In electronic music there are a few names that ring familiar. There are also landmark pieces of equipment that are associated with those familiar names. Then there are the unsung hero’s behind the scenes that kept the machine running and up to speed. Mike McRoberts is one such unsung hero in the industry of electronic musical equipment during it’s golden era. This was a time when the MPC 60 was the ADR 15 and when hip-hop was a mere cultural underdog as opposed to the face of pop culture that it has become today.
Mike McRoberts is a classic gear historian of sorts when it comes to electronic musical equipment having worked for Akai, E-Mu & DigiDesigns at various times during his career as a Product Manager and sales rep for various pieces of gear that we now know as classic. It has been my pleasure to be able to learn from Mike the stories behind the gear that we love today.
In our discussions we touched on Mike’s background, his involvement with the promotions of the MPC 60, his thoughts on the new line of MPCs and the future of electronic musical equipment. There is even a few jewels here about how one might go about achieving that vintage warmth while recording synths and mixing in the box. Here’s how it went down…
Tell us a bit about your back ground in the electronic musical instrument industry?
It really started in college. I was studying music composition and the professors who were in that department had arranged for the university to get a Moog modular synthesizer. It was two cabinet system. We had it in a little studio, and they gave me the key. I had sole use of it for several years because they hadn’t developed a curriculum for teaching electronic music yet. We also had a TEAC 3340 4-track recorder and Studer/Revox A77 half-track stereo recorder for mixing down to. We didn’t have a separate mixer, though, but the Moog had two 4-channel mixers built in which I used.. There were no manuals for the Moog, so I had to learn synthesis from the ground up. I would patch cables together and listen to the result. I remember the day I discovered how an envelope generator could be patched to a voltage-controlled amplifier to control dynamics. It was a big discovery. Out of the process, I got a fundamental knowledge of how synthesizers worked.
I moved to Boulder, CO and got a job in a music store called Solid Sound. We were the dealers for the Oberheim line, including the four-voice synthesizer and later the OBX line. We also had the Yamaha CS80 and subsequent synths, and the Korg line, including the great MS20 synthesizer. There were three recording studios in the Boulder area, and I started getting jobs at the studios doing synth programming, particularly for the Oberheim and Yamaha CS80. After that, a partner and I had a small 16-track studio. That lasted about a year, and that’s when I thought about getting into the manufacturing area and contacted International Music Company, which was the Akai distributor.
[pullquote]The MPC60 wasn’t just a hit in the hiphop and dance market. Artists in all genres from rock to country to jazz embraced it.[/pullquote]How long were you with Akai?
I was with Akai from the beginning of 1987 to 1995.
I understand you eventually left Akai to go to Digidesign and Emu at some point. What products were you most involved with for Digidesign?
At Digidesign, because I had some background with controllers, my biggest product focus was ProControl, their first Pro Tools mixing controller. Because of my sampling background, I was also the product manager for SampleCell, their sampler application. And because all the product managers had a diverse group of products, I was product manager for a modeled Focusrite compressor plug-in, and the LoFi plug-in suite.
When did the SP 1200 come about? Were you at Emu during this time?
The SP 1200 came out in 1987, the first year I was at Akai, so I had nothing to do with it. Prior to joining Akai, I had the predecessor SP12at our studio, with a gigantic 1.2 seconds of sampling time.
Were you product manager for only the MPC line or were there other products that you were involved with?
When I started at Akai, I was the only product manager for Akai in the US. That meant I did everything from creating over 50 of the first sample disks for the S900, to writing every press release and advertisement, and traveling 6 months out of the year doing seminars and visiting studios and dealers. So, I was product manager for the S900, S1000 and S3000 series samplers, MG1214 12-track recorders, MG614 4-track recorder, MX line of keyboard controllers, the EWI/EVI electronic wind instruments , ADAM Digital Multi-track Recorder, DD1000 optical recorder, DM1500 and DR4 hard disk recorders, and all the peripheral items as well. It kept me busy.
