I previously wrote about the new MPC One but at that time the MPC Live II was just a rumour. Times move fast, and now it’s official; the original MPC Live is discontinued and replaced with the new MPC Live II, meaning the current Akai MPC line up now consists of three distinct MPCs; the entry-level MPC One, the mid-range MPC Live II and the (now three year old) studio workhorse, the MPC X. So… which MPC is right for you?
Please note in this article I’m going to assume you’ve already researched and discounted all the other sampler/groovebox options out there and just need help deciding on the best standalone MPC for your specific needs.
What’s The Same?
These MPCS all differ in a variety of ways but it’s very important to realise that all three MPCs use the exact same CPU and RAM; there is no difference in computing ‘power’ and all three machines have the same memory limits (2GB, but nearly half of this is used by the operating system). They also all run the exact same internal software with the same features (the only exception is the MPC One does not have Ableton ‘Live Control’ Mode, more about this later). Here’s the main screen of the MPC firmware which gives an overview of all the main features of the operating system.
These MPCs are all completely standalone units – that is, they don’t need to be plugged into a computer, they provide a complete ‘in the box’ workflow all controlled by the large touchscreen UI and a combination of buttons, dials, knobs and pads. They can all also function as dedicated controllers for Akai’s DAW-like MPC Software (which comes free with all these MPCs).
All these MPCs can be used a powerful MIDI sequencers, capable of controlling dozens of connected hardware synths, sound modules, modular synths and even iPad synths, and at their heart all have a powerful sampler with the classic MPC chopping features along with other goodies such as pro-quality FX, built in plugin instruments, keygroup sample instrument support, audio tracks, step sequencer, piano roll, looper, clips, automation and a range of performance enhancing features including the XYFX interface.
Therefore when it comes to deciding which MPC to buy, it really just comes down to comparing price, hardware features and overall form factor.
Standalone MPC Buyer’s Guide: Quick comparison
The following table gives a quick comparison of features that can differ across the standalone MPC models. Beyond this, the MPCs share the same features, such as CPU, RAM, software etc.
*Wifi and ethernet are currently used for three purposes. Firstly they can sync files with your online Splice account, secondly they can be used for Ableton Link and thirdly for Ableton Live Control.
** MIDI devices can be connected via the traditional MIDI DIN ports, via bluetooth, or via USB (up to 32 devices via a USB hub). You can also connect USB-to-MIDI interfaces to increase the available MIDI DIN ports.
Ableton Link vs Ableton Live Control
You may have noticed that the MPC One does not support ‘Ableton Live Control’, but does support Ableton Link. So what’s the difference?
Ableton Link is a syncing protocol that can sync playback of your MPC with Ableton Live (and any other Link enabled device or software, e.g. some iPad apps etc) over a network connection. This is done via ethernet or wifi or even via an USB-ethernet adapter (remember, no wifi on the MPC One).
Ableton Live Control Mode is a special MPC mode that allows you to directly control a running installation of Ableton Live, so you can launch clips and scenes, mixer parameters and a variety of other functions. It effectively turns the MPC into a very basic Ableton Push. We currently don’t know why this is not available in the MPC One or whether Akai will one day enable it.
Comparison: Portability & Size
If you’re like me, you probably already have a studio stuffed to the brim with samplers, synths, computers and keyboards, so an increasingly important buying factor for many these days is the footprint of any gear you buy. Where is is going to live? The MPC One and MPC Live II are very desktop friendly, they can tuck into small spaces or sit comfortably on a floor stand. The MPC X not so much! If you go for the X then it’s probably going to become the centrepiece of your studio – and once it’s in place all your other gear has to fit around it!
If you’re often carrying your MPC around, then portability is an important factor – the smaller and lighter the better, especially if the MPC can sneak its way into a laptop bag. Here, the MPC One is the clear winner and at 2.1kg and 27cm wide it’s a similar weight and size as a 16″ MacBook Pro. The MPC Live II at 3.38kg and 41cm wide is probably still within the limit of being considered portable, although it’s nearly 0.7kg heavier than the original MPC Live.
Finally there’s also the ‘beats on the go’ factor – whether it’s banging out a tune on the train or in the park, or lounging around chopping breaks on your couch, these smaller MPCs again have the MPC X nailed. But with its internal battery and built in speaker, the MPC Live II is of course the ‘out of the box’ winner here – just pull it out, turn it on and make beats anywhere (but you might want to use headphones if you’re sitting on a train!).
