These new controller instruments make NI's tight hardware/software integration more portable and affordable than ever before.
The third‑generation Maschine Mikro hardware takes the sleek new Maschine design and chops it off above the pads, resulting in the most travel-friendly and cute Maschine yet. Meanwhile, the A-Series keyboards bring the slick Komplete Kontrol workflow to a significantly lower price by trimming some of the luxuries like the key lights and big colour displays. The A-Series has the only 25-key keyboard in the new NI line-up, although if portability is paramount there's also the even newer M32 mini-keyboard.
As well as building new hardware, NI have been busy integrating their software and services (Maschine, Komplete and Sounds.com) into a unified production and content platform. Both the Mikro and A-Series come with Maschine software, and reduced Maschine and Komplete libraries that you can upgrade later.
Like the top-of-the-range S49/61/88, the A-Series (and M32) keyboards are MIDI master keyboards that offer some generic MIDI functionality, 'smart' DAW control, and deep virtual instrument management via the companion Komplete Kontrol and Maschine plug-ins. Available in 25-, 49- and 61-note versions, the keyboards closely resemble the S-Series, but the removal of the screens makes for a significantly narrower footprint. They're also much lighter.
While the S-Series Fatar keyboard is absent and there's no aftertouch, the feel of the keys is not all that different. I can't think of a comparable alternative at this price. The wheels, rotary encoders and main four-way encoder feel like they're the same components as on the S. The buttons are different, though, formed from hard plastic instead of rubber, and producing a rather jarring click.
The advanced DAW control features are available in Logic, Garage Band and Live, with Cubase still promised for the future. You get transport control and other commands such as Undo and Quantise. The four-way encoder is used for navigation: pushing it left or right moves your DAW's focus between tracks. In Live you can also move up and down through scenes, and launch clips. In Maschine you can step between Groups and Sounds with the encoder.
If you focus a track that contains the Komplete Kontrol plug-in, the keyboard will automatically switch to native KK mode. As I've said in previous reviews, this is the killer integration feature that other similar products are yet to crack.
Komplete Kontrol is both a patch library and plug-in host. You can browse sounds directly from the keyboard using the four-way encoder and the display. Nudging the encoder left or right steps you through categories, and turning it scrolls through the focused list. The experience is significantly diminished compared to the S-Series or the Maschine MkIII/Studio, but the tiny display does its best to indicate where you are.
Once a sound is loaded, parameters will populate the eight encoders using logical, pre-made maps. There's a pair of dedicated buttons for flipping through multiple pages. While the maps and encoders are the same as on the luxury models, there are no displays to indicate what the assignments are. However, the encoders are touch sensitive and flash up their current function on the display when you touch them.
The keyboards also play nicely with Maschine software, either on their own or alongside a Maschine controller. Regular MIDI keyboards can be used with Maschine, but they can't easily play kits as each sound lives in a separate slot across a Group. The A-Series has a Key Mode toggle which flips the keyboard from playing chromatically on a single sound slot to triggering one sound per key across a kit. Cleverly, the Arpeggiator becomes a Note Repeat in this mode. The keyboards even have a dedicated Ideas mode button, which lets you navigate between Scenes and Patterns. You can create new Groups and Patterns, but disappointingly you can't duplicate.
The keyboards have no built in MIDI ports, but are capable of stand-alone operation over USB. I connected the A49 test unit to a Teenage Engineering OP-Z (which has built-in USB MIDI hosting) and it worked sans computer. However, outside of Maschine or the Komplete Kontrol plug-in you lose the Arp and Scale powers. It's also not currently possible to create or edit MIDI templates for these keyboards. Hopefully this functionality should appear inside Komplete Kontrol (or the NI Controller Editor app) at some point.
The Maschine Mikro MkIII is the smallest (and least expensive) pad controller option for NI's well-established hybrid beat workstation. The functionality via the Maschine software/plug-in component is the same as you get with the 'standard' MkIII or Jam, but you lose a chunk of tactile control and visual feedback in exchange for portability.
The all-important main pad area is the same layout as on the larger model, with its new large pads. The Maschine pads are extremely sensitive, which I love. Unlike the lower‑cost keyboards, the buttons retain the nice rubber feel of the larger models. The transport buttons are laid out the same as on the MkIII, but the eight dedicated Group select buttons are replaced by a single Group modifier button that's used in combination with the first eight pads.
The biggest sacrifices made in the name of compactness are the knobs and screens. The regular Maschine MkIII was significantly enhanced by the addition of the Maschine Studio's screens. These screens and the eight encoders give you fast access to practically all features. The Mikro is very much a hybrid system, where you rely on the software interface for most browsing, device control, arrangement and mixing.
The Mikro MkIII has a single encoder which is smaller that the ones on the Maschine MkIII or the keyboards, and does not have the joystick-style directional switching. It simply serves to scroll or adjust whichever list or parameter is in focus on the small, single-line display. There is a degree of parameter control available: you can step through a sound's macros via the buttons and tweak them one at a time with the encoder. It's better than nothing.
For browsing, there's a button that brings up your Projects, another for your Favourites, and a Search button that points the display and wheel to whatever the current results list is in the software browser. With the lack of directional encoder, there's no top-down sound‑browsing functionality from the hardware, such as moving between categories or selecting instruments. These steps must be performed on your computer before you can step through patches on the Mikro.
The Mikro (but not the A-Series) gets the new Maschine touch‑strip, which brings some of the Jam's performance goodness to the whole range. Dedicated buttons switch the strip between Pitch, Notes, and Perform FX modes. Pitch is simply a pitch-bend controller. Notes lets you 'strum' any notes held on the pads. Perform FX gives expressive control over a number of different Kaoss Pad-style effects such as Stutter, Filter and Flanger. This has become one of my favourite reasons to use Maschine.