By the late 1980s, drum machines had enjoyed a decade or two of unbridled success as the go-to option for beat-making.
Meanwhile, around the same time, hip-hop artists were using samples of recordings – especially jazz and rare groove samples – to create new compositions. The MPC, created by drum machine expert Roger Linn while employed by Akai in Japan, managed to bring the two elements together: a standalone drum machine and a sampler, making a new type of instrument in the process.
MPCs are massively important in the history of modern music. Some notable examples:
- Legendary producer Dr. Dre (who keeps several in his studio at any one time)
- DJ Shadow (who used one on his classic album ‘Endtroducing‘)
- Kanye West (much of his ‘College Dropout‘ album was recorded using one)
With the technological advances of the last twenty years, modern MPCs now have sequencer capability, and most have deep connectivity with computers allowing them to double up as a midi controller for use with a DAW.
In this article, we went on a search for the best on the market.
Best MPCs: Product Guide
MPC Live II
The Live II is a standalone MPC, drum machine and MIDI controller rolled into one. It gives you everything you need to make music, anywhere, right at your fingertips – the rechargeable lithium-ion battery means you can keep going for hours too.
You get 16 velocity-sensitive RGB drum pads and all the MPC workflow features you’d expect: 16 levels, note repeat, auto sample, chords & note, transport controls, etc.
The thing that sets it apart from the MPC One (see below) is the built-in stereo monitoring capability. The studio-grade monitors (dual tweeter-woofer speakers) are insanely good, delivering a satisfying low end thump and tight top end. They let you hear every detail of your production straight from the box.
The 7” high-resolution multi-touch display looks fly too, as are the touch capacitive encoders. And of course, it has a built in USB audio interface, USB slots for thumb drives, SD card slot, etc.
This machine is amazing if you want to record when and where you like – and hear it right there through the stereo monitors – keeping your ideas flowing through the creative process, without the need for a computer.
- Standalone MPC, drum machine, and MIDI controller
- Built-in studio-grade monitoring system
- 16 velocity-sensitive RGB drum pads
- 7” high-resolution multi-touch display
- Touch capacitive encoders
- Connectivity for USB MIDI keyboard controllers
- Includes same multi-core processor as the MPC X
If you’re shopping on a budget and want a standalone MPC but you don’t to break the bank, the MPC One deserves a serious look. It’s packed with many of the features you find in the Live II, at a fraction of the price.
Like the Live II, you get 16 velocity sensitive RGB beat pads and a 7” high-resolution multi-touch screen. What this one lacks is the built-in monitoring system you find on the Live II.
- Standalone MPC, no computer needed
- 7” touch screen display
- MPC workflow features: 16 levels, tape stop effect, note repeat, etc.
The cream of the crop, if you can afford it, the X is where it’s at. This standalone MPC is the premium option.
It comes with 16 Q-link knobs with graphical displays, a beautiful flip-up 10” touch screen, and plenty of onboard storage (16Gb).
There are multiple MIDI, USB, and audio ins and outs, making your options limitless in terms of what you can sample and release and the device can easily work as a standalone machine as well as having the option of working with a Mac or PC.
This is a professional MPC for the musician/producer who requires the ultimate in storage, functionality, and quality. It works as a standalone device, so there’s no PC needed which makes it an excellent choice for the pro on the go. It will be inappropriate to those just starting out with sampling machines, or to those on a budget.
- Flip-up 10.1″ high-res, adjustable, multi-touch display
- 16 dedicated Q-links that can be loaded with custom settings
- Completely standalone – no need for a computer
- 8 audio outputs
- Controller mode for mac/pc
Like the Live, the Touch has a 7-inch screen, making it easy to control with your fingers. Although not a standalone station, the price is much lower, and much of the same functionality is included. Like the Touch, this device has MIDI and jack ins and outs, as well as a USB input. Although no phono inputs, or SD slots.
You get various banks, where you can save your projects. These are easy to select and navigate via clearly labeled buttons. It has velocity-sensitive, light-up pads making it easy to create melodies or trigger samples and easy-to-navigate play, record, overdub and stop buttons, amongst others.
