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NI Maschine Jam

Controller Instrument
Published October 2016
By Simon Sherbourne

NI Maschine Jam

Can NI’s new performance controller preserve Maschine’s status as king of the beat stations?

NI’s Maschine has become a dominant force in electronic music, usurping the MPC as the standard beat workstation, and even nipping at Ableton’s heels as a stand-alone production platform. But for improvised arrangements and live performances the combo of Live with a grid controller like the Push, APC or Launchpad is compelling. Of course Maschine slots nicely into such a setup, but now NI’s Jam controller brings a unique take on these live performance controllers to the Maschine environment, and also offers a one-stop option for controlling both Maschine and Live.

Jam Nitty Gritty

NI describe the Jam as a “Production and Performance System”. Its large grid provides fast access to your Scenes, Patterns and Groups. As we’ll see, this is equivalent, but conceptually different to your typical Ableton clip-launch controller. The grid also specialises in step sequencing, with both gate and piano-roll modes for visual pattern programming. You’ll also find drum-pad and keyboard modes for live playing and recording of kits and instruments, and you can use Maschine with just the Jam, although the lack of velocity sensitive pads is limiting. Below the grid are eight touch strips that can act as Group faders, device and parameter controllers, and performance effects for real-time tweaking. You also get a full transport section and an encoder that’s used for sound browsing and adjusting performance controls.

The Jam has the same physical footprint as the ‘standard’ Maschine controller, but shares the flat-faced design of the Maschine Studio, without the raised ‘curbs’ that run across the top and bottom of the other versions. It’s thinner, but comes with a bolt-on foot that raises the rear to match the wedge profile of the regular Maschine surface. Connection is via USB, and the Jam is fully bus powered, giving a Maschine or Mikro plus Jam combination the advantage over Push if you’re avoiding mains adaptors. You can connect multiple Jams, but only to control multiple instances of the Maschine plug-in in a DAW.

Getting Into A Jam

When you fire up a Maschine project the Jam comes to life in bold colours with the grid in its default mode, showing an overview of the building blocks of your session. You can always return to this view using the Song button at the top of the surface. Each column represents a Group (track). The bottom row of buttons — labelled A-H — are Group selectors with the same function as the Group buttons on other Maschine hardware. The eight buttons above each Group selector represent Patterns in the Groups. Finally, the top row of numbered buttons are Scenes.

Pressing a Scene button selects it, and triggers it if you’re in Play. The grid indicates which Patterns are assigned to the selected Scene. Tapping any other Pattern on the matrix will immediately start it playing and assign it to the Scene. Tapping a selected Pattern stops it and clears its assignment from the Scene. And that, in a nutshell, is the arrangement workflow in the Jam. You might think this is functionality that is essentially available on the existing Maschine controllers, and in fact when you hold down the Scene or Pattern buttons on existing Machines, you get 16 pads to select from instead of eight. But... with the existing controllers you only see one Group at a time, and folded across a 4x4 grid. In practice there’s a huge usability boost from having everything spread out on a multitrack grid; you can see into your session, and can assign/trigger multiple patterns simultaneously.

Having spent a lot of time working with Live and its various clip-launching controllers, for me the key to understanding the Jam was to appreciate the differences between it and the way Live’s Session View works. A Live Scene is simply a row on the clip grid. In the Jam, a row has no special significance; each column is a list of pattern variations, and a Scene simply recalls one pattern from each Group. There’s a great efficiency to this system and you typically end up with a much smaller grid. On the other hand, Live’s approach gives you a visual indication of the content of a Scene before you trigger it. We’ll come back to more workflow discussion, but for now let’s look at what else the Jam offers...

Step Change

Existing Maschine hardware has taken step sequencing about as far as it can within the constraint of 16 pads, but good hardware sequencing is really about have a big bank of physical controls and direct visual feedback. Not surprisingly then, the Jam offers a leap in Maschine’s step-sequencing capabilities.

Tapping the Step button puts the grid into single-sound sequencing mode. This transforms the top four rows of the main grid into a gate sequencer, representing two bars of the current pattern at 16th-note resolution. In this view the Scene buttons move this 32-step window through longer patterns. The bottom-right 16 buttons become a miniature pad grid where you can select sounds from the Group. This concept is used in various Jam functions, so this section of the grid is marked out separately on the surface. There are also multitrack views available in Step mode: four sounds can be sequenced across two rows each, or eight sounds with a single row each. In these views the 16-pad sound selector is hidden, but can be revealed with the Select button.

