Native Instruments recently released a new Maschine hardware and some extra peripherals to go with it. In this review I’ll compare the old with the new as well as give you my opinion on the Maschine software.

A Komplete solution

I’ve used Maschine for quite some time now and will state right away that I am a fan but that it wasn’t alway like that. When I first heard about Maschine I thought it was a poor idea at best. Something of a worst of both worlds. After actually trying it I immediately changed my mind. It’s really the only controller solution I’ve tried that actually works so well that you pretty much never have to use a keyboard or even look at the screen. The first day I got it, I looked through the Native Instruments tutorial videos and spent the entire evening playing with it. It was just so much fun. After one day I was a Maschine ninja, easily finding my way around it. Mind you that I don’t come from an MPC background, and I’m sure if you do, you’ll get the hang of it even faster.

The real fun begins if you have Komplete and Maschine installed at the same time because then every preset is automagically accessible from within Maschine. Do you have any idea how many sounds that is? Me neither, but it’s a lot. You can easily do full productions with nothing but Maschine and Komplete. This combination is pretty much the reason I don’t keep many other software instruments around.

You can of course sample sounds, and it’s simple too. There’s a clever little gate effect in there as well. You simply set it to any threshold you like and the sampling won’t begin until that threshold is reached. It pretty much eliminates the need for cutting the beginning of a new sample.

For those of you that don’t know, there are also new Expansion Packs released on a regular basis for different styles of music. These same packs are also released in trimmed down versions for iMaschine – the app for iPhone/iPod Touch. I won’t dig into the Expansions here, just wanted to let you know that they are available. These days Maschine comes with the Native Instruments synthesizer Massive. I’ll admit that I haven’t used it much but I’m sure many will appreciate it.

New vs old hardware

Pink power! But gawddamnit NI – make me a purple one!

First I want to be perfectly clear, the software will be the same regardless of what Maschine hardware you’re using. The changes in the hardware are minor but noteworthy: more (different) colors in the pads and buttons, different buttons and encoders and the possibility to change the faceplate. When I first picked up the new Maschine out of the box and pressed the new buttons I wasn’t sure if they were better. They’re “clickier”, something that I don’t always like, but after having used it for some time, I can say that they’re definitely an improvement.

A big change is where the knobs for tempo, swing and volume used to sit, they have now been replaced by one big combination encoder / button. I’m not sure I’m happy with this change. I definitely don’t like the fact that you have to push a button before tweaking volume or tempo. The more dedicated controls, the better. It is, however, nice for browsing through presets and sounds. Keep your left hand on the encoder, scroll through, push to load and demo the sound with the right hand. It might seem like a minor thing but it actually feels really convenient.

A quick note on the accessories. Changing the faceplate was simple and you don’t need to own any tools yourself. The stand gives the Maschine a good angle. You don’t need to screw the Maschine on to it, it simply connects by plugging the holes at the bottom of the unit. Because of the better angle, the Maschine stand is valuable even if you’re not going to attach the it to a drum stand.

Maschine and Pro Tools

Maschine plays well with Pro Tools (perhaps not as well as with Ableton Live but that’s a different story for a different day and post) and I’ve never had any crashes related to the combination on any of my computers (which are all Mac’s, can’t speak for Windows performance). There are some differences – like you won’t use the play button on the Maschine hardware, instead you’ll use the Pro Tools transport controls – but overall Maschine functions much the same way inserted as a plugin in Pro Tools as it does standalone.

Some minor annoyances have occurred. For instance, you’ll not be happy to find that you’ve accidentally deleted your lead vocal from the Pro Tools session when you meant to delete some notes in the Maschine plugin. It’s not really NI’s fault, it happens because of a necessary unintuitive workflow. Imagine this: you have your plugin window floating on top of your Pro Tools Edit window. You decide you want to delete a bunch of note from the Maschine sequencer so you highlight them and hit delete on your keyboard. They get deleted. Unfortunately so does your Pro Tools selection as well. There are of course workarounds, a simple right-click deletes notes in the Maschine sequencer. It’s just that the intuitive way to delete notes, at least for me, is to hit the delete button.

Another annoyance comes from the fact that when using Maschine inside Pro Tools, you’re in fact using two sequencers. Say you have a four bar ditty going in Maschine and want to play around with some recordings in Pro Tools that start at bar two. Since Maschine follows Pro Tools, the beginning of bar two (where you have your recording in Pro Tools) will also be the beginning of bar two in Maschine, not the beginning of bar one, where you might want it to be. It’s just the way things are when you sync one sequencer to another. There are of course workarounds but two sequencers easily get messy for me.

I know I’m repeating myself here but it needs to be stated that the Maschine hardware is so deeply integrated that you won’t even need to have the plugin window open most of the time. This really is what sets it apart from every other software instrument you might be using now.

My workflow

An old video with the old hardware.

When I started using Maschine, I just had so much fun with it that basically every sound came from Maschine or non at all. After some time I started finding a middle path. Basically, there are three types of scenarios these days:

1. Maschine inside Pro Tools for “the groove”. Putting together a “beat” on Maschine is just so damn intuitive! Note that I use the word “beat” very loosely, I don’t just mean something urban or electronic sounding as some think. While strings and horns can sometimes be part of this beat, I prefer using Kontakt inside Pro Tools running side by side with Maschine instead if the arrangement is more intricate. To me it just gives a better overview. And while I could sample the guitar (or mandolin, or lute or whatever) directly inside Maschine, my more traditional way of playing fits better with regular tracks in Pro Tools. This is probably the most common scenario for me today. Here Maschine is just another instrument, but a very important one at that.

2. Maschine as standalone. Sometimes I just like to fire up Maschine and start jamming with it and see where it takes me. It’s a lot of fun and it often makes me do stuff I normally wouldn’t do. More often than not these tunes don’t make it into a finished track, which is only my fault. In this scenario, it’s almost like sitting down and jamming with a guitar or piano, except that you actually end up with something at least resembling a final arrangement (and you certainly could, I’m just speaking for myself here).

3. No Maschine at all. Maschine is not in every piece for me. Sometimes I’ll just record a guitar, some piano, perhaps a harmonium, or whatever, and Maschine just doesn’t fit into the workflow.

So the way I’ve ended up using Maschine is just as another instrument – a damn powerful one at that – that sits alongside my guitars, pianos and other instruments. Sure, it plays many voices but it’s still just a piece of the puzzle.

There’s so much to talk about when it comes to Maschine. It’s like a DAW and I’ve only scratched the surface but it’s time to wrap this up. I suggest you check out all the Native Instruments tutorials on Youtube for a better insight.

Conclusion

It’s obvious that I’m a fan of Maschine. Couple it with Komplete and you have a ridiculously big sound palette at your fingertips. Just about any controller will work poorly and require you to mouse around quite a bit but Maschine is an exception. The way the hardware integrates with the software is really incredible, even more so when you consider the price of the unit. As for the new unit vs the old one. The new one has better buttons and flashier lights but I see absolutely no reason for folks using the old unit to upgrade. The Maschine workflow will not fit everyone but don’t make the mistake thinking that it’s just a “hip hop unit” – it will fit into many music styles if you’re open to it and view it as another instrument in your collection. Alongside Kontakt, it’s the most used virtual instrument in my plugin folder.

The good:

    + The marriage of controller and software is plain amazing.
    + The new hardware is overall better than the old.

The bad:

    – Things can get messy in Pro Tools.

The ugly:

    * I don’t like that they removed knobs from the new hardware

Price: €599

Native Instruments Maschine