You are here

Page 2: Native Instruments Maschine

Groove Workstation
By Simon Sherbourne

Effects & Automation

The Master section, Groups and individual sounds each have two insert effect slots. Groups and Sounds also have two auxiliary outputs. Send effects can be set up internally, by using a spare sound slot as a return channel, or you can route signals out to external buses for processing in your host DAW system. There's a good selection of standard and more unusual effects on offer, with patches also available in the library.

One of my favourite features of Maschine is the automation system. All sound parameters, effects and mixer controls can be modulated within patterns, and each pattern can have its own unique automation data. All you have to do is hold down one of the function buttons while Maschine is playing back, and any control movement will be recorded and looped. This automation is relative to the position of the control, so you can still make adjustments later.

Performance

Maschine does an exemplary job of capturing patterns and sequences, and manipulating sounds and effects. So how about creating a performance or arrangement with these building blocks? Pattern changes can be triggered easily from the pads with various quantisation settings. The eight Groups buttons allow you to move quickly between your layered sounds, and you can hold the Mute or Solo buttons while pressing these, to drop out sections of your track. Individual pads can also be muted or solo'ed in the same way. Effects can be loaded from the Browser on‑the‑fly, and automated. As live performance tools go, it couldn't get much more fun or immediate than this.

To facilitate both performance and song arrangement, Maschine uses a system of Scenes. A Scene is simply a snapshot of which pattern is playing in each Group at a given time. So, for example, Scene 1 might be an introduction section, with pattern A1 playing in Group 1, pattern A4 playing in Group 2, and so on. You might then set up another Scene appropriate to Verse 1, and so on. Scenes can be recalled in real time in the same way as patterns, giving you control over the high‑level structure of an arrangement.

OK, but what if you simply want to capture an improvised performance as an arrangement? (Sound of needle scratching across record). Surprisingly, there's no mechanism for this within Maschine, and very little within a host. Pattern changes cannot be recorded on‑the‑fly, and the Maschine plug‑in has no support for MIDI modulation or automation from a DAW.

The only thing Maschine responds to from the outside world is Program Changes, which can be used to trigger Scene changes. Therefore, to create an arrangement, you need to set up Scenes, then place Program Changes in your sequencer at the appropriate transitions in the song. This isn't so horrible in Ableton Live, as you can create Clips which trigger Program Change messages. In other packages it's not brilliant. To record Scene changes in real time you need to download a MIDI control template for Maschine that lets you record Program Changes in your host. This convoluted situation feels more like a workaround than a well thought‑out workflow.

As an alternative, you can set up a string of Scenes in Maschine and have them play back in step with your song. However, the real issue is that you've fallen back to editing and thinking about arrangement on a screen. And this still doesn't allow you to capture mutes, solos, and linear control changes, or to drop in a quick fill without triggering an entire Scene change. (Ideally you should be able to trigger and record Pattern changes independently of Scenes, as you can in FXPansion's Guru, for example).

Reassuringly, NI are aware that this system is not ideal, and are already looking to improve it. The summer should bring an update to make recording Scene changes easier, and after that, hopefully, more control of other aspects of Maschine may follow.

Conclusions

Maschine is the best example of a hybrid software‑and‑controller instrument I've seen. In most cases hardware is developed to control existing software, which usually results in compromise and frustration. Here, the hardware experience has been developed from the ground up, and the result is a convincing illusion that you are using a stand‑alone device. Playing the pads, recording patterns and creating improvised performances is fast and fun, and, most importantly, allows you to stay in musician‑mode rather than technician‑mode.

Maschine has a rich feature set: a great library of electronic drum sounds, strong effects, on‑board sampling and slicing, sampled instruments... Unfortunately, it also has weak song-arrangement facilities and host integration. Although configuring and triggering Scenes works to a point, it doesn't support the fast creation of interesting rhythm tracks that a groove box like this should. Hopefully this, along with the other niggles, will be addressed soon, and with any luck NI will have learned from the Kore 2 experience and make sure early investors don't face paying an upgrade fee to get these key features.

I'm cautiously enthusiastic about Maschine — it's so close to being brilliant. What it does well, it does really well, and it would be hard to go back to a generic pad controller after working with Maschine. If, like me, you get frustrated programming in a traditional sequencer environment, you should give Maschine a try. I can't wait to see where it goes next.  

