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Brand Focus: Akai Professional

Join us as we take a closer look at Akai Professional, exploring how a company founded in 1946 grew into one of the mainstays of music technology, developing a range including class-leading samplers, controllers and the iconic MPC series.


Brand history

Part of the inMusic family since 2012, Akai Professional is the pro audio arm of a brand founded in Japan way back in 1946. Much like other Japanese electronics brands, the Tokyo-based Akai Electric Company always produced an eclectic product range, manufacturing everything from washing machines to hi-fi equipment over the decades. In 1984, the Akai Professional division was created to represent the brand’s musical instruments and studio equipment. Early Akai Professional products included multi-track recorders, samplers and analogue synths. The mid-80s AX60 and AX80 keyboards remain highly sought after cult classics to this day.

MPCs – Music Production Centers

The Akai Professional brand is probably best known for the MPC range, an iconic all-in-one sampler, sequencer and workstation series that’s been in production since the 1980s. Originally an abbreviation for MIDI Production Center (now Music Production Center), the MPC was the brainchild of legendary musical instrument designer Roger Linn, who partnered with Akai to launch the series with the MPC60, released in 1988.

The MPC concept drew heavily on ideas Linn had explored while developing his LM-1 and LinnDrum drum machines, staples of 80s pop used extensively by artists including Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna. By combining his own sequencing knowledge with Akai’s sampling technology and manufacturing prowess, Linn struck gold. The MPC pushed the boundaries of sample-based music way beyond what could be achieved using its contemporaries such as the E-mu SP12. The uniquely gritty 12-bit sampling engine of the MPC60 matched perfectly with the rock-solid timing of the MPC sequencer, which many believe still offers the tightest groove and swing of any music hardware to this day. Its combination of sound and timing made it a favourite of hip-hop producers from the late 80s onwards, with a list of MPC-using producers looking like an all-time who’s who of rap beatmakers: DJ Premier, Kanye, DJ Shadow, Dr Dre, J Dilla…

The current MPC range

The MPC lives on as the brand’s flagship product range, with a number of models to suit different budgets. Users have always rated the efficiency and quick workflow of the MPC approach to sample-based production, and the current range continues in that proud lineage. A key turning point for the MPC concept was the release of the MPC Renaissance in 2012, which introduced a hybrid hardware/software approach adopted in subsequent models such as the MPC Touch and first-generation MPC Studio. That idea continues with the current MPC 2 software, Akai’s own DAW (digital audio workstation) package which integrates MPC devices seamlessly with your computer setup. The second-generation version of the MPC Studio is the most affordable way into the hardware MPC experience, offering a dedicated controller for the MPC 2 software, which runs on Mac or PC. A free beat making package, MPC Beats, is also available to give you a taste of the MPC experience.

The latest MPCs are incredibly capable all-rounders, with the flagship MPC X offering serious production power in a user-friendly standalone hardware format. It really does a bit of everything you can imagine when it comes to production, with the ability to chop and sequence samples internally like the original MPCs, control other hardware over MIDI, multi-track record at studio quality, and even generate sounds internally via its own virtual instruments. As a hybrid instrument, you can also use it to control the MPC 2 software on your computer.

Lower down the MPC range, you can find slightly more affordable alternatives that still offer the same efficient workflow and creative options as the flagship model. All three of the current standalone MPC models have the same basic processing power and run the same MPC software. The MPC One is the brand’s entry-level standalone model, with compact pads and a 7-inch touchscreen, compared to the 9-inch screen on the X. It may be the smallest and cheapest model, but it does most of what the more expensive models do, with a few understandable limitations like fewer audio outputs, more limited MIDI I/O options and smaller built-in storage (you can easily expand the memory using SD cards).

Meanwhile, the MPC Live II slots neatly in between the One and X as the mid-range option, with full-size pads and the benefit of a built-in rechargeable battery and speakers, making it easier to use on the move despite being bigger and heavier than the One. The Live doesn’t have mic and instrument inputs to match the multi-track recording capabilities of the X, but it does have a phono input to allow you to sample from vinyl. It might just be the sweet spot of the MPC range in terms of value for money.

