Monster Production Centre
This blog will be quite lengthy, as this machine has a vast number of features that are all worth covering. To this day this is still one hell of a machine and I’m confident to say the best hardware sequencer ever made. That’s quite the statement, considering this technology is over 30-years old now. In my view, 1988 marked the apex of all technological advancements. The Compact Disk had firmly nested itself in the consumer market and sampling had reached the same fidelity with the Fairlight Series III, Emulator III and Synclavier. At that time there was still a clear line between high-end technology and entry level stuff, with little in between. This was all about to change really rapidly after 1988, hence why I mark this as a milestone era. The MPC-60 was one of those products that seemed to be made for the elite, but it turned out to become most loved by the least of riches and became the cult machine that it still is today. Of course there are machines on the market now that are way more feature rich, especially Akai’s latest product “The Force”, but as you will read on you’ll discover how mind blowing the MPC-60 already was 30-years ago.
I wasn’t initially impressed by the MPC when I first saw it at Kick Music in Hilversum in 1988, as there was no point really with anything that was unobtainable in those days. It had a hefty price-tag of 11,000-Guilders, which is the equivalent of 11,000-euros in today’s money. It was described to me as a Linn 9000, but with two S-900’s on board. Just to clarify, the MPC could not be played via a MIDI keyboard like an S-900, where a piano sound is scanned across the keyboard. It was purely a Drum-Sampler. The only reference made that was accurate to the S-900 was the fact that the MPC-60 had 16-voices, as compared to the S-900’s 8-voices, but more on the specs later.
I had just bought my Atari ST the year before and was completely brainwashed by market trends. The Atari ruled the land, it was everywhere. Three guys in my band had an Atari; the two keyboard players and the guitar player (I was the drummer), so that made four of us. The Atari was absolutely amazing and I have fond memories of it, but honestly, it wasn’t the most reliable pieces of gear I have ever owned. Frequent crashes (rows of bombs at the bottom of the screen), the mouse needed constant cleaning and corrupted floppies were the order of the day. Despite that, it was a miracle that we had access to this technology, so we weren’t complaining. I have kept my Atari to this day, for nostalgic reasons and for the massive library of sounds I have for the DX-7 and D-50.
In 1990 my dad and I went to a trade-show in Amsterdam, called the Firato, where Akai Professional attended the show as well. Together with the ever growing popularity of the S-1000, which by that stage had secured Industry-Standard status, the MPC-60 was there too and not doing so well. At least not in that part of the world. We now know that it was extremely successful in America, where it was favoured amongst Hip-Hop and R&B producers for its sound and feel, but with that ridiculous price-tag it had in Europe and the Atari dominating the market, the MPC-60 was seen as a glorified drummachine and thus not attractive for keyboard sequencing. However, at the Firato trade-show in 1990 the price of the MPC had dramatically come down by 6000-guilders. I remember thinking that this was a bad sign for the drummachine in general, which at that stage was already starting to become noticeable, due to workstations and sound-modules fitted with amazing drum sounds as well. Why would anyone still program drum patterns separately on another box, while you could record them straight from your synth into your software sequencer? Remember, sampled drums back then were generally programmed to replace the traditional drummer, with fills and breaks. Programming single patterns playing on repeat was something that had only just started to happen in underground styles of music, such as House and Acid. In Mainstream music the drummachine was still programmed with a song arrangement in mind.
By 1990 I had accumulated four drummachines, all producing different types of sounds. These took up quite a bit of real-estate and also occupied a large number of inputs on my mixer, not to mention the cumbersome handling of MIDI-channels and sync grievances. I was using the RX-7 mostly for percussion, the HR-16’s for meat and veg drums and the 808, well, for being an 808. The 808 was kept in sync using a Korg KMS-30, which would only keep in sync when it was played from the start. Today we love this type of workflow, but in 1990 this was a backward way of working, as things were advancing quickly and the primitive syncing barriers of yesteryears abandoned (except in the underground scenes).
