The MPC Key 61 breaks new ground on what the household-name MPC has traditionally been known for. Adding to its legendary pad-based sequencing and sampling prowess, Akai Professional has introduced the MPC Key 61—the first true MPC with a keybed—and loaded it with a vibrant, easy-to-use touchscreen, a suite of virtual instruments and powerful plug-ins designed to take MPC to new levels of songwriting, production and live performance potential.

To unlock the behind-the-scenes thinking, processes and stories that went into the creation of the MPC Key 61, we spoke with Andy Mac, Akai Professional’s content and A&R manager.

The HUB: The first MPC, the MPC60, came out in 1986, but this is the first one that you’ve ever added keys to. What was the eureka, light-bulb moment that led to this?

AM: I think the light-bulb moment, as you say, was really the fact that the platform had matured so much and the standalone idea of working without a computer was so successful. We saw that there was a gap in the market for a keyboard that would allow you to actually finish music. You know, create music at a professional level by integrating the history of the MPC sequencing, the foundation of the product, the high-quality MPC sampling, and, also, having proper drum pads on a product, which no one else had. It just made so much sense to us, plus we’ve really got a lot of experience with our keyboard-based MPK MIDI controllers. We’ve seen how popular they are, and we’ve found that a lot of people that use MPCs often have some type of Akai keyboard in the studio, even an MPK Mini.

All of a sudden, you are surrounded by the best of the best, with everything that you need in one standalone product, combining all of these things that you love. If you were very focused on pads, you can keep that workflow, but you can now combine it with the keys playing. You might be someone that’s always thought, “Actually, I do want to play. I want to cram in melodics, but I don’t want to lose my workflow, where everything that I’ve done for so many years is based around the pads and sampling.” Well, now you can combine all that. And that’s the missing piece with a lot of the keyboards that have been out there. They haven’t allowed you to incorporate all these other things that you’ve become accustomed to for so long.

The HUB: Would you say that MPC Key 61 is more designed for keyboardists who want an MPC workflow, or MPC users that want a keyboard?

AM: It’s designed for anyone who wants to make music without the need of a computer, though it will of course work for someone who wants to make music with the need of the computer as well. You have the best of both worlds, but the real value here is that it’s designed for someone who wants to integrate everything they love about sampling, using pads, building rhythms, playing chords and melodies. That’s the joy it brings.

I think so many of us love playing the keyboard, love listening to sounds, but we’ve been kind of stuck in these ways of using different devices, purely because technology hadn’t been created to have it in one product. Working standalone has become so popular, and the reason is we’ve worked extremely hard to make it reliable and compelling, to have features that were only accessible in the DAW. You know, you can’t just have a sampler nowadays. You have to have all of the other things that come with that. So, bringing the MPC Key 61 out in 2022, with the glorious MPC OS updates that we’ve done, you really are receiving something at the pinnacle of what we’ve created.

A Top Panel View of the Akai Professional MPC Key 61

The HUB: While many people think of Akai as the MPC company, there are many people whose first Akai product might be an MPK mini or one of the larger full-scale MPKs, which are keyboard products. Can you tell us a little bit about the keybed in MPC Key 61?

AM: Developing the keyboard, we wanted to make sure that it had a very elegant feel to it. We put a good amount of time into really getting the feel right. The keybed is semi-weighted with velocity and aftertouch, which offers a whole different level of expressiveness.

What’s really important, as well, is that not only does it have an amazing keybed, but when you combine it with the touch strip, it takes everything to a whole new level.

The HUB: You beat me to it! I noticed the touch strip that you introduced in MPC Studio is there. Was that sort of like once you put it in MPC Studio you thought, “Oh, my gosh, how have we not …”?

AM: So, let me tell you a story. When I make the Beats Academy videos, I really get to experiment on a whole new level of track making. Now, we had worked out what the touch strip was going to do, but when I put it to use, it really came into its own. It was really a no-brainer.

Once you start using the touch strip and you realize some of the stuff that you can do with note repeats, with filter sweeps and effects, it really takes things to a whole new expression. You can bounce between all these different types of features, at the touch of a button—and you combine that with a touchscreen as well—you do get a new level of controllability.

