Review: Native Instruments Maschine Jam - EMusician

Review: Native Instruments Maschine Jam

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 At first glance, the Maschine Jam looks like Native Instruments’ answer to the Ableton Push 2—which at its onset felt like the long-awaited Maschine-style interface for Ableton Live software—crossed with a Livid Instruments Base II. Both its design and its name indicate that NI has targeted the healthy cadre of electronic musicians who make music in a free-flowing, spontaneous manner, and perform live similarly. And what good is the Maschine Jam’s 8x8 multicolor backlit “click-pad” grid? If you’ve familiarized yourself with the Push 2, you probably expect not only Scene and Pattern launching, but also note input, a 16-pad drum mode and step sequencing.

Fig. 1. Maschine Jam’s Smart Strips have eight modes. They can be used to play or “strum” notes and chords, adjust plug-in settings, and alter a Group’s level, swing, tuning, and other settings. Maschine Jam delivers all of that, but its Smart Strip touch-faders hold the secret to its uniqueness for both production and performance. Beyond adjusting Macro, mixing, and track controls, the Smart Strips also let you play chords and “strum” instrument sounds like a guitar, as well as perform live-oriented effects tweaks (see Figure 1). When you throw in Maschine Jam’s formidable software bundle and DAW mappings, you have a square-shaped powerhouse for just under $400.

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FLOW TOY

Even when you know what Maschine Jam can do and have seen it in action, it takes a little time and concentration to break through the outer shell of the controller’s operating scheme to get to the gooey center. Once you do, however, the sense of creative liberation washes over you.

For anyone who needs a primer, the Maschine 2.5 software that comes with all Maschine hardware feels like a DAW, except that it doesn’t do full-scale multitrack recording and that it handles the timeline a little differently with arrangements of 16-sound Patterns into Scenes. Other than that, there is a sophisticated sampler, mixer, unlimited AAX/AU/VST plug-in hosting, automation and a great browser. Maschine also works as an AAX, AU, or VST plug-in inside any compatible host.

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A typical Maschine Jam creative session might start with you loading up some sound Groups from the browser using the Browse button, push-button encoder and directional buttons (D-pad). You can audition the sounds using Pad Mode, which highlights the 16 numbered click-pads for playing all the sounds in the Group in a finger-drumming style; or in Keyboard mode, where the pad-grid triggers notes from bottom to top with the root notes highlighted in white. The D-pad scrolls the notes up or down on the grid.

You can also hit the Notes button by the faders and use the Smart Strips to play single notes or chords. Either way, as you touch the Smart Strip from the bottom and slide a finger up, notes play from low to high. In Guitar mode, you can strum the Smart Strips from bottom to top to play any six notes you choose. Choosing modes like Notes and Keyboard on the hardware brings up a special Maschine Jam-exclusive overlay screen in the software with options that you select on the hardware encoder. For example, Notes mode brings up the overlay for picking between Guitar or Chords mode, choosing any scale you want, turning Chords on or off and picking the type of chords to play. The encoder is also capacitive, so it will bring the overlay back up when you touch it.

You can record patterns in real time from the various note input modes, but to really get up and running fast, hit Step to access the great Maschine Jam step recorder. The 8x8 grid becomes a step sequencer for one, four, or eight sounds in the group. If you’re step-recording one sound, you can use the 16-pad drum grid to quickly select which sound to record. Just hit play and start tapping in 16th-note steps. This allows you to build up funky beats in very little time. To add variations, go back to the Song view on Maschine Jam, hold Duplicate, choose a pattern from the grid as the source and then a second slot as the destination. You can then edit the duplicate in the step sequencer, and in that way, you’ll start filling Pattern slots almost as fast as you can imagine them.

However, you can also use the pad-grid to input notes manually into the piano roll, and that’s almost as much fun as the step recorder. With the 8x8 grid in Piano Roll mode, the x-axis represents 16th-note steps and the y-axis represents the notes on the piano. The D-pad buttons navigate around the piano roll. You can be as precise as you want here, but honestly, half the fun comes from just punching in patterns that you think might sound cool and adjusting them from there to see what you get.

THE MIDAS TOUCH

During the darker ages of music technology, touch strips raised big ol’ red flags: They were known for wearing out and/or freaking out, sending unwanted signals. However, Native Instruments has by now proved its touch-strip pedigree. The company pulled a move of Apple-level audacity when it removed the jog wheels from its Traktor Kontrol DJ boards in favor of touch-trips a couple of years ago. Millions of successful DJ sets later, NI put touch-strips where pitch bend and mod wheels used to be on its Kontrol S keyboards. So there’s every reason to embrace the Maschine Jam’s Smart Strips, especially because they’re the center piece of a multi-function control section with eight modes of utility. In practice, the Smart Strips responded terrifically: You can swipe them from top to bottom as fast as you like for sweeps, or use more than one finger to tap between values.

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The Smart Strips can control the Macros, Levels, Aux levels, Tune settings and Swing settings for Groups, individual sounds and even the Master channel. Plus the aforementioned Notes button turns the Smart Strips into an instrument for playing single notes or full chords.