Drum-sound trends were changing fast as well and adding another drummachine to stay fashionable was, in my case starting to become silly. Late 1990 I visited a store I frequently went to that had traded in an MPC-60 by a studio who had used it only once. The guy from the store saw me looking at the machine and told me that he had been playing with it for a few hours. He was so overwhelmed by its capabilities and ease of use, he unceasingly kept spouting his enthusiasm, which was very unusual for him, as he was usually hardly ever impressed by anything. I was still very sceptical and reserved and I remember rigidly stating that I was so used to working with the Atari and that I couldn’t afford a machine like that, even though it had come down so much in price. He guaranteed me that the MPC could do a lot more than the Atari, which I thought at that time was a rather bold overstatement. As I still wasn’t ready to believe him, he then offered me to take the MPC home for the weekend, as he was totally convinced that it would win me over. We also briefly discussed a possible trade-in of all my other drummachines and a rather large amount of extra money that had to be paid on top, as they wanted 4500-guilders for it. He suggested that I’d sample all my drummachines into the MPC, before bringing my drummachines to the store that next Monday.
In a daze I took the MPC home, as I was partly unsure and partly curious. The idea of having all the drum sounds and sequencing done on the one device seemed very attractive, but this meant the Atari would kinda become obsolete and the 2-grand I had to pay on top of the trade-in had to come from somewhere. I took the machine home, connected all my synths to it and loaded a bank of factory samples. Within 1-hour I had pretty much figured out how the machine worked without consulting the user manual, sampled some single hits from CD’s and had made a pretty decent sounding arrangement, something that would have normally taken me considerably longer on the Atari. The fact that I could load any drum sound I wanted, record them on just 1-track and save them to a floppy together with the rest of the session, was liberating. Another major factor that I instantly noticed was, that the drum sounds had so much more thud, beef and warmth. The sequencer had a particular feel that was more musical than anything I had experienced before. I knew after that 1-hour that there was no turning back and the machine would not leave my studio. I took my four drummachines to the store the Monday after and signed 4-cheques of 500-guilders, requesting the store to claim one cheque a month for the next 4-months. This was the only way I could afford it.
There is tons of information out there that will go into detail about the MPC’s specs and how the collaboration between Roger Linn and Akai came about, but here is what I know. In 1985 Roger Linn had unleashed the ultimate drummachine, the Linn-9000, after the success of the LM-1 and Linndrum. The 9000 was standard still only a drummachine/sequencer, which could also record MIDI tracks, but sampling was still optional and not cheap. The machine was ludicrously expensive and also suffered from bugs and hardware issues, which sadly brought down Linn Electronics, together with a whole host of other innovative companies that could not compete with Japanese market dominance. Moog, ARP, Sequential Circuits, Oberheim, PPG and Fairlight to name a few, all had to close their doors. Some made a come-back later, but were at that point non-resistant to the fierce competition coming from the East and a new American company called “Alesis”.
The aforementioned companies split up into smaller businesses, with Dave Smith going to Korg and his employees keeping the old Sequential Circuits stock to continue as Wine Country. Tom Oberheim restarted as Marrion Systems. Fairlight ventured into the Post-Production industry and Moog, ARP and PPG disappearing altogether. Emu and Ensoniq were still doing surprisingly well, as they managed to keep up with the Workstation and Sound-Module trends. As the interest in the drummachine was starting to slow down, with samplers in combination with sequencers offering more flexibility, Roger Linn was in a tight spot and closed his business, not knowing that his next innovation would create an industry standard that is still very much alive today. He got approached by Akai, who had only since 1984 tapped into the professional synthesizer and sampler market and were extremely successful at that. Their S-612 and S-700 were modest successes, but it was the S-900 that took them to new heights in 1986. The S-900 was seen as an Emulator II in a box, at a fraction of the price. Akai wanted Roger Linn to design a drummachine/sequencer along the lines of the Linn-9000, utilising Akai’s own sampling technology.
The resemblances in specs between the MPC-60 and Linn-9000 are strong, but the machine looked completely different, with its unmistakable Akai white colour. Even the sound-sets that came with the MPC resembled the ROM sounds of the 9000. Possibly the only major change to the concept, was that the MPC did not have built-in sounds like the 9000 did. Sounds always had to be loaded from floppy. I am not going to be able to compare the specs between the MPC and 9000, as I have never owned or used a 9000, so I will outline the most striking features of the MPC as best I can.
Where all keyboard-samplers, such as the S-900 and S-1000 were Linear-Samplers, the new term of Non-Linear was rather mysterious and confusing. Later on, through the knowledge of the internet, I somewhat figured out what was actually happening inside the MPC. Simply put, Linear means that audio just goes through one Analog-to-Digital converter. On the MPC, the High/Mids went through one converter and the lows through another one, where at the other end the 140-kHz frequency band was slightly boosted, to give it that punchy edge. This clever trick can either be seen as a cheat or a stroke of genius, as this is what gives the MPC its sound character and distinguishes it from the sound of an S-900 or even S-1000. Sampling was happening at 40kHz and in 12-Bit mono. The only sounds that would slightly suffer from this lower resolution were cymbals and metallic percussion sounds.
