That iconic grey grid of pads scream MPC more than anything else about the series, and Akai wisely recognised the importance of keeping the MPC Renaissance’s pad section as similar in look and feel as they possibly could whilst adding to their quality and functionality too. Having seen the MPC Renaissance in various stages of completion over the course of the year, the final production model’s pads really impressed me. Whilst the prototypes looked and felt pretty MPC-like, Akai have obviously looked really hard at how to make sure the pads were identical, and rather than the glowing pad edges that were on the prototypes (pictures of which are still some of the first you’ll bump into in a cursory Google search) the pad is now solid grey rubber much deeper into the faceplate with any glowing emanating almost from beneath the pad itself. It’s a much classier look than having light beaming out of the edges of the pads all the way up, and allows you, should you choose, to turn most light feedback off and give the pads a true ‘classic’ look.
Running your hands over the MPC Renaissance’s pads and then over a previous model – in my case the MPC 2500 – doesn’t betray anything about the difference. My highly scientific ‘close your eyes, spin round on the spot and feel for the difference’ test just left me with a mild headache. The rubber is exactly the same, but the actual construction of the pads isn’t; the pad base now feels solid. I struggle to think of reasons why you might prefer the MPC pads of yore where the corners could be pushed in, but perhaps if you’re a sucker for tradition you might find this change a little jarring. For the rest of us, the response across the whole pad is smoother and the first touch sensitivity of the sensor can be set a little bit lighter. I did find that the more you increased the sensitivity of the pads the more squished up the velocity response was, but at default settings it feels just a little more snappy. Nonetheless curves and sensitivity can be set precisely to your liking, and all 16 pads behave exactly the same.
If there is a quibble about the pads, it’s that the lighting isn’t the best we’ve ever seen. Four colours are available, though: green, orange, red, and yellow, along with variable brightness, and in reality due to MPC Renaissance’s overall design considerations colour isn’t a big part of the interface and so they serve plenty well enough for everything but eye candy (and music’s not really about eye candy, is it?). It’s also a shame that loading samples into pads doesn’t automatically light up the pad. Choosing a colour for a pad is a button press away, but by default pads are in blackout mode. Considering the most useful function of backlit pads is their ability to communicate where sounds are (and where they aren’t), having to manually set this up feels a bit like Akai missed a trick, opting instead for the more ‘ooooooh’ friendly velocity>colour feedback as a default.
Q Link Knobs
Just like the pads, the Q Link knobs are Akai’s best ever. They’re smooth, securely nutted to the chassis, and the LED feedback is smooth and lag free. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them, though, is how much of the MPC Renaissance workflow is based around them. Controls that would on previous MPCs have been navigated to with the D-pad and manipulated with the jog wheel are now aligned in a 4×4 grid, with each control corresponding to a Q Link knob. This makes editing faster than ever, and it’s very intuitive. There are other subtle ways in which the knobs have been integrated into the workflow throughout, such as their start/end point adjustment in editing screens, and there’s also a dedicated page for each program with customisable parameters and a similarly customisable global effects page that is useful for live performance and tweaking.
MPC Renaissance is a controller for MPC Software, but it also has a big selling point. Built in is an audio and MIDI interface that’s been specifically designed not only to provide the lowest latency for the closest-to-standalone performance possible, but the audio input and output components are actually based on designs from the much lauded MPC 3000 – with the converter section updated to 24/96 standard. I think that one of the biggest benefits to a computer based setup is the combined ease and cost effectiveness at which digital, in-the-box multitracking can be done compared to getting the same quality outboard, but if your workflow’s engrained into your very being and you’re used to tracking out each of your tracks as audio ready to mix, the sound coming out of the MPC Renaissance is very similar to what you’ll have come to expect from MPC.
Akai’s decision to make MPC Software controllable by third party MIDI controllers is a welcome one, and one that will help the MPC Renaissance to sit in the middle of your studio much more comfortably. Connection is simple, and most things can be controlled by MIDI notes and CCs – program change messages can be set to multiple things too, which is a bonus for people who perform live in different ways. There is a downside to this, though, and it is that MPC Renaissance acts as a dongle for MPC Software. If MPC Renaissance isn’t plugged in, no sound will be available from the MPC Software. We can see Akai’s trepidation about allowing MIDI control but not requiring the MPC itself to be connected, as the temptation for some would-be users to pirate the software (remember people, piracy is bad) and use their own MIDI controllers could damage the reputation of the new generation of MPCs, but historically dongles have often proved to punish legitimate users. If (unfortunately, often when) dongle locked software is cracked, legitimate users will have less functionality than illegitimate ones. Akai, maybe the dongle could prohibit external MIDI control when the MPC isn’t plugged in instead? This would allow some on-the-move keyboard and mouse editing of an MPC project and allow users to open and play projects for a quick listen, but lock down the advantages of what is at its heart a very controller based workflow.
The first thing to decide when looking at the MPC Renaissance as a whole is what to compare it to; is it best looked at as an evolution of standalone MPCs before it, thrown into the ring with software (the obvious head on collision being Native Instruments’ Maschine), or should we avoid pigeon holing it entirely and try to consider it in its own bubble? It might be noble to do the latter, but inevitably when looking in terms of value, the things MPC Renaissance is bumping shoulders with – or standing on the shoulders of – come into play. For instance, this is the largest sound library that Akai have ever included with an MPC, with multiple gigabytes of instruments. It also puts a vastly larger selection of effects and capabilities at your finger tips than ever before, but the way that it does both of these things, and, presumably, delivers such an enticingly built unit, is by removing the brain of the MPC itself. And its heart, lungs, liver, and a variety of assorted giblets.
