Maschine – A look at the new version..

Maschine package.Aren’t you a bit fresh to do a Maschine review?  Well, yes I am.

I recently stepped onto the bandwagon which is Maschine, and despite the fact that its still somewhat soon I think now is a good time to share my experiences.

This might seem a bit hasty but when I consider that I’m already quite capable of helping other people with slightly advanced problems I think it should be fine.

And rest assured; I’m well past my previous criticism even though I do warn you that my review will be a critical one.

Maschine, what is it ?

Maschine is a development by Native Instruments which seemingly links a controller with supporting software in such a way where it provides a fluent option to create percussion and other groove based material, and its not even limited to this.

The most remarkable feature which Maschine has to offer is that almost all of the regular tasks can be performed by merely using the hardware. Whether you’re assigning sounds to pads (thus building up a drum kit) or processing imported sound samples to slice these up in separate parts. All of that can be handled by only using the controller. Needless to say that this increases and enhances your workflow dramatically. When solely looking at Ableton Live there is a huge difference between building a rack and using it. So now that you can combine those two its a killer combo!

And for those of you new to Maschine; its also noteworthy that the software counterpart can be used either in a standalone or integrated way like a VST inside a DAW, which is the case for most of the software produced by Native Instruments. In other words; you can use Maschine on its own for percussion, but you can also easily integrate it into any DAW of your liking, as long as this DAW supports VST or RTAS extensions.

First impressions

This is exactly one of the reasons I’m writing this while I’m still somewhat new..  To be quite honest my first overall impression is that the Maschine controller feels somewhat cheap. When you’re holding the controller you’ll notice that its quite light and doesn’t have a very solid feel to it. It consists of a metal plating at the top in which all the individual components are mounted yet the rest of the device is made out of plastic.

Now, that doesn’t have to be a problem given that a MPD24 consists of the opposite; a bottom made out of metal where the rest of the device is made out of plastic. Still, some of the Maschine components do not feel as if they can stand much abuse. This goes especially for the dials; when comparing these with those on my APC40 or MPD24 its a night and day difference. When giving the dials a light pull I can take off the casing of 3 out of 8 dials unintentionally. No abuse, no violence; just a slight pull. When doing this on my APC40 it doesn’t budge, and when I increase the pull I’m getting close to levitating the entire device even though its much heavier than the Maschine controller.

The buttons on the other hand give a better feel and the drumpads
themselves are indeed marvelous. They have a good feel to them and a
good response to the touch as well. Maschine sure makes it easy to do
one hand drumming, even though its not perfect in this manner. And this
is not related to the touch sensitivity which can be changed easily, but
purely to the pads themselves which sometimes can behave in a
inconsistent manner. When comparing this with the MPD24 it soon becomes clear that the way you’re hitting a pad has more influence with Maschine.

Upside down USB connector.

Another thing are the connectors..  Maschine features 2 regular MIDI connectors; in and out. An USB connector and a Kensington lock which allows you to attach it to a surface.

Here too the Maschine feels somewhat limited. The MIDI connectors for example are purely in/out for the Maschine itself. Which is more than enough, don’t get me wrong, but it would have been a nice touch if you could also access these MIDI ports using your DAW. Something which you can do with the MPD24; thus allowing you to control MIDI devices using the controller or your DAW.

The USB connector has been placed upside down. In other words; connecting a quality USB cable means that you’d actually need to keep the connection logo downwards which isn’t a regular situation. Usually its facing upwards as an indication that you’re holding the cable in the right way. I can see this easily causing issues for some roadies..

Software

Maschine software screenshot.This is the heart of the Maschine controller. Everything you’re doing on the Maschine is actually performed by the software.

The software looks very good at first but if you’re going to be using it for a longer time you’ll probably soon run into some shortcomings.

Most of the time you probably won’t notice these since the whole setup is based on using the controller instead of the software. But the controller can only do so much; when it becomes a bit more specialized things start to look awkward at times.

For example..  Maschine heavily relies on its library to help you guide your way within its massive sound collection. To build and maintain this library however you’ll be using the software…  As can be seen in many tutorial movies its very easy to add sound material to your library; you can right click on a directory, use the ‘import’ option and then provide some search attributes which can help you find your samples again at a later time.

And here the first shortcomings surface..  While Maschine easily allows you to add attributes if the currently available ones don’t suffice it does not support the renaming of these attributes afterwards. So you’d better be very sure not to make any typing mistakes or its going to haunt you later.

Another problem which I quickly noticed is that when you use the option to add an entire directory to your library you’re basically starting to pollute it. While you can easily remove all the individual samples there is no way for you to get rid of the reference to the physical directory.