It requires power via the DC adaptor to be fully functional, though can be partially bus-powered, minus the touchscreen.
It will suit musicians who like the Live model but are on a budget and are happy to use a device in combination with a PC or Mac in order for it to fully function. It will be less suited to those looking for something more portable, although it’s not too bulky or inconvenient.
- Thick, responsive pads allow you to creatively produce beats and melodies or trigger samples.
- Selectable banks give it a streamlined layout.
This doesn’t feature a touch screen but favors buttons and wheels instead, with MIDI and USB ins and outs, making it perfect for your computer.
There’s a huge sound library with this device, giving you more than enough to get started with and the clearly labeled buttons make it easy to navigate through and trigger selections of samples.
At 2lbs this machine is pretty lightweight, meaning that you can easily take it wherever you take your laptop and it’s also pretty slim at 1.5”. It’s well built enough to be easily capable of surviving the gigging lifestyle and it can be bus-powered, saving you the hassle of finding an extra plug socket.
The Studio will suit the old-school musician who likes to navigate through sounds and edit their samples using knobs and wheels, as well as sequencing software. It will be less suited to the more modern musician/producer, who craves innovation in their equipment and technology.
- A staggering amount of drum kits, synth sounds and more to experiment with gives this drum machine life of its own.
- A decent-sized screen is built in so you can use this during live performance without also needing to hook it up to a laptop or tablet for a display, which serves to enhance its live gig usability. However, the functionality of this is much more limited than the touch-enabled screens, and you will need to use your computer much more.
- It’s a very slim piece of kit, making it perfect for traveling.
Older Models (a History Lesson)
The 1000 model, an ‘old skool’ device is packed with features. There are 16 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads that can be set to different levels, tunings, attacks, decays or filters.
It also packs a 32 voice drum sampler as well as two onboard effects processors, and a multitude of inputs and outputs. Although it’s an old skool machine, you get both analog and digital ins and outs, including MIDI, USB, and jacks and there’s an optional memory card that can be used to drag and drop files from the machine to your PC/Mac and vice versa. It’s powered by a kettle lead, so you don’t need to worry about unusual adapters that are expensive to replace.
Everything on this is controlled by buttons and wheels so it will suit people averse to touchscreen, while the screen is small and digital, with aligned buttons to select your options.
Who is it suitable for?
This small and sturdy machine will suit those looking for something robust with older technological features. The lack of touch screen and the small screen might not suit those used to more modern products.
- Robust whilst lightweight and easy to transport.
- Uses buttons and wheels which will suit those who prefer older technology.
- 16 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads enable an expressive performance.
- The screen is small, which could frustrate some people.
- 32 built-in voices is quite limiting, although you can add to these easily with MIDI or audio samples.
Like the 1000 model, this is one for those who like things vintage.
For a start, this sampler is larger than the 1000 so it can make it a bit easier to use, but it has a lot of the same features, including 32 built-in voices and 16 velocity-sensitive pads. Everything is controlled by buttons and wheels which are linked up to a small, digital screen.
In addition, it has a built-in floppy disk (remember those things?) with a lot of included sounds. This supports samples from external libraries and can be used to insert more sounds.
The inputs/outputs are also different. As well as having a floppy disk rather than a memory card, this machine is pre-USB. There are MIDI ins and outs as well as jacks and phonos and the machine is plugged in using a power adapter.
There are swing and quantize functions to achieve consistency in your beats and all of the necessary editing tools including pitch shift, tuning and looping are accessible using the buttons. There’s also a built-in speaker on this device.
This device will suit those who have a penchant for older gear. It has all of the necessary features to successfully trigger samples and create beats, while it lacks newer input options and modern editing technology.
- Very vintage and long-lasting.
- Velocity-sensitive pads and built-in sounds.
- Quantize and swing options available.
- No USB ports.
- It’s pretty bulky.
- The buttons and small screen can frustrate those used to touch-screen.
The 2500 is similar to the previous two products. It also contains 16 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads which can be set to different levels, tunings, attacks, decays or filters.
