Empathy for the Revel(ation)

So the Masthead Pic is the original, Old Skool MPC – Roger Linn’s Linn 9000. More info at Roger’s Museum Page.

I had one of these way back in the day, and it was a great combination of quality drum samples (with optional Sampling capability) and MIDI Sequencing in a fairly portable box that didn’t require you to lug around a computer to gigs. It also had a nasty tendency to crash at the most inopportune moments – usually right in the middle of a tracking session – and happily took all of your work with it unless you had managed to remember to save everything to floppy disk. The technology was so new at the time that the bugs killed Linn Electronics as a company. Roger was enticed by Akai to take his technology there to let their massive R&D Department work out the issues – the MPC 60 was the lovechild of this relationship.

I mostly used mine for traveling programming jobs, relying on my trusty Mac Plus running Passport’s Master Tracks Pro for everything else where the 9000 got relegated to ‘MIDI Triggered Drum Unit’. The Linn and the MPC’s that followed used Event List editing (single line text and gobbledegook for each MIDI note or function) to correct mistakes that the real-time Quantizing didn’t catch. It was slow and tedious compared to the linear sequencing that MTP gave me. If you use Logic or Cubase, or Pro Tools you are absolutely familiar with linear sequencing – it’s that common today for a majority of DAW’s. It also used the Pattern/Chain/Song technique for creating and organizing parts and fleshing them out into complete works. MPC’s still work like that to this day. I’m not a fan of this construction method having dealt with pre-MIDI (and even post-MIDI) sequencers and drum machines. Just not my speed when linear works so much better for me.

When the latest batch of MPC’s came out I took another (more on this shortly) shot at trying them out. I opted for the MPC One since it seemed to tick all the boxes (h/t AudioPilz) and then some. I also found it in great condition for a decent price on The Bay.

I don’t do reviews (that’s what The Tube of Yous is for) but compared to the MPC’s I’ve owned in the past (in numerical order: 60v2, 500, 1000, 2000, 2500) the One just looked like they had finally evolved: big color touchscreen, CV/Gate outs, USB MIDI, network capability, Virtual Effects and Instruments, and a matching (at additional cost) software version that would allow you to move and edit projects easily between machines.

There’s just one big problem – that big, bright, colorful touchscreen.

It provides a lot of information, yes. It makes using the sequencer so much easier, indeed. And it makes tracks and sample manipulation a joy compared to its older siblings. But it’s not like using an iPad or decent Android Tablet. You will make mistakes – a lot of them – because it doesn’t have the screen resolution haptics of those devices you are probably used to. Typing names always misses a character or three. Trying to edit a short note (or a single note out of a cluster of them) will drive you to a lengthy stream of cursing. Clicking on a box to change the value will have you pressing multiple times to ensure its selected. Yes, it’s a big leap above the multiple button presses and Data Knob twirling the older ones had, but it’s a real slowdown when you’re in the middle of The Creative Process. From what I’ve researched this is common across the entire One/Live/X range. You can connect a USB computer keyboard to alleviate the typing process, but it doesn’t allow for any other input device to select or choose things – plus I’m not giving up my lone USB port for this ‘convenience’ (yes, I know USB Hubs can be used but the potential for noise and interference increases with ’stacking’ USB devices).

So after a year of toying around with it I kind of gave up – until I had a revelation about a week ago: yeah, the sequencer is crap (to this day I still can’t find the damned Event List Editor on the thing), but the rest of it is actually very, very usable if you think about it as a ‘MIDI Triggered Sound Unit’ and ignore the internal Sequencing.

To accomplish this I initially thought to set it I could just drag Josephine over and just use Reaper or Logic to sequence it. But then the light bulbs started heating up as I realized that the thing I bought an iPad to do might actually be this thing… At first, the MPC as the centerpiece of my ‘analog setup’ triggering an ARP Odyssey module and a Behringer Pro-1 as sound sources while the MPC handled drums, sequencing, sampling, and audio inputs from the modules. Unfortunately, my small space here at APITE Labs meant I either had to get rid of things at the ‘Analog Station’ to make everything fit or rebuild my main ‘DAWspace’ to accommodate. The Odyssey got relegated to the back of the Junk Closet as I was not about to tackle redoing my main Workspace. Then the Pro-1 joined it as more light bulbs began arcing up. Yes, the iPad would be serviceable as a MIDI Sequencer based on the numerous Apps I had purchased over the years (certainly one of them would do the trick here) and the MPC would be the sole MIDI Sound Module. Simplicity at its finest…

Again, the MPC has built-in Virtual Instruments as well as Sampling and Multisampling (and Auto Sampling!) capabilities. It has an Odyssey, a Solina String Synth, a Mellotron, and it also has a really nice Drum Synth… So everything got relegated to the Junk Closet except the MPC, a MIDI Controller keyboard, and the iPad. The iPad is running a basic MIDI Sequencer (no AUV3’s or Audio Tracks to complicate things). A single $15 ‘1 In/1 Out’ MIDI Interface connects the MIDI Controller to the iPad to input MIDI notes into the Sequencer and sends the MIDI Data out to the MPC. In essence the MPC is a Multi-timbral MIDI Sound Module. I’ve set up Templates on both the Sequencer and MPC so all I need to do if fire them up, load the Templates into each and start creating. I also have a surprising amount of space left for future ‘expansion’ or dragging out a synth to use/sample.

Okay. Yeah, I hear you – that ‘Analog Station’ isn’t so Analog anymore, is it?

This whole experiment is part of that ‘Old School DAW’ concept I was talking about a while back. I had planned to use a few synth/drum modules with a simple Sequencer to see if there was anything to be had by going back several decades in music tech. I poked around with a few Arturia devices (both Beatstep and Keystep Pros) and the Analog modules and a Eurorack system. I didn’t take long for my little setup to become a mess of wires and teetering hardware and I was spending more time connecting things (and preventing them from falling over) than actually making anything useful. Argh.

I next decided to use the old Daniel Miller ‘one or two mono synths’ technique. That’s where the Odyssey and Pro-1 became the main focus for sound creation. The Arturia’s did the job well enough I guess (it’s that Pattern-based structure I don’t care for), but now I required a mixer to sum the audio, and getting anything usable off the Arturia’s into a DAW was cumbersome at best. The MPC was ushered back in to fill that void. It not only could sequence the modules, but record parts as audio or samples that could be saved to its SD Card and easily transferred to a computer. The first problem popped up when the MPC couldn’t be prized into mono-summing its audio inputs for monitoring (it’s just a stereo in and something plugged into the left channel will always be heard on the left – and ditto for the right channel) and after that the whole slew of inanity I ranted on above reared its ugly faces again, leading me to look to a more simplistic setup…

So this is where I’ve stopped, and for the time being I’m happy with it. When I can find time to build/modify the setup to hold more toys I will probably expand this into what I envisaged the ‘OLD Skool AnALoG DreAM SEtuP’ to be. But there are no real answers here at the moment. This is just cataloguing my continual Experiment Fail Learn Repeat method of breaking paradigms and trying new things, even if I’m robbing from the past to get there.

Everyone has a preferred way of creating and working, and this work in progress here might never come to to its true fruition. The winding road of finding simplicity has many a fork in it, although I still think it’s worth exploring as many of them as helps you find the path you need. That old Proverb of ‘It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you do not stop’ will be your guide. Keep searching.

Until next time!

Edit: as I was just about to post this WordPress is continually telling me that a cadre of Redditors has somehow found the last post on ‘Everything’s Been Done Already’ – crazy! A welcome to all and hope each and every one of you finds something thought-provoking and useful to your art scattered around here somewhere. Stay creative! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s