How did the MPC 60’s name came about?
It was originally named the ADR15, along with the sequencer-only version named the ASQ10. One day, Jerry Freed, who was president of International Music Company, called me into his office and asked me what ADR15 stood for. I said that the ADR could stand for Akai Drum Recorder, but the number 15 had no relationship to it. Jerry said, “Let’s brainstorm. What is this machine?” I said, “Well it’s basically a MIDI production center, it’s got a 60,000 note sequencer….”. Jerry interrupted me and said, “How about MPC60?” I think I said, “Sounds good to me.” And that was the origin of it.
Were there any early Akai prototype products that never made it to market that you wish had made it to market?
Probably only two. We made a prototype keyboard controller with an ASQ10 sequencer built-in. Akai R&D thought it was a great idea. We showed it at the NAMM Show and it went over like a lead balloon. So, that never made it to market. We had an interesting digital reverb that was never sold in the US. It may have been sold in Japan, though. I have one.
[pullquote]In New York, at the first showing of the MPC3000, which was 16-bit, the first question I got from the audience was ”Does it have a 12-bit switch?”[/pullquote]
What do you think helped make the MPC synonymous and / or so popular within hiphop and urban music back in the day?
Several factors. First, having Roger Linn’s name on it. Second: Timing. It came to market around the time hiphop was getting wide popular acceptance. Akai already had a good name in that music segment. Third: Sound. It had kind of a grainy sound that the hiphop artists and producers loved. The sounds were stored in a 12-bit companded format. In New York, at the first showing of the MPC3000, which was 16-bit, the first question I got from the audience was ”Does it have a 12-bit switch?” Another big factor was the unique adjustable Swing function. This was a Roger Linn original idea, and could add very subtle amounts of swing to an otherwise straight beat. Finally, an absolutely important factor was the fact that the early adopters were centers of influence in the music world.. Hiphop production was very strong in New York City. Teddy Riley bought two or three units and spread the word in New York. Michael Jackson was on tour for the BAD album, and the musicians in the band were using a lot of Akai equipment, including the MPC60. Three of the band members did Akai clinics for us at every city that they played in. This was a huge early boost.
But, the MPC60 wasn’t just a hit in the hiphop and dance market. Artists in all genres from rock to country to jazz embraced it. I have a Christmas country album by Gary Morris, who also starred in Les Miserables on Broadway. Almost the entire album was sequenced on the MPC60.
What are your thoughts on how the MPC line has evolved?
My last involvement was with the MPC3000. Since then, the MPC’s have had more sequencing tracks, more memory, new I/O capabilities. Nothing too innovative. The MPC5000 is probably the most innovative, with the addition of the disk recorder, synthesizer and some other features.
What is most memorable about your time introducing the world to the MPC as a new tool?
There were a number of memorable and fun events. The first was the introduction of the MPC60 at the 1987 Audio Engineering Society show at the Hilton in New York. We had a suite instead of being on the convention floor. I was the sole presenter, and I was hoarse before the first day was over. We had a long line of people every day waiting to get a one-on-one MPC demo. In that line were many prominent artists and producers. And they wanted it loud, which is why I almost lost my voice.
A couple months later, at the January 1988 NAMM Show in Anaheim, I was approached by three members of Michael Jackson’s band touring for the BAD album. They explained their touring schedule, which basically was one week in each city. They had some free time every week and asked if they could do a clinic in each city for Akai. I couldn’t say “No” to that, since this was the biggest tour on earth at the time. So, every week I flew to a different city and Ricky Lawson, drummer, Greg Philliganes and Rory Kaplan, keyboard players did a clinic. I was the master of ceremonies, and these guys came up with the whole clinic format. They used an MPC60, S900, a couple of keyboard controllers, and an MG1214 recorder at each clinic. It was very informative and entertaining, particularly because Greg Phillinganes is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.
