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Akai MPD 218 Review – The Best Budget Beat Maker?

Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell

The Akai MPD 218 was launched alongside the MPD226 in 2015 as an upgrade from the ageing MPD18. Slimmer, cleaner, with better pads and enhanced compatibility, the MPD218 positions itself as a top-shelf drum machine. Does it meet the brief? Find out in this Akai MPD218 review.

Akai MPD 218 Review

The MPD 218 is a great secondary controller for making beats

Build Quality:3.8 out of 5 stars
Performance:4.2 out of 5 stars
Value for Money:4.5 out of 5 stars
Average:4.2 out of 5 stars

Akai Pro and drum machines are synonymous. The original Akai MPC, launched over 30 years ago, changed music completely. This was the first massively popular drum machine that ushered in the era of hip hop music.

Unlike the drum machines before it (like the E-mu SP1200), the Akai MPC was portable and affordable. It also eschewed the hard, plastic switches in favor of large rubber pads. The pads were way easier to tap and play – even in a live setting.

There’s a reason most hip hop producers are so attached to their MPCs. Countless hit songs have been produced or performed on the MPC. Dr Dre swears by them, as do Mark Ronson and Kanye West.

Akai has changed a lot in the last 30 years – it’s even changed ownership more than once. But the MPC remains one of the greatest pieces of musical gear ever created.

The MPD 218 is a direct descendant of the MPC. It’s a testament to the improvement in production technology that you can get the MPD218 for a fraction of the price of the MPC60 which was nearly $5,000 in 1988.

Just like the MPC60, the MPD 218, too, is a drum machine that doubles up as a MIDI controller. You can use it to bash out drum patterns and beats. Or you can use it to trigger automations and launch clips.

Since it’s powered off USB and weighs barely 1.5lbs, you can take it anywhere.

If you’re looking for a pad controller, the MPD 218 is likely high on your wishlist. In this detailed Akai MPD 218 review, I’ll tell you what’s good about it, what’s not, and whether it’s worth your money.

Quick summary:

  • Large and sensitive pads are perfect for finger drumming
  • Solid bundled software for creating MPC workflows
  • Tiny and lightweight – great for live shows
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About your reviewer
Ryan Harrell is the founder of MIDINation and an experienced producer/DJ. His first experience with electronic music production dates back to Cubase 3.0 in the summer of 1997, and he’s been a fan ever since. He prefers Ableton as his primary DAW these days, though he is still partial to Cubase and Pro Tools. He lives in San Diego and freelances as a producer and part-time DJ.

Akai MPD 218: At a Glance

If you’re in a hurry, refer to this graphic for a quick overview of the MPD 218 and its pros and cons. You can also see the results of a quick poll where I asked MIDINation readers to vote whether they would recommend the MPD 218 to their friends.

Akai MPD 218 review - at a glance

For the rest of the Akai MPD 218 review, read on.

 

Build Quality & Design   3.8 out of 5 stars

Overall design:The MPD 218 is completely different from its predecessor, the MPD 18. And that’s a good thing. Because this unit is slimmer, has thicker rubber pads, is backlit, and is way smaller and lighter. You can lug it around anywhere – it’s barely half the weight of a Macbook Air. And it’s completely USB powered for easy portability.

Aesthetically speaking, the MPD 218 is miles ahead of its predecessor. The sleek all-black body with red tinged pads and backlights looks gorgeous. The soft edges and brushed finish of the rotary knobs looks great as well.

Let’s do a deep dive into the build quality and design.

Portability: The Akai MPD 218 scores big on the portability. It’s small – smaller than a small laptop. It’s also thin – at its thickest, it’s barely 1.5″ thick. At 1.6lbs, it’s marginally heavier than an iPad.

Powering the MPD 218 is easy – you just have to plug it into a USB port.

All of these make it one of the most portable pad controllers you can buy. You can drop it into your backpack and it will feel like you’re carrying an extra iPad around. I seriously recommend this if you plan to carry a pad controller to your gigs or jam sessions.

Build quality: The old Akai MPCs were built like tanks. Some of the old MPC60s are still going strong today after years of abuse in live gigs.

The MPD 218 isn’t anywhere close to that of course (remember that the MPC60 cost $5,000 in 1988 – ~$10,800 today), but it is still well-built. The pads are delightfully large and thick. The rotary knobs have decent heft. Twist them hard and they show sufficient resistance. I’ve been guilty of turning rotary knobs too hard during live gigs, but these feel like they can tae some damage.

