An Akai MPC60, the first MPC model
|Other names||MIDI Production Center, Music Production Controller|
The Akai MPC (originally MIDI Production Center, now Music Production Controller) is an integrated digital sampling drum machine and MIDI sequencer designed by Roger Linn and produced by Akai from 1988 onwards. The MPC had a major influence on the development of electronic and hip hop music, allowing musicians and producers to create elaborate tracks without a studio and opening the way for new sampling techniques.
By the late 1980s, drum machines had become popular for creating beats and loops without musicians, and hip hop artists were using samplers to take portions of existing recordings and create new compositions. Grooveboxes, machines that combined these functions, such as those by E-mu Systems, required knowledge of music production and cost up to $10,000.
The MPC was a collaboration between the Japanese company Akai and the American engineer Roger Linn, who had designed the successful LM-1 and LinnDrum, two of the earliest drum machines to use samples (prerecorded sounds). Linn's company Linn Electronics had gone out of business following the failure of the Linn 9000, a drum machine and sampler. According to Linn, "[The collaboration] was a good fit because Akai needed a creative designer with ideas and I didn't want to do sales, marketing, finance or manufacturing, all of which Akai was very good at."
Linn described the MPC as an attempt to "properly re-engineer" the Linn 9000. He "created the entire function design including the panel layout, software and hardware specification", and created the software with his team. Linn credited the circuitry to English engineer David Cockerell and his team; Akai did the production engineering, making it "more manufacturable".
The first model, the MPC (MIDI Production Center) 60, was released in 1988 and retailed for $5,000. Linn, who disliked reading instruction manuals, wanted to create an intuitive interface that simplified music production. Instead of the switches and small hard buttons of other devices, the MPC had a 4x4 grid of large pressure-sensitive rubber pads which produced sounds when hit and could be played similarly to a keyboard. The interface was simpler than competing equipment; according to Vox, "most importantly, it wasn’t an enormous, stationary mixing panel with as many buttons as an airplane cockpit. The MPC didn’t need a studio to be operated, but instead could be plugged into a sound system in a basement."
The MPC60 was followed by the MPC60 MkII and the MPC3000. Linn left Akai after the company went out of business and its assets were purchased by Numark. According to Linn, the new organization was led by "a very unscrupulous fellow ... he immediately stopped my royalty payments, refused to take my calls and had his lawyer send me threatening letters. I checked around and learned that he has a reputation of being a real bastard, so given that challenging him would have been long and expensive, I let it go." Akai has continued to produce MPC models without Linn, such as the MPC2000; Linn was critical, saying: "Akai seems to be making slight changes to my old 1986 designs for the original MPC, basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Whereas prior artists had sampled long pieces of music, the MPC allowed them to sample smaller portions, assign them to separate pads, and trigger them independently, similarly to playing a traditional instrument such as a keyboard or drum kit. Rhythms could be built not just from percussion samples but any sampled sound, such as horns or synthesizers.
The MPC60 only allows sample lengths of up to 13 seconds, as sampling memory was expensive at the time and Linn expected users to sample short sounds to create rhythms; he did not anticipate that they would sample long loops.
Functions are selected and samples are edited with two knobs, and red “record” and “overdub” buttons are used to save or loop beats. The MPC60 had an LCD screen and came with floppy disks with sounds and instruments.
According to Vox, the ability to create percussion from any kind of sound turned sampling into a "new artform" and allowed for new styles of music. The MPC's affordability and accessibility, and its potential to create finished tracks in a single machine, had a "democratising" effect on music. Artists could create finished tracks without the need of a studio or music theory knowledge, and it was inviting to artists who did not play traditional instruments or had no music education. Users learnt how to push the technical limits of the machine; for example, producer Om’Mas Keith would record records at high speeds, then slow them to their original pitch on the MPC, allowing him to record samples longer than the MPC's maximum.
According to Vox, "The explosion of electronic music and hip hop could not have happened without a machine as intimately connected to the creative process as the MPC. It challenged the notion of what a band can look like, or what it takes to be a successful musician. No longer does one need five capable musicians and instruments." MPCs continue to be used in music, even with the advent of digital audio workstations, and fetch high prices on the used market. The 4x4 grid of pads was adopted by numerous manufacturer and became standard in DJ technology.
According to Engadget, "the impact of Akai's MPC series on hip hop cannot be overstated". It credited the MPC's pad design and price for "[opening up] music production to a whole new audience". British rapper Jehst saw it as "the next step in the evolution of the sound" after the TR-808, TR-909 and DMX drum machines. Producer DJ Shadow used an MPC60 to create his influential 1996 album Endtroducing, which is composed entirely of samples. Rapper Kanye West used the MPC to compose several of his best-known songs and much of his breakthrough album The College Dropout. West closed the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards with a performance of his track "Runaway" on an MPC.
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