A short time after that, I was in LA taking the MPC60 around to various stores and studios. Gino Vanelli wanted to see it at Blue Moon Studios, the studio he owned with his brother, Joe Vanelli. I’m a big fan of the Vanelli brothers. We arrived and David Garibaldi, the drummer for Tower of Power was there. We spent hours sampling drums into the MPC60, and also recording them into a Sony 1630 digital recorder. They were particularly critical of how hihats would sound, with their high frequency harmonics. In the end, they passed judgement on the test and bought an MPC60
You’ve had some extensive experience with product development for mix consoles. The use of mixing consoles is a something that most musicians now a days don’t have the luxury of incorporating into their process. However there are tons and tons of emulations and recreations from companies like Waves and UA. In use, do you think the same classic warmth can be achieved when mixing in the box with emulations and such?
Plug-ins have come a long way, particularly UA. There are a lot of hit recordings that were mixed in the box. Modeling techniques have improved greatly. Waves certainly has some excellent plug-ins that emulate analog devices, like the API550 equalizer. Recording consoles are expensive to purchase and expensive to maintain. Adding an analog summing mix is the cheaper alternative that many people prefer. I think the ideal combination is utilizing both. In my home recording, I frequently run my synthesizers through a Universal Audio 610 tube preamp and through an UA 1176 with no compression, just to add a little analog flavor. Most of the time, I mix in the box.
The other aspect that has definitely improved is the width of the soundfield. A big complaint 10 years ago with Pro Tools was that it had a restricted or narrow soundfield. You could really hear it if you performed the same mix through the Pro Tools mix bus and also through a console. It was like the stereo image collapsed. Improvements in hardware and processing have eliminated that as a factor.
What are your thoughts on the resurgence of small electronic instrument makers like Tom Oberheim, Dave Smith & Roger Linn?
I’m glad to see it. These companies are making high quality instruments, and there will always be a market, even if small, for that. I was really happy to see the new Oberheim four-voice synthesizer. Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn was a real original piece, a work of genius. And his LinnStrument is the first new design in years that has gotten me excited. I hope it makes it to market.
With the trend of hybrid groove boxes mostly relying on the computer to do the heavy lifting, do you think we will ever get back to stand alone boxes like MPCs, MV 8800s etc?
There will probably continue to be boutique manufacturers, like Roger Linn or Dave Smith, but it will be a smaller market. Artists that own a standalone box will continue to use them. It’s just more economical to develop a hybrid device.
Where do you see electronic music hardware headed?
It’s hard to predict the future, I would imagine that the status quo is going to continue in a lot of areas. The big manufacturers like Yamaha, Roland and Korg will continue making new or derivative keyboards. Perhaps a new form of synthesis may come about for that. The trend in Eurorack modular synthesizer modules will continue, as well as smaller boutique instrument makers. I Where I hope to see it headed is more in the area of control functions. I think the LinnStrument is a great start in that. I’d like to see regular keyboard controllers combined with cutting tactile control designs, maybe incorporating gestural controls. There’s a lot of ways to innovate in this area.
Do you consult or work with up and coming makers of new electronic instruments today?
I have been doing consulting work, but more for DJ products.
Do you have plans to continue working in the field of electronic music equipment?
Right now, I’m doing something totally different, which is working in a library. I really enjoy it because it’s a way I can help people. I enjoy playing and recording music, and am working on a collaboration with other musicians using a cloud application, since we are in different states. It’s hard to say whether I’ll ever get back into equipment manufacturing again.
UPDATE / CORRECTION (01/14/13)
Mike McRoberts updated me on his proper title. I thought it’d be best to include the correction. See below…
the interview-it says that I was an electronics engineer. My actual job was product manager, which is different. Depending upon the company, a product manager studies the market and conceives a product idea. Then, they create a specification document that the engineers use as a blueprint to make the electronic and software design. Engineering and product management work together during the engineering and manufacturing phases to make sure that the final product matches the specification (or as close as possible, since changes are made sometimes).