Native Instruments take their hybrid groove machine to another level with new hardware and a big software update.
In its four year lifespan, Native Instruments’ Maschine has bulked–up in gradual stages to become a powerful and mature beat–oriented sequencer. Early 2013 saw this hardware/software hybrid embrace colour in a big way and now, before the glow has had a chance to dim on those multicoloured pads, a new top–of–the–range controller joins the flock. The controller is the Maschine Studio and its software is available to users old and new, fully rewritten with a new audio engine and an affinity for multicore processors. Without further ado, let’s see if all our prayers have been answered, leaving only world peace left to long for...
The Rise Of The Maschines
We’ve charted the progress of Maschine since 2009 and in that time it has grown significantly but without ever compromising the vision of operational simplicity. Rather than spend too long setting the scene here, I recommend checking out the previous reviews, working backwards from January 2013 and version 1.8, the last update existing Maschine users got for free.
Assuming we accept the necessity of continuing updates and support, it’s hard to object to an occasional fee, which in this case is £89$99. Anyone who bought a Maschine or Maschine Mikro during October 2013 is eligible for a free upgrade and version 2.0 is provided with any model of controller purchased after that.
Slotting in as pack leader and instantly attention–grabbing, the Maschine Studio is a larger, more colourful beast than any beforehand. Thanks to uncompromising hardware, in particular the two high–resolution (480 x 272) colour displays, it also requires a more serious commitment from your credit card. The displays resemble those of a smart phone and it’s an example of how quickly such technology has become ubiquitous that, at first, I couldn’t help touching the on–screen icons expecting a response.
Due, no doubt, to the demands of these twin beauties, it’s no longer possible to get by on power from the USB 2 connection. The Studio is therefore shipped with an external (multi–country) adapter.
Carefully exploring the spacious, friendly panel, it’s clear that workflow was been given priority over budget. Everything is strokably top-notch quality and you feel it in the positivity of the buttons, the plushness of the encoders and the smooth action of the illuminated jog–wheel. At the price you might reasonably have expected some kind of integrated audio interface, but in this, Native Instruments have not deviated from the design principles of the earliest controller and the assumption you’re already primed for sound. There is, perhaps, a slight nod towards Akai’s MPC Renaissance though. The Maschine Studio features three separately addressable MIDI outputs, encouraging greater interaction with external synths. It has to be said, however, that the software integration of these is still in its infancy.
There are several new, illuminated buttons not found on previous models, plus buttons for functions formerly tied to drum pads and the Shift key. Surprisingly, it took a while to adapt to these.The additional hand movements required to reach them was one of the very few penalties imposed by the larger panel. The pads, incidentally, are as welcoming as ever; solid–feeling, responsive and a near–perfect way to lay down drums.
The Maschine Studio measures 432 x 350 x 59 cm and, at 3.2kg, could be stretching the limits of hand luggage if you’re an international DJ type regularly straddling continents. Sadly it doesn’t slot into NI’s existing metal stand. Instead two plastic legs fold out to lift the whole surface to a reasonable working angle. The legs feel sturdy enough (for plastic) but I personally preferred the steeper angle of the older stand.
New In 2.0
Although compatible with all models, version 2.0 of the Maschine software is carefully aligned to the Studio controller. Not exactly under–resourced previously, the updated software includes more bundled instruments this time, most notably an excellent modelling drum synth. However, the greatest advance has occurred out of direct sight. Maschine has been rewritten from the ground up and can now exploit processors with multiple cores. This long–awaited efficiency boost is impossible to overlook and is probably worth the upgrade price by itself. My quad–core Intel Xeon Mac, which is around five years old (ie. getting on a bit), became as perky as a pensioner on viagra when running Maschine 2.0.
There’s a large–ish download (around 3GB) of updates and, as well as the previously bundled Massive, there’s a superior physical modelling synth (Reaktor Prism), a sampled electric piano (Scarbee Mk1) and a decent compressor (Solid Bus Comp). Native Instruments aren’t exactly short of choices with which to sweeten any deal and a DVD containing the rest of the sounds — updated Komplete instruments, all tagged for the new browser — is shipped with the controller. The Maschine 2 sample library totals just under 8GB when installed and existing customers who are upgrading can download the various updates in the usual way through NI Service Center.
