Long time no blog. I’m usually blogging at http://thecommunity.com.au/FG these days. However, I thought I’d drop a technical blog here because the other blog is just for my musical endeavours.
I’ve been doing a bunch of shows lately. Emcee sets and beat sets, mostly. Regardless of the type of set I’ve been keeping my MPC2000XL central to the show – playing beats off it for raps and doing live beat stuff on it when I run out of breath. Over the course of these shows I’ve encountered plenty of “technical difficulties” and found some solutions so I thought I’d drop a line for anyone who’s looking at doing a similar thing.
Here’s a list of 5 things you should do to ensure that your sets run off the MPC flawlessly:
1. When preparing a song, sequence or program to play live make sure you don’t gain any of the samples. If something is too quiet, mix everything else lower rather than raise the level of that sound. It can be very tempting to go into the TRIM –> PARAMS window for a sample and crank the level to 200. You will be very tempted to do this for kicks and snares in particular – but avoid the temptation. Similarly, don’t turn the VEL% on your sequence tracks up above 100, either. Here’s why…
The Digital to Analogue Convertors (DAC), I think, run before the volume gain stage on the outputs. This means that any internally gained sounds have the potential to be sent from the MPC to the front of house mixer at greater than 0dB. This is part of the reason that MPC’s have an “analogue” sound to the audio they output. However, the result can be a catastrophic clampdown by the front of house compressor (if they have one, which 99% of the time the venue does) or, even worse, over driven and distorted sounds and, even even even worse, you could blow out the venues front of house speakers and end the show entirely.
Front of house compressors are much like mastering compressors in how they’re set up. They have a relatively slow attack time and a very long release. Anything that goes into them too hot will cut through for a moment (which sounds like a big POP) and then the level will drop enormously before slowly creeping back to normal (at which point the hot kick or snare usually hits again and the process is repeated). This not only sounds terrible but makes it damn near impossible to stay on point with any pattern that you’re playing live.
If you never gain sounds in the MPC, then you should never send a signal hot enough to make the compressor shit itself and you should never have any problems.
2. If you’re not playing a program on the fly (a la Exile or ARAAB) then make sure you name your tracks and sequences. You can even go so far as to arrange them in the SONG window and convert the whole song to one new, giant sequence. That way, if you have an outro without any vocals, you can jump into the MUTE window and do a nice little ‘on the fly’ drum/sample drop sequence.
3. Convert as many samples as you can to mono. This is usually absolutely fine for drums (kicks, snares, hats etc) and percussion. You have to decide for yourself whether it’s worthwhile for samples. It usually won’t hurt for bass (as many systems mono the bass anyway to avoid phasing issues in the venue). The reason for doing this is purely to reduce the time it takes to load a new program and sequence. If you have a Compact Flash drive or SCSI drive then the load time will be between 10 and 30 seconds for a song. Needless to say, if you run off floppy disk still – then you’re in for a world of hurt waiting for the MPC to load so you’re better off just learning how to adlib really well between songs.
4. Fall in love with the 16 levels function and the SLIDER. They are both limited. You can’t turn 16 Levels on or off while a sequence is playing, for example, but with some deft skills you can stop a sequence in the final count of the loop, hit 16 levels, and then press PLAY START in time to catch the first beat of the next bar. Make note of my qualification about DEFT SKILLS… you’ll need them. This does allow you to, for instance, go from some on the fly arrangement into a synth solo on the MPC though so it’s worth experimenting. The SLIDER can only be assigned to 1 pad at a time but you can get some gnarly effects from it. Assign it to a synth/siney tone and you can go pitch shift crazy. To make this seem flawless, set the sine tone as a short loop and make the END time for the amplitude envelope quite long. The SLIDER can’t vary the pitch while a sample is playing but with a long release you can tap the sine pad repeatedly while moving the pitched and create a fairly seemless sounding sine pitch shift.
5. Learn to love the filter envelope (PROGRAM WINDOW, highlight cutoff or resonance and press OPEN WINDOW to access it). This can turn a really simple looped sound into a damn good imitation of an old analogue synth. For even more Moog-ish funk, link the pad to another pad with the same sound but pitched up or down 120 (1 octave). You can then alter the filter envelope on the second pad in an entirely different way to the first pad and create very interesting sounds such as a bass not that falls hard, sharp and low at the start and then sweeps in with a squelchy higher frequency towards the end. Very cool. You could also link two patches of the same sound and pitch one down 1 or 2 and the other up 1 or 2 for a fat detuned bassline. Just beware of phasing. Either way, this can really cut down the need to bring a synth to your gigs.
And, that’s my top five recommendations for using the MPC2000XL live. It’s nearly 13 years old and I’m yet to find a replacement machine that can compete (and trust me, I’ve tried Maschine, Ableton, the MPC1000 and many other units).