While this may not sound dire at first think of what would happen if you need to suddenly remove and later re-add an entire selection of samples? That will become hard since you won’t be able to import the directory any more; only rescan it. This will work if the samples are fully the same, but if you need to use some different attributes it becomes more of a burden. Then you’d need to manually add the samples individually. Which in itself can be tedious considering that the software has no support for common keystrokes like control-a for “select all” or even the use of the navigation keys like home (begin) and end (end). So basically select the first of the list, then use your mouse to scroll down to the last entry and select that one while keeping shift pressed so you select all samples, after which you can import them again.

Limited navigation

Another easily noticeable issue is the odd navigation control you have in the pattern editor. While the Maschine controller excels at creating patterns you’ll need the software to edit / tune them. Apart from quantizing; this can be done on the fly using the Maschine controller.

But…  Having the arrow buttons to only navigate through the scenes and groups (top right section of the software) without having an option to select and navigate through the patterns themselves feels very limited to me. I can use the scroll wheel of my mouse to move up and down, but what about left and right?  The only way to do that at this time is by dragging a bar with your mouse which is located at the bottom of the screen.

You can use the alt key and press left/right after which some movement appears but I haven’t exactly figured out what it does since the timeline and the movement bar don’t move.

Now, although the software has quirks here and there it is important to note that this is work in progress. They are expecting to release a new update of the software next year, so while some of the caveats may sound awkward this is by far the final product.

Workflow

Maschine controller.The one thing Maschine truly excels at is its workflow. Its simply much easier to be able and create a drumpad right at the controller where you’ll be using it. This allows you to test your sounds the very moment you’ve added or changed them.

My main comparison is with Ableton Live.. Whenever I used to prepare myself for percussion I’d either load in a drumkit (using drumracks obviously) or load in individual sounds which I considered to be matching after which I did a test session.

IN other words; moving the chair from behind my keyboard to a place behind my MPD24. Usually sometime sounds “off”… At least in my situations..

So its “back to the drawing table” yet this analogy becomes too real for any fun…

Because the whole process of adding, testing, removing and re-adding can repeat itself many times!

Not so with Maschine….

Because you can build an entire kit from behind the controller itself it becomes a whole lot easier to test to see if everything sounds right. To make this even easier on you NI invented the “quick browser”; when you hit a sound (pad) and have the “browse” option selected then the browser will list the currently used sound as well as several sounds within that same category.

Thus switching to try out something new becomes a breeze indeed!

Pattern editing

After you’ve setup a drum kit to use its time to record a beat. A recorded beat is called a pattern and such a pattern is basically a collection of midi notes which is associated with a group. A group is basically a collection of pad assignments, or a “drum kit” for easier wording. So; you have 8 groups in total, and each group can contain 16 different pad assignments.

This allows you to quickly flip between sounds. I can imagine, for example, combining a 808 with a Latin set to allow for some different intermezzo’s.

But back to the patterns..  A group can also have up to 16 different patterns associated with it. So in a specific group (‘kit’) you can have 16 different beats.  What makes Maschine truly stand out is the control you have over your pattern right from behind the controller…

Example; you hit record and you start recording a kick and a snare. 1 bar so a few hits. Now when you’re listening to the beat you realize that the sound is off. You used, say, the lower left pads while you should have used the 2 above those. Now what ?

No problem..   While recording you simply hold erase and then hold the pad which sound you wish to remove. Its as simple as that. Repeat this for the other pad, then simply start hitting the right pads. Optionally after you hit “restart” to make sure that the beat starts at the beginning again.

The Maschine’s outstanding workflow is in my opinion also its strongest feature.

Features

Apart from the workflow the most noticeable features are things you might already take for granted; stuff like “16 velocities”; here a certain sound gets spread out of all pads where each pad represents a different velocity.

Another outstanding feature is the step sequencer. Here you can quickly program sounds into your workflow. And it couldn’t be easier; just hit a pad you wish to program and push the “step” button. Now you’re in the step sequencer mode. The movement will go from bottom left to top right, and doesn’t even have to be limited to one “page” of pads. If your pattern is longer than the default 1 bar you’ll notice a scroll bar being displayed in the top right LCD display. This allows you to move to all the different sections of your pattern; thus giving you full control over it.

Maschine mode and midi mode

A very special feature which shouldn’t go unnoticed is the “switch” feature. The Maschine controller can operate in both “Maschine” and “Midi” mode seemingly. In other words; in its regular mode it behaves as the Maschine controller; here all the buttons do whatever you might expect them to do in order to operate the Maschine software.

In midi mode on the other hand the functionality is entirely depending on the kind of template which is currently active. This allows you to use the Maschine controller as an actual (‘dumb’) midi controller.

What good that does you ?

