Native Instruments Maschine Review (Bonus Material) - EMusician

Native Instruments Maschine Review (Bonus Material)

Even before its release, Maschine caught the attention of serious beat producers for its promise of delivering MPC-like hardware control of a fresh new groove application. The aim was two-fold: to bridge the programming and editing gap that exists between traditional drum module plug-ins and host sequencers; and to give live performers an instrument of unprecedented flexibility through the boundless sonic resources of a well-stocked laptop. For such a setup to be successful, however, the integration of both hardware and software components must be tight and highly intuitive—an area in which Native Instruments has recently excelled.
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THE PROMISE

Even before its release, Maschine caught the attention of serious beat producers for its promise of delivering MPC-like hardware control of a fresh new groove application. The aim was two-fold: to bridge the programming and editing gap that exists between traditional drum module plug-ins and host sequencers; and to give live performers an instrument of unprecedented flexibility through the boundless sonic resources of a well-stocked laptop. For such a setup to be successful, however, the integration of both hardware and software components must be tight and highly intuitive—an area in which Native Instruments has recently excelled.

Nothing can replace the immediacy of touching your beats. To that end, the Maschine controller is brilliantly executed. Its bidirectional communication and workflow blew me away. From browsing samples on disc to capturing audio on the fly and building new kits on the pads in almost immediate fashion, the integration and workflow felt quite natural and seamless. I did find that a certain, sometimes unbearable, lag existed when loading complex sessions containing very large sample sets from disc, but individual kits and samples loaded as fast as I could press the Next button.

Physically, Maschine''s controller is a sturdy affair constructed mainly of reinforced black plastic to keep it light weight, but with a thin brushed-aluminum faceplate (anodized-black) to lend a professional aesthetic to the top panel. The thin, wedged profile measures roughly 12.5x11.5 inches and just 2 inches high at the rear—a lean but ergonomic footprint that feels great and won''t get in your way. It''s also perfectly sized to be a travel companion for stacking with a laptop, all in one tote bag or backpack.

The controller is entirely bus-powered. A USB 2 cable plugs in back, where you''ll also find a MIDI I/O pair for connecting external gear (the ports show up in your DAW) and a Kensington security slot for tethering.

The surface can be flexed out to also become a universal controller, making this hybrid system all the more attractive. A cool new utility included with the 1.0.2 update, Control Center, lets you program operational templates for your current DAW and plug-ins. A dozen preprogrammed templates are provided for Ableton Live, HUI and Mackie Control, Traktor Pro, General MIDI drums, Battery 3, Massive, Pro-53, Reaktor, FXpansion Guru, Toontrack EZDrummer and XLN Audio Addictive Drums. Pressing the Shift+Control buttons calls up MIDI mode, which turns the hardware into a self-contained universal controller for any device connected to its MIDI out port.

By the way, Maschine''s control surface is not a dongle, so you can run the software and open previous projects without connecting the hardware. This is cool for, say, when you make a tune in the studio and then take the project away on a laptop and leave the controller behind.

SAMPLING THE GOODS

Maschine can sample from an external sound source or from the internal group audio buses. Using internal audio as the source, you can sample as many as 16 bars of your arrangement and then slice the recorded loop to a new Group, with the slices spread out onto the 16 pads. This method is a cool way of intuitively remixing your own Maschine tracks in the old-school MPC manner.

Recording can be initiated by threshold detection or internal synchronization. If you want to control sample recording by hand, the trick is to set the threshold to 0 dB and press the Start/Stop soft button that appears above the right display. If sample record is set to Sync and the sequencer is already running, then the recording will begin at the top of the next bar after you hit Start. This is similar to how, during playback, Scenes will wait for the current bar to end before any switching of patterns will take place. The manual never mentions a maximum sample length, but just for kicks I successfully recorded an entire 4-minute song without any complaints from Maschine.

The sampler''s Edit tab offers surprisingly few features, with only rudimentary control over sample start and end points, and loop boundaries with optional crossfade. I find it appalling that Maschine lacks such basic waveform-level functions as normalizing, cut and paste, time-stretch, pitch-shift, search zero-crossings, DC offset and so on. I don''t think I''m asking for the moon with any of these; it''s entirely plausible that you may want to perform some basic nip-and-tuck prior to or during keymapping. At the very least, Native Instruments should provide a Launch button that allows you to call up your favorite audio editor from within Maschine, without having to leave the sampler environment.

SLICE AND DICE

Maschine''s Slicing feature is akin to Acidizing samples. It allows you to play loops at virtually any tempo, though you will hear gaps between slices if you lower the tempo too much. Slicing is also useful for extracting single samples from loops, changing the order of slices, muting or editing slices, applying a different quantize value or adding swing. Being a remixer and beat producer, I really put Slicing feature through its paces.

Slicing can occur somewhat freely, based on audio transients at user-definable detection thresholds, or more rigidly on 16th notes, a convenient measurement for breaking a 1-bar loop into individual hits assigned to individual pads. For this, you''ll first need to enter a sample''s bpm value by hand or let Maschine detect the tempo automatically. Strangely, given that so much else about Maschine works in real time, detection isn''t on the fly but requires you to trim your sample precisely on the beat for most accurate results. It''s a shame that you cannot beat-slice loops to anything other than 16th notes, though I did find a hidden trick for this: Only when auto-detection is selected, Maschine allows you to choose between slicing on the detected tempo, half that tempo or double that tempo—effectively slicing to 8th- or 32nd-note-sized chunks. That''s a weird workaround, but it does work.

Transient slice mode works best for material such as melodic instrument and vocal phrases. I was able to quickly chop a vocal chorus into syllables and map them as a playable kit across the pads (though my initial results were often a little hit or miss). The problem is that Maschine offers no pre-slice auditioning, nor can you manually move markers before slicing. However, once you hit the Apply button, you''re given chromatic key/pad access to each slice; you can then hear what you''re doing and adjust start and end points manually to get the phrasing just the way you like. As long as I''m making a rather long wish list, Maschine desperately needs the ability to add and delete slice markers. Slicing to MIDI/sequencer patterns would be terrific for some truly killer gate effects. And another thing: Maschine''s lack of support for Acid files, Apple Loops or REX files is truly a mystery to me.

The hardware does a remarkable job of representing the entire sample edit and slicing procedure on its displays. A soft button calls up slice parameters on the left LCD, while the slices appear as vertical lines in a graphic waveform view on the right display. In the heat of production, you can''t get much faster than the 10 to 15 seconds it may take you to record a syncHed-up loop and hit Apply To, which instantly sends the results to any Sound or Group slot of your choice and spreads the slices across the pads so they''re ready for you to jam on. I also liked how you can pick and choose individual slices from different loops to use as one-shots and hits in building up composite kits.