The HUB: Keyboardists are probably going to approach things in a more polyphonic manner, at least in comparison to pad-based producers. Did that change things from a development standpoint? With it being a shared OS between all the MPCs, I’m curious what that will mean for other MPC users.

AM: What we needed to make sure was that when we were making these instruments, we were optimizing them for the OS. We wanted to make sure that we’re not giving users a playing experience where they’re maxing out the keyboard very quickly. We work very, very hard to make sure that every product, every plug-in we design, is efficient with the CPU. But, it still had to sound state of the art and have the best effects that we could get.

When you look at it, we’ve actually developed the platform, MPC OS, over five, six years now. So, we know a lot of things. We understand how to use the CPUs. We understand how to balance out effects and track count. So, for us, that aspect of it wasn’t that difficult. It was really about making the user experience compelling, making sure that we create the right type of instruments. And, most importantly, by not compromising what the MPC can do. We didn’t want to say, “Okay, now you’ve got all these plug-ins, you can only have this amount of sampling.” This is why we doubled the RAM, as well. This has 4GB of RAM, compared to 2GB on the other MPCs, because we wanted to make sure that we put more emphasis on the keyboard.

It’s a faster workflow when you’re using all of the instruments. You’re not compromising sample time at all. We added a bigger SD card inside, because all the instruments are embedded into the actual OS as well, so you don’t have to download things at the same time. You turn it on, everything’s in there. You can also add your own expansion packs or bring in your own sound libraries and all of the joyful things that you want to do.

The HUB: You talk about the amount of RAM, doubling from 2GB to 4GB. For people that are used to hearing about computers that have 16, 32 or 64GB of RAM on a computer, can you explain what that actually means?

AM: It’s interesting because when I’ve done seminars in the past some people have said, “Oh, you know, you’ve only got two gigs of RAM, and I can only do this much sampling time.” But even with two gigs of RAM, it’s a massive effort to max that out, really.

If you’re working on 20, 30 tracks all at the same time, which most people don’t do, the way that people tend to work their management system is you work on a few projects with the same sounds and stuff, and then you save that, and then you move on to the next one. So, you still have to have an efficiency mindset, because with some computers, when you look at track count, they put 10 compressors and EQs on every single channel, and they don’t think about using buses—

The HUB: For the economy of mixing, yeah.

AM: Exactly, stuff like that, really.

The HUB: I think sometimes people might look at specs like that and be like, “Oh, but that spec sounds so behind,” but they don’t realize that with the MPC product family, you’re getting such an optimized, closed system, so you don’t need more than that, right? It’s not like you have to worry about closing a web browser or mail app.

AM: We were making some tracks the other day, and we were hitting probably, what, 22% on the CPU. I was probably using like 35% of RAM, and I had a lot of stuff going. And, you can still go into the mindset of, “Actually, I could bounce this stuff out, and then I can utilize even more tracks.”

So, if we touch on some of the workstation architecture, a lot of sequences are running 16 tracks. We’ve got 128 MIDI, so that covers sampling, keygroups and instruments, right? Then you’ve got an additional eight for audio tracks. So, once you’ve maxed out, say, eight instruments, you can then have as many tracks as you want with drum samples, until you max out the RAM—and that’s a lot of samples.

When you’re talking one-shots and stuff like that, then you’ve got keygroup sampling, because we’ve had auto-sampling in here for a long time. So, you can auto-sample some of your classic synths, bring all those sounds in and use them as keygroups. There’s a huge number of things that you can do.

Also, with MIDI, if you want to start MIDIing up stuff, using CV and utilizing MIDI Multi over USB, you can start using those MIDI tracks to drive external equipment. So, the capabilities are kind of endless.

A Rear View of the I/O on the Akai Professional MPC Key 61

The HUB: So, 2GB or 4GB aside, it’s not the same as what someone might be thinking on a computer.

AM: No, no, exactly. Once you’ve got After Effects running and everything else, well you know what’s going on.