Sampling and editing
MPC Renaissance’s selection of inputs has all bases covered – after all, it is a sampling workstation. There are two balanced combi jack inputs, which can be set to phantom power, and two RCA inputs which can be set to line or phono level. I’ve no complaints about the quality of the line inputs on the balanced or unbalanced inputs, and the gain stage for phantom power is good too – a lot of gain is available before things start getting ugly. If you have a high quality mixer that you use as a preamp, with EQ onboard, it’s probably better to stick with that than use the built in phono preamp on the MPC Renaissance, but the phono preamp gives a balanced sound and pretty good SNR. It’s always nice to have the option of a built in turntable preamp because it makes travelling light that much lighter, and it sounds better than the built in preamp of a portable turntable.
Sample chopping, the hallmark of MPC, is back better than ever in MPC Renaissance. There’s transient detection, auto-BPM slicing, and manual Chop to be had, and whilst manual slicing and transient detection aren’t new, they’re both better than ever. Transient detection was never particularly great on the latter day MPCs that introduced it, as whilst it provided good results on very simple material, it didn’t take much to confuse it. I’m happy to say that transient detection in MPC Software is now muchbetter, and so too is the manual chopping.
The MPC sequencing design has stayed more or less the same since its inception. Sounds are loaded into Programs, Programs are attached to Tracks, which hold looped sequencing data for the Programs, a group of Tracks is held in a Sequence, and multiple Sequences are arranged in a Song. Working in this way makes a lot of sense, and it’s a way of working that’s been used to different degrees in lots of other software and hardware over the years.
Browsing the Library
Something drove me just about crazy with MPC Software: There’s no way to manually create a blank program from the MPC Renaissance controller itself. Programs are either created after slicing, loaded, or copied, and creating a new program is done from a drop down menu in the MPC Software window on the computer. When Akai helpfully pointed this out to me it made things a lot easier, and also had the effect of speeding along a feature request for controller based new program functionality to be added as it cemented a concern that the current workflow is a little obtuse. This was a really nice moment, as it solidified Akai’s intent to make constant refinements to their new MPC range.
MPC Software – Onscreen
Up to now I’ve not actually spoken too much about MPC Software as a ‘thing’, more as the brain for using MPC like you’ve always used MPC. Hopefully this is indicative of the fact that MPC Software is pretty transparent, so much so that it only really occurred to me to talk about its GUI specifically away from the controller itself towards the end of writing this mammoth tome. The truth is, everything works pretty much flawlessly but it’s not the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. The screen is awash with greys of different darknesses, but it doesn’t have the classic, beautiful look of the MPC Renaissance controller so much as Windows 95 software. The interface switches around along with the controller’s screen, and the only real time that you might want to look at the screen is for the piano roll and the mixer, both of which provide more information than the MPC Renaissance screen can provide. This might be a short section, but generally speaking there’s not a huge amount to say about MPC Software’s interface, and I think that’s a good thing.
Effects are available per pad, per program, per track, on the master, and as send buses. With four inserts available to each level there’s plenty of creative opportunities available to you; rarely – if ever – will you need more flexibility than has been provided. The number of effects is huge too, and their quality is better than it’s ever been. Filters are lovely, there are multiple compressor models to choose from, and the delay, reverb, and phasers all have plenty of options and a natural (if that’s what you’re going for) sound. Distortion is definitely good, but if I have a gripe about any of the effects it’s that distortion seems to go from off to total destruction a little too sharply, with not quite enough subtlety in between.
Generally, and most of the time, MPC Renaissance is pretty rock solid. However, when i did encounter an issue it was related to switching values in plugins via the controller, and it was a bit of a showstopper. I can’t get to the bottom of exactly what the precise circumstances that this happens under are, but occasionally there’s a disconnect between the unit’s display and the software, and it renders the track that’s having the issue – or sometimes the whole project – mute. Akai think this might be something to do with my USB connectivity, and that could be the case – although it’s not something I’ve ever noticed before. Because this is intermittent, and because I can’t reliably make the MPC Renaissance die on command, I’m not going to say this is a bug. However we’ve seen hints of other users having similar problems with plugins and it has happened enough times in the OD Studio for me to – after much careful consideration – think it bears mentioning. In any case Akai do acknowledge that there’s an issue here, and think they’ve already come up with a fix which is built into v1.2 of the software and will hopefully be available by the time you read this (unless you’re a very early bird in which case you might need to wait a few days).
MPC Add Ons
Included free with MPC Renaissance are four plugin libraries. The first, The Bank, will as far as we know be available on MPC Studio too. The others – The Wub, The 809, and The Noise – will be available for separate purchase for MPC Studio users, but are included in the box with MPC Renaissance.
The more I used MPC Renaissance, the more I realised that Akai must have tried really hard not to stray from the rule book. A key part of MPC Renaissance is keeping the well known MPC feel and workflow, and this is an important point for users of older MPCs that might be tempted to jump into the new world… but only if it’s not too much hassle. To make things even easier for those on the fence potential migraters, Akai have worked hard on backward compatibility with old MPC projects, sequences, and songs. It’s promised that compatibility with every previous MPC is possible, but without a full complement of MPCs in the OD studio I couldn’t test every one. I could, however, test the MPC 2500, which works fine (although some features don’t translate perfectly, this is predictable on account of the MPC Renaissance’s reworked filters and envelopes behaving differently, albeit differently in a good way), and also projects created with the JJOS-XL, a third party operating system for the MPC 2500 that added functionality whilst at the same time changing a few core features. Akai understandably have no interest in supporting this OS, but it was encouraging to find that at least the basics are able to be picked up by MPC Software. Anything that deviates from the MPC way of doing things (non destructive slicing, for instance) doesn’t compute, but track patterns and the absolute basics of programs are there, so if you do have a few things you’re not ready to leave behind yet you can, to a degree, take them with you.