On the surface the interface looks similar to version 1.8, with colour employed only where it really matters. As a Logic X user, I’m already used to an interface painted in multiple shades of grey, so drabness was the least of my worries. Less easy to accept was the way plug–ins have been ‘organised’. In Maschine 1.8, all third–party plug–ins were helpfully divided into effects and instruments, but this valuable distinction has been abandoned in 2.0, hopefully temporarily. Right now, when looking for an instrument you’re forced to scroll through a combined list of all instruments and effects — and vice versa when it’s an effect you need.
In further evidence of internal changes, songs made with earlier versions cannot be opened directly but must be imported instead. Here I had a few teething troubles before successfully playing some of my older tunes; the problems were compounded by Maschine 2’s unhelpful error message: “could not load 1 or more plug–ins”. Eventually I realised the common factor in the failing songs was my cavalier use of older 32–bit instruments, of which I retain a few favourites (ImpOscar and ZebraCM come to mind). If you also have difficulties letting go, such plug–ins are still accessible, but only when Maschine runs in 32–bit mode. I can’t help feeling their days are probably numbered.
Early in the proceedings, it became clear that version 2.0 does not add a ton of extra functionality; instead, it removes many of the restrictions previously imposed. Thanks to a shed–load of processing muscle being suddenly set free, the restrictions on the length of plug–in chains and the numbers of scenes, patterns and groups have all been smashed. In the case of an instrument, rather than the previous three tabs for effects, there’s now a small ‘+’ indicating you can add and then keep adding them.
The ability to build elongated effect chains for any instrument is not to be underestimated, but if anything I found that the explosion of groups offered even greater potential. Groups, if you remember, contain 16 sound slots and the previous limit of eight was often a wall against which you banged your head. Once again, a small ‘+’ (it’s at the bottom of the group list in the GUI) indicates that you can continue creating groups, which is especially brilliant if you choose to use them as hosts for effects rather than instruments. Utilising the aux sends present in every group, Maschine can now handle very intricate processing requirements that were previously out of the question.
Being handed an unlimited pool of scenes and patterns felt pretty darn liberating and I therefore didn’t immediately spot the value of another subtle but welcome enhancement. Formerly, a scene of just one bar looked exactly the same on–screen as an adjacent scene 64 bars long. Now, in a cautious progression towards showing it how it is, both the GUI and the Studio’s hardware displays give accurate impressions of scene length. Following on from this, the Arrange button opens a DAW–like view of the project’s scenes, laid out in order, with their relative lengths proudly in evidence. Since earlier models don’t have an Arrange button, the function is available from a soft–key; one of several areas in which the older hardware can’t give equal satisfaction.
The arrangement neatly ties together the colours used for groups, scenes and patterns, maintaining a pretty consistent match with display and drum pads. It looks a bit like Cubase or Logic, but the handling is quite different. You can’t arrange patterns freely, for example, they’re still locked to scenes as before, with the longest pattern determining the scene length. Shorter patterns are automatically repeated until the end of scene; there’s no mechanism to have one play through once then stop. Even so, the prospect of making conventional song structures has never felt closer. If you run Maschine under a DAW, improved host automation means it’s now far more practical to add song–length control to any Maschine parameter, level or effect that takes your fancy, not just those assigned as macros.
The winds of change continue to blow through this version, rustling up a loop mode that permits, for the first time, the assignment of a loop that isn’t tied to scene length. Extending the loop in either direction is a rather ungainly three–button and jog–wheel combination — or a simple mouse–stroke in software. The loop (a slightly paler area of grey at the top of the arrange page) can be shunted to the left or right and can straddle multiple scenes or occupy a smaller area within a scene. Although primarily intended for playback duties, it’s very useful for isolating and working on sections within a larger scene. Finally, for keeping playback and the screens in sync, Follow Mode is a long overdue option that’s guaranteed to warm the cockles of Maschine users’ hearts.
