As computers become more and more powerful, and music production and performance tools move increasingly into the software domain, the merit of hardware music equipment is largely its hands on quality. Whilst software has given users the opportunity to twist, mould and tweak sound with scientific precision, sometimes it all feels a little too scientific. Many forgo the computer for the hardware production unit, embracing its unified nature and workflow advantages and accepting the narrower scope as the lesser of two evils. But does it have to be one or the other? Native Instruments doesn’t think so- and Maschine is out to prove it.
At first glance, the Maschine hardware looks familiar. The 4x4, 16 pad design is now practically as recognised a musical interface as the keyboard to electronic musicians, and NI has wisely decided not to try and reinvent the wheel. They aren’t however, afraid of giving it their own set of tyres. General opinion tends to sway towards using Akai’s MPC pad feel as the gold standard by which all others are judged, but rather than ape them, Maschine’s pads feel entirely different. The pads are solid rubber blocks which are very firm and hardly depress at all. The solid nature of the pads means that they’re sensitive all the way to the edge, with no floppy corners, and due to the firmness are extremely sensitive.
My first tentative prodding after removing Maschine from its box left me apprehensive, because I am personally a big fan of the MPC and (Roland) MV style of pad and there’s no doubt that Maschine is a different beast. However my worries evaporated when I got it plugged in and found the sensitivity allowed for incredibly expressive and accurate playing, with little more than a blown kiss required for activation - but without calling for He Man-esque strength to hit full velocity. The settings for Maschine allow you to adjust the sensitivity to your preference via a slider too, so you can really customise the unit’s feel to your liking.
One issue I do have with the pads is their slightly loose nature - resting a palm on the grid and moving it around causes the pads to move slightly in their bed. In practice I doubt this is an issue, more a quirk inherent in the design.
Of course, there’s more to Maschine than the pads and next up vying for your attention are two backlit LCD screens. The brightness and contrast can be adjusted independently- the backlight can be switched off totally and adjusted all the way up to a cool ice white. They’re crisp and clear enough not only to provide comfortable viewing over long periods, but also to provide enough information to allow you to keep your eyes on the unit without ever looking at your computer screen should you wish.
Every rotary encoder is infinite motion, smooth and without any detents, which gives a tremendous amount of control.
There are enough buttons to cover nearly every application on Maschine as well as provide plenty of assignable controls for MIDI operation (every single button is assignable, including transport controls which are not locked to MMC). All the buttons (including the pads) are backlit, too- and not only that, they even have a dim and bright setting. NI has really thought about how to make Maschine as easy to navigate as possible.
Unfortunately, placing the eight main rotaries directly under the screens introduces Maschine’s only real ergonomic boob. Whilst a logical position, considering functions on the screens are aligned with each knob, it does render it quite tricky to watch the screens when adjusting controls as your hands tend to obscure them. Of course, there’s always your computer’s screen, which is a strong argument as to why the Maschine hardware doesn’t feature adjustable screen angles either- in practice it’s just not an important feature.
Round the back of the unit you’ll find one MIDI in, one MIDI out, the USB socket and a Kensington lock slot.
The Maschine hardware is a decent weight, light without feeling flimsy, and its housing is durable plastic with an attractive black brushed aluminium faceplate. Everything feels like it’s built to last, and with extensive testing not one control has stuck, missed a hit, or behaved anything other than perfectly.
Up to this point, I’ve focused solely on the Maschine controller. The brains of Maschine, however, are in the software. The Maschine controller is useless unless plugged into a computer with the software installed, but via that single USB connection something magic happens. At its heart, Maschine is advanced groove box software and doesn’t really offer anything that we haven’t seen in computer music before, but the important thing is its standalone nature. You can feasibly make an entire album with Maschine and Maschine alone, without ever feeling like you’re taking the long way round.