As well as MIDI and jack ins and outs, there’s a CD-Rom drive and a memory card insert. This increases your options when it comes to both importing and saving sounds. It’s powered by an adapter.
There are two onboard effects processors and extensive editing tools including quantize, loop and pitch shift. Although everything is controlled by buttons and wheels, the screen is a little larger than some of the other machines and is also angled to face towards you. This makes it a little more user-friendly when sitting for a long time or performing on stage.
You also get an additional two Q knobs and sliders which can be assigned to any feature that suits you, to make instant editing a reality in your performance. There’s also a small built-in speaker.
This device will suit those looking for something to trigger samples with on stage without using a PC. The CD-Rom and flash drive give you the option of regularly updating your samples, without taking your laptop on the road. It won’t be suited to those looking for a modern product.
- CD-Rom and flash drive included for importing and exporting projects.
- Angled screen makes it easy to see without leaning over for prolonged periods.
- Assignable Q knobs and faders are performance-friendly.
- No USB ports.
- It’s a bit bulky.
The 3000 has 16 pads which are sensitive to aftertouch as well as velocity and pressure. In addition, you get some excellent built-in drum sounds and all of the editing functions you need to modify or loop your beats.
There’s internal storage as well as disk storage which is limitless. An old machine, it can keep going for years and years, and it has been through The Chemical Brothers, Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy, to name a few.
It’s an expensive machine, but it’s unlikely to let you down with its sturdy build and trusty buttons, wheels, and faders. The screen on this one also angles towards you, making it easy to see on stage or comfortable to sit down with for a long period.
There are MIDI and audio inputs and outputs, though, of course, this product has no USB. However, there is a very useful built-in speaker.
It will suit those who want a substantial machine to sit in their studio. It’s perfect for making beats for hip hop music and has a lot of editing features. It won’t suit those who require something USB compatible.
- Built-in speaker so you don’t always need to use headphones or external speakers.
- The aftertouch feature makes it very responsive.
- Built-in drum sounds make it easy to get started.
- Only drum sounds are built-in.
- No USB ports.
- It’s pretty bulky.
The 4000 introduced a level of connectivity that hadn’t previously been seen. You get jack, XLR, and phono audio ins and outs, MIDI ports, a USB connection, and a place for a memory card. The device is also powered via kettle lead.
It also packs a built-in speaker, angled screen and 16 velocity and pressure-sensitive pads.
Built-in effects include reverb, delay, auto-wah and compression and you can also pitch-shift, quantize and modulate your samples. This machine has all the features you could wish for in an old skool device, but with a price tag to match.
Like the 2500, this has assignable Q knobs and faders which make it performance-friendly. This machine is also, unlike the others, a pleasant, blue color. This can be a lot easier on the eye than the grey Akai products.
This device will suit those looking for a professional product with a lot of features to get used to. The excellent connectivity makes it a genuine contender amongst newer products, so it’s perfect for those torn between modern and old skool. The price tag means it won’t suit those on a budget.
- Excellent connectivity.
- Bright blue color makes it easy on the eye.
- Angled screen makes it performance-friendly.
- Very expensive.
Building on the success of the 4000, this has all the features and connectivity, plus an advanced screen that shows you the shape of your waves. There’s a massive 64mb memory built-in and an optional CDR drive to save your projects onto.
There are over 300 virtual synth sounds included, making it great for those just starting their library of sounds and there’s a 4-bus effects processor built-in with more than 40 effects.
Again, the screen is angled and the pads are velocity and pressure-sensitive. This product also has 4 assignable Q controls and faders for instant editing during performance.
As a professional MPC, it has a price tag to match. It also has a modern look an exciting amount of features and amazing connectivity.
This device is the perfect old skool beatbox, which will suit those who know they definitely want to go for something which isn’t touch-screen. It won’t suit those who require the hands-on involvement of a touch-screen device.
- Fantastic connectivity.
- 4 assignable Q knobs and faders.
- 300+ synth sounds included and 40+ effects.
- It’s very expensive.
