Maschine's MkII hardware gets a Technicolour make-over, while its software increments to v1.8...
Hot on the heels of last year's trimmed-down Maschine Mikro are two eye-catching new hardware controllers for Native Instruments' Maschine. Colour now shines at the heart of the Maschine's universe and, thanks to upgrades in the host software, it can be applied as extravagantly or as sparsely as your taste dictates. Sadly, there's no way to physically transform the older controllers into multi-hued marvels, but existing users can at least enjoy the new effects and other enhancements this update brings. As a further sweetener, Massive — Native Instruments' bass and lead synth — joins the package. If you were ever tempted by Maschine in the past, the theory is that you'll now be massively tempted...
The Maschine MkII hardware is undeniably a thing of beauty. In comparison, even the stylish earlier model looks a bit cautious. However, apart from the coloured pads, the two are functionally almost identical. This should come as some relief to existing owners who might be feeling slightly miffed. This review concentrates on the full-sized Maschine controller but there's also a MkII version of the smaller, cheaper Mikro.
The new model is the same size as its forerunner and a little heavier, at 2.1kg. It has dropped the dedicated knobs for Volume, Tempo and Swing, and in their place is a single fat, pushable encoder, plus extra buttons as compensation. The two 64 x 256-pixel displays are a tangible improvement, their white text on black background instantly clearer and easier on the eye than the previous model's inverse video.
Most importantly, the pads, buttons and encoders all feel fantastic, and the simple 'eight parameters per page' integration with Massive (and other synths) renders the controller/sequencer experience slick and painless. The rear panel features MIDI In and Out sockets, so you can drive external synths or drum machines and even sync Maschine to external MIDI clock sources. Recognising the usual issues of computer latency, there are a number of synchronisation offset options, vital for achieving tightness with your hardware. Finally, there's a very snug USB 2 connection that should never drop out accidentally.
Speaking of latency, the buttons and pads are snappy and responsive, while the pads' aftertouch breathes extra life into those traditional Maschine note-repeats. But for the real gains to be appreciated, we should take the plunge into that all-new dimension: colour.
Who's going to deny that colour and music, especially hi-tech dance music, are born to be together? Whether it's synchronised LED lighting rigs and VJ virtuosos or the many tastefully glowing controllers for Ableton Live, synaesthesic synthesists have never had it so good. (Synaesthesia, or the blending of senses, is a complex neurological condition in which, for example, sounds, numbers, or even days of the week are perceived as colours.) Even if you're not synaesthesic, the ability to locate a kick drum or vocal sample by colour alone is instantly useful — you'll wonder how you ever managed without it. At a stroke, the MkII Maschine's pad matrix is more meaningful. It offers the chance of performance visibility for those using laptops on stage, where their human input often can't be appreciated by the audience.
There are 16 colours to choose from and they can be freely assigned per group, per pattern, per scene, and at the level of samples or individual instruments. Say your first group is a drum kit: you can choose a colour for the whole group, then paint kicks, snares, hi-hats and percussion in a range of hues you'll instantly recognise. The only difficulty is in settling on a scheme and sticking to it. I must have changed my mind half a dozen times already, which isn't a complaint, incidentally.
Each colour has two intensities, the higher one showing selection of a pad, scene or group (for example). The slight down side of this approach is that if you've made judicious use of colour (and you will), selections don't always stand out so obviously amongst multiple subtly different shades. Choosing the right colours is an absorbing process, and once you've adopted the idea, you won't be satisfied until your older songs look right too. Coloration is one of a handful of operations that can only be executed using the Maschine software.
You'll notice I haven't talked much about Maschine's functionality so far. There's a good reason for this: it's very much like it was previously! That means we're dealing with a loop-based interactive sequencer and sampler. Maschine makes few concessions to DAW-style linear song arrangement — you have to play and interact with it!
As a host for VST/AU plug-ins and effects, Maschine performs solidly, and although it can run under a DAW as a plug-in, it's in stand-alone mode that it handles best, especially if your DAW is resource-hungry or temperamental. Think of it as a hardware sequencer, but one that communicates effortlessly with your arsenal of soft synths, effects, samples and loops. Check the previous reviews for the full picture: /sos/aug10/articles/ni-maschine-15.htm and also /sos/dec11/articles/ni-maschine-mikro.htm
Version 1.8 isn't only about colour. Included are two new effects and, more importantly, the long-awaited time-stretch and pitch-shift functions. These processes are offline sample edits and therefore not comparable to the 'elastic audio' of Ableton Live, for example. But with availability at the press of a button, it's still a great step forward. A useful fringe-benefit of Maschine's colour system is the ability to colour individual slices of a sliced loop, making them easier to identify when stretching, or editing generally.
Time-stretch detects the base tempo of loop-based material pretty accurately on most occasions. It allows you to set a new tempo explicitly, or you can specify an exact number of bars or beats for the processed result. Alternatively, samples can be stretched by percentage. I'd rate the output as good to very good, with the usual proviso that you don't push the process too far beyond the original tempo. Pitch shifting is similarly usable and is accompanied by formant correction, a handy tool for clawing back some of the original timbre after a pitch-shift or time-stretch operation.
You'll be pleased to know that the extra effects introduced in this version are no token gesture. The first is Saturator, with its selectable tube, tape and classic modes. It's spot-on for beefing up samples and virtual instruments, tape mode adding subtle warmth, while tube mode is considerably more raw and gnarly. Tube's EQ section is on hand to rein in some of the resulting lively harmonics. When your tracks require a little grit and attitude, Saturator is an excellent starting point.
