Gear Love: Akai MPC

Introduced by AKAI in 1988, the MPC series delivered a pioneering and intuitive piece of digital equipment that would go on to revolutionize electronic music, and, in particular, Hip Hop.

Developing the MPC

In the mid-to-late 80s, drum-machines started to gain some popularity amongst musicians and producers looking to create a new type of beat, without the necessity of a drummer, as a way to explore new sounds in emerging genres away from the traditional band structure.

There were several drum machines on the market very early on, which usually came in the form of a step-sequencer layout and used subtractive synthesis to produce the drum sounds, these were then followed by the first sample-based drum machines, however, these were often prohibitively expensive and were not very user-friendly.

In 1982, the LinnDrum arrived from developer Roger Linn (the sounds of which still have an enduring appeal), which was followed by the Linn 9000, where Linn combined both sequencer and sampler into one machine. Unfortunately, the machine garnered a reputation for being buggy and its reputation as unreliable led to the demise of Linn’s company Linn Electronics.

On the bright side, this led to Roger starting a collaboration with Akai in 1986 to spearhead the development of their own flagship competitor within the Drum Machine market. Their main competitor at the time was the Emu SP-1200, which could cost anywhere from $10-15,000 making it unattainable for most musicians and producers.

Shrewdly identifying a gap in the market for something more affordable and intuitive, Linn perfected the template from his failed Linn 9000 project and developed the now seminal MPC60, which launched at the end of 1988, followed by the MPC3000 in 1993!

The Specs

“I dislike reading manuals and I dislike having my creative process interrupted by an unintuitive operating system or reading a manual written by an engineer. With the MPC60 and MPC3000, you could take them out of the box, plug in a disk and turn them on, then immediately hear a variety of good beats with good human feel.”
Roger Lynns' thought process led to the MPC60 becoming an immediate hit, due to its user-friendly interface, intuitive workflow and the ability to create full tracks on the flew off the shelves. The now-classic design of 16 velocity-sensitive rubber pads has become a staple in drum machines moving forward.

With 13.1 seconds of total sampling time, a higher audio resolution, 128 pre-loaded sounds (all upgraded for the MPC3000), and a lower price, Linn’s all-in-one production unit left the SP-1200 in the dust. They also implemented MIDI capabilities to allow it to sync with other sequencers easily. It also had a much more efficient way of chopping up and storing samples, especially in smaller sections, which led to much more creative approach to sampling, which immediately gelled with the emerging Hip Hop community.

Progressing a Genre

Linn remains relatively bemused about being an integral building-block in a genre about which he knows so little, but his product enabled access to a huge palette of sounds for burgeoning Hip Hop producers. He created a tool that resonated with black artists and allowed them to develop their own take on soul music.

One of the key concepts that worked so well for Hip Hop was the swing function built into the machine, intended to replicate the looseness and timing errors of a real drummer and give beats a more human feel. You can adjust the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note with a dial, as the beat is playing, making the beat as loose or quantized as you desire.

The ability to take very small snippets from samples meant you could take small stabs from a sample (a kick, snare, chord or vocal for instance) and recontextualize them into something new entirely, enabling diverse, collage-like productions and turning creative sampling into an art form.

Key Users

It’s really more of a case of who hasn’t used an MPC in Hip Hop at this point, with it being considered a quintessential piece of equipment that has endured through the decades, even maintaining its appeal after the proliferation of the modern-day DAW.

Popular uses include the MPC-programmed drums on Warren G’s ‘Regulate’:

DJ Shadow created his masterpiece ‘Endtroducing’ entirely with samples via an MPC60:

Dr.Dre apparently used as many as 5 MPC3000’s on the production of ‘The Chronic’ and ‘2001’:

One of the most creative users was, of course, the late, great J Dilla, who used the machine to highlight minor imperfections, rarely quantized anything and took the groove possibilities capable from an MPC to another level:

Then you have people like Araabmuzik, who treat it as a full-blown performance instrument and showcase it in ways you never would have thought possible:

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