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Introducing the humble drum machine that had a lasting impact on music

In a set from 2013, a masked Kanye West appears onstage and stands before a veiled podium. With a slow, theatrical tug, he pulls away the veil to reveal an AKAI Music Production Center, or MPC — a small, unassuming drum machine barely bigger than an Etch-a-Sketch. He presses a single button, triggering the lone opening piano note to “Runaway.” Several years later, a diligent ear could listen to Frank Ocean’s Blonde and hear his producer, Om’Mas Keith, tapping out a beat on the same electric drum machine.

Skilled as these two are on their MPCs, this device isn’t a Keith or Kanye house specialty; it’s been at the heart of some of the most seminal musical works since its introduction by AKAI in 1988 and is still widely used today. It created a generation of hybrid producer-musicians, like West, J Dilla — whose MPC is in the Smithsonian — and Dr. Dre, who kept several in his studio at all times.

The MPC appeared everywhere. Outkast’s Big Boi engineered many of the group’s iconic beats on the MPC. Mark Ronson is so attached to his MPC that it got a custom paint job, and many of Kanye West’s most famous songs, and much of his breakout album College Dropout, have sprung from the MPC.

So how did this small, portable electric box, which looks more like a Super Nintendo than a musical instrument, became the tool of the trade for pop, hip-hop, and electronic musicians and producers? By condensing all elements of studio production into a desktop instrument that was more playable, more intuitive, and unlike anything ever put before the musical world.

The MPC made music production intuitive in a way it had never been before

In the late 1980s, producers and musicians began turning more and more to drum machines in order to create beats and loops without using a full band. More importantly, however, these machines served the needs of a changing musical style where the beats themselves — no longer the thankless work of a drummer sitting at the back of a stage — would begin to work more intimately alongside the vocals, and even shine on their own.

At the same time, hip-hop musicians also began making wider use of sampler machines, which allowed them to take pieces of music from an external source and incorporate it into their own tracks. Machines that combined these two functions (often called grooveboxes) were often difficult to use and required a more nuanced technical knowledge in music production.

These expensive machines, such as the popular ones from E-mu Systems, which in the mid-’80s could cost as much as $15,000, were among a young producer’s only options — until Roger Linn, the designer of the original MPC, created the MPC60.

Roger Linn with the original AKAI MPC60.
Courtesy of Roger Linn

Retailing around $5,000, the MPC60 was a drum machine and sampler that also integrated editing functions. Gone were the switches and small, hard industry-standard buttons of 1980s grooveboxes and studio mixing boards. Instead, the MPC featured 16 large rubber pads that could be pressed and hit to make musical sounds, as though the machine itself were an instrument with keys. It could be used to compose full tracks. It came with floppy disks preloaded with a variety of sounds and instruments; and unlike many other available products, the pads were pressure-sensitive and could produce different sounds based on how hard they were pressed.

All of this offered near-orchestral versatility and total creative control to its user. But most importantly, it wasn’t an enormous, stationary mixing panel with as many buttons as an airplane cockpit. The MPC didn’t need a studio to be operated, but instead could be plugged into a sound system in a basement. Its only real match was the E-mu SP1200, which had neither the pads nor the approachability of the MPC.

The MPC’s appearance is so straightforward that it feels almost like a trap. Roughly the dimensions of two MacBooks stacked atop each other, the MPC has a cream white/off-gray body and, in addition to its 16 pads, a small LCD screen to make editing a lot easier, another innovation introduced with the MPC. The body includes two knobs for fine-tuning samples or selecting functions, and red “record” and “over dub” buttons for saving or looping beats. Its dozen or so other buttons control functions that don’t feel markedly different from those of a VHS machine or other technology of the day. And finally, in the top right corner is a convenient “Help” button, should the user find that this newfangled technology was all too much for them.

To show just how easy it is to use, Kanye once appeared on 60 Minutes and demonstrated to Bob Simon, his interviewer, how the MPC allows you to go “from this simple kick drum all the way to what you hear on the radio.” (He also explains to Simon what a “dope-ass beat” is.) West goes on to produce a beat in a matter of seconds. “I don’t think anyone would believe you’re doing that all from this one rhythm machine,” says Simon.