The software/hardware integration is absolutely spot on, too. The software window is basically just a higher resolution version of what is displayed in the hardware displays, and 99% of your work on Maschine can be done without taking your eyes, or hands, off the hardware. Psychologically this is a massive bonus, as you genuinely feel like you’re building something tactile. The eight buttons above and eight pots below the screens change function dynamically depending on what is being displayed on the screens, and any change you make on your computer screen is instantly mimicked on the hardware displays. Just about the only time you need to use features you can only control via the software is when, given the choice, you probably would anyway. Advanced sample patch creation, for instance, is done with the software- but why would you create a multi velocity, multi key sampler patch on the hardware when you can drag, drop and resize on a large display using a mouse?
What may be the single most important feature for potential migrants from the MPC cult is Maschine’s ability to sample natively. Before Maschine, sampling and slicing on a computer was a two or three step process and personally I found it a real buzzkill. With Maschine, you simply press the ‘sampling’ button, record from whatever you have to send your computer an audio signal (or sample Maschine’s own output with internal record), edit start and end points directly and then either assign it to a pad or take it to the chopping window.
For the first time in computer music, getting samples off an external source and onto pads has the potential to be as quick or quicker than using a hardware groove box. Samples are sliced non destructively, so rough edits can be tweaked later, and slices can have overlapping start and end and loop points. The transient slicing detection is very tight, and allows you to quickly get a percussive loop chopped up- there’s even an option to only apply certain slices to pads, to allow you to place (for example) the best hits out of a drum break on whichever pads you like. Each pad can be triggered as a one shot, simple AHD or full ADSR envelopes.
Maschine only slices in 16th notes (although I’m assured the forthcoming 1.1 update will also slice in 8th and quarter notes), so to get a loop chopped into 16 pads regardless of its length you need adjust the BPM rating for the sample. Whilst this shouldn’t be a deal breaker, it’s a bit of a strange oversight not to allow the user to simply choose how many slices to chop a sample into- and because the BPM can only be set as low as ten, sometimes it’s not possible to go as low as 16 slices. Something that annoys me but may be a blessing to other users is the way that after creating a chopped sample, Maschine automatically creates the pattern information so the slices play in the original rhythm of the loop. Personally I would prefer this to be an option and default to map the pads but leave pattern data empty, as 95% of the time I rearrange the slices anyway. Finally, the editing section needs to be improved. In order to test your transient settings, it’s necessary to apply each tweak to the pads before you can hear whether the slices are useful. It would also be a nice timesaver to be able to preview starting from near the end of the sample akin to MPC’s JJ OS, as editing the end point of a four bar loop gets tedious when you have to listen to the whole sample every time you tweak.
For some reason, you need to set separate trim settings for the edit window and the slice window. Because you can’t preview in the slicing window, you have to edit the start and end points in the main edit window, then manually copy them into the slicing window. Not only is this less than ideal, but you may also find that you need to reach over to your computer to do this; turning the dial on the controller (even using fine tune) isn’t particularly accurate and you might not be able to hit the same value. Introducing a destructive trim could solve all this; here Maschine’s policy of non destructive editing actually creates more of an issue than it solves. There is a lack, in fact, of any real editing features. At the very least, normalization and DC bias removal wouldn’t go amiss; more advanced features, such as time stretch and loop behaviour, are also absent. You can see the brilliance of the concept with Maschine’s onboard sampling, but as of now, there’s work to be done on the execution. Hopefully issues like these will be taken on board by NI, and can potentially be fixed and changed more quickly and easily than with a hardware groove box and its inherent memory limitations.
Maschine ships with a generous 5Gb or so of sample content. On the whole this content is excellent quality- there are perhaps too many of the standard fare guitar and bongo licks and loops we’ve heard before, but nothing stands out as a poor effort. The focus with the sounds is variety and usability rather than pristine sonic quality, and there is a wide range of multi sampled instruments and synths to plump for as well as a huge drum sound library which I cannot fault. NI has recruited a host of world famous producers to provide sounds for Maschine, and it really shows. Load up a Mr. Porter drum kit and you’ve got an instant reference point for fantastic hip hop drums. Amon Tobin provides some superb electronic sounds. As mentioned, the focus of the samples is usability. Many of the sounds actually sound as though they’ve been handed to NI from personal sound collections, and some do sound as though they have a little DC bias, some are a little metallic sounding, and some of them have bit distortion. It’s the music that counts though and there are plenty of samples here to bolster your collection or even use on their own- they’re that good.