Alternatives

MOTU BPM: Released around the same time, the software-only BPM is a very similar concept to Maschine. The loss of immediacy that comes with dedicated hardware is a big hurdle, but does mean it's half the price. Advantages are REX support, a bigger library (although I prefer Maschine's drum kits), independent pattern and kit loading, basic synthesis, slightly better song arrangement, and better groove features. However, there's no pattern changing from pads without using Scenes, and BPM shares Maschine's main flaw: inability to capture arrangements in real time. I'll be reviewing this in full in a forthcoming issue of SOS.

FXPansion Guru: Guru has been around for a while (it was reviewed in SOS September 2005) but has a remarkably similar feature set and structure to Maschine. Guru really gets arrangement and performance capture right, although it relies on the host for this. Like BPM, the lack of dedicated hardware means you need to put in a lot of preparatory work to get a good-hands on experience. Perhaps ironically, Maschine makes a particularly good controller for Guru, and ships with a detailed template.

Akai MPC: The MPCs have a strong position in some scenes, but the same guys love their [Pro] 'Tools' as much as their 'empees', so the RTAS version could prove persuasive. The Akais currently have an advantage, being able to sequence external gear as well as internal samples. However, Maschine's flexibility, integration with DAWs and sounds on tap are a strong challenge.

Live & Controller: Ableton Live's built‑in Drum Racks hooked up to a decent controller can achieve similar results to Maschine, backed up by strong arrangement tools; but starting from scratch this would be more expensive and, again, is not as instantly gratifying as a dedicated hardware/plug‑in combo.

Maschine Control

With a quick button press, the Maschine hardware turns into a general-purpose MIDI pad controller, and a seriously good one at that. A deep programming and librarian utility ships in the box. You can switch instantaneously between any of your templates from the front panel. In MIDI mode, the Group buttons allow you to switch the pads between eight different sets of MIDI assignments, and the arrow buttons step through any number of pages for the top strip of eight knobs and buttons. It's good to see that this aspect of Maschine is not just an afterthought.

Groove Box

Drum machines often need a bit of help in the 'feel' department, with a little added swing going a long way. Maschine has a global Swing knob, which adds 8th‑note swing to everything. You can also apply individual swing settings to each Group, although this is in addition to the global swing. You have a little more control here, being able to determine the swing resolution, although the only one that usually sounds musically useful is 8ths again. You can also invert the swing. Unfortunately, that's about the extent of it at the moment. There's no groove quantising system, or ability to create user groove templates from loops or patterns. This is a shame, especially as many of the supplied loops have groove in them. The only way to match these is to hard quantise them.

On-board Sounds

As well as many old favourites from Battery, there appears to be a good supply of new drum kits to get your teeth into in Maschine's 5GB library. All flavours of contemporary electronic and urban music are well catered for, and there's even a dozen or so decent acoustic kits with multiple velocity zones. There are enough individual drum samples to keep most of us going indefinitely (900+ kick drums, 700+ snares). The 300 or so instrument patches cover a nice range of acoustic and synthetic sounds, although, quite rightly, electronic, dance and urban sounds are favoured. The loop library is so limited that it almost seems as though it's just examples at this point. I predict that NI plan to go for a few add‑on Euros and push out optional sound packs some time soon.

Pros

  • Excellent hardware integration with no setup time.
  • Fast, smooth workflow.
  • Nice pads.
  • Solid library of electronic drum sounds.
  • Great for performance.
  • Step sequencing option.

Cons

  • Can't write arrangements in real‑time.
  • No host automation or MIDI CC support, so you can't capture performances.
  • It's difficult to change kits and patterns independently.
  • You can't sequence external MIDI gear/software — yet.
  • No groove quantising.
  • No REX support — yet.
  • No real support for non‑4/4 time signatures.

Summary

Maschine shows that fast, hands‑on, musical workflow is not the preserve of stand‑alone hardware boxes. If some of its early issues are addressed, Maschine should become the last word in beat-production workstations.

information

599 Euros.

Native Instruments +49 30 61 10 35 1300.

info@native‑instruments.com

www.nativeinstruments.com

$669.

Native Instruments +1 866 556 6487.

info@native‑instruments.com

www.nativeinstruments.com

Published June 2009