Transient Master is not some ephemeral kung fu expert, it's Native Instruments' dynamics effect for Guitar Rig, and it's also now smoothly integrated into Maschine. With its simple gain, attack and sustain controls, it doesn't look like much, but don't be fooled. Transient Master is a powerful and near-instant means of reshaping the dynamics of a full mix — or groups of instruments. Combined with the Saturator, it's an absolute godsend for drums; the sustain control, in particular is ideal for tidying up a muddy drum loop or bass part with the absolute minimum of fuss. A limiter is built in for those times when you've gone overboard sharpening the attack phase!
Other minor improvements include the sampler wave display that now tracks playback position. You can save a group with its samples, and you can preview samples directly from the hardware prior to loading. There's improved handling of missing samples, and a panic function, plus better shortcuts for event selection and erasure. Best of all, you can now control your host DAW's transport directly, without switching to controller mode. It doesn't work automatically, so I was glad of the online YouTube tutorial demonstrating how to set it up for Logic. Finally, you can 'pin' the Autowrite feature and then record encoder tweaks with both hands — definitely liberating!
Despite these improvements, there's still work to do as Maschine trundles inexorably towards version 2.0. For example, to re-use patterns or groups from another project you must first open the source project and import components you think you'll need to the library. A more direct method of importing content would be much appreciated. Similarly, I'd file the piano-roll editor under 'crude but effective' and there's no step-by-step input for note entry either, although the 'xox' mode is ideal for creating drum parts.
Under the covers, multi-core support is notable by its absence. At the moment, it's all too easy to hit the CPU limits when stacking heavy-hitting soft synths like Massive, Omnisphere or Diva. Lastly, I'd love to see more sophisticated automation than the current method of writing values into looping patterns. A partial solution involves turning to a DAW host with scene selection via MIDI program changes and macro controls assigned to various functions and effects. But what you really want is to painlessly capture every performance action made on that colourful hardware.
Speaking of performance, there's an impressive YouTube video featuring Jeremy Ellis and two MkII controllers. This might imply that Maschine can use both simultaneously, but actually it was achieved with two instances running under a DAW. It's strictly one controller per Maschine instance at the moment, but if that could change in the future, it would be an olive branch to anyone who bought theirs prior to the infusion of glorious technicolour.
Despite being drawn like a moth to pretty lights, even I wasn't prepared for the impact of colour. Used creatively, colour can genuinely boost Maschine performance and somehow make it faster, better and more vivid. I look forward to seeing more of it lighting up studio photos and DJ booths everywhere!
Owners of the older models probably won't be inclined to toss away their existing hardware, but there's bound to be some envy for those MkIIs and their personalised faceplates and knobs. At least there's some comfort for all in the software upgrades, especially time-stretch and the Transient Master.
Maschine previously shipped with a wide selection of quality sounds and samples, but bundling a heavyweight synth such as Massive is an unexpected bonus. This could be an early response to the challenge of Akai's MPC Renaissance, but as enticements go, it should prove popular.
To sum up, Maschine remains, as before, a refreshing and uncluttered alternative to making music with a DAW. Once I was done colouring in my drums, I wrote two songs in as many evenings, which is unusually productive (for me) these days! Hopefully some of the long-awaited features will appear in version 2.0, although it should be stated that a large part of Maschine's charm is its lack of bloat. Today, adding colour is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but its potential is out there to be explored. Coloured lights and music, who knew? .
Akai's new MPC Renaissance and Studio are obvious competitors, with their MPC pads and large sound library. The Renaissance's multi-port MIDI and a built-in audio interface are further gauntlets thrown down, while the Studio is a simpler, more direct competitor. Although new to the game and less colourful, they should keep NI on their toes.
Slightly less ambitious is Arturia's Spark, with its analogue modelling and knobby interface. Spark's drum-machine focus means that it is less about full production than Maschine, and its single row of eight pads is a different playing experience, too.
Finally, we come to other hardware and software combinations, with the forthcoming Ableton Live 9 Push especially attractive, even if it's a considerable step up in complexity from Maschine.
To accompany the 6GB content of Komplete Elements, Maschine now includes a free download of NI's Massive. As a long-time Massive owner (it's in the complete version of Komplete), I've never been hugely inspired by the factory patches, and neither the interface nor the hard digital edge lured me in much further. However, thanks to the implementation of NIS (Native Instruments Sound format), Massive's patches can be selected directly from the Maschine hardware, and its controls are instantly accessible from the encoders. In this form, I found Massive more generally palatable, and tweaking hardware controls beats mousing around in search of inspiration every time.
The MkII Maschine and Mikro controllers are available in black or white. For the larger model only, there are five optional kits with custom magnetic faceplates and matching knobs. It's always fun to personalise, even if the colours have all the boldness shown by modern car designers. Don't expect vivid green, hazy purple or fluorescent pus-yellow. Instead there's a choice of dragon red (red), smoked graphite (grey), steel blue (grey-blue), pink champagne or a rather splendid solid gold. I don't know why NI chose pink as their most adventurous colour, but customisation in any form should be applauded. I still want my luminous green, though!
Fitting a replacement kit is so easy even I could do it. And I did. The special tool provided ensures that the knobs can be detached evenly without bending the shafts, but you still have to be careful not to scratch the faceplate underneath.
The last optional extra is a Maschine stand. It's a solid aluminium base with rubber pads for a smooth grip and it sets the Maschine hardware at a workable angle of 15 degrees. Also provided is a mounting adaptor for a drum stand. Once again, the Mikro is left out: the stand is only compatible with the larger controller. I can't help thinking a cunning designer could have found a way to accommodate either.