The same philosophy seems to have been applied to the instruments. Maschine includes a powerful velocity based multi-sampler which can load more or less as many sounds per patch as will fit on a keyboard or your computer will handle. That said, it’s disappointing not to find any multi velocity patches in the supplied library. Whilst Maschine obviously isn’t geared towards writing concertos, a decent velocity multi-sampled grand piano would have been a nice gesture to show off the power of the sampler- it would certainly be preferable to the hundreds of guitar and percussion loops. As it is, the acoustic instruments are extremely usable, but not the final word in sampling.
Maschine doesn’t feature a synthesiser, it’s entirely sample based. That’s not to say, however, that you can’t create your own extremely rich sounding synth patches with the included synth sounds. From stabs, blips and bleeps sampled from NI’s excellent soft synths which are good enough to slap onto a pad and get going, to standard waveforms that you can shape with Machine's filters and effects and layer together to create very respectable pseudo synths. The effects implementation hits the nail on the head. Maschine isn’t a full DAW, it isn’t a professional mastering studio, and it doesn’t pretend to be. What you get are great sounding, easy to use effects that cover a wide range of applications, add depth to your sounds and beg to be automated. Whilst some of the effects do have little annoyances - the basic channel filters for instance don’t always fully cut the sound, so good is the sound you can forgive many evils. Turn the filters (by .1% if you wish) and hear a musical sweep through the frequency range, nasty digital artifacts MPC and lower end software users will be familiar with conspicuous by their absence.
The beat delay is a favourite of mine, and can take a melody to heady depths almost subliminally, bathing you in sound. Maschine has two effects slots per pad, two per group and two on the master channel. If that sounds a little slim don’t worry- each pad has a dial for a basic compressor, saturator, bit rate and sample rate, and a selectable low pass/band pass/high pass/EQ section. Further to that, a group can be set aside as an effect send, allowing for two more universal effects. Despite the lack of infinite effects inserts and sends seen on many DAWs these days, Maschine is still seriously capable and just about any effect you could want to modulate can be sent to the LFO or the envelope. To spell it out, a group can have a full drum kit, each piece sent to a reverb and delay, with individual drive, bit rate and EQ settings, two unique effects on each, perhaps a beat delay and phaser for high hats, a different beat delay and an auto filter for toms, an advanced saturator for the kick, and so on. The whole drum kit can be compressed and EQ’d with the group effects, and of course there are still the master effects for tightening up the final mix. This is greater effects capability than any hardware groovebox on the market. You can even route the incoming sound source through a group and have it processed by Machine's effects in real time with extremely low latency.
One of the features I am most impressed with is Machine's keyboard integration. Whilst 16 pads are a great way to play with sounds, they can’t match a keyboard for playing melodies and chords. Plugging in a keyboard via the MIDI in connection automatically puts the selected sound chromatically on the keyboard. Because Maschine stores a whole patch in each pad, a single group can have a patch on every pad and simply pressing a pad to select a sound then playing that sound on the keyboard makes your workflow incredibly fluid. Your personal ‘go to’ sounds, perhaps a couple of hand picked basses, synth leads, pads and electric pianos, can be stored in a single group and used as a basic palette for quickly building a song (especially useful as Maschine lacks an autoload feature). Unfortunately (again), the only thing that Maschine receives from the keyboard right now is note data - so no pitch bend or mod wheel.
The next trick up Machine's sleeve is a fully featured step sequencer- a novel but inspired addition to its feature set. By pressing the ‘Step’ button, the pads change into a representation of the measure. Whilst in play mode the pads light up sequentially with the timing that you specify, by default 16ths, and with one touch activate the sound on that note and another deactivate it. Users familiar with classic drum machines will love this feature, as will FL Studio fans. Because of the ease of switching into and out of step mode, live build ups and break downs become fun and easy to perform.
