MOTU’s new drum machine is a new software sampler/synth workstation for drums, clearly influenced by beat production workstations like the legendary Akai MPC and EMU SP1200. With all today’s hardware/software talk, I initially thought this was hardware, too, but it’s not – meaning it’s got an uphill battle against integrated features in hosts like Live and new tools that integrate more closely with hardware, not to mention existing entries like FXpansion’s GURU. But don’t write it off just yet: an internal synth, a unique sampling plug-in, import workflows, and retro groove emulations could keep this in the game.

Oh, yeah – and, typical of MOTU, there’s always one feature that can make you forget every other complaint. For me, that’s the “Line templates” in the step sequencer that let you add your own Euclidian polyrhythms. Nice.

MOTU’s ad copy waxes poetic about the deeper meaning of all of this, as though pondering aloud:

“Sound libraries these days are awash with loops. And what is a loop, exactly? Someone else’s beat. Isn’t it time to take back creative ownership over your grooves?”

Yes, indeed, what is a loop? If you’re curious, you could check out the, um, loop content that ships with BPM in its 15 GB sound library.

The slightly self-contradictory philosophizing ad copy aside, though, I’m all about the creative possibilities of drum workstations, and there’s no question BPM has some potential. Look for a smackdown with NI’s own entry, which we get to talk about later today. Here’s a basic look at the BPM, which I’ll update once I can talk about Maschine oh, any software drum machine that might theoretically come out in the next two hours:

  • A sampler – a real sampler, with import, slicing, and even live recording. There’s a convenient plug-in that you can use as an insert in any host to tap into recording sources – very nice – and you can sample directly into a pad
  • A drum synthesizer (now this part I find especially cool) – looks basic but very accessible and friendly to the task at hand
  • 15 GB sound library, including (fair enough) not just loops but patterns, slices, and instrument sounds
  • Sample import capability with compatibility with MOTU’s libraries and UVI engine as well as REX, Apple Loops, etc., with drag-and-drop import (inherited from MOTU’s MachFive sampler)
  • Record your own samples
  • Step sequencer, graph editor, piano roll sequencer
  • Grooves, including classic MPC, LinnDrum grooves, and edit and save your own. There’s even an SP1200 emulation.
  • Live scene performance and playback, which you can also export to software for later use

Killer feature for geeks: A Euclidian line template. They didn’t have to, but they did. You get the rhythmic benefits. Awesome.

Today there’s new hardware from NI and Akai, but this is software-only: good, old-fashioned MIDI learn is how you get to control any of this live. It’s a mouse-based workflow, which to me undercuts some of the “program beats as fast as your mind can "hear" them” talk in the marketingspeak. The appeal of MPCs and the like is that hardware control, which is all about speed. In fact, when I first saw the image, I thought they actually were unveiling hardware, and wondered why there was a disc drive on the thing, but they’re not.

And there’s another problem: you’d need an extremely short memory not to recognize this has been done before. fxpansion’s GURU does this, and in a much cleaner interface that clearly integrates sampling and sequencing (which is what I suspect a lot of people would want). It doesn’t have synth capability, but it has the same basic pattern sequencing, direct sampling and real-time recording, slicing, and graphical automation options. (Heck, some of the views even look the same, although there are some established ways of doing some of these things.)

That said, MOTU has a very powerful sampling engine underneath, the import workflows are pretty powerful, I love the synth capabilities in particular (and MOTU has made some great soft synths), and I think the plug-in that you just use to sample is very clever. And if the groove options are better than other offerings out there, of course, it’ll win some converts. Vintage groove emulation + line templates on the step sequencer = happy rhythm geeks.

So BPM remains a contender for a software workflow. Now, can it stand up to integrated features in a host (Live), conventional hardware (MPC, etc.), or software-integrated hardware (Maschine)? This is going to be an interesting season for fans of this kind of tech.

Updated: As you’ll read in comments, it seems that bpm can’t slice audio itself – audio has to be sliced elsewhere. That’s an important part of the workflow for at least some of the potential users of this tool, and something some rival software (and even similar hardware) does. It’s odd, because MOTU’s own MachFive sampler has an extensive beat sampling tool; apparently the choice was to leave it out here, at least in this version.