MPC Live vs Pioneer Toraiz SP-16 (My opinion)

As mentioned in prior entries, my issue has been simple: Try to accomplish a four deck dj set plus a live performance layer (drums, synths) on a single setup with one computer. My first attempt is mentioned in a prior entry, as I moved the live performance portion to analog gear and left the DVS part to my laptop. 

As part of my "offload live performance" mission, I purchased the MPC Live. It promised to be the answer to all of my wants and needs, and nearly was! I spent 5 months on the device and ended up returning it to Sweetwater for a midi sync bug, but had it not been buggy I think I would have still sold the unit. Here is why:

 Mission 1: Offload CPU duties. I attempted to accomplish this by way of the AIRA line + MPC Live

Mission 1: Offload CPU duties. I attempted to accomplish this by way of the AIRA line + MPC Live

First off, if you are an experienced MPC user, you'll probably LOVE this thing. If you're not, you may hate it. The architecture of the MPC DAW environment is not like Maschine or Ableton. Their philosophy has a separation of ideas. What I mean is: In Maschine you can work within a single 16 pad bank and load, say, 11 drum sounds. Then on pad 12 you can load a Massive patch and it'll play melodically with the tap of a button - keyboard - and you're now sequencing your notes on the synth - in the same bank as your drums. The 8 Maschine knobs will edit the parameters of the synth while you play notes. Flip back to pad mode and then you're sequencing drums again, in the same drum bank. The same goes for audio tracks (pads). You can load pad 13 as an audio in (live sampler input) pad and record your audio, and then hit "slice" to send that data to a brand new drum pad group OR just play it within the same 16 pad method as if it were a keyboard patch. You can tap the pad in the normal "drum group mode" and it'll fire off the entire sample (if it's a one-shot mode with the right ASDR settings) or you can hit the pad, hit "keyboard mode" and it'll play 16 slices up the pads. Easy.

In MPC land, your drums and synths and audio samples are all in SEPARATE PROGRAMS. So, you can load a drum kit into pad bank A (program A, in MPC world) and then when you think 11 drums is enough and you want to add a synth patch on pad 12, you have to load A NEW BANK OF PADS (or program, in MPC world) just to load that synth. The same goes for recording (sampling). You need to open separate programs for separate things every time, no exceptions. i found this extremely frustrating. The MPC Live is a SOLID piece of hardware. It's the only piece like it, when you look at the specs, multi-core system, the battery onboard, and the internal hard drive bay. It's a TANK and I wanted to love it. I just couldn't wrap my head around the workflow. 

I should clarify - I made sounds. I made songs. I just didn't love the experience of doing so. It's more like this: You know precisely what you're going to load into the drums kits and synth programs and sample banks, you spend time making each program and loading up, then you sequence. In Maschine, you load drums and make a pattern or seven. Then you think "now what do I wanna add?", you browse for things, you add them, you sequence. It's more organic to me, more spontaneous. And, the reason I bought the MPC Live was for LIVE PERFORMANCE. It was to replace my computer-based beat machine duties - Push or Maschine replacement.

For live performance, again, you can't just smash on a bunch of drums and then hit pad 13 to start playing keyboards. You have to select a different program to access the synth patches. Not as fast, not as smooth. You have to hit main, select program mode, select the program. In maschine, Ableton, Pioneer - just tap the pad with the synth (or the drum) and play it.

Then I thought, maybe I'd use it to sample live, slice to pads, and re-arrange tracks from my DVS on the fly. Cool. Simple, right? I'll let you watch the video explaining how to live sample, then send to a pad bank (program) and then trigger the slices live to remix a song: 

His video is the "lazy chop" which is arguably faster than the standard method. I'll give you a hint: you gotta push a bunch of extra buttons to get the newly recorded sample into the bank and then to be in focus so you can remix. It's not instant, by any means. Using the lazy chop, you still have to do some work before just firing off slices live.

Even on the demo jam below, you can see that, at times, Andy is using the knob to decide which program he wants to be in for performance/sequencing. In Maschine or Ableton world, you just tap the pad and select the mode - or you select a different drum bank (program) with the dedicated buttons and it works. 

