Native Instruments Maschine (Mac/Win) Review

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FIG. 1: Delivering MPC-like control over its software side, Maschine''s desktop hardware features 16 high-quality touch- and pressure-sensitive trigger pads; dual backlit graphic LCDs; and 11 rotary encoders.

Maschine is a pattern-oriented sequencer (plug-in or stand-alone) that comes paired with a desktop pad controller for MPC-style groove construction. Based on the concept of scenes that you can manage in real time, it allows you to break free from the limits of linear DAW arrangement.

You can have up to eight instrument groups layered at the same time, each containing a kit of 16 drum or instrument sounds, for a maximum of 128 discrete tracks. Upward of 64 patterns can be programmed for each instrument group, and these can be arranged across a maximum of 64 scenes in a song. You can mix, match, truncate and repeat patterns at will over the course of a scene or arrangement — even in real time.

Kit sounds can be loaded from the 5GB collection of built-in samples (more than 16,000 of them) or from your own stash of mono or stereo WAV or AIFF files. You can sample external sounds through your computer's audio interface, as well as perform internal resampling from virtually any bus on your audio interface or from within Maschine itself. A built-in sample editor with slicing and auto-mapping makes quick work of assembling kits from single or multiple samples and assigning them to trigger pads. Finally, dual stereo effects processors are available to each of the sound tracks, to instrument groups and at the master level.

Check Out My New Pad

When Maschine boots, its USB 2 hardware controller lights up like a pumpkin (see Fig. 1). All 41 buttons and 16 pads are backlit orange; they feature dim, bright and blinking modes to signal various functions or convey pattern status.

Dual LCDs, measuring four inches wide and backlit in soft blue, provide an ample view of parameter data, sample waveforms and ancillary beat information. These work in tandem, with the left display acting as a level/function focus and the right acting as a value/edit display. Four soft buttons sprawled above and four endless rotary encoders below each LCD are used for tab navigation and parameter tweaking, respectively.

The 4×4 trigger matrix is one of the best I've felt. The pads are a little softer than those of the Akai MPC/MPD, but they feel more substantial than the Korg or M-Audio varieties. They have just the right amount of snap for tricky finger-bouncing without any fatigue. They're also extremely sensitive (user-tailored in Preferences) and offer smooth aftertouch response. Pressing the Keyboard button converts the pads to trigger chromatically so that you can play pitched drums, melodies or chords. A bank of eight modifiers and instrument group selectors, a dedicated Note Repeat button, looping transport controls, and master Volume, Tempo and Swing encoders fill out the panel provisions.

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FIG. 2: Maschine''s sequencer benefits from real-time manageable scenes and sampling, allowing you to break free from the linearity of conventional DAW arrangement and tweak patterns on the fly without missing a beat.

What a Softie

Across the top of the GUI is the Arranger pane, in which group patterns are slotted into Scene columns along a timeline (see Fig. 2). The bottom pane contains a zoomable Pattern/Automation editor, allowing you to sequence track parts in grid or piano roll/keyboard views. Sandwiched in the middle is a general control area for tweaking sample and sound parameters, and you can toggle a context-sensitive, Kore-style browser down a pane on the left.

In practice, think of the software as an overview display for the hardware. The only time you need to go there is to precisely edit note events or type in the name of your project.

The included kits and associated loops cover every musical style, from chart-driven hip-hop and R&B to funky house, hard electro and techno, jazzy trip-hop, space rock and downtempo lounge music. Sound quality throughout is typically Native Instruments: clean, punchy and dynamic.

Into the Rhythm

Getting a beat down is pretty straightforward. Simply toggle the built-in metronome (oddly, there's no count-in), hit Record and start playing the pads. Naturally, the plug-in version slaves to DAW transport commands and syncs to host tempo. If Input Quantize is switched on, then notes will snap to grid during recording and layer with each looped pass. Should you make a mistake, there's no need to stop recording: Hit Shift+Undo on the pads, and — voila! You get unlimited undos and redos. Maschine can also act like an old-school beat box, allowing you to enter patterns 808-style, with the backlit pads guiding every step of the way.

You can set different grids and loop lengths (down to 64th-note triplet resolution), making it possible to achieve odd time signatures. Perform quantization at the song level or on any note, including automation events. Quantization can be hard-to-grid or in 50-percent iterations. Sadly, because Maschine can't load (or export) MIDI files, you can't quantize from MIDI groove templates.

For a more human feel, you can nudge sequences and slide notes around freely with Grid mode off. You can also add swing on a part-by-part basis or to the song as a whole. In fact, you can mute, solo, swing notes, shuffle patterns, change arrangement and more entirely on the fly, making for a very interesting performance instrument.

Mechanics Toolkit

Maschine offers an incredible amount of voice-level editing, including velocity (start, decay, cut-off, volume), pitch (-36.00 to +36.00), sample start/gate/reverse/sustain, attack/hold/decay amp and mod envelopes, and variable LFO with phase and sync, as well as multimode filtering and inline effects. You can tweak and record each parameter in real time with the controller or the software interface.

MPC users will love that Maschine provides pad muting and mute groups (up to eight per kit), allowing you to do some really clever things, including the standard open/closed hi-hat trick. Another cool feature is the momentary Note Repeat button. When depressed, it automatically plots the selected sound across the grid at a given quantization for accelerated beat programming. But it's particularly useful for adding live fills, reacting to pad pressure as volume intensity. Four programmable hot buttons let you switch between quantization values in real time, allowing you to fluidly roll, let's say, from gentle 8th-note and 16th-note repeats to 16th-note triplets and eventually 64th-note triplet stutters. It's also a cool way to turn Maschine's tonal sounds into synthesizer-like arpeggios.

The sampler is good and fast at capturing and automatically mapping drums and other sounds, but I found it basic at editing and a bit convoluted (see the bonus material, “Sampling the Goods,” at Initially, I wasn't even sure that you could have more than one drum sound assigned per pad. It turns out that you can — as multisampled sounds. In the Mapping Editor, you can set the root, note and velocity range, tuning, gain and pan for each sample. And although you can slice loops for further manipulation, you can't import Acid files, Apple Loops or REX files. Fortunately, Native Instruments is planning REX compatibility in a future update.

For mixdown, Maschine features eight stereo buses and the ability to export audio as whole Scenes or discrete loop ranges, tapped from the master, group or sound buses. The downside is that bouncing is in real time.

Well Oiled

Maschine is a ton of fun. Its form and function are purely inspiring to work with. I love that you can quickly jam out ideas in a pattern-oriented environment and continue to use them there as the building blocks for a self-contained song or supplement them in parallel with a DAW.

Native Instruments has successfully unified and vastly improved the familiar groove-production workflows. Almost everyone is using a laptop onstage these days; as perhaps the ultimate groove instrument, Maschine bridges the gap between the familiarity and reliability of highly integrated hardware control and the boundless sonic flexibility that software affords.

Jason Scott Alexander runs a mix/production facility in Canada's capital of Ottawa, Ontario.

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