Maschine Studio Review
In some ways it feels like ages since I last gave NI’s Maschine MKI a try, but it’s been something I’ve been watching mature ever since. I loved the sounds, and the hardware integration felt pretty complete, if a bit long-winded in some cases. At the time though (pre-Maschine v1.5?), there were still too many things you needed to revert to the computer to do. And if I’m honest the basic mono-chromatic displays were a tad on the generic side. It didn’t exactly ooze character and I found it would take me awhile to locate where I was in various menus sometimes.
All-in-all I was impressed, but it wasn’t quite the hardware groovebox replacement I had hoped it would be. After a brief affair, I sold it and set about mastering the Octatrack instead. Well, now the Octatrack has come and gone, and I’m once again interested in Maschine, specifically the new Studio version with it’s fancy displays. With the recent NI price drop during May, along with Guitar Center holiday deals on top, it was a no brainer that now was the time to give it another go.
I won’t go into every function of Maschine in great detail, there’s a ton of reviews out there with that info already. What I want to look at is does it function as a true groovebox now, and how does it compare to something like Push? (a question I see all the time lately)
The hardware itself is the same solid controller body NI has been using for awhile now on things like Maschine MKI and the Traktor controllers. Largely plastic, but with some heft to it that makes it feel a bit more sturdy. Only the lower portion of the faceplate has an aluminum skin, the upper portion is the same fingerprint-attracting gloss plastic that the S4 uses. Grr. Hopefully NI makes some skins for the Studio series, I rather liked the old gun-metal blue one for the first generation.
The pads and buttons all feel nice and responsive, and the knobs are solid and feel like they’ll stand up to a lot of tweaking. The new jog wheel is a little less solid-feeling, but it works well for scrolling in any list, and for moving and editing your recorded notes after the fact. The outer ring lights up to let you know when you’re in a menu or edit function that the jog wheel will be active for, and luckily it’s not too bright even in a dark studio. Ditto the pads and buttons, they looked really bright in some videos I saw online, but in use they’re nicely dim enough to not be annoying. The displays can be independently brightened as well.
One awesome new feature is the fold out legs under the Studio, I was curious about how sturdy it would turn out to be. In use they’re great, very solid feeling and it puts the Studio right at a perfect angle IMO. I use Blue Lounge’s Cool Feet to tilt all my tabletop gear, so having this built in and working so well is a huge plus for me.
On to the main key feature of the Studio though, those new displays. When I first powered it on, I was a bit shocked that my first reaction was “wow, they’re not retina clarity”. Not that I expected them to be, nor should they be necessarily, just that it’s been awhile since I’ve seen LCDs that weren’t, doh! 🙂 All kidding aside, they new display looks great and NI has done a fantastic job using them to help you navigate and edit your projects as efficiently as possible.
Notice I said “edit”. One of things that sticks out to me the most about the new Studio controller, is that it makes using Maschine feel like you’re working at a dedicated editing station. NI have done such a good job of giving you easy and direct access to all the controls you need to edit your performances after the fact, that it feels like that’s the focus more to me than typical grooveboxes.
This is actually not a bad thing. Usually it’s all about performing and recording your material, and while Maschine works the same as always here, it’s the improvements to post-editing that give new life to things. Fixing mistakes and cropping together performances to create something larger in scope is so easy from just the hardware, that instead of finally achieving groovebox status, the Maschine Studio takes it to a new level.
This is further improved on by the fact NI have removed most of the restrictions of the software in terms of the number of effects you could use. Want 14 compressors? No problem! Need a fancy delay followed by a pristine plate reverb? Simple! It really is simple too, the displays on the Studio work great with the browser. Everything is color-coded tastefully and includes graphics, and with their preset tagging in place as always, finding what you need in the huge stock library is really easy. I’ll go one further even, it’s the best I’ve ever used when making music.
Back to no plug-in restrictions. One of the great things about this, is that it gives you DAW flexibility with a groovebox interface and workflow. Most grooveboxes have boring effects in the first place, or maybe you’re limited to only one or two per sound. With Maschine, you can layer endless effects per Sound, per Group, and on the Master. And then assign whatever controls you want to macros at the same Sound, Group (kit), Master levels.
Again, it takes the idea of a groovebox to a new level, especially given the quality of effects you have access to.