The Studio controller, at a stroke, renders the setting of levels for groups and sounds much easier than on the older hardware. The built–in level display further enhances the illusion you’re working stand–alone and a cue bus has been added to the equation to please those who’ve been itching to toggle sounds (or groups) between their normal destinations and a headphone mix.
Also new is a familiar–looking mixer screen that pops up on pressing the button on the deluxe hardware (it requires a mouse–click if you own an older model). Whether dealing with inputs, groups or sounds within a group, the mixer provides a clear overview, further hinting at DAW functionality. Its one weakness, when compared to a DAW (or, indeed, Akai’s MPC range), is in the handling of external MIDI instruments. The mixer has no virtual connections to the MIDI outputs, which is a shame. Since we’re on the subject of MIDI shortcomings, the headliner is Maschine’s inability to call up patch numbers and banks for MIDI gear and therefore serve up the right sounds for each project, as you can so effortlessly with ‘in the box’ instruments. At the moment all MIDI data must be written into patterns but hopefully this will be addressed in a future update so MIDI no longer feels like a feature war casualty.
If the mixer’s handling of external synths is disappointing, there’s a treat slipped in to perk you up again — side–chaining. Any third-party plug–in that supports side–chaining can make use of the common front–end and, naturally, Maschine’s own plug–ins are well up for it too. These include the compressor, limiter, maximiser and freshly bundled Solid Bus Comp. Routing is as versatile as you’d wish for, with the side–chain input sourced from any selected group or from an individual sound within a group. There’s not a lot more to say about it except that it’s another of those seemingly minor additions that arguably should have been present before, but which will see extensive use from here onwards.
Drumway To Heaven
I suggested earlier that the increase in efficiency probably justifies the upgrade fee by itself, but there’s another deal sweetener — an integral modelling drum synth. It has five instrument types: Kick, Snare, Hi–hat, Tom and Percussion, and each have a number of parameters that won’t test your hearing with subtle nuances: they seriously and creatively mash up what you’ve got. What you’ve got depends on the ‘engine’ chosen for each instrument, with the most options falling, as you’d expect, to the kick and snare. The kick’s engines include rounded 808–style subs, zappy electronic blips and fat, dry, deep, hard acoustic slams, each suitably tailorable so you won’t get bored any time soon. The snare’s assortment of engines have names such as Volt, Bit, Pow, Sharp and Airy, while even lesser instruments such as toms, percussion and hi-hats get three fairly different engine choices. All of which adds up to an impressive–sounding programmable drum box.
Having selected any drum, its parameters spring into life on–screen for instant fine–tuning. You can build a huge number of varied kits with what’s on offer, incorporating silly numbers of plug–ins just because Maschine doesn’t seem to mind.
And There’s More...
Once again the bundled content grows, with Reaktor Prism, the Scarbee Mk1 Electric Piano and Solid Bus Comp joining the throng for this outing. Prism is a slick modelling synthesizer with a logical, easy–to–grasp interface, its eerie tones often reminding me of Rob Papen’s Blade. Prism can deliver superb bells, hang drums and marimbas but really lets rip when tasked to spit out PPG–esque digital tones.
I was less sure about the Scarbee piano, having never encountered one in the wild. Judging by this it’s more Wurlitzer than Fender Rhodes in character, somewhat dry and aggressive rather than ringy and sweet. The sound does have character though and even if it’s not an instrument I’d have sought out beforehand, I must admit it’s a grower.
The last of the new plug–ins is Solid Bus Comp,which is an appropriately solid and, unless pushed too far, surprisingly transparent compressor. It’s an effect you can slap on the master channel without worrying and is actually another of those Native Instruments slights of hand, in which something rather good is slipped in to quietly derail users who might have had different hopes for version 2.0. Speaking of hopes, at least one of mine has been quietly sorted. A new plate reverb joins the other effects and since it does so without much fanfare, I’ll give it a toot myself. This is exactly what Maschine has needed for a long time, a decent–sounding, all–purpose reverb ideal for percussion but not bad on vocals either.