Pads, Banks and Memory
The pads on the MPC-60 feel amazing and are very responsive. They even have aftertouch. When using the repeat function, where you could set the note quantisation to any note value, holding the pad will produce automated note repetitions and as you are pushing the pad deeper, the volume increased. Even though there are only 16-pads, there are 4-banks you can load sounds in to, for a total of 64 sounds, but double of that can reside in memory. Well, theoretically, because the MPC can only have a total of 2,25MB of memory, so sounds will have to be extremely short to get to a total of 128. Standard memory was only 1.5MB. I had mine expanded with 0.75MB of memory, which was the absolute limit. Seems crazy to imagine now that it would even be possible to work with such tiny amount, but back then it more than sufficed. A feature that is now much bragged about on the Ableton Push-2, is the ability to play one sound across all the pads in different pitches and at different volumes. This the MPC could already do in 1988. In fact, other drummachines from that era, like the Yamaha RX-5 and Roland R-8, could also do this.
This feature never receives a mention, but I thought was a very useful and clever addition that I have never discovered on any other hard or software sequencer. These days, when you record an arrangement into your DAW and you’d like to add a simple loop or sequence to the entire track, such as a percussive loop or synth arpeggio, you’d have to copy and paste that loop throughout the entire track to see if it suits the arrangement. In Ableton Live you can simply play that loop in Session View while everything else is still running in Arrangement view. The MPC had a dedicated button called “2nd Sequence” where you could put any of the 99 sequences and have it run in sync with Song-Mode. So imagine that you have an entire track arranged in Song-Mode, but you feel something is missing, perhaps a shaker or conga loop. You create a pattern with that conga loop and specify that pattern in 2nd Sequence mode. When playing back in Song-Mode, that 2nd sequence would then play along with the entire song. This avoids you from having to program that conga pattern for each pattern, only to find out that it is not what you wanted. By trialling it first, you can experiment with different patterns before you actually copy it to all the other patterns. Songs could also be converted to patterns. The original MPC-60 revision could also record 16 MIDI channels at a time, which I have often put to good use. Some people had composed a song on their Korg or Yamaha workstation and wanted me to continue to work on their tracks. They were stumped when I hooked up their workstation to the MPC to see that it drained their entire song. Again, I can not remember any other device being able to do that back then. The later updates that Roger made have MIDI-file support as well.
The MPC-60 had a whopping 4 MIDI-Outs and 2 MIDI-Ins. The only other sequencer at that point that had even 8-Outs was the Yamaha QX-1. The four MIDI-Ins on the MPC allowed for a total of 64-MIDI-Channels. This was a very welcome feature by the late 80’s, as MIDI studios started to expand, with more sound modules added and multi-timbrality becoming the norm. You could have a Korg M1 plugged into the 1st MIDI-Out, a Roland U-220 connected to the 2nd, an EMU Proteus to the 3rd and an S-1000 to the 4th. Each module could then receive messages over multiple MIDI channels through their multi-timbral infrastructure. Had there only been one MIDI-Out, one would quickly run out of MIDI channels. Daisy-Chaining modules also caused MIDI devices in the chain to lag, as MIDI is Serial, so having 4 x MIDI Outs was a way of running MIDI in parallel. Then there was of course also the Sample-Input, which was mono.
One feature that absolutely blew me away back then and which I still regard as something special today, that I also have not found on anything else since, was the built-in Auxiliary. Just like how you would set up an FX unit on a mixing console, where a copy of a signal can be sent through an auxiliary to the FX unit and returned to the console, you could connect an FX unit directly to the MPC-60 and send each sound through the built-in mixer to the FX unit. I had a small and cheap Alesis Microverb connected to the MPC, with that typical 80’s Gated Reverb program selected and I would send things like the snare and toms to it and leave the kick dry. You could even Automate the Aux mixer, so you could do things like dialling-in a long reverb on the fourth clap.
With just one press of a button you instantly enter the Mixer, where you can control the level and panning of each sound. The second mixer page was for the previously mentioned Aux. The mixer volume and panning were also fully automatable. For more flexibility over EQ and dynamics of each sound, one could assign sounds to one of the individual 8-Outputs on the back, which would then go to a mixer.
