Maschine Mikro review

Native Instruments' Maschine hardware/software bundle has become a staple in the beat-production market since its debut two years ago. Now at version 1.7, its performative and production capacities have grown to the point where dance pioneers like Underworld rely on it as a standard instrument much the way an electric guitar might be used by a rock band. Maschine Mikro is the first major hardware shift for the production platform: the newly-downsized controller easily fits into a backpack and comes in at $200 less than its bigger brother. What compromises come with the smaller footprint, and what will the price tag mean for people just getting starting in the groove production game? Read on, Lil' Dre, for our macro view of the Mikro.

For the uninitiated: Software

Every well-stocked Guitar Center in the nation seems to have a Maschine demo station, and for good reason: it's easy to hop on and bang out a quick couple of bars on the traditional 16-pad interface, assigning different sounds to different pads. The software interface is also familiar enough, offering piano-roll and block-style notations that most music production platforms have standardized around. But unlike broader software packages, Maschine's soul is built around percussion, and anyone who spends more than a few moments at retail with the software will come to appreciate timing, velocity, effects and looping capacities that are tailored to building the perfect beat. The 5GB sample library included with all Maschine packages is expansive, covering a wide variety of styles that will be sure to push the limits of any beginner's production experience.

Recent software enhancements (Maschine is now at version 1.7) also make it more of a team player than it has ever been before: the software supports VST and Audio Unit instruments natively, so your plugins and presets will feel right at home. Routing MIDI and audio to and from Maschine is close to seamless: one magical-feeling enhancement in this version is the ability to render the audio or MIDI tracks produced in Maschine immediately: if you hammer out a bar or two and want to drop it instantly as either an audio track or a set of MIDI note commands, you're just a drag and drop away. Of course, Maschine itself can be used as a plugin for other DAWs as well.

Most modern music interfaces aim to bring the performer as far outside of the computer as possible, allowing him or her to interact with the hardware without touching a mouse or keyboard. Maschine is no exception. Once you're good at it, you can get lost in the loop pretty effectively without ever having to look at the computer screen, which presumably helps focus your attention on the sound. The original Maschine controller allows more direct hardware access to oft-used parameters and two separate LCD screens to keep the user tied into the software without glancing at it--the 12.6 x 11.6-inch footprint has plenty of space to keep the buttons and knobs intuitive without much fuss. If you're moving to the Mikro from its big brother, you'll find yourself missing some things you'd grown to depend on. Kind of like Def Leppard's Rick Allen.

Hardware (and hard choices)

So, what's lost in the jump down to Mikro's 12.6 x 7.7-inch footprint? One LCD screen and ten rotary controllers, for starters. Eight group-selection buttons are gone as well, adding an extra step to the process of navigating between sound sets; eight software-select buttons associated with the screens have disappeared as well. Peek around back and you'll notice that hardware MIDI in and out ports are gone -- not a death sentence for many producers, but we missed the straightforward ability to plug the box into another sound unit to produce noise. The missing buttons can be worked around simply enough with a combination of shift-keystrokes. MIDI ins and outs can be handled through a combination of software and breakout boxes (albeit with more tweaking involved). But there isn't a whole lot that can be done to replace those infinite knobs. When you're laying down a preliminary beat, you're probably not going to feel like you're missing much. But when you go back in to refine the sound, there's simply no substitution for a big bay of knobs. Effects, automation and navigation all take a visceral hit here. While these knobs are all adjustable with the mouse through software, it's far more awkward that way, and removes the possibility of adjusting two parameters at once.

We don't want anyone to get the wrong impression, though. We are portability snobs, and the ability to slide the Mikro into a backpack--as opposed to packing it into a separate box or carrier--is a serious advantage, and its simple portability will allow music to be made in places that it otherwise would not. We really love it on the airplane, to the chagrin of our fellow travelers.

Entry-level aspiration

Like all successful commercial ecosystems, Native Instruments wants desperately to get you into their world for cheap. As democratic as Maschine Mikro's $400 price point may be, first-time NI adopters will soon find themselves lusting after the more premium products they offer. Indeed, most of the training and informational videos offered on NI's own site feature production techniques that require all or parts of their $1,099 Komplete Ultimate bundle, which houses more than 240GB of samples, synths, and other goodies that will set a knob-tweaker's heart aflutter (it even ships on its own custom USB drive!). We're not saying there's anything wrong with aspirational products; just remember that some of the best music in history--especially the electronic kind--has been created by its defining limitations, not its evolving technological capacity.

Speaking of limitations, while you're thinking about all this, you might want to go ahead and get iMaschine, the $4.99, four-track iOS app that approximates its full-blown brethren as fluently as possible for the small screen. It's also directly compatible with Maschine, so beats you make on the go can be seamlessly transferred to your computer for rounding out the sound on "real" hardware. There are a lot of drum machines in the app store, but this one's cheap and has a gigantic, reputable software company behind it, which we can't say for all the others. Direct exports to Soundcloud and onboard-mic sampling sweeten the deal.


If you're considering taking the plunge into beat production, we can't really think of a better place to start than Maschine. Although you might eventually outgrow it or branch out to other devices for a different feel or sound, there's not really anywhere else you can get a sample library and high-quality hardware controller for under $600. So what of the choice between Maschine Classic and Maschine Mikro? Both contain the same software bundle, so don't worry about missing sounds in either case. If you have a home studio, won't be traveling much and have a lot of tabletop space available, we'd strongly recommend you go with the $600 big bro, even if it does mean you'll have to sacrifice that extra bottle of Dom you were planning on. If you're new to the game, looking to get in for cheap, don't have a proper studio space or will be moving around at all, the Mikro is your dude. You won't miss the extra features until later on in the game, and by then you'll be able to hire an underling to make the beats for you like you always wanted.