Review: Native Instruments Maschine Mk3 - EMusician

Review: Native Instruments Maschine Mk3

A beat-production controller evolves with focused workflow and detailed audio
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Since Native Instruments introduced Maschine MK3—the most significant advancement of any Maschine beat-production hardware yet—late last year, the company has released three meaningful updates to the companion Maschine 2 workstation software and announced widespread adoption of its Native Kontrol Standard (NKS) protocol, which gives Maschine hardware preset control over hosted third-party plug-in parameters. All that illustrates how the Maschine MK3 keeps getting more useful over time.

Maschine MK3’s color displays
 and more numerous and more strategic controls speed up the workflow with less emphasis on Shift functions.

Maschine MK3’s color displays  and more numerous and more strategic controls speed up the workflow with less emphasis on Shift functions.

However, it was already a remarkable value from the start. On top of a massively overhauled design—which includes two large color displays, touch-sensitive encoders, larger pads, a four-mode Smart Strip, and a directional push encoder, among other things—the Maschine MK3 also adds a professional-grade 24-bit/96kHz audio interface. It feels like two hardware iterations for the price of none, because it has retained the same $599 street price.

EYES ON THE PRIZE

One look at the Maschine MK3 side-by-side with the Maschine MK2, and the older model already seems like a relic. In a simply elegant fashion, Maschine MK3 fits a higher quantity and quality of controls and features into the same surface area. Even the unit’s enclosure feels sleeker and sturdier.

Fig. 1. Browsing
 sounds is a delight from the Maschine MK3’s displays, and Previews let you hear a sample of the instrument without loading it, saving you time.

Fig. 1. Browsing  sounds is a delight from the Maschine MK3’s displays, and Previews let you hear a sample of the instrument without loading it, saving you time.

Most noticeably, two new crisp, high-resolution color displays make virtually every task, including browsing sounds and instruments, mixing, editing and arranging, more immediate from the hardware, rather than the computer screen (see Figure 1). These displays are not iPhone X or Pixel 2 XL crisp, but they are comfortably legible and bright, with vibrant colors that match the Track, Pattern, and Scene color coding of the backlit pads and function buttons.

Beneath the displays, the newly capacitive touch-sensitive encoders adapt their functionality to the matching on-screen parameters. Their touch-sensitivity activates certain abilities, such as assigning Macro controls to plug-ins or bringing up contextual menus on the display to quicken your workflow. These encoders also work the Native Instruments or other NKS-compatible plugins hosted in Maschine’s software.

Although it is just a single component, the new four-directional, LED-assisted push encoder contributes inordinately to the Maschine MK3’s greatly sped-up workflow. It allows for faster navigation of the instruments, effects, and presets in the browser, easy control over the mixer, and other functions. Blue LEDs indicate when the encoder is active. For example, you can use the encoder within the mixer to quickly select channels and adjust their levels with a single hand.

SQUARE FOOTAGE FOR FINGERS

Maschine MK3’s 16 backlit performance pads are significantly larger than in previous models. They also exhibit increased sensitivity across the entire pad, making it easier than ever to play nuanced patterns with more than one finger on a single pad. You can set the pads’ sensitivity level in the Settings, and a Fixed Velocity function-button toggles all the pads to trigger at their maximum level.

There is also a larger Note Repeat button for playing rolls from the pads. Holding the button conveniently brings up the Note Repeat values on the displays for setting with the encoders.

Four new function buttons above the 16 pads let you quickly select pad performance modes. The Pad Mode button works in the most traditional manner to trigger different sounds from each pad. Keyboard mode triggers the selected sound in pitched tones, and you can select 15 scale types to play (chromatic, major, minor, etc.) from the displays. Chords mode lets you play the selected sound as a full chord from a single pad, and again you can choose from 15 chord types (major, minor, augmented, etc.) in the display menu. The Step button turns the 4x4 pad grid into a step sequencer, and from there, the displays and encoders let you view the MIDI notes in the pattern and adjust their position, pitch velocity and length. This is not nearly as powerful and tactile of a step sequencer as with the 8x8 pad grid on the Maschine Jam, but with the help of the large displays, step sequencing on the Machine MK3 is now much more productive.