If inspiration fails you, the Randomizer lets you try out auto-generated sequences.If inspiration fails you, the Randomizer lets you try out auto-generated sequences.

Melodic instrument sources can be sequenced using the Piano Roll view, and in fact any sound in a kit can be toggled into this mode, which I found really useful. As you’d probably expect, this mode gives you eight steps at a time, with pitch set on the Y-axis of the grid. Touching the encoder in this mode brings up a Scale and Chord selector window, allowing you to switch the grid from a chromatic view to a more useful scale, and to see a whole octave.

Step sequencing is great on the Jam, although there are some things missing at the moment. There’s currently no way to edit events directly from the Jam (other than delete), although this is coming. Two velocity levels (normal and accented) can be set before creating steps, although the method is fiddly: you need to open the On Screen Overlay (OSO) and adjust with the rotary encoder. In fact the Jam Live template has a much more successful method, where the bottom-left 16 pads are used to set velocity quickly (apparently this will be implemented in Maschine too). I’m afraid this is one area where the lack of pressure sensitive pads hurts — on the regular Maschine (and for that matter the Push, MPC, etc) the velocity of step events is simply set by how hard you tap the pad.

Jam Session

If I’m giving the impression that the Jam is all about programming and manipulation of existing projects then I’m only telling half the story. In fact on the first day of using the Jam I was primarily enjoying creating some new tracks from scratch. Using Pad and Keyboard modes you can play and record kits and instruments in real-time. Pad mode again uses the bottom corner to give you a duplicate of what you’d see on a regular Maschine. Keyboard mode spreads out to fill the grid, allowing you to play notes across the whole surface, and like the Piano Roll mode this can be constrained to a specific scale.

Right from the beginning Maschine has been especially fast in the way it lets you create, duplicate and switch Patterns, and it’s only really since Push that Live has caught up. The Jam now makes this even better. Dedicated buttons make clearing and duplicating patterns on the grid very fast and easy. Clear is especially useful for getting rid of the default patterns that come in when loading kits from the factory library! This fast management of your Patterns really makes composition/beat-making sessions flow.

Browsing and loading kits and sounds is built into the Jam using a similar interface to NI’s Komplete Kontrol keyboards. Tapping Browse brings up the On Screen Overlay window, through which you can navigate with the cursor buttons (‘D-Pad’) and the encoder. This is usable, although I found it a little awkward (as I do on the keyboard) and I prefer the way that Browse works on the regular Maschine controllers. I also wasn’t really sure why the overlay window was needed at all — it adds nothing other than size to the Browser pane in the main Maschine UI, which the other controllers simply access directly, and it locks you out from switching to the mouse.

Inevitably I have to mention velocity sensitivity again, as I really wished I had this when composing. Of course I could reach across to my Maschine or keyboard, but it would be great to be able to use the Jam alone. The Jam also features Note Repeat, where pressure sensitive pads can normally be used to great effect. NI say it was a design decision to go with buttons instead of pads, due to the nice click confirmation they provide when used for Pattern selection and step sequencing. You do have some control over input velocity using the OSO and encoder, although this is too slow for meaningful, real-time variation, and I’d have preferred to see this on a touch strip instead.

The Jam brings with it a new creativity enhancer: Variations. This is a semi-random sequence generator that can be used to quickly create patterns. You can set parameter boundaries with the encoder/OSO, hit go and Maschine writes a sequence. You can keep hitting the button until you get something you like.

The Jam has multiple scale and chord options when working in the piano roll in sequencer or keyboard modes. The Jam has multiple scale and chord options when working in the piano roll in sequencer or keyboard modes.

Touch Strips

In a bold change from tradition, the Jam sports eight touch strips where most controllers would have knobs or faders. If you’ve used NI’s keyboards you’ll be familiar with them, though these are shorter than the pitch-bend and mod strips on those keyboards. I really like them: they are much better than non-motorised faders which don’t track values as assignments change. They are less expensive, and much more durable than motorised faders. And they are capable of tracking very fast (indeed instant) changes which couldn’t be matched on a rotary encoder. The compromise is that they perhaps lose out in precision, and of course tactility compared to traditional controls.