The HUB: Take us to day one as you were discussing sound design needs. “Okay, we’re making a keyboard-based MPC. We need to have some great, high-quality, keyboard-friendly instrument plug-ins.” How did you come up with the list?

AM: We looked at what kind music is out there right now. What’s the modern styles of music? What kind of sounds get people inspired? And what kind of sounds do people expect in a keyboard, as well?

Once you start to populate that list, you realize that you need a stage piano. You need an EP, a great Rhodes. You need an organ. You need strings. But you also need other things that really give you that whole sound design palette of inspiring sounds, and then you have something that gives you some synthesis.

Remember, we’ve also added a lot of other synths over the past 18 months or so. You’ve got Odyssey. You’ve got Hype. You’ve also got DrumSynth, which gives you eight dedicated drum synth modules as well, so that you’ve got an awful lot to choose from that cater to very different types of users. You really have a synth for every type of music that you want to make.

The HUB: Can you give us a bit of a deeper dive on some of the new instruments?

AM: Yeah. We settled on Fabric XL as your go-to bread-and-butter plug-in instrument. You will find everything you need, from modern styles of synthesis to classic go-to sounds covering the whole sound design spectrum. It has a wide range of effects, to give you different types of textures, again, for modern and old-school styles of sound design, with a very pleasing and easy-to-use interface.

OP-X4 … We’re living in a very modern time of ’80s-era sound design. FM synthesis is something that’s been around for a long time, and we wanted to add a plug-in that gave people the creative tools to be able to dive into very deep synthesis and sound design, something that they might have only been used to on a DAW, something that’s a little bit left field as well.

You know you can create some really interesting types of sound design with FM. Again, you can make it very modern, but you can also go into some very dark and twisted sounds with FM. We give you a lot of filter types, a lot of onboard effects. We wanted to make it very pleasing to the eye, so everything’s in one location, so you’re not having to go through endless menus.

When you open up OP-X4, you’ll have everything laid out with your four operators. You go into the frequencies, all the different filter types, the effects section, and then save to your favorites.

With the Stage Piano, we wanted to make sure there were four elegant models. You can simply choose any of the four models available, which are Yamaha C7, Steinway, Bechstein and Classic Workstation. You can go into the mechanics and effects editing. You can go into the newer effects to make it a little bit darker and lo-fi, depending on the kind of styles that you want. So, you can keep it modern and traditional, or make it very current and dirty, shall we say.

As far as Stage EP, we wanted to make sure that we had a really sophisticated EP plug-in that gives you access to all of the different styles of Rhodes, Wurlis, etc. that were available—because this is very subjective. You can go into the Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Pianet or Suitcase, Rhodes Hot and you can really customize each of those models how you want them to sound.

There are so many presets to choose from, but the interface is very easy to navigate around, so you’ll feel very at home even if you’re not familiar with them.

The HUB: So, between all the instrument plug-ins, how many sounds are we looking at?

AM: Over 6,500 presets.

The HUB: So, you’ve got presets if you’re not feeling adventurous, and easy-to-use interfaces if you are.

AM: Yeah. And you can be very overwhelmed with technology when you look at an interface sometimes, right? That’s what I personally have found with DAWs. We really wanted to make the interfaces inviting, colorful and easy to navigate around. So, if you do want to venture into changing an envelope, you can just use your finger. It’s very, very well laid out, and a lot of thought has gone into where each page needs to be, and what the journey is for someone changing a sound.

I’ll be honest with you; I wasn’t really into sound design until I started to experiment with a lot of our plug-ins over the past few years. I started to understand what drives LFOs, how you can achieve a sound that’s in your head by utilizing these features, and I think it’s so pleasing for people when they know what they’re doing with a plug-in in a sense of, “Oh, how did I achieve that? What did I do?” And this is what’s great about the interfaces.

The HUB: And I’m guessing there’s probably going to be some videos on the Akai YouTube channel digging into each of these new instruments?

