- Great build quality
- Large, high quality sample library included
- Frequent, impressive updates (so far)
- Software interface cramped
- Use as stand-alone Ableton Live controller somewhat limited
If you've ever been in a studio where hip-hop was being made, or taken in a live performance, you've probably seen an MPC. Originally designed by Roger Linn, the MPC60 (1988) combined a 16 voice sampler (12-bit / 40 KHz) with a ninety-nine track MIDI sequencer that could control up to sixty-four devices. Not only could one use this as the heart of their studio, but the thing could be used to construct the main share of an entire track, if not the entire track itself. Still very much in use today, the MPC is near and dear to the hearts of an entire generation of producers.
Maschine, however, takes this concept and throws a computer into the mix. More than just a groove box, this is essentially the MPC re-imagined to integrate seemlessly into your production workflow. It includes a stand-alone software-based sample sequencer, and through it one can program patterns, sequence patterns into songs, record and edit samples, and control your effects and audio routing. What makes Maschine special, however, is its hardware controller that features sixteen velocity-sensitive pads, two displays, transport controls, and enough knobs and buttons to give you control over any of the functions available on the software side. And the hardware serves two extremely useful purposes: as a live performance tool and as a way to combine the rough'n'ready tactile nature of a groove box with the power of modern digital audio workstations. And not only can it run as a stand-alone app, it can also be used as a plug-in (VST, AU, or RTAS) with your workstation. There is a lot this guy can do!
First of all, the Maschine hardware itself is a MIDI controller -- and that's it. (OK, it isn't just a MIDI controller, it's a hardware controller that uses a "high resolution protocol allowing for advanced control possibilities and full visual feedback," according to Native Instruments; but you get the idea.) Unlike the hardware it was meant to replace, this merely acts as controls for the Maschine software residing on your computer. That said, the thing is surprisingly sturdy. The housing of the unit is plastic, with a metal faceplate up top. But in no way is this thing "plastic-y." The buttons and pads are solid as well, and don't have a ton of "give," which makes for a better experience when triggering samples than the chunkier, looser feeling pads we've seen on some samplers. Besides the USB port 'round back, this thing also sports standard MIDI input and output ports.
The best way to get comfortable with Maschine is to jump right in, in stand-alone mode. The sequencer in the application itself will probably be more than enough for a lot of you: within a few minutes, you'll be hammering out loops and arranging them into larger patterns. With eight available groups, each of with can hold up to sixteen samples, you should have enough sounds to get your ideas across.
Each sample in a group corresponds to a numbered pad on the controller's grid, for assembling drum kits (or any other sort of sample set) that can be played by hand. Once you assemble the group, there is a few things you can do: in the default mode, each pad triggers each individual sample (one for the kick drum, two for the snare, and so on). In piano roll mode, when a single sample is selected the pitch changes according to which pad you pressed (so you can hammer out simple melodies with one sample). Or you can plug in a keyboard and play an individual sample in the more traditional way. Anything that you play can be accessed through the software and fudged with their, so if you're like us and the music in your head often outpaces your performance abilities, your patterns can be quickly and easily edited and sequenced with just a few mouse clicks.
Once you get used to Maschine's way of doing things, the next step is to explore its integration with your DAW. When assembling our track, the first thing we did was come up with a few patterns in Maschine's stand-alone mode. Once we had something we liked, we created a session in Ableton Live, opened the track we created in Maschine, dragged the audio from Maschine into Live, and sequenced our track in Live. Yes, you can drag and drop both audio and MIDI from the plug-in into your DAW of choice (this feature has been available since version 1.5).
If you're going to start with the software in plug-in mode, however, you have a few more options: samples can be routed to separate channels in your DAW (to be mixed or effected from within Logic, for instance) and MIDI recorded to channels in your DAW can be used to play Maschine sounds. If you're already accustomed to making music on a computer, bringing Maschine into the mix couldn't be any more painless. And once you get used to the basics, there are plenty of options to explore.
One complaint we did have, however, was that the Maschine app was pretty crowded and hard to navigate when compared to traditional DAWs. We found ourselves moving audio and MIDI patterns into Live just so we didn't have to look at the at times cumbersome Maschine interface!