I was really interested in the new drum synths as well, and I’m happy to report they are every bit as awesome as I’d hoped. Nicely tweak-able from only a few key parameters, with everything created to function in a very useable range. You get a lot of useable range out of each drum model, and not a lot of dead spots where some parameters just sound bad there no matter the sound you’re trying to create. I do wish there were a few more percussion and cymbal models though.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of work with my acoustic guitar lately, I wondered how difficult it would be to record any performances via the Maschine hardware and to edit them to use in my patterns. Happily, I didn’t even need to look in the manual to figure it out, it’s one of the simplest recording, looping, and slicing interfaces I’ve used. Dead simple to capture a recording, trim it, slice it, adjust your slices, and assign them to the pads. All without needing to use the laptop, I was impressed.
In fact, it’s pretty obvious by now for most of you that I like it overall I’m sure. 🙂
They’ve made a lot of improvements to the things that used to normally bog you down when working on a groovebox. Browsing your sounds, carefully managing how you used effects, rearranging your recorded performances, etc. Where as Maschine MKI felt a little bit short of my expectations, Maschine Studio exceeded them a lot more than I expected. Other than naming a new project and changing the colors of the groups (another very useful feature I use constantly), I’ve been able to create super solid song ideas from just the hardware. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could do a pretty cool live set from just the controller too 🙂
It’s still not perfect though.
There’s been probably a dozen times the software and controller integration has gone a little haywire and I had to restart the controller. Or a button press doesn’t do what it’s suppose to. There’s still the odd error message that you have to address on the software and not from the controller, which is annoying. If you can display a message on the controller telling me to check the software, why can’t you just tell me on the controller with a yes no button instead?
And of course, you do still need a computer and soundcard to use it. It does such a good job at working like a groovebox, a couple times I have literally been carrying it to another room to work in new surroundings before I remembers it wasn’t a standalone product. Sigh. A small case, a Mac mini, and a way to temporarily use an iPad as a display could almost make it standalone I guess. 🙂
Minor gripes aside, it’s probably one of the best grooveboxes I’ve ever used. There’s still a little bit of generic feel to the hardware that puts me off at times. But once I sit down and get sucked into the displays, it’s amazing what I can record and edit without touching the computer at all, and I always come away impressed. I can’t imagine using Maschine without the Studio controller myself, but it will be up to you and how much you use Maschine to make that call if you own any of the older hardware.
How does it compare to Push? Well, it’s almost not really a comparison, since they are almost devices with totally different uses. I find that Push is really good at coming up with some interesting and unique sounding song ideas. The step sequencers are more comprehensive since you have more pads, and the whole thing just feels like a musical instrument more than a general purpose controller.
The downside of Push is that there’s very little after the fact editing other than the simple step sequencer. And frankly, the browser in Ableton is weak compare to the way NI does it. Both in terms of content and organization, Maschine is far better here, especially on the Studio controller. Maschine is also much better at post-editing, which I’ve mentioned numerous times so far.
Overall I think of Push as being for someone looking more for a new instrument, a way of playing their own sounds and maybe sketching out some quick ideas to expand on back at the computer later. Creating melodies and even step drum programming is just easier on Push since you have so many more pads to use, and the scales function is really fun too.
Push is also easier to get up to speed on, a lot simpler to figure out since it does a lot less. If you’ve used Live, Push will make sense right away. Maschine doesn’t work like a DAW even though it looks like one, so understanding the structure of a project and navigating it can take awhile.
Maschine is more for someone wanting to have a dedicated and focused way of creating more polished and complete song ideas in the studio. Either for loops or just basic arrangements, Maschine just works better for shaping things once you’ve recorded them. Provided you don’t mind recording everything with a generic 4×4 grid of pads (or with an external midi controller I suppose, though that takes away from the groovebox factor some).
As a complete all in one solution, I think Maschine Studio is probably the stronger package of the two. But if you’re already a Live user, there’s no denying how useful it is keeping it all “in the family” so to speak 🙂 And there’s all those performance options Live offers if you want to take things to the stage later on.
I’ll still use Push for playing around in Live, especially with melodic content, but I think for now the library of sounds that NI is shipping with Maschine is a little more up my alley so that’s where I’m going to be focusing my attentions for the new future.
As always happy to answer any questions if people have them, just them in the comments.
Peace and beats,