That said, all these MPCs can actually be powered for several hours by off-the-shelf 19V rechargeable laptop batteries, which give the MPC One a bit more flexibility for mobile beat making, albeit for an extra $95 battery cost and around 600g extra weight to carry around. Here’s Flux with one of these batteries:
Inputs & Outputs
As you might expect, the more expensive the MPC, the better the audio input and output options. The MPC X is by far away the winner here, with eight individual audio outs, two standard inputs, dedicated mic inputs (with phantom power), instrument level inputs (to directly connect guitars, Rhodes etc) and phono/turntable input (with grounding). Definitely the most studio ready MPC for recording vocals and instruments.
The MPC Live II keeps the phono inputs but forgoes the mic and instrument inputs and goes with 6 individual outs, while the MPC One has the tightest selection, with just two individual outputs and no mic, phono or instrument inputs.
How big a deal is this? Well it depends on your needs. For example, you typically only need lots of individual outputs if you intend sending certain sounds or internal instruments separately out of your MPC, e.g. for tracking stems or for running those to a mixer or external FX.
However many producers will instead bounce down their individual track stems to WAV files using the MPC’s internal export options, or via the ‘bounce to audio track’ function; at this point they can just load those WAVs into their favourite DAW. And remember that you can actually perform complex mixdowns entirely within the MPC.
So if you are bouncing/exploding/mixing down internally, you’ll probably never need more than two outputs. There are other reasons for needing more than two outs, but you’ll probably know if you need those options, in which case the Live II or the X would probably be a better fit.
Overcoming the lack of phono inputs on the MPC One is also less of a problem these days as most modern turntables have ‘line level’ outputs, or you can just run the turntable via a standard DJ Mixer first (which converts phono level to line level for you).
As for recording quality mic performances on the MPC Live II and the MPC One, you’ll need some kind of mic preamp when using condenser mics, or use a mixer which often have these built into a couple of channels. You might get away with using a dynamic mic directly into an MPC audio input, but it will be noisy. For field recording direct into an MPC Live II or MPC One, you could use a portable recorder like the Zoom H1n; apart from recording directly to its internal drive, it also has a stereo line out which can be connected to the MPC audio inputs with a suitable cable. I’ve used this with good results.
This is very difficult area to judge as it really comes down to personal taste. Obviously the MPC X has been given the full suite of buttons and dials, with more than double the buttons of the other two MPCS ensuring that you can access any screen in the MPC OS without needing to reach for the touchscreen. It’s also the only MPC that retains the classic MPC ‘cursor’ keys for button-based navigation, and the only one with dedicated ‘STEP’ and ‘BAR’ buttons to quickly navigate the sequencer timeline.
Then there’s those 16 Q-Links which give you immediate hands on control of essential parameters which dynamically change depending on the screen you are currently using (you can also manually configure these to suit your exact needs). And the little OLED display above each dial lets you know exactly what that currently assigned parameter is.
With the MPC One and the MPC Live II, there’s only 4 physical dials – to access the other 12 Q-Links you have you hit a button to select the appropriate virtual Q-link ‘bank’, This is of course nowhere near as intuitive as the MPC X and (for me at least) means that the Q-Links tend to be used a lot less on the MPC One and the MPC Live II.
Are the lack of dedicated buttons an issue on the MPC Live and MPC One? Maybe, but probably not as much as you might expect. You do tend to adapt your workflow accordingly, plus on the two smaller MPCs all the missing ‘dedicated’ shortcuts can be found as secondary functions by holding down the SHIFT or MENU keys. And remember you can of course revert to using the touchscreen to navigate the OS, although the menu diving can sometimes get a bit tedious.
Another area where these MPCs all differ is overall the layout of elements. Both the MPC One and the MPC X place the screen directly above the pads, while the MPC Live II (just like the MPC Live I before it) places the pads to the left of the screen. Q-Links are on the right for the Live II and the MPC One but on the left for the MPC X. Function buttons are also arranged somewhat differently on each unit (and perhaps a little bit arbitrary).
One layout isn’t necessarily better than the other, and I do feel this is simply another area where you quickly adapt your style accordingly.
A couple of other things to mention. The MPC X has that bigger titling screen, it’s the same resolution as the 7″ screen so everything is just scaled up in size – this means if you have big fat fingers you’ll probably enjoy the touchscreen UI a lot more (some areas of the UI are a bit fiddly to use at the best of times). The adjustable screen is also definitely an ergonomic bonus as it helps avoid having to ‘hunch’ over your MPC. The workaround for the other MPCs is to use some kind of tilting stand.
Oh, and about those ‘compact’ pads on the MPC One – in my opinion they are absolutely fine (I have average size fingers). If you are used to the normal sized MPC pads it will take you a few hours to adapt, no problem at all. If in doubt, try them out in a music store.