If you like an old-school look to your studio, Akai even offer two limited-edition models inspired by the look of those classic 80s MPC models. The MPC One Retro and MPC Live II Retro offer exactly the same features as the standard models, but with a vintage MPC60-style colour scheme.

Akai Force: Ableton Live-style clip and scene production

While not technically part of the MPC range, the Force combines MPC-style features with a clip-and-scene workflow similar to what you’d find in software like Ableton Live. The trademark grid of 16 touch-sensitive pads found on MPC models is swapped for an 8×9 clip/scene launch grid, allowing you to jam with a mixture of clips of audio (including loops and sample-based patterns), MIDI and CV. It’s a great option for live performance as well as studio use.

Akai samplers and controllers

In the early 90s, no self-respecting studio was complete without a hardware sampler, and there’s a very good chance that it would have been an Akai model you’d find in any given pro studio. The brand’s S series in particular was instrumental in the creation of sample-based dance music; models like the 12-bit S900/950 and 16-bit S3000 were used and abused by house, techno, jungle and hardcore producers to chop breakbeats and twist sampled sounds into exciting new styles. As computers took over for production and sampling purposes, the Akai brand expanded into the world of controllers, producing a range of MIDI keyboards, pad controllers and performance hardware designed to simplify studio production and live shows. The focus on hands-on controllers should come as no surprise when you consider that the MPC models have always been highly rated for the responsiveness and feel of their pads, which defined how pad controllers should feel.

You’ll spot that same DNA running through all Akai controllers, with industry-standard build quality and response. The simple LPD8 is the entry-level option, a simple MIDI drum pad controller which has been a mainstay of the Akai range for over a decade now. It combines eight backlit, velocity-sensitive MPC-style pads with eight rotary controllers, all of which can be used to control just about any music software or digital audio workstation (DAW) features.

Stepping up in terms of feature set, the MPD2 range is where you’ll find the real all-rounders, with the flagship MPD232 combining 16 MPC-style pads with a step sequencer, assignable faders, rotary knobs and buttons, transport controls and MPC-style performance features. Two smaller models are also available, which offer slightly more basic feature sets than the top-of-the range model: the basic MPD218 has just 16 pads and six rotary knobs, while the MPD226 has pads, faders, knobs and buttons like the MPD232. Alternatively, if you’re torn between a pad controller and a keyboard-style controller, the MPKmini mk3 offers the best of both worlds, with two octaves of mini keys, eight pads and eight rotary knobs. Take your pick from a range of different colour options. Those who just want control of mixing functions in their software can opt instead for the MIDI Mix, which offers faders and rotary knobs arranged like an eight-channel mixer – it’s an affordable and effective way to add hands-on control of your software’s mixer features, helping you to balance levels and adjust EQs and effects sends.

Dedicated Akai controllers for FL Studio and Ableton Live

Akai’s DAW-specific controller models include the Fire, which is designed to integrate seamlessly with Image-Line’s popular FL Studio package. Matching the uniquely creative workflow of FL Studio, the Fire takes a different approach to most other controllers. There are basics like transport controls and browsing features, but the focus is mainly on step sequencing. The 4×16 grid of velocity-sensitive RGB pads gives you hands-on control of your patterns in the DAW. At just over £100, it’s a must-have for FL Studio users.

For Ableton Live, the top choice is the APC40 MKII. The original model, released in 2009, was a collaborative effort between Akai and Ableton which aimed to create the ideal hardware controller for the clip-focussed DAW. Since updated to the second-generation model, the MKII version remains a seamlessly integrated approach to controlling the main functions of Live, with an array of RGB pads, sliders, rotaries and track controls. For more compact alternatives, you can also try the cheaper APC Key 25 or APC Mini. However you like to use Live, they’re control solutions that make the entire workflow simpler, quicker and more fun.

You can view the full Akai Professional range here.