Of course, Maschine has every editing feature you would expect from a groove box sequencer, with mute, solo, note repeat, simple copy, paste and erase, tap tempo and so on. It’s all very intuitive to use and helps you get your ideas into a concrete form with zero keyboard and mouse use.
Anyone familiar with the standard song>scene>group>pattern>sound logic of a groove box will feel right at home with Maschine, and those completely new to it will figure it all out in minutes, not hours. The swing function on Maschine is particularly well implemented, as a dial right on the unit goes from 0-100% in real time and snaps to any quantisation grid you select. You can apply swing globally in this way, as well as to individual groups via a separate dial. There’s also the option to use a 50% quantise on your recorded notes, a great way to tighten up your patterns without stripping them of their human feel. A little niggle, though, is that quantising can only be applied to whole patterns, and swing to whole groups. You’re out of luck if you want to quantise just the kick and snare of a pattern after recording hats and toms, and if you want to swing the kick and snare but play the high hats naturally the high hats will need to be on a separate group. Another problem with swing is its strange behaviour during record. I found that during recording, my pad hits would snap to their swung position (even with quantise turned completely off), which is confusing to the point of being unplayable. The solution is of course to temporarily turn off the swing when recording.
When you come to export your project, you can choose to render the whole thing, multi track each group, or even each sound. If you’re planning on mixing down on another piece of equipment, you’ll love the ease with which you can get the separate WAVs.
A couple of things are conspicuous by their absence, notably a count in and a ‘record from first stroke’. Fingers crossed these will be added in an update soon.
The most significant omission from Maschine’s feature set is the ability to sequence external equipment - Maschine doesn’t send MIDI out from its software (although it does still send MIDI out in the standard MIDI controller mode). This will obviously be more of a shame for some than others, but if you use an MPC or MV to sequence your hardware studio you will not be able to swap it out for Maschine and do the same thing. NI has stated that full MIDI implementation is in the works, so not only sequencing Maschine from another sequencer but also using Maschine to sequence other equipment should be possible by 1.1.
So far, I’ve detailed Maschine’s standalone mode. One of the most exciting things about Maschine is the fact that even though you may never want to use it any other way, you have the option to use it as a plugin in your sequencer of choice or even as a controller for any software or hardware that receives MIDI messages.
Integration with a host such as Ableton Live or Logic instantly gives you the ease of use of Maschine combined with the tweaking power of the host. Maschine has eight outputs which can be routed to aux channels in the host. Program change messages can be sent from the host to automate Machine's scenes. Currently, that’s as far as the integration goes - as previously mentioned you can’t sequence or automate Maschine from the host (or vice versa). Seeing as the real strength of Maschine is its fast and efficient workflow, though, it makes sense to use it in standalone and create the meat of your project before loading it as a plugin in your DAW to play to its strengths and finalise it. Being able to switch between using the Maschine controller to control Maschine and standard MIDI control with the touch of a button (well, holding one and pressing another) lets you easily combine these strengths, and further still being able to load multiple instances of Maschine in the host and switch between them via the controller can’t fail to put a smile on your face.
The MIDI template editor is clear and easy to use, and allows you to specify the application of every single control on the Maschine controller. You can make the play button behave as a note, a pad behave as a control change, specify whether the command is sent when the button is pressed, released, or both, whether it toggles or holds, and so on. Mackie Control emulation is built in, so if you want to make Maschine ape the functionality of a Mackie Control, you can. Any editing you make to the label of controls will also show up on the displays when appropriate. You can even choose whether the group buttons will function as pages for the pads or act as buttons themselves. Saving a template will put it in the Maschine controller and allow you to choose it from within the controller’s menu, without needing the editor open.