The only other major disappointment we had when playing with Maschine was that, as a stand-alone hardware controller for Ableton Live (that is, when we tried to use it as a controller for the Live software itself, without the Maschine software running) it came up a bit lacking. The idea is that, when in Ableton Live clip view, each of the sixteen squares in the controller grid corresponds to sixteen clips in Ableton. That way, instead of fumbling with a mouse you can trigger samples with the grid. If you have more than four clips across or down, you can move the whole sixteen block selection by navigating with the B, E, F, or G keys. Unfortunately, there is no way to force the clip view in the Ableton software to reflect the changes you're making on the controller, making this a non-starter for anyone who's serious about using the hardware as an interface for Live. Of course, this isn't exactly being billed by Native Instruments as such, but judging by the comments we're seeing by Maschine customers and would be customers all over the Internet, this is actually a much coveted functionality -- and one that would take the sting out of a $600 purchase for many users. We have had much better luck with Propellerhead's Reason, however. We made a pretty straightforward MIDI map for the Reason 5 Kong controller, and the two played quite nicely together. In fact, having the ability to power up our default Reason template and bang out a quick idea when we're even too lazy to bring up the Maschine stand-alone app almost took the sting out of the shortcomings of its Ableton integration.
Maschine version 1.6 upgrade
One of the most heartening things about this device is the dedication that Native Instruments has put into upgrading the software. Of course, one of the primary advantages of using a MIDI controller / software-based setup is that, unlike stand alone hardware, the company can upgrade the product as often as it wants. And already, we've seen one major upgrade: Version 1.5 added, among other things, vintage sampling modes that emulate sound of either the MPC60 or the E-mu SP-1200; the ability to import data from various older Akai MPCs; REX 2 support; the aforementioned ability to drag and drop audio and MIDI from the app into your DAW, and more.
As for Version 1.6, the big change here is the ability to use outside VST and Audio Units plug-ins. Both effects and instruments plug-ins can be used, greatly expanding the sounds available to what is already a generous offering here. Another feature that might seem small but which was actually incredibly useful for us was the ability to drop audio files right from the OS into Maschine: rather that browsing through your directory structure in-app, you can grab that loop off your desktop and drop it into your project, the way nature intended. Trust us, it's a lot more fun than it sounds!
When Maschine was first introduced, people wondered what Native Instruments was thinking: Akai's MPC line was not only revolutionary when it first appeared way back in 1991, but it has continued to be immensely popular, both in actual hardware sales and in mindshare. Perhaps NI took a bit of a gamble, but they were right to do so: there is more than enough room in the market for a device that admirably fills the role of an MPC, yet has the functionality and workflow of the latest DAWs in mind. And if that weren't enough, the thing is quite a bargain: the $600 you'd spend on Maschine would only get you the most entry-level hardware in the MPC line, while something like the MPC5000 costs around $3,500 new. Right now, the biggest complaint we have with the device is that the software layout is a little cramped and can be frustrating: in this instance, it doesn't seem that the company has found the balance between a large feature set and the "everything in one screen" design that Ableton and Propellerhead have proven adept at. That said, the minor design awkwardness here is nothing compared to that of the old hardware-based sequencers that this hopes to replace. Additionally, the way that the updates have been flying fast and furiously gives us hope that Native Instruments is committed to supporting the device for some time to come.
For all of Machine's virtues, it probably isn't for everybody: its strengths lay not only in its quality (both in hardware and software) but in its ability to integrate with your existing audio workstation. If you're already an Akai sampler aficionado looking for more of the same, but better, Maschine is definitely they way to go. And if you're looking for a product that is as useful in the studio as it is for live performance (and you don't mind bringing a laptop into the club), the build quality, quality of its sample library, and its price definitely warrant that you take a second look. There are software packages (Propellerhead's Reason comes to mind) that deliver a more complete, in-the-box music production setup, but sometimes software isn't enough. And that's where Maschine takes center stage.
If you are already a Maschine user and want to sign up for the 1.6 Beta version of the software, hit the Coverage link to get started.