Storage & File Transfers
All three MPCs ship with an internal disk which has around 2GB of free space (the rest taken up with the supplied sound library). The problem is that this disk is not accessible for back up or transfer purposes, so I find it’s best to just leave this as a ‘read only’ disk and instead use an ‘attached’ disk.
Probably the easiest option these days is to use an SD card, these are cheap, reliable, fast enough and I’ve had no problem getting a 512GB SD card to work, including this micro SD in an adapter. All the MPCs support an SD card and once in the slot you’ll not even notice it is there.
Alternatively you can use USB disks but this will use up one of your USB ports although you can use USB hubs to expand this on all models. It’s important to note that the MPC One is only USB 2.0, while the others use USB 3.0, so USB speeds will be slower on the One.
The third storage option is to install a SATA disk inside your MPC, but this is only supported on the MPC X and MPC Live II. I’d recommend an SSD if you go this route, mainly due to the lack of mechanical parts, reliability and their silent operation.
And when it comes to backing up up your work, the MPC X and MPC Live II are much more flexible than the MPC One, as when connected to a computer via USB all your attached MPC disks (but not the factory internal drive) appear as removable drives in your computer, allowing you to drag and drop files back and forth. With the MPC One you’ll have to physically remove the SD card or USB drive and manually connect it to a port on your computer.
If price is important to you then the MPC One wins hands down. It’s currently a whopping 40% cheaper than the MPC Live II and nearly 70% cheaper than the MPC X. Don’t forget, the MPC One runs virtually the same software and has the same CPU and RAM, so you are definitely getting a lot for your money.
The MPC X, in my opinion has always been somewhat overpriced considering there is no bump in CPU or RAM, and that mouthwatering $2200 is a tough pill to swallow when you look at what’s available for much less from the other two MPCs in the range. However, that bigger screen, complete suite of I/O and all those lovely Q-Links and buttons are always going to come at a price.
The MPC Live II sits somewhere in the middle but is still a little overpriced for my liking, especially considering the large number of similarities to the MPC One. But it is unique with its internal battery and speaker as well as it’s decent I/O.
Standalone MPC Buyer’s Guide: Conclusion
As you can see, each of these MPCs is a powerful, modern sampling groovebox, all of which are also more than capable of acting as a centrepiece for a sample and MIDI-based studio, so I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them.
Best Beginner Option: If you are just starting out and have a limited budget my pick would definitely be the MPC One. It’s great entry level MPC and perfect if you don’t really have any specific need for all the additional inputs and outputs found on the more expensive units. It’s small, takes up minimal desk space and can be carried around easily. Storage options are a bit more limited, but SD cards are fast and cheap so I don’t think you’ll miss the internal SATA option. It has 99.9% of the software features of its big brothers and the exact same CPU and RAM and is very competitively priced. It might be worth trying one in the flesh to make sure you are happy with the smaller pads, but in my opinion they are perfectly fine.
Best ‘Beats on the go’ Option: With its internal battery and speakers the MPC Live II is definitely the most naturally suited to making music whenever the mood takes you, snd with its decent array of audio ports and flexible MIDI options it’s equally at home in the studio. If the MPC One didn’t exist I’d be recommending the MPC Live II to everyone, but as it stands I just think that unless you really need those extra ports and are going to make good use of that internal battery, the MPC One edges it with its comparable features, ultra-portability and significantly lower price, and don’t forget it can be used with an external rechargeable battery if you really need that additional portability.
Studio Workhorse, Money No Object Option: If you crave those 16 Q-links, the complete array of robust buttons, the dedicated mic inputs, the additional I/O, that bigger tilting touchscreen and have no desire to take your MPC anywhere, then the MPC X might be the one to look at… if you can afford it. Just remember that those additional MIDI ports can easily be replaced with a USB MIDI interface and internally the MPC X is no different to the MPC One or MPC Live II.
A Second Hand MPC Live Mk I?
Just thought I’d throw this option in, just to complicate things! It’s inevitable that the second hand market will now be flooded with the original MPC Live, so this is still a very viable option to consider.
Once again we have an MPC running the same CPU/RAM and the exact same software, and as such we’d expect it to continue supporting future firmware updates. The original Live doesn’t have CV/Gate outs but you could add these using a MIDI-to-CV interface. There’s no speaker (but do you really need a speaker?) and less dedicated buttons, but ultimately this is very similar to the Live – plus it’s 0.7kg lighter and a bit smaller.
Oh the agony of choice.
The MPC Bible
Whichever MPC you go for, check out my definitive betaking course for all the current range of standalone MPCs, the MPC Bible. It will teach you everything you need to know about creating music on these standalone beasts, featuring a comprehensive set of carefully structured tutorials that take you on a step-by-step journey into quickly developing your own perfect MPC workflow.