Linn’s invention could be played straight out of the box by working musical professionals. What these professionals would need, he figured, was not a convoluted panel but something intuitive and easy to use that offered real-time editing, essentially eliminating the step-by-step process that makes music production so time-consuming.

“I dislike reading manuals,” Linn told me in an email, “and I dislike having my creative process interrupted by an unintuitive operating system or reading a manual written by an engineer. With the MPC60 and MPC3000, you could take them out of the box, plug in a disk and turn them on, then immediately hear a variety of good beats with good human feel.”

The pads and the layout of the MPC made it easier for someone like Om’Mas Keith, only 16 years old when he first got his hands on an MPC, to feel at ease behind it almost immediately.

“It’s the friendliest interface,” says Coby Ashpis, a musician and producer in Los Angeles. “You have those 16 big, cushy pads. The simplicity allows you to focus on the music itself.”

In the 30 years since the MPC’s release, these big, cushy pads have been adopted by countless imitators and have even appeared on the machines of competitors whose rigidly functional earlier models were precisely what the MPC originally sought to replace. They are now standard issue for DJ technology.

“The 4x4 drum grid exists across all instruments, everyone making controllers uses it. The interface is timeless,” Ashpis says.

Also part of this timeless charm — what drew people like Dr. Dre to the MPC and what keeps them coming back today — is that many believe its stock sounds have more character and more presence straight out of the box than other machines or digital software.

The MPC also made it possible for users to chop and tweak their samples in new ways. Keith recalls plugging in his turntable, zoning on in a single drumbeat from a track on a record, and assigning that single sampled drumbeat to one of the 16 pads. That way, he could use this sampled drum note while composing his own beats instead of relying on the MPC’s stock drum sounds.

“The ability to chop so finely lets you take very minute samples,” Ashpis explains. “Then you have this whole toolbox of sounds decontextualized from their original source and you can get creative and do something new.”

While once musicians were sampling wholesale, sampling itself became something of a new art form.

The MPC’s one-stop functionality means music can begin and end on the same machine

The combination of functions and simple workflow helped musicians pioneer entirely new styles of music.

“You can play one sample like a full instrument; you can change it. It opened up all recorded music to be played with in a really freeing way — a way that still used beats and samples but is more similar to playing a traditional acoustic instrument like keyboards or drums,” says Ashpis.

Prince Charles Alexander, a producer and professor of music production and engineering/commercial record production at Berklee College of Music, explains that the MPC also offered orchestral resources to lone-wolf producers. “A drum machine only has built-in drum sounds,” he says. “But now with the MPC you could make your rhythm come not just from drums but from horn hits, synth screeches. Now you were working percussively and with a far wider tambour of instrumentation.”

The MPC’s editing function made it a one-stop device where music could begin and end on the MPC alone. Making music had never been easier. “With the MPC, you could do everything in one house,” Alexander says.

Keith used the MPC for nearly everything: “I was doing beats; I would sample hooks and fly them in and create songs. All we needed to do was take the MPC and the synth beat, and cut the lead vocal.”

The overall effect was also democratizing. “It was the first real reduction in price point in a device that gave people the ability to make records without the need of a huge studio,” Keith says.

Not only was 1993’s wildly popular MPC3000 cheaper than other samplers, and orders of magnitude cheaper than six-figure studio soundboards, but it helped push forward budding musical minds that didn’t necessarily have the means to study it in school, and offered working musicians the ability to use refined technical tools without requiring years of studio experience or access to the latest studio technology.

“The MPC was less intimidating to people that wanted to make music because it didn’t have things like piano keys,” says Alexander “But the data behind those pads, it was the same thing as hitting a piano key. If you never studied music, you’d look at a piano and think, ‘Now I need to learn music.’ Looking at the MPC, all you see is a bunch of gray pads.”

