by Anders Johanson November 13, 2020 9 min read
If you are just sitting down to begin researching what digital audio workstation (DAW) is right for you then chances are you might be put off by the price point of the initial investment. With few free and fully functional options available the idea of jumping head-first into something completely unknown without even bothering to get your feet wet seems like it is a system built for failure. Reading articles and watching YouTube videos and tutorials does not quite give you the same feeling of sitting in front of a screen with a template open, yet sometimes that is your only option before you decide to drop several hundred dollars on something. What if it isn’t what you thought it would be? What if it doesn’t do what you need it to do? What if you wasted your money because you want to do something else? In the past many would point newcomers towards Reaper for a DAW or Audacity for just simple audio recording (although Audacity is actually a very powerful piece of software that nobody bothers to explore, but that’s an article for a different day), but now a new challenger has appeared thanks to the software developers at Akai.
Akai, a company known for their legendary sample pads, have delved into the world of portable MIDI and USB keyboards and controllers before, but recently came out of nowhere to launch their free DAW - MPC Beats. The company that enabled so many producers by giving them the ability to record and import samples into a hardware machine, manipulate them, and turn them into their own tracks is now doing the same thing for a new generation but this time instead of an investment of hundreds of dollars into a piece of hardware, all it takes is a free download and you’ll be off and running. This move is somewhat revolutionary in one sense because no other hardware company has jumped into the world of digital audio workstations, so this could possibly be the gateway to companies like Roland, Yamaha, Dave Smith, or Korg, just to name a few, beginning a trek down Akai’s newly-paved path. Seeing more DAWs released with certain functions in mind could make it even easier for the bedroom producer or the professional alike, and if other companies are paying attention to what Akai has done here then it might only be a matter of time before we see an explosion of music-producing software in a way that the industry hasn’t seen. In another sense, though, it should not surprise anyone that Akai is the first one among their peers to unveil something like this as the company has been at the forefront of musical creation since the MPCs released in the 1990s. The decision to release a digital audio workstation could bring over a lot of new customers and create a new sense of brand loyalty, driving the sales of their hardware products even further than before as the software is designed with the idea to easily integrate anything in the Akai product line. Genius.
It would have been one thing for Akai’s introduction to the world of digital audio workstations to end up being a garbled mess of a piece of software, but MPC Beats is actually a fully operational, feature-rich offering and should be a legitimate option for people looking to choose a DAW. It’s about time Logic, Pro Tools, and the like had another competitor throw their hat into the ring. That kind of thing is what drives innovation and development to help companies further stand out in the crowd. To take a look at another industry but in a way that applies across everything, the lack of competition from other companies is what has allowed EA Sports to release the same version of Madden for years, with small tweaks and design chances that they market as being major features and updates. It won’t be until there is another football game on the market attracting the attention and wallets of consumers that development teams will have to push themselves to make their own work more attractive. Similarly, the other major players in the digital audio workstation realm haven’t had anyone show up and challenge them in quite some time so Akai’s arrival will be good for everyone in the long run - trust me.
MPC Beats is very user-friendly, as right off the bat it allows you to select a Simple or Advanced mode, adjusting the interface to give you more or fewer features based on your familiarity with other DAWs and music production in general. This can all be changed later, but if you are new right out of the gate then going with the Simple mode will hold your hand a little bit and clear up some of the things that could clutter the screen as you walk through the steps of creating a track, while the Advanced mode will give you free reign over everything right from the start. Akai has programmed templates for you to choose from depending on what style of music you are looking to create, setting up things like instruments, tempo, and sample packs for you so you can get started creating music right away instead of spending half an hour digging through your library to find the right kick and hi-hat for your lo-fi deep house track, only to realize your idea and inspiration has already drifted away. The main project screen itself looks nearly identical to any other, especially to people who have experience in the world of music production, but Akai throws their signature look on it by placing the familiar four-by-four MPC grid front and center in the interface. If you load up an Akai genre and style template then the pads on the grid will already have drum samples ready to go for your track, all you have to do is “play” them the way you want to. Having an external keyboard with pressure-sensitive pads will come in handy here (fortunately there’s a company who specializes in making those. I believe they’re called Akai? I could be wrong.) but you could also just use the keys on your computer keyboard to trigger the samples as well.