The touch strips’ default mode is Level, where they act as faders in Maschine’s Group Mixer (or your DAW’s mixer in MIDI mode). There are no displays with the encoders to show their assignments, but they do have in-line, multi-segment bar graphs that show both the current value and metering where appropriate. The strips can also be flipped to control pans and sends, and pressing Control redirects them to control Sound, Group, or plug-in parameters. There’s also a dedicated button to access Macros. As with the knob arrays on existing Machines, you can navigate through different assignments and the software will follow, so it’s fairly easy to keep track of what the strips are doing. A dedicated Auto button by the strips can be held to capture anything you do in Control mode as automation in the Pattern.

On the other side of the strips you’ll find some new and special Jam functionality. Perform assigns the touch strips to the Group’s Performance FX. If no effects exist on the Group you can instantly add them using Shift+Perform. Touching the main rotary encoder brings up the OSO where you can flip through the available effects. This functionality adds a new level of immediacy to real-time performance. And then there’s Notes mode, which I think has huge potential for further development. Here the touch strips can be used directly to play notes. Running your finger up and down the strips plays notes like a fretted instrument. You can choose which notes each strip will play from the pad grid, allowing you to set up scales or chords to strum. This mode is really fun, although I quickly found myself wanting to be able to play glides or vibrato, which aren’t yet possible, but NI say they’d like to do much more with this.

Finally, another new feature with a lot of promise is Lock. On the version I tested, pressing Lock stores a snapshot of all the modulatable parameters in your project. The buttons stays latched, and can be pressed again to recall this saved state. This already has some great possibilities, but I was also told that by the time the Jam is released this function will be greatly enhanced to store up to 64 snapshots on the grid buttons, hopefully with morphing applied when recalling states, promising some pretty epic results.

Next Gen Maschine

Often Maschine is used simply to generate loops and beats, which are then dragged out into a host DAW. While the step-sequencing side of the Jam will be beneficial in this workflow, much of its potential power will benefit those who like to get deeper into Maschine, using multiple channels and the Scene Arranger. I’ve highlighted some of these productivity boosts, but I also hit some stumbling blocks in a couple of areas. One is the way multi-Scene playback ranges or loops are handled. There’s actually a nice way to initiate this from the Jam, by holding down two Scene buttons. However, once playback progresses past the Scene where the Jam is parked, it does not follow and update. This means that it’s not possible to see which Patterns are currently playing, and you can’t trigger playback of Patterns at all. Tapping the button for a Pattern simply assigns it to the Scene where the Jam’s display is parked. Conversely you can’t select a Scene on the Jam without triggering it immediately and losing your larger playback range.

The Jam in Step Sequencer mode. The Jam in Step Sequencer mode.

So, Scene by Scene arrangement works well, and you can create a one-off improvised performance from the grid if you stay inside single Scenes. However, playing with Patterns over a longer arrangement is problematic as it’s difficult to access them, and Pattern launches are always destructive to the arrangement. The good news is that NI are now hinting at big changes to Maschine that will address much of this. For the Jam specifically, they will implement Scene following during playback. But more importantly, they are looking to overhaul the way the Arranger works on a fairly aggressive time scale. On their forum they’ve talked about a Song layer where longer structures or clips can exist independent of Scenes. And they’re also saying that the feature set will include my number-one request in Maschine: the ability to manually ‘perform’ a series of Pattern changes in real time and capture this as the basis of an arrangement. When they come, these changes will significantly increase the Jam’s usefulness, and will be a big step forward for Maschine in general.

Summary

My big question for the Jam was whether it offered something compelling on top of what Maschine can already do. After all, most of the functionality is already there on the existing controllers. What the Jam does very well is focus on a few key areas and give them much more room to breathe. You get a dedicated mixer and automation control system with the touch strips. You get a Project overview with visibility across all your Groups, where you can quickly manage your Patterns and set up Arrangements, and which has the potential to become a great performance tool with upcoming Maschine software developments. Step sequencing is certainly a whole new experience on 64 pads instead of 16, and the Piano Roll offers a different way to work.