AM: Yeah. There’s a whole bunch of videos that we created that get you up and running with Fabric. That was the key one for me—a real deep dive into Fabric, so you understand the architecture, what you get out of it, how you can edit the sounds, what each edit function does and how it influenced the sound, so you’re not afraid to experiment as well.

You can go a lot further than the factory presets very, very quickly and efficiently by utilizing the plug-in with the effects that are included inside, or by digging into the actual studio effects that are inside the keyboard as well. You can flip your beats and productions in the most simplistic way just by adding a few effects. It’s quite mind blowing.

The HUB: When we were talking earlier about the sequencing capabilities, you touched on connecting other external hardware. Can you speak to that a little further?

AM: Yeah. The I/O has changed dramatically since the last two updates.

All of the MPCs are a little bit different. MPC X has separate outputs, mic inputs, instrument inputs. On MPC Live II, you have your six independent outputs and a speaker onboard. MPC One has stereo in, stereo out. Now, what’s interesting is that when we added MIDI Multi, it kind of made MIDI redundant, because all of a sudden, you can take one USB cable and connect to a USB hub and now you’ve got up to 32 inputs and outputs from MIDI in one single cable.

So, you can look at the IO and think, “Okay, I’ve got all the standard things I need. I’ve got my inputs. I’ve got four outputs. I’ve got mic preamps with 48-volt phantom power. I’ve got line-level inputs, instrument and CV gate. So, I’ve got all the things that I need already right at my disposal.”

But with technology and our updates, all you need to do is connect into that USB port, and a new world opens up. You can add up to 32 inputs and outputs of audio via class-compliant audio device as well. If you feel that, “You know what? I want to bring in more audio. I want to bring in all my synths, or I want to route the outputs of everything,” you’re not limited. This is what’s great about our OS—we are constantly pushing the boundaries of what these products do.

If you think about someone who bought an MPC Live, version one, five years ago, that MPC Live today is still compatible with the OS. It can do all of the USB, all of the MIDI. It can support all the instruments. It can do all those things five years later, and that’s quite amazing.

The HUB: We’ve been talking a lot about these new plug-ins, and I imagine that while this will probably find itself in a lot of studios, the physical addition of keys, in addition to the new plug-in instruments, maybe brings it a little more into the performance realm.

AM: Well, I’ll tell you a secret then that you can print. The keyboard was at the Super Bowl this past year.

A Front Angled View of the Akai Professional MPC Key 61

The HUB: Wow! As you were kind of putting it together was there anything that you started approaching more with a “performer” mindset than a studio producer mindset? Was any of the hardware or OS development impacted by the unique needs of someone being up on stage?

AM: I would say that the screen has always been one of the most popular things about the standalone aspect of what we do. Having the touch interface allows people to really interact with the product. So, having such a vibrant interface onscreen with all of these compelling, easy-to-use interfaces makes it a really compelling user experience for a live performer. That’s the first thing.

When we looked at what a live performer would need from a product, it’s a case of, well, how will they be using it? They’re not using their keyboard for sampling because it’s not efficient enough. They’re not using it to play drums and stuff, because it’s not efficient or the pads are too small. Suddenly, we started to have things that other keyboards couldn’t offer to a live performer. We do clip launching already in the sampler. We do audio tracks in the sequencer. So, when you start adding those things up as a keyboard player, there’s a number of elements that you’re already adding that aren’t available. We’ve got the sounds. We’ve got the keyboard splits. We’ve got the sequencing. We’ve got the outputs. We’ve got the pads. We’ve got the sampling. Now, you’ve got performance touch strip, velocity, aftertouch—as a keyboard player you can think differently now. You can do more. You can also utilize auto-sampler, and you can actually sample synths and have access to them on stage as well, bringing those things into your performance.

So, for us, it’s going to be extremely exciting to see how MPC Key 61 embeds itself into the live production side of things as well, because we do really believe that this is not just a studio production tool. This is a keyboard that attracts anyone who wants to make music, anyone who wants to make a song in their head who is interested in sound sampling, production and performance.

The HUB: Digging into the sound design a little bit, was that in-house for the most part? Did you work with some of the folks you’ve done MPC expansions with in the past? Did you seek out new artists?