- It’s quite big.
There are 16 knobs that can be set to control just about anything and 16 pads which can also be assigned to trigger whatever you like. The pads have excellent sensitivity to velocity and there are four banks, for you to save multiple projects or settings to.
The Renaissance has an impressive amount of inputs and outputs: from MIDI to jack to XLR, meaning you’re unlimited in terms of what you can sample and there are two USBs to enable fast audio integration.
It’s pricey, and is difficult to use as a standalone device but combined with the included software, this machine has no limits and it also comes with a massive 9GB of sounds, to more than get you started.
The Renaissance is perfect for the serious sampler who intends to spend a lot of time in the studio, with the device to capture and manipulate a series of different sounds. It will be less suited to those who want a simple set of pads to create beats on.
- High-quality pads with great velocity sensitivity.
- 16 Encoders can be set to control just about anything.
- Older style monochrome display, however, it does have most of the information needed for you to rely entirely on the screen without using a computer monitor (but this is much less so than the newest screen designs).
- Designed to be used with specific MPC software, which limits it’s usefulness somewhat.
- Quite heavy, so isn’t as useful for gigging.
- It cannot be bus-powered.
Buyer’s Tips: Key Considerations
Standalone or Integrated?
First up, do you need it for gigging, home/studio use, or both? If you’re going to be playing live, consider getting a standalone unit that frees you up from needing a computer.
If you’re only using it at home or in the studio, you might be more inclined to use the MPC in combination with your Mac or PC. Most standalone units have the option of being used in combination with a Mac or PC, too, giving you the option for when you’re in the studio.
Touchscreen or Buttons?
Do you need a built-in screen? Nearly all these machines have one, but the modern ones naturally have better, higher-resolution displays that are similar to those of a smartphone, making it easy and intuitive to edit samples with your fingertips.
Some models still rock a more old school display, which you might prefer if you enjoy the tactility of buttons.
Battery, BUS or AC/DC?
Many standalone models can be powered off rechargeable batteries. This is an obvious advantage in terms of portability and can be really useful in live performances or while traveling.
If you’re using one in combination with a laptop or desktop, BUS power is also often a useful feature, allowing you to power it off USB with no need for an additional AC or DC adaptor. Many of the more powerful devices do require an AC or DC adaptor though. This is fine if you’re using the device as part of a permanent home studio setup, but might be less ideal if you’re traveling about.
So, Which Should I Buy?
It goes without saying, which you buy depends entirely on your needs and preferences.
If the goal is to have something you can use at gigs, and you don’t mind bringing along a laptop or notebook, the Studio or Touch are great choices. Both of these work with software to trigger and edit samples, and they’re portable enough to carry with your laptop. The studio has no touch screen, making it better suited to the oldskool musicians out there, whilst the touch has – as the name suggests – a smartphone-style touch screen.
If full music production, as well as live performance, is what you’re looking for, the X is easily the most advanced standalone unit you can get. It works as a standalone device and has exceptional functionality, storage as well as all of the inputs and outputs you could wish for. It is, however, very expensive.
Oldskool fans should also consider any of the earlier models (the 1000, 2000, 2500, 3000, 4000 and 5000). The 1000 is a small, sturdy device that will suit those who want something to throw in their gig bags. The 2000 model and beyond are a little larger, which also has a floppy disk option that will suit those who enjoyed the 90s. The 2500 is similar, but also has CD Rom and flash drives. The 3000 is a classic, with an angled screen that makes it even more suited to performance. The 4000 and 5000 models are more modern, with USB ports as well as a host of built-in sounds and effects. They also come in blue and black respectively, which is easier on the eye than the grey of the older products. Whilst the 4000 has a lot of built-in sounds, the 5000 has even more and also has extra faders and knobs to enhance your control during a performance.
If you like to use your device in combination with your laptop, there’s the Renaissance. It looks and acts like a classic machine, while still having many of the benefits of new technology including two USB inputs and velocity-sensitive pads. It does need to be used with specific software, though, which makes it a little more limited than some of the other devices.
Now go and make beats!