We see how the baby of the NI controller range measures up to its siblings.
The M32 is the newest, smallest and least expensive of NI's keyboards, all of which serve as integrated controllers for the company's Komplete Kontrol and Maschine software, as well as performing some general MIDI and DAW control duties. I mentioned the M32 in my recent review of the A49 keyboard and Maschine Mikro MkIII, but until now I hadn't actually seen one in the flesh.
Before the M32, NI's portable keyboards have had 25 full-sized keys. This new form factor is aimed at anyone willing to trade key size for a wider range and lower profile. While the A25 looks like an A49 that's been cut in half, the M32 appears scaled down, giving it the same miniaturised appeal as Yamaha's Reface keyboards. It's around half as thick and half as heavy as the A25, but it's actually quite long for a portable USB keyboard and didn't fit into my usual backpack.
The front panel sports exactly the same set of controls as the A-series, except that the mod and pitch wheels have been replaced with touch sliders like those on Maschine and the original S-series. The four-way combined encoder/selector is present, the same as on all of NI's current generation of controllers bar the Maschine Mikro.
Round the back there's a Foot Pedal input and a USB port that supplies power. It's disappointing that there's no regular MIDI output. To be fair, most other mini keyboards are USB only (as are the A-series keyboards), but MIDI on the M32 would have made it a much more all-round useful bit of travel kit. It's also a shame that the M32 takes more power than my iPad device can provide. It does work, but your iOS device will need to be plugged into external power.
Functionally the M32 is identical to the larger 'A' keyboards. As soon as you connect it to your computer it becomes available as a generic controller in any MIDI apps. Currently, the M32 has a single, fixed, MIDI template with four pages of CC controls available from the encoders. On the flagship S-series MkII keyboards you can edit the assignments and store multiple templates via the Komplete Kontrol software. NI have stated that this will eventually come to the A and M keyboards as well.
If you work with Ableton Live or Logic Pro X (or Cubase in the future) the M32 transforms from its generic MIDI mode into Track mode, providing some control over your DAW. You get transport, toggle buttons for Loop mode and Metronome, a Tap Tempo control and Undo. In Logic, the directional encoder moves focus between tracks and scrubs your timeline position. In Live it does the same, and can also scroll through scenes and launch clip playback or record: surprisingly useful if its your only controller to hand.
In DAW control mode the encoders map to the mixer. There's no way to take control of the macro or parameters on Logic or Live's native devices, other than switching to MIDI mode and directly mapping the knobs. Instead the M32 is primarily designed to integrate with instruments and plug-in devices hosted inside NI's Komplete Kontrol.
The M32 is the most affordable door into the NI world, so is an easy recommendation for anyone starting out in electronic music production.
While you might feel resistant to working within a plug-in host or shell, such is the goodness of the Komplete Kontrol system that you'll get over it. All your instruments and effects that support NI's NKS patch format get consolidated into the KK browser, which provides tag-based searching and the killer feature of audio previews for all patches. You can navigate the browser directly from the hardware. This is fairly usable when you learn how to move through the library, although as noted in the A-series review it's a long way from the luxurious and intuitive browsing afforded by the screens on the S-series or Maschine MkIII.
All patches load up with parameters pre-mapped to the encoders, often across two or more logically grouped pages. With the one tiny display, you don't see what all the mappings are at a glance unless you reference the plug-in window, but you can touch any encoder and the display will show you its assignment.
Komplete Kontrol also lets you add effects after your instrument, within the one top-level plug-in instance, and this chain can be navigated from the hardware. KK also has its own sampler module that automatically steps in if you load a loop or a one-hit audio file rather than a plug-in patch.
Smart Play is a set of features that I tend to associate with NI's high-end keyboards, forgetting that they are actually part of the Komplete Kontrol plug-in and available to all. This suite of tools includes a Scale mode that can restrict notes to your chosen scale and key, with an excellent 'Easy' option that maps your scale to the white keys. Smart Play also encompasses a couple of Chord modes, and a comprehensive Arpeggiator.
One of the smart things that NI have done in recent times is integrate and bundle Maschine software with their keyboards. Maschine is NI's multitrack host that can be used as a stand-alone mini-DAW, although its lack of linear recording makes it best as a drum machine/groovebox within your main production environment. Maschine shares the same patch browser as Komplete Kontrol, but has its own sequencer, scene arranger and internal mixer.
In Maschine the M32 behaves in a similar way to Komplete Kontrol as far as browsing goes, and the encoders will pick up the Macros for the focused Sound slot. Additionally the four-way encoder provides navigation of Maschine's Groups, Sounds and Scenes. It's not a substitute for a dedicated Maschine controller for performing, but it's certainly useful for composing on the move.
For me the M32 is approaching a perfect form-factor for a mobile keyboard controller. While the mini keys probably won't appeal to serious players, I prefer having the slim profile and extra half-octave compared to the 25-key options. It's a shame it doesn't have a regular MIDI port for laptop-free jams. It's also held back in this respect by the lack of custom MIDI templates, but this will change in time if NI are good for their word.
In any case, the M32 is primarily meant to interface with your music software and form a hybrid instrument with Komplete and Maschine. This it does surprisingly well given the lack of display real estate. At £99$139 it's also the most affordable door into the NI world, so is an easy recommendation for anyone starting out in electronic music production.
Arturia's Minilab MkII and Akai Pro's MPK Mini MkII both come to mind as alternative sub-compact controllers with an integrated host and instrument package. Like the M32, these are USB-only devices; if you need a similarly sized keyboard that works without a computer look at Arturia's Keystep.
Like the A-series keyboards the M32 comes with a taster menu selected from NI's extensive kitchen, with upgrades available to main course versions. The Komplete library is represented mainly by Komplete Start, which is actually free to anyone, but in addition you get the Monark, Reaktor Prism and Scarbee MkI instruments. You also get a $25 voucher to spend in the NI store and two months of subscription to Sounds.com. Perhaps more interesting to aspiring electronic producers is the full version of Maschine with its cut-down Essentials library, complemented by Ableton Live Lite for recording.
- Great size.
- Touch-sensitive endless knobs.
- Software and instruments package, including Maschine.
- Limited visual feedback.
- USB only.
- Fixed MIDI template (currently).
- Only Live and Logic currently support the DAW control.
M32 is the most affordable entry point onto the Native Instruments platform, and a solid, portable USB keyboard to boot.