This is not to say that the MPC can turn any patient user into a virtuoso, or that it is necessarily exceedingly easy to use. The constraints of the MPC — such as a limited memory bank and a time limit for samples on early models — required great parsimony and creativity to work around. Keith, for example, instead of loading a note directly from his turntable into the MPC, learned that he could play records at higher speeds when loading them into the MPC and then slow them down back down to their original speed as digital files on the MPC, allowing him to take longer samples than the device was theoretically capable of doing.

Once these skills were mastered, users found that the MPC made production easier and more efficient. Offering real-time recording and editing with a high sound quality effectively allows the user to produce music live, as it’s being created. The MPC simplified or eliminated a lot of the busywork and time-consuming tasks associated with the music production, leaving musicians ample time to create and focus on their work instead of sweating over a massive soundboard to achieve the same result. “With the MPC, there’s nothing else you need to do but get to work,” Keith says.

Moreover, this ability to produce live gave made it easier to use the MPC performatively, such as in the case of West or Lady Gaga, who played an MPC upright on stage as if it were an acoustic instrument.

The MPC helped change the notion of what a musician is

SoundCloud Artist Forum 2016
AraabMuzik performs with a modern MPC in 2016.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for SoundCloud

There are so few pieces of technology that exist and continue to be used almost in the exact same way and for the exact same reason 30 years after its introduction. In the late 1980s, Apple was releasing its large beige cube desktop computers, which today seem so primitive as to be almost entirely unusable; even using desktop computers from just seven years ago can feel like an exercise in frustration. And yet Linn’s original MPCs continue to fetch a premium secondhand, not for nostalgia but for their actual functions.

The MPC occupies this rarest space in the world of technology: Its legacy and its effect exist alongside its significance today. It is a historical piece of musical technology that fundamentally changed music but has not outlived its functions. Nobody would balk at seeing one in a studio in 2018.

“Producers over 35 all probably made heavy use of the MPC,” Alexander explains. “I would be shocked if people like Bruno Mars and Pharrell didn’t have one somewhere in the chain.” Even the software that the younger producers are using (which have given the Macbook a similarly iconic stage presence) still emulates the MPC, and has essentially transposed the tools of the MPC box itself into a program.

And yet for many, this type of computer-based software isn’t necessarily any easier to use than the original interface of the MPC. In fact, it was in reaction to tedious mechanization that Linn developed the MPC to begin with: “It dumbfounds me how many computer software applications force the musician to learn engineering in order to play music,” he told me in an email. “In my view, the purpose of the designer is to understand the engineering but to design a musical instrument.”

There is so much the world of music simply wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the MPC. This is perhaps because Linn was able to see exactly how the world of music was changing, and that it would continue to rely more and more on digital tools. He built a box that allowed the musician and the producer to lean into the future of music without ever being alienated from their craft and needing to become engineers. As Keith puts it: “Roger Linn had his finger on the pulse of where we were headed.”

And as musicians themselves began making beats and choosing samples, the MPC helped dissolve the stubborn delineations that once existed between the two sides of the studio window. The producer and the musician now had the ability to become one. “Any human being who uses that machine is a musician, is a drummer, a beatmaker,” Keith says. Like J Dilla or Kanye West or Mark Ronson, you could have two equally influential careers as a musician and as a producer.

This freedom to create while working in conjunction with the technical demands of modern music brought forth a new kind of virtuoso — part performer, part producer, part beatmaker, part orchestra conductor, who had a sense for rhythm and percussion, who knew which samples would bring a track to life, who could chop and shrink and stretch as needed. Who could eventually, like Keith, learn to play the MPC with their eyes closed.

The explosion of electronic music and hip-hop could not have happened without a machine as intimately connected to the creative process as the MPC. It challenged the notion of what a band can look like, or what it takes to be a successful musician. No longer does one need five capable musicians and instruments. And the fact that an MPC can sample music, chop it up, change the pitch, slow it down, and put it on loop, allowed lone musicians and producers to put together symphonic, experimental music relying only on the box, a few buttons, and 16 gray pads. No manual required.

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