Maschine comes with templates for other NI software, such as Battery, Pro 53 and Traktor Pro, as well as the Mackie Control and Ableton Live. Loading up the template and playing with Live (after copying a control surface file to the Live folder) gives you an idea of the power of Maschine as a MIDI controller - the integration is jaw dropping. The pads trigger clips in session mode, and glow dimly when a clip is loaded into a slot and brightly when they are playing. The B, E, F, and G group buttons are used as up/left/down/right controls and move the clip view to allow you to control any 16 clips with the pads, and volume, pan and sends are controlled with the knobs. Of course, this can all be customised to your liking without breaking a sweat, and before you know it you’ll have forgotten what your mouse and keyboard even look like.
As you might expect, something as powerful as Maschine does have a certain system cost. The minimum specs are quite high but in the grand scheme of things, a Maschine, computer, and audio interface combo capable of running without hiccups still costs substantially less than an MPC 5000 or a Roland MV-8800 and does far more in terms of sound design. The test machine, a 2008 black MacBook (Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4gHz, 2GB RAM), runs Maschine with ease even as a plugin within an Ableton Live project with effects. Latency is dependent both on your computer’s speed and your audio interface, and Maschine tells you exactly what the true latency of your system will be by showing you the processing latency as well as the audio buffer latency. Even with onboard Core Audio, I can run the most demanding demos with latency of under 20ms at 44.1kHz and can reduce this further still to around 12ms for less demanding tasks.
During my extended play with Maschine, I found what appeared to be some frustrating bugs. Native Instruments, however, were quick to point out that these were isolated incidents and not reported nor replicable by themselves. I realise that it’s important to be accurate for better or worse, and with this in mind I was left with somewhat a dilemma- do I talk about my specific quarrels with Maschine, despite the assertions that the problems are at my end? In the same vein, I went through the entire review process without noticing what I later discovered were some recognised bugs - what’s the fairest thing to do? In the end, I’ve decided that this paragraph is the best way to solve my predicament. All software has bugs. That’s a given, and also a given is that for bugs to be stamped out of a piece of software they have to be found and isolated. This inevitably means that brand new software will have the most bugs. I have mentioned a couple of things that I noticed this review, but I definitely advise that if this talk concerns you, you head over to the Maschine forums for not only the collective murmur of some of Maschine’s user base, but also a list of recognised bugs and an update schedule..
To sum up: Maschine’s pretty big news. It looks, sounds, and feels great. There are annoyances, but this is a 1.0 release, and it’s pretty groundbreaking. Given time and attention, Maschine could genuinely make hardware groove boxes obsolete. And even if it doesn’t, it’s bound to trail blaze for a whole host of imitators.
If you’re looking to swap out your MPC, MV, other other hardware sequencing sequencer, you’ll need to have a good look at what your actual needs are. At this moment in time, Maschine might not have some of the functions you use on your other kit. One thing’s for sure though, and that’s that no combination of MIDI controller and software comes close to Maschine’s scope and ease of use, and for all these reasons I can’t recommend Maschine highly enough if you’re in the market for ‘something like an MPC’. Plus, what other groovebox can you take to the park, except the vastly underpowered MPC500 or Roland SP-404?
Despite being light enough to comfortably lift in one hand, Maschine feels like it’s built to last. The aluminium faceplate is a nice touch, and the only thing marring a perfect 10 is the slight lateral movement of the pads.
If you’ve used Native Instruments software before, you know what to expect. It’s not quite as lush as some of the top range of audio plugins, but to all intents and purposes is fantastic.
Features and Implementation
The thing to bear in mind is that this is v1 of the Maschine software. Updates, most notably the sample editing, MIDI capabilities, the addition of a synth (although I’m not holding my breath for that one right now) and bug fixes, will make the software feel more complete.
Value for Money
Simply put, you won’t find anything that does as much as Maschine for so little. Even factoring in the price of a new laptop you’re still spending less you would on the nearest hardware competitor that does less than half as much.
The Bottom Line
I am reviewing the product I have in front of me and have to ignore its future potential. If NI sort out the sampling bugs and MIDI issues, Maschine will be nothing less than an essential purchase to an electronic musician. As it is, consider whether the features that haven’t yet been implemented are deal breakers, and if not you owe it to yourself to at least try it.
A brief but useful picture set from the skratchlab.