The Jam is at its best alongside an existing Maschine. The two stay locked in step, and give you some really nice possibilities, such as being able to move seamlessly between controlling sounds with the step sequencer and traditional pads. You can keep your Maschine pads focused on finger drumming, and manage the other aspects of your project from the grid. The Jam can also be used on its own, and with a street price just a touch above the Mikro it is one of the most affordable ways into the world of Maschine. However, the lack of velocity sensitivity makes this a difficult option to recommend unless you’re primarily a step-sequence programmer; otherwise you’ll want to pair it with another controller. Lastly, you should definitely check out the Jam if you use both Live and Maschine, as it does such a good job of controlling both from a single surface.

Maschine was already a really powerful, fast, and well-rounded instrument. The Jam has got me excited about Maschine as a deeper production environment again, and I can’t wait to see how the possibilities of this new hardware drive development of the platform.

Ableton Live Control

I’ve mainly focused on how the Jam interacts with Maschine software, but like all NI controllers the Jam has a separate mode for working as a MIDI controller with other software. NI supplied me with a MIDI Remote Script to add to Ableton Live, and a Live template for the NI Controller Editor software. I had reasonably low expectations as I’ve not found the templates for other Maschines particularly useful in Live compared to other more dedicated launchers and controllers. As it turns out though, NI have done an amazing job with implementing control of Live.

A large proportion of the Jam’s native feature set has comparable functionality in Live. The button grid works exactly as you’d expect as a Session View clip launcher. The Scene buttons launch clip rows. Playback and recording of individual clips is supported from the Grid. The Browse button becomes a Clip Stop modifier used in conjunction with the Group Buttons. The Group buttons themselves select tracks, and also arm them if pushed with Shift. The Clear and Duplicate buttons work just like on the Push or Launchpad Pro. All the mixer functionality of the touch strips translates into Live, as does Device control. The only two minor omissions that you’d normally expect on a dedicated Live controller is a toggle for Clip/Device view, and the ability to tab through devices inside a Rack.

So even judged purely on Live controller terms, the Jam can compete against, say, the APC40 MkII. It also has some advantage over the Launchpads with mix and device control from the strips. However, it’s hard to beat the Launchpad Pro’s super fast composition workflows, and velocity sensitivity. However, the Jam does have an extra trick that only Push can match: step sequencing. Both the single-sound gate sequencing and piano-roll modes have been implemented in Live. What’s more, as mentioned earlier, you get the 16-level velocity selector pads that in this regard exceed the Maschine functionality.

When working with Maschine inside Live, the Jam has the same Instance selection function as other NI controllers, and can also be toggled between Maschine and Live control modes. In this scenario the Jam really nails one feature that so many controllers I’ve tried just can’t get right: host transport control. With this option enabled, the Jam’s transport buttons and options control Live directly. When you’re inside the Maschine plug-in, they continue to start both Live and Maschine playback, and record functionality is directed to Maschine. It works just as you’d expect without having to think about it.

Sweet Harmony

The Jam can be used on its own with the Maschine software or plug-in, but works best in combination with one of the other core Maschine controllers and/or keyboards. I was testing the Jam alongside my MkI Maschine and for the most part the two devices behaved like a single, extended surface. In particular, Group focus is mirrored across devices, so all your pads and keys should always be playing the same sound. Control views and pages also stay in sync between Maschine’s knobs and the Jam’s touch strips. As mentioned elsewhere, Browsing behaves slightly differently across the two devices, but opening the Browser from the Jam subsequently allows browsing from either device.

You could make a case for wanting different devices to control different Groups in a live performance setting, but I found the way the controllers stuck together worked really well. (In a DAW host you can assign your controllers to different Maschine instances). I found myself moving fairly naturally between the two devices (and occasionally my keyboard) as appropriate. For example I quickly gravitated towards using the Jam for most ‘admin’ tasks: getting around, managing Scenes and Patterns, mixing, transport and selecting sounds. The original’s pads would always be ready for me to play in real time with the benefit of velocity sensitivity. I also still regularly used the knobs and screens on the MkI Maschine for zooming the Scene and Pattern displays (there’s no equivalent on the Jam) and for Browsing. They’re also the quickest and most visual place to bank to sound parameters, which then become available on the touch strips as well.

Published October 2016