 

Akai MPD 218 Review design
The red backlit pads on the all-black chassis looks good but neutral

If I had to point out a con, it would have to be the chassis, which uses hard plastic. I can understand why Akai chose to go with this plastic to cut down on costs and weight, but I would have preferred if the top of the chassis had some metal or tougher plastic.

Design: Aesthetically, I can’t complain much about the Akai MPD 218. The all-black chassis with red highlights looks good in any setting. Switch it on in the dark and the backlit pads look sufficiently futuristic. It’s not nostalgically retro like the Arturia BeatStep, but it’s a design that won’t go out of fashion any time soon. I can’t complain – it’s neither gorgeous nor ugly, but perfectly acceptable.

Conclusion

The Akai MPD 218 won’t withstand a nuclear blast (I’m dead sure the old MPCs would). I also have some reservations about the quality of plastic used in the chassis.

But when you consider its price and the build quality of the competition, the MPD 218 is perfectly above average or even “good”.

Where it wins is in the portability and pad quality. The pads are easily the best in class (more on this below) while the small dimensions and low weight make it as portable as an iPad.

To sum it up:

  • Small size and low weight make it extremely portable
  • Great build quality on the knobs and pads; average on the chassis
  • Pads are best in class and a delight to use
  • Design is inoffensive and won’t cause anyone any issues

Performance   4.2 out of 5 stars

Overview: As I noted earlier in this Akai MPD 218 review, this is a pad controller. A pad controller is essentially a MIDI controller that replaces black/white piano keys with pads. You load up sounds in each blank pad with the included software. To launch a sound, you just have to tap the right pad.

How you use the Akai MPD 218 – or any other pad controller – is up to you. For the majority, the pad controller doubles up as a drum machine. The large, responsive pads are ideal for finger drumming.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to three separate banks, you can store, well, 48 sounds and clips on the MPD 218. I’ve seen Kanye in show use his pad controller (an old MPC) to launch different clips from ‘Runaway’. He would then use a separate bank on the MPC to ad lib beats on the chorus. Heck, I’ve even seen folks load up piano notes on the pads and use the MPD as a piano (not that I recommend it!).

The good news is that the MPD 218’s pads are responsive enough, and the control options vast enough, that you can use it practically to run an entire show by itself. This is an important consideration if you plan to take this thing live.

On that note, let’s dive into the details in this Akai MPD 218 review.

Pads: Let’s talk about the number one thing you’re buying this unit for – the pads!

I’m pleased to say the pads on the MPD 218 are as good as they come. They’re large and velocity-sensitive. The rubber feels very tactile and responsive. They pop out just enough from the chassis to be playable, but not so much that pressing them down will take effort.

Finger drumming on this thing is a joy. The sensitivity makes it easy to lay down intricate hats, and they’re durable enough that you can hammer them down for kick/snare patterns.

I also have to point out the texture of the rubber. I’ve seen pad controllers where the rubber is too smooth. In a live gig with sweaty hands, that can be a problem. Thankfully, these pads have a sticky texture – great for sweaty, slippery hands.

A cool feature I should mention is the “Full Level” toggle switch. Switch this on and the MPD 218 temporarily switches off the velocity sensitivity on the pads. That is, every hit will have 100% volume. This is great if you’re laying down core elements (like kicks/snares) or if you’re using the MPD to trigger clips/loops.

Tap the “Full Level” button and all the hits will be at 100% velocity – great for triggering clips or laying down core kick/snare patterns

I have to point out a few negatives. For starters, there is no option to change the velocity sensitivity. I understand that Akai has arrived at the “sweet spot” of ideal sensitivity for most users, but there might be some who want to change things around. The default setting works fine for 99% of users, yet, the 1% – especially power users – might feel left out.

A simple software setting would have been nice to have.

Two, because the rubber surface of the pad is sticky, not smooth, this thing will attract a lot of dust. Be prepared to clean it every couple of days if you live in a dusty area. Not a deal breaker, of course, but something you should nonetheless be aware of.

And finally – though this isn’t universal for all users – I have read far too many complaints of pads getting triggered automatically. Usually happens at very low velocity levels so it’s not enough to ruin a performance, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Some users have reported that loosening the screws on the back of the device slightly seems to fix the problem. It’s also an issue that seems to have plagued the pre-2018 models, so it seems that Akai has fixed it.