The Perform button brings up one of eight performance effects designed for improvisational tweaking on the Smart Strips—filter, flanger, ring mod, stutter, tremolo, scratcher, and two different echoes. You can choose a different effect for each Group (track) in Maschine and tweak the effect amount from the Smart Strips for eight Groups at a time. (The arrow buttons along the bottom of the controller scroll through Groups if you have more than eight.)

Maschine Jam’s Lock button lets you create a snapshot of your current parameter setup, which you can recall at any time during a performance. For example, after locking a pattern you like, continue playing and building up the music: Then hit Lock again to instantly call up the snapshot and return the parameter setup to what you had previously saved. (You can also morph between any of the 64 snapshots you create.)

Fig. 2. With Maschine 2 hosting a plug-in, the Maschine Jam’s Smart Strips in Control mode work the plug-in parameters. To gain access to all plug-in parameters—Maschine’s internal effects and instruments as well as third-party plug-ins—hit the Control button to bring up the plug-in view in the software (see Figure 2). The selected plug-in’s controls will be laid out in parallel with the Smart Strips, and you can scroll through them with the arrow buttons on the hardware. Maschine’s built-in plug-ins, as well as any NKS-compatible plug-ins—including those in the Komplete 11 Select bundle that come with Maschine Jam (details below)—are guaranteed to be tightly integrated with the hardware. There’s a growing list of NKS-adopting developers, such as Arturia, Softube, Waldorf, and others. However, many effects that I tried from smaller shops like Glitchmachines and D16, which don’t yet officially support NKS, worked like a charm with Maschine 2 and Maschine Jam. Only a few plug-ins I tried had occasional parameter slots that were empty.

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SOFTWARE AND MIDI MODE

The Maschine Jam’s generous software bundle should delight users new to both Maschine and the Native Instruments universe. It comes with the newly revamped Komplete 11 Select bundle, which combined with the soundware that comes with Maschine, totals 29GB of instruments, effects and sounds (more than 2,500 in all). The collection is curated to eschew filler and to appeal to present-day pop, R&B, hip-hop, and the currently dominant styles of electronic music.

Best of all in my opinion, you get 11 high-class instruments including the Massive synth (which almost single-handedly carried dubstep to the next level of popularity years ago), Reaktor Prism synth/effect, Monark synth (a Minimoog replica), Retro Machines Mk2 (samples of iconic vintage synths), the Gentleman antique upright piano, Scarbee Mark 1 (Rhodes-style electric piano), Vintage Organs, West Africa percussion, Drumlab, Replika delay and the Solid Bus compressor. There’s absolutely no garbage on that list. Maschine 2 also includes a healthy array of meat-and-potatoes processors.

But the Maschine 2 software bundled with the Maschine Jam is only half the equation, as the whole Maschine concept rests on the hardware/ software synergy. However, the hardware alone makes for a rather enticing MIDI controller for other software, as well, and like the other Maschine pieces, Maschine Jam has an easily accessible MIDI Mode. So far, there are five template mappings available for Maschine Jam in the included Controller Editor software—Ableton Live 9, Bitwig Studio, FL Studio, MCU Transport, and Mackie Control Light. The Live 9 mapping arouses curiosity, because the looks of Maschine Jam suggest that it might be used like a pseudo-substitute for the more expensive Ableton Push 2. During the review, the Ableton mapping offered little more than note input: A recent update adds sequencer and mixer control, and more. The Mackie Control Light mapping worked well, but was also fairly limited, offering transport controls, channel faders, and channel muting.

JAM ON IT

When compared to Maschine Mk2 ($599) or Maschine Studio ($999), Maschine Jam presents a lower-cost, high-value entry point to the Maschine ecosystem without sacrificing much by the way of functionality, although it lacks displays and full-size pads. With its excellent, well-rounded software bundle, it would be a dream for electronic music newbies. Purists may hate this comment, but if you have musical ideas, Maschine Jam’s robust step-sequencing and piano-roll note input can help you realize those ideas without any particular instrumental ability or special finger dexterity.

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But, of course, it’s a pro-level product, as well. And when paired with another Maschine controller, Maschine Jam simply expands your potential to produce and perform creatively with its 8x8 click-pad grid and Smart Strips complementing the encoders, displays and fullsize pads of the sibling hardware.

Overall, I can recommend Maschine Jam even more highly than the other Maschine products that I’ve been using for years. After a short initial head-scratching period figuring out the interface, this piece of hardware let me seize control of Maschine with a fluidity that had me pumping out great Patterns and Scenes with my feet up, reclined in a chair. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.

STRENGTHS

Easy step sequencing of one, four, or eight sounds at a time. Smart Strips with eight function modes. Dynamic multicolor backlights on all controls. Fantastic software bundle. Randomize/Humanize features.

LIMITATIONS

Factory MIDI mappings for third-party software need some work.

$399 street
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Electronic Musician's web editor, Markkus Rovito, drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools.