Well, as followers of my blog no doubt know, I’ve long been a huge fan of “grooveboxes” for making music. I’ve owned most of them over the years, and always found their self-contained nature inspiring and downright fun to play. So I was pretty interested a couple of years ago when Native Instruments announced Maschine, which was touted as a more modern take on the traditional groovebox concept.
But, for a lot different reasons at the time, I just was never able to get one. Partly because I wasn’t sure I really want to revisit the MPC-style workflow it offered, and partly because funds were allocated to music gear elsewhere. However as more and more people I knew started using it, and talking about how it completely changed the way they wrote music, I once again started to get interested.
A few weeks ago I was finally in a position to get some time with one, so I’ve been spending quite a bit of time learning it inside and out, and seeing how it fit into my studio (and perhaps live sets). I’m not going to go into the details of what it does and doesn’t do, or how it works necessarily, there’s plenty of reviews and YouTube videos out there that cover that. Instead I’ll just cover the things I really liked about it for my uses, and the things that I didn’t like so much, with a brief summary at the end explaining my overall thoughts in more detail.
– The hardware is solid. Lightweight as it’s mostly plastic, but feels like it would take some abuse. The drum pads are the best I’ve ever used, and setting up the sensitivity to be exactly what I wanted was a cinch. The knobs are the same as on the S4, S2, and Kontrol X1, which is to say solid and smooth feeling. I think NI has some of the best feeling knobs on their MIDI controllers (tied with Akai), so it was nice to see the same ones here. The LCD’s are dim-able, easy to read, and do a lot to make you forget this is just a MIDI controller.
– MIDI Map mode on the Maschine is well done. The editor is easy to use and works inline with the MIDI in and out, so you can edit your mappings while controlling whatever host software you’re setting it up for. You only have limited control over what names are shown on the LCD displays, primarily for the main drum pads only. Still, it was dead easy to make my own custom mapping for Traktor Pro 2, complete with visual button and pad feedback (they light when pressed or controls are latched for instance).
– The sounds. NI has always had really good drum sounds in their gear, I was impressed with what came with Battery 3 back when I owned it. The quality of sounds in the Maschine are equally as good. Doesn’t come with a ton of non-drum instruments, but for the most part they are good as well. What makes this a really nice deal now is that Maschine also comes with the new version of Komplete Elements, which is full mapped to the Maschine hardware. So there’s a lot of sounds you can access with Maschine, and this is before you start adding your own plug-ins ala the 1.5 OS update.
I did also get to take advantage of two of the three available Maschine add-on packs, Transistor and Vintage Heat. In general I didn’t think these sounds were as good as what came with Maschine by default, but partly that was just my preferred style of music. A lot of the content in those two packs were more geared toward hip hop and RnB styles, though certainly people could use them in whatever styles they wanted I’m sure. Not bad sounds, just not great either IMVHO.
– Flexible pad assignments. In Maschine speak, each pad can be assigned a sound, and these sounds can be individual samples, an effect (internal or plug in), or even multi-sampled sounds that you can play chromatically. So for instance, in a kit with 16 pads, you could have each pad be a different grand piano if you wanted, they don’t just have to be individual samples. This makes having only 16 sounds per kit, MUCH more flexible.
– Effects, lots of them. Not just the number that come with Maschine, but how you can apply them. You can apply up to 3 effects per drum pad, then three more to all 16 pads that make up a kit (or Group), and then up to 3 more effects on the master channel. If that’s not enough, you can also create pads that are dedicated to just holding 3 effects on their own and treat those like send effects, complete with comprehensive routing options. I’m probably missing some more, but needless to say there’s a lot of places in the signal path that you can apply effects in Maschine. They’re not my favorite sounding effects (very clean usually), but there’s definitely enough on offer to do just about anything you need.
– Stable. At least in my testing, I never ran into any crashes or other issues, everything worked exactly as it should once all my software was up to date (see below for more on this).
– NI Service Center. This is the software NI uses to keep all of their software and drivers up to date on your computer. It’s supposed to make things easier by putting all your updates in one place, but a lot of times it makes things more difficult. My complaints aren’t Maschine specific, but it still drove me nuts. For example, often times I would launch Service Center to check for an update, only to be told that the Centre itself needed to update. Ok, fine, it would download itself, install and relaunch. Then I’d have a list of updates I was told I needed, many of which were drivers for hardware I didn’t own (say S4, or Audio Kontrol 1) or manuals in other languages. There’s no way to exclude these from the list of updates you’re told you need.