Say you’re using Live and as such the Maschine VST plugin in Live. When you need to play or record something you can’t simply hit ‘play’ on the controller since the plugin is fully depending on the Live transport. In other words; if Live’s transport plays then so does Maschine, but not on its own.

SO… now you’re sitting behind the Maschine and want to record something. Problem: you’ll need to start the Live transport first.

Now you have several options. You could hit play on your APC if that’s standing close by. Or move back over to your computer to use the mouse to click “play”.

OR…  You can switch Maschine to its midi mode, then when setup right all you need to do is push the “play” button.

Template editing

All of this is made possible due to the Maschine controller templates. The included controller editor allows you to setup the Maschine controller in any way you like. All of the controls can be assigned to send either midi note or control messages, to behave in a button like manner (just push it to make it work) or a toggle (when pushed once it lights up, push it again to turn it off again). This is an ideal way to control Live’s metronome from behind the Maschine controller.

Summing up

I think it should be obvious by now; the Maschine environment presents an outstanding workflow which clearly takes beat production to a whole new level. However, it should also be noted that Maschine still has quite a few flaws in both hardware and software and at that point isn’t quite perfect.

Pro’s

  • An amazing workflow; you can almost do everything right from behind the controller.
  • Easy control over sounds (loading / removing) or entire kits.
  • Easy control over patterns (midi notes); removing isn’t a problem.
  • Step sequencer.
  • Easy control over samples (slicing).
  • Sound editing capabilities; assigning or removing effects on other a per sound, group or master level.
  • Although somewhat workflow related; the option to use Maschine as a midi controller. So using Maschine with Live’s drumracks won’t be a problem.
  • The Maschine controller is USB powered, so no power supply needed.
  • Usable in both a stand alone and sequencer (DAW) integrated way.
  • Fully tweakable. It can be a midi controller which behaves just like you want it. OR simply use one of the many default templates to make it operate commonly available software (Live, Massive, Kore..).
  • Work in progress. There are still lots of new features to be expected in the software.

Con’s

  • The controller itself feels cheap as if it can’t stand much abuse. It seems NI has these controllers custom made in China. I can’t help feel that they should have consulted a company which already has much experience and expertise on producing controllers.
  • Home studio users should especially keep this in mind IMO. A Maschine is only a fraction of the price of, say, an MPC drum machine. So I can imagine that in a professional environment it doesn’t matter if one or two break down; its still way within the “normal” investment.  But for us home users it becomes a whole different ballgame.
  • There are still quite a few caveats in the software.
  • The way NI has tied samples fully towards their library can be very tedious since you’d need to import all your current samples before you can use them.
  • When using the library be careful with naming attributes as these cannot be renamed.
  • You might want to seriously consider using Maschine with a sequencer. The pattern editor, which is basically a midi editor, is very limited.  For example; creating a half note (half the size of the regular notes) is extremely tedious, and cannot be done with having a grid displayed.
  • NI customer support is almost none existent. They have a forum in which some very friendly and willing people help out, but those guys can only do so much. When you have a serious issue you’ll need to contact support. And that is no fun. Don’t be surprised if you open a ticket, get a confirmation and then don’t hear back from them in the next 3 weeks.

I think Maschine is all about workflow, it truly excels here, yet unfortunately it also leaves many things open for improvement. Its by far as perfect as some people may want you to believe. I’m especially baffled by the seemingly cheap quality of the controller itself. Something I will have a look at in the future after my warranty expires. It seems you can easily open this baby up.

I’d advice people who are interested in grabbing a Maschine not to use the NI webshop to get one. First its overpriced; many local dealers will be able to offer you the Maschine at a lower price. Next is the issue of warranty; chances are high that you’re going to need it.

I’ve heard several stories in several forums (not just hate posts, also regular comments) where people indicated that they had issues with the hardware, some still do but simply took it for granted.  And as said above; NI customer support is almost none existent. While their software products are quite outstanding I don’t like the way they treat their customer base in the likes of support for one bit.

And there you have it….

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2 comments

  1. Wow.. Thats a pretty nifty review there..

    One thing I think is missing; what do you think? It sounds pretty neat, but should I get one or not??

    Your review makes me want one on one hand yet also scares me too..

    HELP! LOL!!

  2. I sort of left that part out on purpose. Quite frankly I don’t really know; I was quite surprised to discover that the controller felt quite cheap and fragile, especially in comparison with my APC or MPD.

    Personally I think the main advantage of the Maschine is its workflow. Although I love the workflow I’m not too confident that the controller will last very long (those dials feel to me as if they’re bound to cause problems the moment you haven’t been using the Maschine for a while and some dust got in).

    So I decided to pass up on the Maschine and stick with the MPD for now.

    ….if only I would be able to uninstall the software I’d be very happy.

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