A guide to the MPC1000, the vintage sampler that could
Here are some tips and tricks on how to make the most of one.
The singer of Sydney post-punk act Flowertruck, Charles Rushforth, has a new project to focus his attention on these days – a new band called Greenwave Beth.
As Greenwave Beth, he and fellow Flowertruck member Will Blackburn have traded in the guitars on their upcoming debut EP, People In Agony, for the mighty MPC1000, a vintage sampler and sequencer the guys bought off eBay.
The MPC1000 - and its earlier models, like the MP60 - has a storied history being used as a critical component of hip hop, with earlier models serving as huge influences on the boom bap sound.
For the uninitiated, this guide goes through some basics of the sequencer. For tech-heads, it can be beneficial to know how fellow musicians use this iconic instrument, so Charles from the band took the time to put together a little guide to his influential little black box.
TIPS & TRICKS
I’ve never found a genre for the music that I make with Greenwave Beth that has ever sat comfortably with me. I’m simply not savvy enough with Ableton to be accepted into the broad camp of independent electronic music (I’ve broken more than one family computer trying to download cracked versions from The Pirate Bay), and my music gear is too delicate and heavy to fit into the realms of carefree pop.
Additionally, the logistical struggles of being a solo musician often force your hand. To perform your music live you either have to a) recruit a bunch of mercenary rock dogs and pray that you can stave off a mutiny with drink tickets or b) put your faith in technology and buy something electronic that can’t miss a practice or break a string. Option b), while seemingly the obvious choice, is beset with challenges. Imagine deliberating for years over whether to be a snowboarder or a skier, then after finally making the choice based on an ill-spent youth of SSX Tricky, discovering that you still have to choose between goofy or mono. In this analogy, the goofy camp is saying “People on stage with laptops aren’t real musicians” and the mono camp is saying “I can headline a festival and masturbate with the same piece of equipment”. They both make good points.
So in late 2015 I bought a little black box from some dude in South Australia and I’ve never looked back. It’s called a MPC1000 or Music Production Centre, was produced in 2003, and without further ado here are some tips for making the most of one.
What is it?
The MPC1000 is most commonly used as a sampler, but before laptops it was a revolutionary piece of equipment. You could connect a turntable via the record inputs and then use the ‘trim’ function to isolate anything from drum breaks to vocal lines. After creating a sample, you can mess with it via the onboard effects bank and then play it in real time or record it to the grid which will turn it into a loop. You could then create different sections and sequence them together and sing over the top via the song mode, which spits out a .wav file for you. Boom – you have a song.
This is much less impressive in an age of cryptocurrency and Fruity Loops. Your phone could feasibly do most of the above with the right apps, but the magic of the MPC is in the power of its sequencer and how it works with other instruments, which I’ll get into later.
First thing’s first.
The first thing you need to do after buying an MPC is download JJOS. You can do so from here.
You’ll need a computer and a USB cable.
What is JJOS you ask? It’s basically an overhaul for the operating system on your MPC. Think of it as upgrading from Windows Vista to Windows 7. It includes heaps of interface changes that improve the workflow and adds more features such as a grid edit for getting those snare hits in the right spot. If you have the dosh, you can also upgrade to the JJOS XL which adds so much stuff it’s almost suffocating, including an in-built synthesiser. Unfortunately, you have to pay American dollars for it so it ends up costing around $160. Go for the free one for now.
Something that the mono and goofy footers of bedroom producing have in common is a lust for drum samples. It’s a journey that never ends and one that 90% of your friends won’t find interesting or relatable so strap in. The MPC comes with a bank of samples pre-loaded on to the hard-drive, but to avoid disappointment you should find some you like first.
KB6 is a great free website that features famous drum machines like the 808 to more obscure ones like the Roland 68R (see Blondie’s Heart Of Glass or anything by Suicide). Some of the better samples are behind a paywall, but there’s more than enough there for free to get you started. Aim to get a few drum kits worth of stuff before preparing to load the samples onto the MPC.
Before transferring samples over, it’s a good idea to create a drum program. This turns the horde of assorted claves and hi-hats you’ve downloaded into a drum kit. The MPC saves this drum kit to its internal memory so you don’t have to re-assign the drum samples every time you restart your MPC. You create a drum program by hitting the mode button followed by the pad named ‘program’. You make a name for it and then you’re ready to assign your samples to your pads (fun fact, my go-to kit is lovingly called Qrogram1).
Connect your MPC via USB and save the samples to the internal memory. Then go through and assign them to your pads via the program window. I always try and keep the set-up consistent, e.g. kicks on the lower pads, snares in the centre and hi-hats up the top. In program view you can also stack samples together, for example you can set up two programs to share a pad. You can create a really strong kick drum sound by having a bright snappy snare blended with a longer 808 kick. You can also muck around and assign certain parts of the kit to the effects board; I love the Bitcrusher and Flanger on the low toms.
Sequences & Track Mute
Now that you’ve got a drum kit, you’re free to start experimenting with the sequencer. Just choose how many bars you want in your loop and then hit the record button. You can also overdub and erase parts on the fly via the big red overdub button down the bottom and the erase button in the top right.
When writing drums into the MPC, the smart way to do it is to assign each part to a track, e.g. kick drums on track one, snares on track two and so on. You can change between tracks with the little rectangular buttons just below the LCD screen. When you’re happy with something and want to save it, simply go into the save function and select save sequence (to the MPC, a sequence is essentially the name for a collection of tracks).
After this you can hit the track mute button and it turns the pads into mute controls for those respective tracks. It doesn’t seem like much but this is what makes the MPC so powerful in a live format. You can essentially create verses and choruses that you can switch between on the fly. In track mute view, you can also change to another sequence which means you can write songs that use different time signatures. Just create an adjacent sequence with the time signature you desire and turn the data wheel in that direction while the MPC is playing. For example, if the normal rhythm is under sequence 1, but you want to have a chorus in a different time signature, create a new sequence called sequence 2 and then turn the data wheel to the right in the last few bars of your verse; it will automatically queue up sequence 2.
By now you’re faced with a few choices regarding different instrumentation. You can export guitar/vocal/synth parts from your computer and turn them into samples, although this tends to chew up hard drive space as they’re typically larger files than drum samples. They’re also less versatile as they can only fit into one BPM and it can be tricky getting it to line up to the grid (the trim function is your friend here as you can choose the point your sample starts and ends).
This leads me to the coolest thing about the MPC: you can hook up external synthesisers via midi. For the uninitiated, midi is a language used by a computer to translate functions on a synthesiser. A synthesiser with a midi in and out becomes a midi-keyboard; everything you play while the MPC is recording will be saved as a pattern. Say you have a microKORG lying around... Instead of recording the sound you want for a song on a computer and then transferring it across as a sample, you can just plug in two cables in the corresponding in and out midi channels. The MPC acts as a brain that interprets what you’re playing while sending it back to the synthesiser. The MPC allows up to 16 different midi channels, so you can have up to 16 different pieces of equipment hooked up via midi.
This is all very intuitive once it’s all in front of you, as a solo musician it’s let me have a robotic army of keyboardists and bassists. I still have to lug all the gear around myself and I’ve been electrocuted a few times at house parties, but you live and learn.
Greenwave Beth's debut EP, People In Agony, is out June 8.
Connect with Greenwave Beth on Facebook here.