Historically best known for its sampling and sequencing hardware, AKAI has in the last decade made great strides in developing the software side of its business, bringing its beat-making products to more or less whichever platform you prefer. The MPC software is its flagship recording and sequencing application - essentially a DAW in AKAI’s own style - and MPC Beats is the entry-level version, with many of its core features yet also completely free to use. You also don’t need to pair it with AKAI controllers if that’s your wish - it works with any MIDI input.
Installed on your Mac or PC, let’s first note the limitations of this free version. You get up to 8 MIDI tracks, 2 stereo audio tracks for recording and 4 send channels and 8 submix channels. You also get the AIR FX bundle of insert effects and AIR Bassline, Tubeline and TubeSynth plugins. The full MPC software, which costs around £193, has 128 MIDI and audio channels amongst other upgrades. Sometimes however, as many seasoned producers will attest, having some limitations can be a good thing. Having fewer tracks to work with can focus your mind and push you to do more with less. And of course you can always upgrade if you feel the need.
Once you get started - there are a number of templates that use the several GB of sample content bundled with the DAW - you won’t particularly feel like this is an entry level application. It’s very much designed around the concept of AKAI’s 16-pad sequencers of course, and to that end it has a specific kind of workflow. Anyone coming from a lifetime of Logic or Cubase will recognise the piano roll, the sample editor and more, but have to adjust to a more pad-oriented approach to programming.
If you are already in MPC world or indeed starting from scratch, the interface is very customisable and after a little learning, you will find your way around. The toolbar contains various view modes for maximising tasks like sequencing, pad mixing, sample editing and program editing. The windowing system means the various sections can display different parameters and tools. Occasionally these are accessed through quite small visual clues in menus and there’s a lot on offer, so you’ll need a little time to find your way around.
Once you do, the process of dropping samples onto pads, using Q-Link controls (when available), sample editing with the full range of commands on offer, recording audio, loading plug-ins and adding FX and mixing is much more powerful than you might expect. It feels like AKAI has included an awful lot of the tools from the full-fat version, but just limited the track count. Of course you can export not only as audio and MIDI but also as proprietary AKAI project format for use in MPC hardware and even as Ableton Live sets.
For someone who is relatively new to programming and production, this DAW might seem a little overwhelming at first. There is a lot of functionality on offer, and it’s a very different proposition to, say, GarageBand. This is a heavyweight MIDI production app that draws on AKAI’s history of pro audio development. That being said, it is free and works with any MIDI device you care to add (there’s a bunch of ready-supported and mapped models to choose templates for), so there’s really no reason not to try it out. It certainly provides excellent MIDI programming and performance tools, and could set you on your way to being a great MPC performer.
Pros: Free! Very powerful MIDI programming and editing environment. Pad-focused workflow. Sample editing. Build kits easily. Audio recording capability. Many MIDI controllers supported with maps. Good bundled samples, kits and plugin effects and instruments.
Cons: It’s hard to have a pop at anything that’s free, but novice users should be willing to invest some time in learning the workflows and concepts here - it’s a powerful DAW.