The Maschine Studio is a serious slab of real estate, with a price to match. Of all the enhancements, its appeal probably rests on the twin displays and the question of whether they’re vital to the new workflow or simply wild extravagances. After all, the Mk2 hardware’s monochome displays remain as sharp and functional as ever. As a test, I reverted back to the earlier controller after only a week of use and instantly noticed my hand back in regular contact with the mouse, my eyes more often turned to the computer. In only a short time, the Studio, with its illusion of self–containment, changed the balance of power to become a luxury not easily forsaken. I can imagine some Maschine users who previously chose the top model feeling a bit left out.
On the software side, I can’t overstate how much the program’s responsiveness has improved on my Mac Pro, giving it a snappiness I’d ordinarily associate with stand–alone hardware. The drum synth is another major reason to be cheerful and thanks to its no–nonsense approach to deep, cutting percussion, it could easily be a successful stand–alone product. Amongst the numerous other pluses, I’d pick the arranger and the Prism synth as my personal highlights, but there are plenty more to choose from. Only the handling of external MIDI instruments still leaves much to be desired and so my biggest ‘pretty please’ is for it to be polished up.
In this review I’ve avoided trotting out my battered list of ‘features not yet present’, nor did I examine every small improvement, skipping over, for example, tweaks to the sampler and its slicing capabilities. Equally, I didn’t detail every minor fault, mostly because there are remarkably few, given such an extensive rewrite. On the whole the changes are entirely positive. Version 2.0 isn’t radical, new and daring — nobody wanted or expected that anyway. Maschine continues to develop according to Native Instruments’ vision and this version feels like a solid base upon which to build for the future. I reckon the Maschine just came of age.
The greatest rival has to be Akai’s MPC Renaissance, which takes a slightly different tack with its built–in audio interface, comprehensive handling of MIDI instruments and simple song mode. It’s a worthy machine but, at the moment, Maschine 2.0 has the edge, having achieved that rare combination of being fun, fast but hugely powerful at the same time.
With thousands of samples, plus a wealth of quality patches to wade through, finding what you need has to be both fast and puzzle–free. I’m guessing that prettiness wasn’t the number one priority when designing the browser’s tag–based system, in the GUI at least. Happily, it felt nippier and more logical when accessed from the Studio hardware, which is quite possibly as planned. All Maschine’s presets have been tagged to make them available in the shortest possible time — until some kind of neural interface is developed anyway.
From an initial type selection you can further qualify every search with a sub–type that generates a list of choices. If, for example, you picked organ, you could add qualifications such as ‘electric’, ‘reed’ and so on. A ‘mode’ tag lets you further refine the search to showing only organs that are ‘FM’, ‘additive’ or ‘sample–based’, for example.
Thanks to tagging, coupled with a common interface for tweaking every sound, you’ll hardly care which NI instrument is summoned. Anyone who has used Maschine for any length of time has probably dreamed of a future utopia in which instruments from every company have their patch databases tagged in the same way.
- The Maschine range gains a luxury hardware controller with two fab colour displays.
- Workflow is clearer and more intuitive.
- Software has been rewritten for multicore efficiency.
- DAW–style mixer with side-chain support.
- Even more bundled plug-ins, including a superb integral drum synth.
- Smashing of limits for groups, scenes, patterns and plug-in chains.
- Improved host automation.
- Maschine Studio hardware is not cheap.
- External MIDI instrument handling is rather basic.
- Still some omissions.
Maschine 2.0 is a fast and highly enjoyable way to make pattern–based music, with the beautiful new Studio controller guaranteed to keep the gas pumping.
Native Instruments +49 30 61 10350
Native Instruments +1 323 467 5260.
- Mac Pro running OS 10.8.5 with 2 x 2.66GHz quad–core Intel Xeon and 16GB RAM running in 64–bit mode.
- Logic 10.0.4 in 64–bit mode.