Knobs: Technically, as Akai calls them, these are “potentiometers”, but I just call them knobs because that’s way easier. The knobs let you control different parameters like volume, panning, reverb mix, etc. You can configure these parameters in the bundled software (more on that below).

The build quality of the knobs is acceptable. They have enough resistance that you won’t accidentally push them all the way up. They also turn enough that you can use them for slow buildups.
If I have one complaint, it’s about the thickness of the knobs. The knobs are slightly too thin in the middle for my fat fingers. You feel like you’re pinching, not grabbing them. Slightly thicker knobs would have felt better while performing.

Expandable banks: A quick feature I should highlight is the expandability. The MPD 218 supports three banks of sounds and parameters for the knobs. This essentially gives you 48 pads (16×3) and 18 knobs (6×3). The banks also make it easy to organize your sounds. For instance, I usually have one bank for my drum sounds, one for triggering clips, and one for playing chords.

Software: The MPD 218 ships with Akai MPC Beats software. This software recreates the legendary MPC workflow and is the heart of the MPD experience. I’m happy to say that this software, despite some compatibility issues on Windows 7, is fantastically powerful. You can load up your sounds or use the nearly 27GB of samples that ship with your MPD. It supports AU/VST plugins right out of the box. And it has time-saving features like ‘Auto Populate’ to quickly fill up parameters.

Akai MPD 218 review
The pad bank lets you create 3 separate banks of sounds and parameters, effectively giving you 18 parameters and 48 pads

Apart from MPC Beats, the MPD 218 also ships with SoniVox drum suite and Ableton Live Lite. These are nice to have but nearly every MIDI controller these days offers these bundles, so it’s not a groundbreaking deal.

Integration: The MPD 218 has great integration with most modern DAWs. I tested it on Logic and Ableton Live and it was automatically detected by all of them. Integration is slightly more tricky in Cubase and FL Studio, but there are clear instructions on Akai’s website on how to go about it.

Conclusion

To conclude this section of our Akai MPD 218 review, I would say that this device performs well where it’s truly necessary – the pads and playability. These are, to put simply, the most fun pads to use in this price range. The sensitivity is just right and the size is ideal for 99.9% of people.

There is also substantial expandability thanks to three banks of sounds. The included software suite – MPC Beats – is robust and fast.

Minor complaints aside – the accidental triggering of the pads and the thinness of the knobs – I found the performance to be well worth the reputation.

Akai MPD 218 Review: Overall Score   4.1 out of 5 stars

Akai’s musical gear is rarely ever perfect. Some of the controllers suffer from mediocre build quality. Some others have sticky pads. And some have tightly wound keyboards.

But what Akai has managed to do really well is focus on the core of what makes a good controller. So a pad controller will have great pads, and a DAW controller like the MPK249 will have great DAW integrations.

This is true for the Akai MPD 218 as well.

Sure, the chassis feels too light and flimsy. And sure, there is a pesky accidental triggering issue on some older models.

But on the whole, the MPD 218 does its core job really well. The pads have fantastic, pitch-perfect sensitivity. They are perfectly sized. And included software suite is extremely easy – and fast to use.

For the price, I can’t think of a better pad controller.

For these reasons, I would recommend the Akai MPD 218, especially if this is the only pad controller you’re going to buy.

What’s good:The Akai MPD 218 does what it’s supposed to do – act as a beat-making tool – really well. The pads feel great and the entire MPC workflow is very fun to use.

  • Good build quality on the pads
  • The velocity sensitivity is just right
  • Lots of expandability thanks to 3 sound banks
  • Neutral aesthetics that won’t turn off any user
  • The included software is easy to use
  • Solid integration with most modern DAWs
  • Perfect size and weight for carrying around to gigs
  • Smart features such as MPC Note Repeat and Full Level

What’s not good:For all the things the MPD does right, it also gets a few things wrong:

  • Accidental pad triggering is an ongoing issue
  • Flimsy and lightweight chassis
  • Some compatibility issues on Windows 7
  • The knobs are slightly too thin

My recommendation: If you have the budget, the Ableton Push 2 would be my no. 1 choice for a pad/DAW controller. For most people, however, the MPD 218 would be the cheaper – and better alternative, especially if you’re strictly looking for a beat maker/drum machine. If there is only one pad controller you can buy and you’re working with a limited budget, this should be your #1 choice.

Also read:

References:

Changelog
  • August 6, 2020: Article first published

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