The MPC had only 1-Trigger input, which you could assign any sound to. This was handy for live use, but could also be used in the studio to replace drums with. A live recorded kick or snare track could be sent to the trigger to replace the original sound. I have also used it with a drum-pad in my drum set up, where I would trigger a loop to keep in sync.
SCSI (Small Computer System Interface)
This was unfortunately not standard on the MPC-60 and had to be purchased through Roger Linn. It was made for Roger by Marrion Systems, which was Tom Oberheim’s new company. It took me about 4-years before I got mine, as it was around a 1000-guilders (1000-euros) and SCSI drives were also not cheap. Until the Iomega Zipp drive entered the market in 1995. I remember paying 350-guilders for that. This was heaven sent, because the 2.25MB of memory could not be stored on one floppy disk. You always had to keep 2-floppies together and mark them sequentially. Inserting and ejecting the disks also resulted in my floppy drive carking it at some stage, because I was using the MPC so much.
The drum notes were clocked internally like it normally would on a drummachine, but after the upgrade, which I will talk about later, notes were stored as MIDI, which caused the machine to sometimes lag. Patterns in Song-mode would not always transition smoothly, which was really annoying. This happened whenever I copied a pattern that had a program change in there. Even after removing the program change, a short noticeable hickup would still occur. To remedy this, I would copy each track individually to a new pattern in order to get rid of the problem.
Why and what was the difference? As far as I know the only differences were the chassis and the added headphone output. Other than that these machines are identical. The why question could be answered by guessing that the original MPC-60 was too costly to manufacture. The tilt-able LCD, plastic side-cheeks and arm-rest may have ended up being over-the-top design ideas, so a cheaper and easier to manufacture chassis was opted for instead. The missing headphone output must have been a much requested feature for life use by DJ’s, who were triggering samples live from the pads and perhaps wanted to audition sounds before they played them through the mixer. The MPC-60II was the cause for the original model to come down in price, because the II cost around 6500-Euros. Akai must have decided to get rid of all the old stock before the Series II arrived in 1991. For me this has always been puzzling, because there were no major improvements made. It was essentially the same machine, with the original being even nicer with the collapsable display and arm-rest, so why the price was dropped under that of the Series-II is still a mystery to me.
The sequencer section of the MPC-60 was also available in the shape of the ASQ-10. No sampler, no drumpads but everything else that the MPC could do in terms of sequencing. It was moderately successful and I have owned one at some stage, just because it was dirt cheap and I briefly used it in a band. There was also a keyboard design presented at the same time the first MPC-60 was announced, but this never made it into production. This keyboard was purely a combination of the MX-76 Master-keyboard and the ASQ-10. This could have been a very successful product, but was perhaps too costly to make or had too many design issues. Very little is known about this product. Then there is of course the long list of MPC's that followed, starting with the MPC-60II, MPC-3000, 2000, 2000XL, 2500, 4000, 1000, 500, Touch, Studio, Renaissance, Live, X, iMPC and possibly more that I’ve missed, but I will not go into those. There is a huge following of the MPC concept, with many users staying loyal to their machines. Some of these machines were a Hit ’n Miss, especially the ones that relied on computer software, like the Renaissance. I guess Akai has to be admired for taking some risks. In recent times they have redeemed themselves again with the hugely successful MPC-X and Live and soon to be smash hit “The Force”. It’s amazing to see that Roger Linn’s legacy still continues, despite the fact that Roger hasn’t been involved with Akai products since the MPC-3000. Still, many of his design choices have remained. Then there is of course the MPC community whom have very much kept this concept alive. If it wasn’t for them, Akai would only be making MIDI controllers, as hardware keyboard-samplers have been out of fashion for quite some time now.
After the MPC-3000 was released, a lot of MPC-60 users were wishing for some of its features, so Roger Linn decided to release a new update which virtually turned the MPC-60 into a 3000, with the exception of course of the 16-Bit sampling format and larger memory storage. This update is still available from Roger. Some of the many features (not all) are worth mentioning here:
- Layering of 3-sounds.
- Note ON/OFF triggering on the pads.
- MIDI File creation and playback.
- Up to 26-seconds (when compressing to 20kHz) of sampling instead of 5-seconds.
- Reads MPC-3000 files.
- Sample edit features that include copy/pasting of portions of a sample and combining them with another sample.
- New Sequencer edit features.
- Update also available for ASQ-10.