AM: We did some external sound design for OP-X4. We did a lot of internal research for Fabric XL. We’ve got sound designers that are part of our AIR team who have been in the industry for a long time, and those are very accomplished sound designers. Some of them have worked with the likes of Hans Zimmer, for example.

The key thing for us was making the right sounds. Even though it’s great to turn on a keyboard and hear a piano or a string sound or an organ, I think people expect a lot more now. They want to hear one sound that inspires them to create a track or lay a beat down. They want sounds that will spark a melody.

I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve sat in front a plug-in or an instrument, and one single sound has inspired a whole song, or a record or a hit. And, for us, the power of sound is what inspires music, really.

So, that was our goal. We wanted to elevate what can be achieved in a keyboard, not just, “Hey, we got great sounds.” And we also didn’t want to go out the gate with like, “Hey, we’re the sampling people.” We’re a lot more than that. We’ve matured far beyond being known just for sampling.

The HUB: We’re going to put you on the spot. What are your favorite sounds that really blow your mind?

AM: There’s a beautiful Rhodes in Fabric XL, which is actually called The Mac Special. I named it after myself, because I wanted one of those Rhodes that really just melts—that you can sit in front of it for hours and hours, and come up with melodies and ideas and chords—and it’s just joyful to hear. It’s a very plain sound, but there’s something special about the right Rhodes sound. It shouldn’t be too bright, too harsh. It’s got to be smooth and warm, and I love that sound. Absolutely love it.

The other one is called “The A.M.” That is the piano which really takes you into that whole lo-fi world. It’s got a hint of delay. It’s got noise. It’s got vinyl movement. It is lush. You can play these melodies that you wouldn’t even think about playing on a piano, and you start discovering new types of chords that are inspired by the sound.

The other one, which I absolutely love, is called Soft Five. It comes from Fabric XL. It’s kind of like a harmonic pad that has a third above it, and when you play chords, you start hearing these harmonics that you wouldn’t necessarily hear on a standard warm pad. You can just use your cutoff and tone it down, and kind of make it a bit warm and dirty. But the Soft Five, for me, has these gorgeous harmonics that add these textures that I wouldn’t find on a typical pad sound.

The HUB: Let’s talk a little bit about the effects. So much focus is put on if something is sample-based or modeling, the quality of that sample or model. “Can you hear the decay? Can you hear sample looping?” But I feel like people don’t always pay as much attention to the effects in a keyboard. Can you speak to that a little bit?

AM: On the effects side of MPCs in general, we’ve really pushed the boundaries of what can be achieved. Inside MPC Key, you’ve got everything from vocal effects, harmonizing, pitch correction effects through to your conventional mix and mastering tools, including compressors, maximizers—everything. We wanted to make sure that you have the same kind of tools that were only available in the DAW. Now, when you create a melody with the keys, and you’ve taken like a lo-fi piano or a real futuristic pluck, you can add things like Flavor to degrade the sound instantly. You can like use things at Half-Speed where you can then half it, then you can resample that, and then just change the bit rates and start to degrade things.

The mindset is, “I don’t just have to settle on the preset.” You can inject all the technology of utilizing effects, which is what a lot of sound designers do. You can save your plug-in chains of effects. And these can all be applied to the instruments. So, it really is limitless—what you can create. You can dive inside the plug-in, but then you’ve got that whole level of control, like a DAW. “Well, okay, I’ve got my sound. Now, I’m going to throw loads of effects onto it,” and that’s the exciting thing. You can start off with a basic sound—or an interesting sound—and then take it somewhere darker.

The HUB: Is there any effect that for you is particularly useful or inspirational?

AM: There are three. There’s my go-to chain which is three plug-ins: Half-Speed, AIR Flavor and Granulator. Those three will mess you up every time!

The HUB: No matter what the source is.

AM: Yeah. And, again, this is the whole magic of the keyboard—when you’re sitting there and you’re playing a melody, you shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting with effects. This is the only platform that has those types of effects available in working in standalone. People have never been able to have these accessible in a keyboard before.