, all housed in a robust 24 lb unit with 16 high quality and expressive pads.
The 12 bit sampler, while short on specs was long on sound, and the truncation produced a lo-fi “crunch” of drum samples that spawned a whole generation of “bitcrusher” plug ins, trying to duplicate the classic sound heard on records by De La Soul and DJ Shadow.
The MPC Sequencer
As innovative as the sampler was, the sequencer was perhaps the most important feature of the MPC. With an internal clock of 96 pulses per quarter note (ppqn), Linn designed the sequencer to be as simple as possible, with the stated goal that the user could get a “groove” going quickly with little fuss.
“Some of the machines that came later that copied my ideas” said Linn “gave you all types of options, but a lot of times, people couldn’t figure it out.” Linn’s goal was simplicity and immediacy; since the rhythm track is the heart of all modern music, Linn says “it was set up so that right out of the box, you can push record and create something that really did groove, very very well.”
In 1991, the MPC 60 was followed up with the MPC 60 II, almost identical except with a plastic chassis replacing the metal one, and a headphone output.
The MPC 3000
The high water mark of Linn’s collaboration with Akai, the MPC 3000 improved on the 60 in almost every way. The sampling engine was upgraded to the still-in-use standard of 16 bit, 44.1 khz. Sample memory could be expanded up to 32 MB for over 6 minutes of mono sampling time. Other features included SCSI, which enabled the user to hook up an I-Omega Zip Drive for 100 MB of storage for sounds and sequences. It also offered a SPDIF digital input and an optional SMPTE card for syncing with tape machines or sequencers. Increased memory meant there were now 4 pad banks instead of 2, and 32 voice polyphony.
The MPC Sequencer
The 3000 carved out a space in music history that can hardly be quantified; it was (and still is, in some cases) the weapon of choice for the most influential producers in a wide range of genres, including Hip Hop, R&B, and House. Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Puff Daddy, Jermaine Dupre, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Kenny Dope and Louie Vega (Masters at Work), Moodyman, etc lent to the instrument a mythical air, reflected by a steady rise in used prices so that it is not uncommon to pay up to $2500 for a well-cared-for unit.
The MPC Sequencer
Roger Linn was soon to leave Akai, and the company’s later products, including the MPC 2000 and 4000, saw significant changes in both the hardware capability and the sequencer functionality. But the Linn machines, the 60 and the 3000, retain a special place in production lore. Why?
Features of the Linn era machines
1. Tight Playback Timing – The Linn machines, even though miniscule processing stats by today’s standards, were nevertheless very good at providing rock-solid timing via a very good MIDI clock. In fact, many producers swear that the timing of the Linn machines is more steady and consistent than DAW’s hosted on powerful machines running Windows or Mac OS. The computers in the Linn machines, while small, were tasked with doing only one thing, i.e., timing, and they do it very well.
2. Swing and feel – Devotees ascribe to the Linn machines an almost magical “swing” feature. People unfamiliar with the MPC might believe that purchasing one of these units will give you the instant “boom bap” of Dr Dre, but there’s much more to it then applying swing percentages! Nevertheless, the “swing” features on Linn’s sequencers are one of the most appealing features. On his much talked about swing feature, Linn states “My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note. In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note.”
This allows the user to dial in a feel for each individual part in the drum arrangement. The percentages go from 50% (i.e., a perfectly straight beat), to 66%, a very “swung” sound that is unnatural when compared to a real drummer, but became popular in many genres of electronica in the late 90’s. By playing with the ratios, a part might be given a 54% swing, which doesn’t sound like “jazz” but nevertheless loosens up the groove so it doesn’t sound so mechanical. A hi hat part at 61% sounds “loose” like a real player, particularly if attention is paid to dynamics via the pads. As Linn says, “Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move.” However, it should be noted that one of the most famous exponents of the MPC 3000, James Yancey aka J Dilla or Jay Dee, recorded his beats with the swing function “off,” relying on totally human feel.
3. Build Construction and Quality – As mentioned above, the MPC 60’s and 3000 are serious pieces of kit. They look and feel formidable, like they should be the center of a music production studio. There are generous interface and sync options, and some power users have solved memory limitations by installing their own CF memory card. Those who lament the build quality of recent gear, crying “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” could certainly have the Linn era MPC’s in mind.
J Dilla or Jay Dee, recorded his beats with the swing function “off,” relying on totally human feel.
Drawbacks of the Linn era machines
1. Syncing to DAW based systems. Peace is made in the kitchen by having only one chef. In the studio, having more than one master clock source is a recipe for disaster. DAW manufacturers, in a race to “one-up” each other by adding features, increased the resolution of their sequencers, first to 480 ppqn, topped by Logic Audio introducing a 960 ppqn clock. The Linn sequencer, at 96 ppqn, was coarse by comparison and yet, many producers felt they were getting a better feel and tightness from their old machines than from the new computer based DAW’s. Producers who wanted to lock their MPC’s, containing all the rhythmic elements of their productions, with their DAW’s, which contained vocals and live instruments, were up against numerous challenges; most DAW’s wanted to be the “clock master” and wanted the MPC’s to slave to the DAW. But, what did this do the internal timing of the MPC?
Ingenious (and complex) solutions were arrived at, and sync boxes by companies like Garfield, MOTU, Innerclock, and etc offered ways to get DAW’s, running at 960 ppqn, to sync to the MPC master, with it’s 96 ppqn resolution. Eventually, many a producer, frustrated with “geeking out” and trying to understand the ins and outs of sync and time code, just transferred the tracks from the MPC into the DAW the old fashioned way, by pushing “play” and letting the tracks record in real time. Producers trying to capture all 8 audio outs of the MPC in one pass, needed to invest in an audio interface with at least 8 inputs, and many producers went further and processed the tracks through mixing desks or outboard eq’s and compressors before actually hitting the DAW.
2. Data storage. Whether floppy disc or ZIP drive, the stability of the Linn era MPC’s is undone to some extent by the storage medium. Floppy discs are notoriously fragile and prone to erasure, and anyone who has ever heard the “Click of Death” from their 100mb Zip Drive knows there is simply no returning from an unbacked up Zip.
The Linn era MPC’s are among the most influential and robust electronic instruments ever created, owning a place among the pantheon. Is it the right instrument for you, though?
Before pulling the trigger on a Linn era MPC, stay tuned for the next installments in this series.
In part 2, we cover the “midway” machines, the 2000 and the behemoth 4000.
In the final segment, we cover the “Nu-Kai” branded instruments by the current Akai Corporation, and take a look at the brand new MPC line, including the MPC X and the MPC Live.