As I went totally berserk on the machine and used it day in and day out, the menu buttons and transport controls started to wear out. A friend of mine managed to pull these contacts out of a Philips Radio and replaced them for me. They have not been replaced since, but I haven’t used the machine as much since either. The large Volume dial can get a bit scratchy. The Data dial knob wore out pretty quickly on mine as well, as the knurled shaft is metal and the inside of the knob is plastic. I remedied this by putting tissue-paper inside the hole of the knob, so it would firmly jam itself in. This is all that I can report. I can imagine people who have had to replace the screen, but this is not an issue proprietary to the MPC, all devices from that era have had their screens replaced at some stage.
Like I have said before in previous blogs, this all depends on which part of the world you are living in. Some products were more popular in one part of the world than others. I imagine that in the US finding an MPC-60 will not be that difficult, as it had reached a cult status there during the early Hip-Hop and R&B days, but in Europe or Australia the MPC was more acquired by bigger artists or production studios who were expected to have one or had enough dosh to splash out. I hardly ever see them offered for sale in The Netherlands and Australia. When they are offered, they usually go for between 1000-1500, depending on the condition and the inclusion of upgrades, such as the SCSI or HcX drives. If you can get one that is still in pretty decent condition and you have the spare change, don’t hesitate, it will not disappoint and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what this monster can do even to today’s standards. You will also be able to sell it on for the same price, so it’s never going to be a dud investment.
Wow, writing about this monster of a machine in this blog makes me want to go back to it. I’ve had so much fun using this beast and it’s never let me down. The times I managed to stall it can be counted on the one hand. The eagerness of me producing on the machine has sometimes put it to a halt, but only because I was trying to press too many buttons at the same time. Other than that, the MPC-60 is a total workhorse that I wouldn’t mind using again in the future. Yes, today’s DAW’s and hardware units (such as the Akai Force) are way more flexible and efficient, but they’re not a unique experience. Having the limitations the machine brings can induce creativity. Having to jump to your hardware synths takes you away from the screen. The DAW constantly keeps you locked inside that realm. That “Just Play and Record” factor is missing a lot more on a computer, as everything that used to be outboard is now onboard, even on the new Force. If you want phatness in your drum sounds, look no further, this machine is it. Most probably a second hand unit will include a Zipp drive or HcX drive, so you can sample to your heart’s content. The later MPC’s all sample at CD quality and miss that crunchy, lofi dirt. If you ever see an MPC in someone’s studio, ask them to demo it to you and you’ll be blown away by its power. I recently attended an open day at an Audio Institute, where someone had brought in the MPC-60 which they had just acquired. When I showed them how the machine worked, they could not believe that this technology was 30-years old. Someone asked me if it had compression and EQ applied to it, as they thought this was added to the sound. For historic reasons trying the original MPC would also be worth the try. You’ll instantly understand why it was so appealing to Hip Hop producers and why some of them still use it in conjunction with newer MPC’s and DAW’s. When you see one in the flesh, just its looks will impress, as the machine is large, colourful and exotic. The tilt-able display, arm-rest, pads and abundant controls will leave you intrigued. When you discover the utter ease of use, audio quality and musical features, I’m sure you will be in absolute awe. It still blows me away how Roger Linn managed to think so musically when designing this machine. It’s one of those devices that doesn’t require a manual, you will intuitively know how to navigate it. If you have one, but it hasn’t got the upgrade, check it out and consider getting it, as the extra features that are directly taken from the MPC-3000 will blow your mind. The fact that it’s still available is a miracle and Roger Linn is just an amazing dude, which we all owe a debt op gratitude to. Don’t look at how much the upgrade costs, just think about how baffling it is that it’s possible to turn your 60 into a 3000.
I stopped using the MPC around 2006, when the iMac became more popular and Logic Pro’s price was slashed in half. It was time for me to move on and jump on the VST bandwagon. Meanwhile I’m a devoted Ableton Live user, but I often reminisce about the MPC-60 days. There was something about the workflow, the tactility, the approach, the limitations and immediacy that was so satisfactory. Working in Ableton Live these days is absolutely brilliant and I wouldn’t know which I would prefer. They are two different worlds. It’s like going to two different countries that you love, but you cannot choose between them, you can only live in one. Whichever is more convenient is the one you choose to live in for the moment, but your heart might be in the other place. My heart is always in MPC-60 land, but life is so much easier right now in Ableton land. Secretly I still continue dreaming about the day that I’ll have my rack units hooked up to the MPC-60 again.
Hope you got a lot from this blog and thanks heaps for reading!!!!