Now, maybe I just got Maschine at a time when a lot of updates were coming out, but I swear I felt like I spent half my time using Maschine trying to keep everything up today and restarting my computer. New version of the Maschine drivers? Restart. New version of Guitar Rig Player for Komplete Elements? Restart. New version of all the drivers I didn’t really need but had to install so Service Center wouldn’t flag them as out of date? Restart. Oh look, another 0.1 version update got released today, repeat the whole process over.
Granted I also have Traktor Pro and a Traktor Audio 6 soundcard on my system, but even with just the Maschine options I felt like this was a frustrating process. It was easier to just download them manually from the Native Instruments website.
– You really can’t ignore the computer. At least not all of the time. I had so many people tell me how they were able to use Maschine like a hardware groovebox, and that you could just totally ignore the computer software. Well, not really. For basic beat creation and coming up with simple patterns, sure. But there’s a lot of things that can only be done in the software, like saving a new version of your project, saving presets or custom kits, loading new (blank) projects, assigning Macro controls, etc. Also, while there is some sequencer editing functionality with just the hardware, in general it’s MUCH, MUCH faster to just use the piano roll editor in the software.
I don’t want to over-state this, as there’s definitely a LOT you can do with just the hardware. But at the same time I didn’t think that it is at the point where I could just sit with it on my lap and ignore the computer side of things either when making a complete song.
– Browsing sounds. One of the downsides of the large library, is that it cam take awhile to browse for just the right sounds you need. NI has done a good job of tagging all the samples and sounds like with most of their plug ins, but there’s still something like 700 kicks alone to go through. It’s not bad to have a lot of choices, don’t get me wrong, but it did seem like I was spending a lot of time searching for the sounds I needed. When it came to the multi-sampled instruments, the process was even worse, as some of these would take a few seconds to load each time. Really not sure how this could be improved, but just be aware of it.
– Not a lot of performance-based options. You can’t record song-length automation, you can’t build up a song structure by selecting patterns on the fly (though you can scenes, which is still kind of limited), etc. I like grooveboxes primarily because they let me perform my grooves in realtime, and I just didn’t get the feeling that Maschine was designed with that in mind.
– Plug-in hosting is still a bit hit or miss. For simple plug ins and the ones that come with Komplete Elements, most of the controls you want to access are already assigned to the first 8 macro knobs. Otherwise, you might be scrolling through pages and pages of parameters on the hardware trying to find what you are looking to edit. Again, probably not totally NI’s fault, but it does mean that once again you’re back at the computer with the mouse.
So really, not a huge list of complaints compared to the things I liked about it then. So then why am I ultimately getting rid of it? To be honest, I think it has less to do with Maschine, and more about the way I like to work. I was hugely impressed with Maschine early on, I think NI did a great job of creating a new way of writing music that leverages some of the best ways of working with hardware and software. But for me, it was almost a case of being too middle-ground for me to really get inspired by it.
It was similar enough to hardware grooveboxes that I really wanted to like it more, but the fact I had to keep reverting to the computer to do some tasks started to make me wonder why I didn’t just use the computer in the first place. The hardware does a pretty good job at letting you focus on banging out simple patterns and ideas, but once you want to do any sort of detailed editing or arranging, it was back to mousing in a piano roll editor. Call me weird, but I really kept wishing for a MIDI list editor I could access right on the hardware. It would have made fixing the odd bum note(s) that much more focused on the hardware.
I think the other thing is that I’ve never really been hugely attracted to working in the typical MPC sort of workflow. Using a 4×4 grid to play melodies just feels weird to me, and simply chaining together patterns to create a song structure just isn’t my thing. I like lots of fills and transitional elements that lead to different sections of my song, and I found creating these on the hardware pretty tedious.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great bit of gear actually, and I can see why so many people like it. At the end of the day though, I think I just have a pretty specific way of creating my music that the Maschine just doesn’t fit into easily. I’m sure I could find ways of using it, but it’s never going to be the center-piece of my studio like it’s intended to be. So for now I’ll wish it a fond farewell, and move on to something else.
If anyone is interested in buying it (like new, all original items, even the stickers), I’ll sell it for $499 via PayPal and cover the shipping to the lower 48. If you’re overseas, you’ll have to cover shipping costs. Drop me an email if you’re interested.