Welcome to the Akai MPC-V. The future of music technology gear. Well, maybe not. But back in 2005, I thought the concept was worth spending a little time developing. I was working for a synthesizer manufacturer and thought it might be interesting to propose the virtual MPC as a potential new product. The main idea behind the MPC-V was to update the popular and now classic Akai MPC hardware platform into a modern day hybrid hardware/software musical instrument. The driving force of the design would be to build on the strengths of the platform’s past while integrating all of the benefits of modern software technology and interfaces. But before I go into the details, first a brief history of the classic Akai MPC.
MPC stands for MIDI Production Center and was the brand name of a series of electronic musical instruments developed as a joint effort between Akai (Japan) and Roger Linn (USA). This was a match made in heaven as Akai was one of the leaders in digital sampling technology. Roger Linn was a pioneer in the development of the drum machine with his Linn Drum. At it’s core, the MPC combined a MIDI sequencer with a sampler sound engine and drum machine interface. The first MPC was called the MPC60 and came out in 1988. The MPC60 was a bit sparse based to today’s standards, with only 1.5mb of sample RAM and an audio engine running at 12-bits (based on the Akai S-950 rack sampler). The sound it delivered however was massive. This sound combined with ease of use, led the MPC60 to become a pivotal instrument in the development of some genres of electronic music during the late 80′s. Fortunately for us, the mpc60 was just a glimpse of the future ahead.
The second generation MPC, the MPC3000, and was released in the 1994. The MPC3000 could be thought of as a modernized MPC60, including more sample RAM, a more powerful MIDI sequncer, and a 16-bit sound engine, among other things. The MPC3000, like the MPC60 met with great success and became an industry staple. This popularity eventually led to a consumer oriented MPC called the MPC2000. The MPC 2000 is not considered to be in the same league as it’s two predecessors. Following the MPC2000, many new models of MPC were released, including a smaller MPC1000, an updated MPC2000 in the form of a MPC 2500 and finally the larger MPC4000. The last offical MPC model designed by the Japanese Akai was the MPC500, the first battery powered portable MPC. Akai Professional has since been bought by the US company Numark. Since then, the MPC5000 has been released but most similarities it has to the original classics are only on the surface.
Just as the Akai MPC series has undergone some drastic changes over the past decade, music technology and music production has as well. One of these changes has been the maturity of the DAW, or computer based recording/sequencing systems. A second change which also happens to be related to the DAW has been the development and maturity of the plug-in. The DAW and subsequent plug-in could be considered the single two developments that defined progress of music technology during the first decade of the new millennium. It is this trajectory of the DAW over the past decade that sheds some interesting light on the trajectory of the MPC line, which could considered the precursor to the DAW perfected a decade early during the 1990′s.
The DAW and the MPC are natural enemies. The DAW does in software what the earlier MPC did with hardware. Though computer based MIDI sequencers (the precursor to the DAW such as Logic and Cubase) existed in the 80′s and 90′s, it wasn’t until the increase in computer hardware power in the later part of the 90′s that PC’s began to show their potential for something beyond MIDI. That something was audio and until computers were powerful enough, the power of audio was the sole domain of hardware samplers such as the MPC. The rise of the PC and DAW should have been the death of the MPC, and it partially was.
The PC did more or less the same thing but cheaper, faster, easier and eventually with more power. This theme recurs often in the history of music technology development. First it was the monophonic based analog synths such as the Moogs and Arps being replaced by the polyphonic Prophet 5 and Jupiter-8. Following this shift of power, analog itself was pretty much decimated by a digital synth by Yamaha called the DX-7 and it’s predecessors the Roland D50 and Korg M1. But the story of the MPC is a bit different. It somehow is still alive even after it’s death was announced. Almost 20 years after it’s peak, one can still buy a musical instrument with MPC written on the box. This is proof that there is something about the MPC that transcends time. Thus it is a true musical instrument.
So if my goal was to design a modernized version of the one truly great electronic musical instruments ever created, I would need to figure out why it was so great. After a bit of thinking, my conclusion was that it’s core concept of integrating a sampler with a sequencer in a drum machine was the key. This combination encapsulates the fundamental process of creating electronic music. It’s almost as though electronic music itself would have to end for the concept of sequencer+sampler+drum machine interface to become irrelevant.
The concept for the MPC-V was to take this core essence just mentioned and update it both with the technological power available today as well as some of the more recent trends in MI design. I didn’t and still don’t believe a purely software instrument is the best approach to musical instrument design. This is particularly important in the case of a creating a modern day MPC since much of the original’s success had to do with it’s hardware implementation. I also believed that if the essence of the MPC could be captured in a hybrid software/hardware instrument, the product could potentially be very successful. And in the years following 2005, others had the same idea. MOTU released their software based BPM and Native Instruments released their hardware/software hybrid Maschine. Both products were based heavily on the MPC and met with success. Much of the buzz had to do with the relationship to the MPC. Surprisingly, the one company in the best postion to create and market a virtual MPC completely missed the opportunity. That companies name was Akai.
The success of BPM and Maschine proves that the MPC concept has a place in the modern, software driven music production landscape. These machines however are not perfect. BPM for example is completely software-based. As a result, it fails to capture one of the strongest and defining traits of the MPC. Maschine on the other hand comes closer with it’s mix of hardware and software platform. But Maschine is designed by a company famous for creating complex software synthesizers. As a result, it’s design is far more intricate than the original MPC. Fo a modernized MPC design to be faithful, elegance and ease-of-use holds the key.
My concept for a virtualized MPC is based on creating an easy to use and powerful hardware/software hybrid system. Modularized hardware components combine with an intuitive software interface resulting in an optimized and customized user-centric workflow. Though the sound engine resides in software, the hardware is integral to accessing the software, both as copy protection and as a conceptualized user interface. The hard/soft system is further tied together with the traditional brand look of the classic Akai MPC’s with their red, black and white paint job and gray accents.
This 3-D model is a visualization of the MPC-V concept. Created in 2005 as a rough visualization, it clearly sums up the vision of a virtualized MPC. The hardware is split into three core components or modules including the sequencer, the drum pads, and a parameter controller. These modules can be angled or arranged in any way the user sees fit. Multiple modules of the same type can also be integrated into the system, creating an even more customized user experience. Though the software requires at least one hardware module to run, the hardware also transmits standard messages and have the potential to be used as standalone MIDI control surfaces. And seeing that this is being written about six years after the original design, the 2011 version would have a few upgrades including OSC, ethernet, and additional hardware modules including a grid based surface and touch surface integration.
Since my initial concept in 2005, there have been some major developments in music technology. Though the trend of software replacing hardware is still running rampant, other important developments are taking place including DIY and open source, the comeback of real analog synths, and new hardware interfaces based on grids and touchscreen apps. Though I’m sure the original Virtual MPC platform could have adapted easily to all of these proceeding developments, I’m not sure that the original concept is as relevant today in 2011 as it was in 2005. This conclusion comes primarily based on the development of the the DAW, which is pretty much come to the end of it’s life cycle (not including Ableton Live, particularily with it’s max4live integration). With the development of the DAW coming to a close, the MPC platform will soon to be three generations behind. Even a virtualized MPC doesn’t fit too well alongside ipad apps, max4live, and monome controllers. But this doesn’t take away from the fundamental relationship the MPC has and will forever have to electronic music. There is no doubt that much of today’s music gear, even ipad apps, owe at least a little to the inspiration that the revolutionary MPC brought to electronic music.
* Update – Since this article, Akai has released 3 hybrid hardware/software MPC devices.