One of the key areas where MPC Beats stands out is right in the name - the beats. Obviously being from Akai, the DAW is set up in a way that is skewed a little more towards the hip-hop side of the musical spectrum than it might be towards the folk or singer/songwriter side. The drum editor in MPC Beats is an area that truly shines in this digital audio workstation, and an area where the competitors could target this feature and strive to step up their own game. The only DAW that has a dedicated drum editor anything close to this is Cubase and that’s still just a version of a piano roll but geared a little more towards drumming. Logic Pro’s weird quadrant-based drum manipulator tool seems better suited for an iPad app (in fact, I believe it may have been lifted right off of Garageband for the old iPad and integrated into Logic), and Pro Tools requires some deep menu diving to set it up. While MPC Beats’ beat making screen could also just be described as a piano roll, the interface that they offer for beat making is approached from a dedicated drum beat perspective, and is really intuitive and easy to use. Similar to the old hardware MPC, you can save and load drum sequences to be triggered at any given point in the playback of a track, giving this DAW an edge in the live performance category and putting it right up there with Ableton. That is by no means to say that MPC Beats could replace Ableton, but unless you are an educator or work for a church or some other place that could get you a discount, but if your two options are either free or $600… you might want to give the free option a serious look for a little while.
Where MPC Beats starts to handcuff you a little bit is in the audio tracks. Don’t get me wrong, for a free DAW MPC Beats is more feature-packed than you could expect, but they limit you to just two stereo audio tracks and eight MIDI tracks for a single project. This would put some concrete limitations on you if you were looking to create a full song in this digital audio workstation. You can use those two tracks for vocal melodies or other samples and go on to chop, time stretch, reverse, or any of the normal processing that you could do in any other DAW. Limiting yourself to just those two stereo audio tracks might push your creativity in a way that you wouldn’t expect it to, or it could completely turn you off to this DAW and send you looking elsewhere. Both are understandable. In the spirit of pushing through limitations and creating with what is available to you, I would encourage you to download MPC Beats and see what all it has to offer. While it may prove to be challenging working with just two audio tracks, you can always export and bounce things out, reimport them, and keep moving forward with your project. The other capabilities of MPC Beats far outweigh that one tick in the negative column.
MPC Beats allows you to fully customize your drum kit samples, including altering the pitch, fine tuning, velocity, level, and panning of all of your samples right from the main project menu. In other DAWs this type of work can involve several layers of processing, exporting, and jumping through menus, but MPC Beats makes it easy right from the onset. For someone looking to get their start in the world of beat making and track producing, MPC Beats truly could not make it any easier. From the clean design to the way it so effortlessly allows you to drag and drop sample packs into the drum pad section to begin programming immediately, Akai has really introduced something special into the world of music production - and for free. Of course they also make it easy to purchase their sample packs from inside the software, but they also let you preview the sounds of the different drum kits right there to give you an idea of what you could be purchasing. If you do not feel like you need to buy anything new, there are plenty of samples from different producers already included in the DAW, as well as hundreds of effects for further sample manipulation. MPC Beats comes with two gigabytes of samples, loops, and instrument plugins for you to work with as soon as installation finishes.
If you need a little more help getting started with MPC Beats, Akai has an accompanying MPC Beats Academy video series to walk you through everything from the layout and menus to programming drums and incorporating effects. The 20-part video series covers specific genres, mixing and producing techniques, arranging, and even the final step of exporting and sharing your tracks across social media. If there has been a theme running through any of this it’s that Akai has made it easier than ever to work in a high-quality DAW and produce the tracks that you’ve been wanting to make. Between the simple interface mode, the video academy, and the help of the many other people on YouTube and the internet, you could be making tracks in no time at all in a DAW that was designed with you in mind. All of the MPC Beats Academy videos, and the MPC Beats software itself, can be found on Akai’s website, or by clicking through this link to access it now.
Whether you are a seasoned veteran or you are completely new on the scene, Akai’s MPC Beats digital audio workstation has something for you. Newcomers can get to work on their track in a full-fledged DAW from a trusted company, learning the ins and outs of music production, while folks who have been around for a while could get their hands on a more streamlined way of creating the tracks they want to make. Even if you fall somewhere in between those two ends of that spectrum there is still plenty to learn and accomplish, thanks to Akai. Gone are the days of needing to throw hundreds of dollars at a piece of software in order to struggle your way into figuring out how to do what it is you need to do. Akai has made it easy to download the software and get to work right away, and after an hour or two of messing around on your own and watching a couple of videos from their academy you should be well on your way to having professional-sounding tracks - that YOU made - to upload to your Soundcloud, Bandcamp, or other platform and begin to develop a portfolio for yourself.
No more making excuses about not being able to make the music you want to make, or telling people that you are a musician but you don’t have anything out there yet. I've been there. We've all been there. It's hard to feel confident and excited about being a musician but when people ask to hear your work all you have are demos on a hard drive and nothing available anywhere online. Not anymore. Akai has provided you with a free way to turn those demos into something you can proudly share with your family, friends, and people all over the world. Who knows where your music might take you after that? Sometimes all it takes is one song.
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