The default behavior for the MPC is to load everything in the new program to the first bank of pads. So, rather than bounce between bank A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H up top (like maschine), if you just follow the MPC flow as it's set, you end up with 8 programs of info and each one is on bank A, respectively. So, tapping bank B-C-D (etc) only sends you to empty banks. It seems like a really funky choice on their end, and one that I couldn't fall in love with.

What I wanted was a standalone Maschine-esque groove box I could use to take half-cooked projects from the studio to the stage. Something playable, fun, easy to use, and not necessarily a complete DAW in a box. What I bought was a DAW in a box that is immensely powerful, but also a bit clunky (to me).  I envisioned using it as the controller on the computer, loading synths, bouncing them to audio, unplugging the box, and taking that project on stage to WOW the crowd! I ended up being frustrated with it. A few simple things I've taken for granted are as follows: 

BUTTONS for different MODES! When performing a track/project live, I really enjoy tapping the "MUTE" or "SOLO" buttons (combined with SHIFT) to lock the maschine into those modes. You can sequence a complex 16 pad pattern and, while looping, use mute and solo to creatively turn a single pattern into a track that moves and flows on cue. It's really fun, and on the MPC Live you must go into MAIN and then select PAD MUTE MODE, for example. You always need to leave the mode you're in to get to the next mode. Oh, and then you can't mute the synth while muting drums because they're in different programs. It's just a separation of church and state I can't accept.

 Maschine MK2 puts performance elements at your fingertips, and when combined with JAM, it's pretty hard to beat for live performance - unless you're PUSH 2 ;)

Maschine MK2 puts performance elements at your fingertips, and when combined with JAM, it's pretty hard to beat for live performance - unless you're PUSH 2 ;)

Aside from the obvious fact that my computer is required (which does not solve my first mission of offloading live performance away from the CPU) this workflow is just stupid, sick, awesome.

In comes the TORAIZ SP-16. As I grew near to my final decision to sell or return the MPC Live, I decided to pick up a used Toraiz SP16 on a whim. It's specs are pathetic in comparison. 256MB RAM, no internal battery, 16 gig onboard sample drive only, one FX per pad/channel slot, only 16 banks (scenes) max, and the list goes on.

HOWEVER, in my hunt to get a portable/standalone maschine-esque box, the Toraiz may have hit the mark! Sure, the specs are low and the functions are limited... But the things that Dave Smith and Pioneer implemented on this little box are just what I needed.

 Note the buttons - Mute, Track, Slice, Scale...

Note the buttons - Mute, Track, Slice, Scale...

For example, when performing live, I can tap the MUTE button and all of my pads instantly become muted when I select them. I can drag across 4,8,12 pads and make the synth solo happen instantly. I can hit "shift" and tap a single pad and it solos that pad. To undo this, I tap the pad again... This opens up all 16 sounds again instantly. So you can build up, let down, re-release the song with your hands LIVE on the fly instantly, as if you were in Maschine or Push. 

Want to record a sample live and instantly slice it up on the fly? Cool. So on a pad 16, you tell it to be an audio in channel (pads are channels in Toraiz world, and pad banks/groups are "scenes" in toraiz world). Once the pad knows it's listening to an input on the back of the Toraiz, you just, well... here's the video!

So, when recording to a pad, you just save the recording and then hit "slice" on the face of the box to instantly start playing back 16 slices of the new sample. Record. Hit save. Hit slice. Perform.  Yes, you can move into the menu and edit those slices, get weird, get awesome-r, but for the basic performance you can INSTANTLY go from sampler to slicer with ease.

AND THE FILTERS... Guys... If you're really into something to use for LIVE performance, this Toraiz clicks the buttons. The filters are smoooooooth, rich, and right at your fingertips. The mixer is also a quick button tap away, so you can view all 16 channels of audio on the screen as you wish, to do quick mixes/edits on the fly. These things are missing from the MPC Live and they are missing from Maschine MK2. 16 mixer channels on one screen and REAL analog filters to do sweeps and other fun stuff ON THE FLY = the Toraiz is the winner in my world. Oh, and it's cheaper than original MSRP. I paid $1100 with a deck saver for a used kit. Now you can find them NEW online for less.

