In my opinion, the MPD range looks great. The nice blue display, the clear layout of the controls and the yellow illuminated buttons, it looks like it is something serious. I ordered this online and had read reports that it was big and realised just how bit it was when a huge box arrived for me. Being at work I had to wait until I could use it. Luckily for me I had already designated room for this beast and it fit in nicely on my desk.
Once switched on it looks great and the thing feels like it could survive a drop from a plane. It is tough and designed for heavy use. heavy rubber feet prevent it from moving on the desk and a heavy steel undercarriage supports the internal guts. The outer shell is a heavy plastic but doesn't feel flimsy or cheap. Inside the unit the pads are supported by a steel framework which bolts to the steel base so there is a LOT holding those pads firm. I know this because I pulled this apart and put it together a number of times for 1 reason (mentioned soon).
The controls and knobs all feel sturdy and firm. The buttons feel good and have a nice specific click to them so you can both hear and feel when you have pressed them. The pads feel nice and solid and feel like you could really hammer out a tune on them.... And that is kind of what the designers seem to have had in mind.
Powerup & Testing
There are no USB drivers needed for this, just plug and go. This is a bit of an "issue" for people on winXP because although it works just fine, it requires 3 MIDI ports to be created which are simply called USB Audio 1, 2 & 3. If you have other controllers which are also simply called "USB Audio" controllers it can be a pain to figure out what is what. On Windows 7/8 this is a non issue as the USB ports are named AKAI MPD32 so this is more an issue on windows. Connecting and setting up the MIDI was simple and straight forward and the unit comes pre-programmed with a number of program patches ready to use with your software such as Cubase, Reason etc. I selected the Ableton patch and set it as a control surface and track controller in Ableton and I was away.
The menu system is simple enough to navigate. A single knob scrolls through options and a button enters menus. There aren't too many options which is a good thing, just adjustments for changing control values and channels, global BPM, pad threshold and sensitivity and other various options but you can get through these in just a few minutes and without the manual. Software is also available from the Akai website to setup templates and dump to the controller which is a lot easier for setting up the whole thing but for small tweaks, the menu is simple.
The display shows a lot of info. The patch name, velocity pressure for pads, last velocity value, controller data. The LED indications are very bright and when you know what they are suppose to display they are simple to understand.
Operating with Ableton Live
The MPD32 is designed with Ableton in mind but will function pretty much just the same with most DAW software. I personally use Ableton so here is what I experienced. The controller is set as a Control Surface which maps the 8 faders to the first 8 channel volume controls, the 8 buttons below the faders to track Arm and the 8 knobs automatically to the first 8 parameters of any selected plugin. The Pads will control the 16 pads displayed on screen from the drum rack and will follow you through the drum rack when you select different sets of pads.
You can access even more functionality by pressing the Bank buttons to switch though 4 different banks for the pads and 3 different banks for the faders, buttons and encoders. This allows the first bank to be auto-mapped in software and the other banks to be hard coded to functions. I used a MIDI utility called Bome MIDI Translator to use some controls to operate ableton functions such as Metronome, Overwrite etc.
One thing to note is that though having banks of controllers seems like a great idea, the lack of LCD name feedback for controls means you have to remember what the controls are for. There is another issue too... The control value in Ableton is not sent to the MPD32 and even though the encoders are endless they are still relative. This means that instead of just increasing/decreasing the controller on-screen it will cause it to jump to whatever the control is set to on the MPD until they are synched. This is the norm for many cheap controllers but I thought the MPD would handle this stuff a little better.
A much discussed topic are these pads. Some love them and some hate them. The consensus is that these are the same pads used on the popular Akai MPC drum machine but many who have owned these machines say they are nothing like them. I personally cannot comment there, but I have to agree that the pads are designed for people that like to really hammer them. I personally found I needed to rap too hard on these and decided to install cork inserts (available online from MPDstuff.com) for the pads which close the space between the pad and sensor and add a lot of sensitivity. I had to re-do this 4 times as the cork started pressing against the sensor without the pad being touched. This is a pain as you need to remove the back, the inside brackets, some of the inside cables, fader knobs just to get the pads out. All this done now, I can just touch the pad and trigger a sample so you can tap with little pressure to play which is how I wanted.
With the pads modded and setup just how I liked them I found getting good expressive rhythms was easy and I could lightly tap out and program beats nicely. I just wasn't too experienced with this method so could really only play out one element at a time but it was a lot more fun and inspiring than just clicking in notes on-screen with the mouse.
The Bad Points
So, as stated above, the pads can be a little hard to trigger and modding them is not simple. Next is the MIDI side. Basically, there is no MIDI feedback for the controls. I am blessed with controllers around me that get info from the DAW so any changes are reflected on the controller. The MPD has no MIDI feedback so if I have a track ARM button activated on the MPD then deactivate it on the Mackie, the MPD still shows track is armed. An issue if you have multi-controllers like most of us.
The size is probably the only other "issue". The MPD26 seems like it is a nice size but to me the MPD32 takes up just too much room for what it actually does. There is a lot of open space which is great for big hands to operate lots of controls but there are not many controls and there is a lot of open space that seems wasted.
Summing It Up
I used the MPD32 for about 2 years and sold it after I purchased an Ableton Push controller. I did like the MPD but thought personally it looked much better than it actually was. The faders at the top were never touched and I only ever used the 8 knobs in macro map mode which was very useful but again I had no idea what the knobs mapped too in most ableton plugins until I moved them.
The physical size and cost would have me suggesting to people to compare some other options especially since I needed to void the warranty and modify it to even be useful to me. Where this was once a great option there are now controllers such as Maschine, Push and a plethora of drum pad controllers I would not really see myself looking at this again.
Lastly, Akai support is basically non existant. Several emails asking about some of the features and lack of MIDI feedback did not even receive a response or a "thanks". Not even an automated reply. Nothing. If support or after sales service is of interest then Akai Pro is probably not a good choice.