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The Legacy of the Akai MPC Sampler

Learn the nuances of producing beats, arranging tracks, and creative sampling, drawing on the rich history and influence of hip-hop in Soundfly’s popular mentored online course, The Art of Hip-Hop Production.

The Akai MPC is much more than just a really good sampler, it is at the core of the musical movement that reshaped the idea of what pop music could be.

In the 1980s, hip-hop culture proved that reimagining and reinventing other people’s music was just as artistically valuable as being a virtuosic instrumentalist or songwriter. When the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture obtained and incorporated the late producer J Dilla’s own Akai MPC 3000 into their collection, the legacy of this instrument was at once solidified. The MPC, with its robust functionality and user friendly interface, blew open the doors of creativity for thousands of people who weren’t drawn to traditional instruments or proven creative paths.

Let’s take a look at how the MPC did that.

By the late ’80s, more and more engineers and producers were turning to drum machines and samplers to create beats. At their inception, drum machines were often considered very basic and kind of cheesy, their only real purpose was to be basic accompaniment to a songwriter or organist for example.

There were a few early examples that started to change that mindset but the Roland TR-808, released in 1980, was one of the first immediate hits among electronic musicians and hip hop producers in particular. And while many of the drum machines released in the ’80s are still considered the pinnacle of drum sample sound design, it can be difficult to get them to create nuanced and syncopated beats.

Early samplers were also extremely expensive, E-mu Systems produced many earlier samplers which could cost as much as $15,000. These early units were often extremely hard to use and required a fair amount of technical knowledge to operate. These were some of the issues that Roger Linn set out to fix when he designed the original MPC, which debuted on December 8, 1988 at $5,000.

Roger Linn launched his career Designing the LM-1 Drum Computer, the first ever drum machine that used digital samples of drum sounds. This new technology was embraced by Prince and can be heard all over his records throughout the 1980s. Check out the titular track on Sign O’ the Times to hear the LM-1 in all its glory.

The Japanese electronics brand Akai wanted to implement Linn’s experience to help create an all-in-one sampling studio, so when Linn’s company went belly-up, they seized the opportunity to grab his talent. They began work on the Akai MPC60, and several major technical and sonic innovations ended up making this consumer electronics product so revolutionary.

Timing

Firstly, the MPC allowed a player to record drum tracks by hand, quantize them or use its internal swing function, and the recording didn’t have to be locked inside a computerized grid, just within a set looping bracket of time. This allowed the beats to sound a lot more human and funky, making it the perfect instrument for burgeoning hip-hop producers.

According to Robert Linn himself:

“Swing — applied to quantized 16th-note beats — is a big part of it. My implementation of swing has always been very simple: I merely delay the second 16th note within each 8th note. In other words, I delay all the even-numbered 16th notes within the beat (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.). In my products I describe the swing amount in terms of the ratio of time duration between the first and second 16th notes within each 8th note.” 

This ratio was customizable allowing musicians to get a looser to tighter feel to their drum tracks. Part of the reason beats end up feeling a bit more human is as a result of the extremely versatile playability of this machine, which at the time was the closest thing to mimicking an acoustic drum kit in a sample-based environment.

Design

Roger Linn designed the MPC60’s hardware to be inviting and multifaceted and its operating system to be intuitive and functional. The machine’s 16 pressure-sensitive pads jump out and beg to be played.

“Good pad dynamic response is important, but not everyone has the drumming skills to program a dynamic, natural-sounding 16th note hi-hat part into a drum machine in real time. This is why I introduced the pressure-sensitive ‘note repeat’ feature,” Linn says. “The note repeat feature allows you to program repeating notes — such as 16th note hi-hats — merely by varying your finger pressure on the hi-hat pad in real time as the beat or metronome plays. At the moment of each successive 16th note, a new hi-hat note is recorded into the beat, and your finger pressure at that moment is used as the velocity level for the new note.” 

This gives you the ability to make very human sounding drum patterns. And the MPC60 was easy to work right out of the box. You didn’t need to spend a lot of time setting it up or learning how to use it, you could implement your ideas easily and quickly and start playing around immediately. Linn knew the importance of not letting technology get in the way of music-making.

Sample Length

The MPC60 allows users to record samples up to 13 seconds long which was significantly longer than many of its contemporaries. This means that producers could use a wider variety of samples and more deeply incorporate them into their beats. This sort of sampling came right out of the hip-hop tradition of looping sections on a vinyl record and playing them back right off the turntable.

Now those samples, musical samples (not just drum beats!) could simply be recorded to a pad and triggered at the flick of a finger. The idea of taking part of a record and chopping it up and reprocessing it is integral to beat making and producers like J-Dilla used his MPC3000 (a much later model) to redefine what samplers and drum machines could do, as modern instruments.

Here’s a video from Vox that goes deep into how Dilla’s use of the MPC singlehandedly revolutionized how we think of electronic music and music-making through to today.

Price

At a third of the price of other samplers in the ate 1980s, the MPC60 allowed a whole new generation of musicians to get into sampling. It was still expensive to purchase, but not at all prohibitive. Time and time again, hip-hop producers have cited the release (and their eventual acquisition) of the MPC60 as a pivotal moment in their musical development and the development of their genre at large.

The Akai MPC didn’t just redefine what a sampler could be, it redefined what a modern musician could be. Just watch how Mark Ronson almost virtuosically transforms the TED Talk theme music into something new and exciting using his sampler.

Mark Ronson, Kanye West, and DJ Shadow are just a few musicians who don’t only use an Akai MPC, but have featured it heavily in their music-making practice. Kanye West has often played an MPC live during his shows, Ronson’s got a custom paint job on his, and DJ Shadow had many videos that feature his making beats and sampling with the MPC.

And for so many more types of musicians, it’s just fun to play with. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the studio when you’re triggering samples and changing their playback sonics in real time. The MPC made sampling more human, and gave producers more of a chance to showcase their own sound while making use of found sounds, beats, and other people’s tracks.

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.