 Pricing as of August 25, 2017

Pricing as of August 25, 2017

The Toraiz has no battery, no expandable internal drive for samples, only one FX slot per pad (channel), and a host of other limitations. BUT it is extremely playable, it's FUN to use, EASY to learn and it sounds great. I looked at a few videos to answer specific questions, but in my first 5 hours with the box I think only 30 mins were spent researching how to do things. Compare this to my 8-10 hours of MPC videos and it's clear which one was more fun. Besides, when setting up a DJ rig, you need a power strip anyways... So the battery thing isn't that important. I already have an empty slot on my Fuhrman, so the Toraiz can plug right in.

One of the big kickers to the DJs reading this - NUDGE. Toraiz SP16 will sync via MIDI to whatever gear you wish (and the MPC actually failed at this numerous times, by the way). But I actually don't even hook up the MIDI cable. I run the audio into my mixer and define the tempo to match my dj set. I hit play on the drop beat and when it's clear that my timing is a bit off, I just hit the NUDGE button on the Toraiz and the damn thing BEAT MATCHES MANUALLY like any good sampler should. Who knew, someone finally put a method on a sampler! I have wished for a tempo slider for years, but I'll take the nudge button. Nice work, Pioneer!

After two hours on the Toraiz, starting from a blank slate, I came up with this:

Pardon the poor audio and video quality - I just propped my iPhone 7Plus against a coffee cup and recorded my quick jam. As you can see, with only a few hours of use, it flows nicely.

Another neat little thing I learned about the Toraiz unit: It plays nicely with their AS-1. Once I decided to sell my AIRA stuff and my MPC, it occurred to me that I really liked having an analog synth (in general), so i thought I'd try the AS-1. I found a deal on a new unit for well under retail and plugged it into the Toraiz SP-16. The AS-1 sounds mean for such a small box, but I won't get into detail about that during this post. I do want to discuss the one cool performance feature I discovered. In the SP16 you can select a "AS-1" channel input for any pad. No biggie, except when you dig into the menus you discover that you can tell the SP16 which patch to load on the AS1 automatically, each time you load that pad bank (SCENE, in Toraiz world). So, you can effectively load 16 SONGS of your own creation into the Toraiz and each song can have a single patch on the AS1 which will load with the scene, and that patch will change with every scene you load later. Does this make sense? So when programming for a live show, you can make 16 songs with 16 dedicated AS1 patches as a part of each song (scene), and when you move to the next song (scene) your synth will automatically pull up that pre-determined patch. this allows for the synth to be played back LIVE with your song, or via a pre-programmed midi pattern via the pads on the SP16 (your choice) and also allows you to manipulate the FX, filter, parameters of that synth patch separate from the sounds on the SP16. By using both together, live jams happen. See the video above! PLUS = Pioneer and Dave Smith were smart enough to include a "ducker" effect in the SP-16, so you can side chain the AS-1 to your kick (for example) with ease. It instantly gels with your project.

Oh, and the footprint of the SP16 + AS1 is much smaller than the footprint of my prior setup = System 8, MX1, MPC Live.  Since you can route the AS1 into the SP16, you don't need a submixer (like the MX1 for AIRA). You can just send the Sp16 into your dj mixer and the synth tags along.  It may not seem like a giant thing, but fewer boxes to/from shows means fewer things to break. Less time spent on user manuals means more time making music. The closer you live performance box gets to your computer-based groove machines (Maschine or Push, for example) the less time you spend figuring out how to accomplish the same goals on stage with no laptop that you'd accomplish in the studio with all of your bells and whistles.

For me, with this crazy busy life, simple and functional are at the top of my list. The Toraiz is simple, and really functional. It's FUN to make music on this thing. It's also extremely easy to port projects from your computer setup into it, or even use SPLICE.com to browse samples, load them on the browser, sequence them loosely, and save that to your computer as a TORAIZ scene. You can then load that to a flash, plug into the Toraiz, and your stuff is ready to go. Really cool stuff.

The pads feel great & the 16 steps below the pads are really convenient as well. I liked sequencing with the 16 steps on the roland, but wished it had a way to also play drums live. This thing does both, and does it really well. You can step-sequence modulation as well, just not in the same "live, on the fly" way as computer based solutions. Again, limitations, but not deal-breakers.

I know it was a long post. Thanks for reading!