A TOUCH OF JAM

Maschine MK3 also borrows a Smart Strip from the Maschine Jam, which introduced the multifunction touch strips for mixing, playing notes, and modifying sounds and effects.

The Smart Strip has a full row of LEDs above it to indicate its position, as well as four function buttons to toggle its mode between pitch bend, modulation, Perform (effects and other parameter adjustment), and Notes. In Notes mode, the Smart Strip works to “strum” notes from the sound selected on the pads, either as individual notes or as chords. For my taste, using the Smart Strip to play notes doesn’t really feel right for strumming acoustic instruments, but it is an interesting tool to try for triggering sounds in different ways; for example, rapidly triggering percussion or SFX sounds in the Keyboard pad mode in ascending or descending pitches.

MIKED UP

Adding a high-quality audio interface to Maschine MK3 not only ratchets up its overall value several notches, but also makes the unit all the more attractive as a portable studio rig.

Fig. 2. The Maschine MK3 has 5-pin MIDI
 I/O ports, and its detachable feet can angle it up from the tabletop.

Fig. 2. The Maschine MK3 has 5-pin MIDI  I/O ports, and its detachable feet can angle it up from the tabletop.

The 2-in, 4-out interface includes a dedicated 1/4" dynamic mic input, as well as balanced stereo 1/4" TRS line inputs and outputs. The 1/4" stereo headphone output can be set to mirror the line outputs in the settings, and the mic input, line output and headphone output all have level knobs on the back panel (see Figure 2).

I compared the Maschine MK3’s audio interface with a couple of dedicated, rack-mounted 24-bit/96kHz audio interfaces, and it held up extremely well in terms of audio clarity and levels on both the inputs and outputs. In those key areas, it’s a pro-level interface. It only lacks certain extras like hardware level metering, phantom power on the mic input, and an XLR connector.

Take note that the Maschine MK3 can run off its included AC power adapter or off of USB bus power. When powered from USB, it slightly lowers the maximum brightness of the displays and backlit controls, and it also introduced some noise on the audio line outputs, but not however on the headphone output.

THE KOMPLETE PICTURE

The purchase of a Maschine MK3 also buys you into the extended Native Instruments universe, which in this case includes over 30GB of soundware content and plug-ins from the Maschine library and the included Komplete 11 Select software. That means that out of the box you have enough virtual instruments and sounds to start producing: synthesizer plugins such as Massive and Reaktor Prism; sampled acoustic pianos, electric pianos, organs, and synths; and tons of percussion and effects. And if that is not enough, you can crossgrade to Komplete 11 or Komplete 11 Ultimate at a discount.

Fig. 3. The recent Ideas View
 feature in the Maschine software improves the workflow for creating and arranging patterns. It can be viewed in the Maschine MK3 displays.

Fig. 3. The recent Ideas View  feature in the Maschine software improves the workflow for creating and arranging patterns. It can be viewed in the Maschine MK3 displays.

Maschine MK3 also pairs particularly well with NI’s Komplete Kontrol S MK2 keyboards, which share the same dual-color displays. These keyboards integrate just as tightly with Maschine software, so you can use their displays and encoders for something like mixing, browsing or arranging, while using the Maschine displays for a separate task (see Figure 3).

JUST ADD LAPTOP

With the Maschine MK3’s high-class features, fluid workflow, and value; the rapid adoption of the NKS plug-in control standard by third-party developers; and its integration with the Kontrol S MK2 keyboards, there’s never been a better time to enter the Maschine production environment.

Among other things, its tremendous workflow improvements make it much more accessible to play, program, and record in various way from the pads and then edit, arrange, and mix from the displays. Coupled with an excellent audio interface, it’s now an easy first-choice for grabbing a single piece of hardware to make a mobile laptop production rig.

If I could add to NI’s list of continuing updates that improve Maschine MK3’s functionality, I’d love to see it gain dedicated DAW control modes, like the Komplete Kontrol MK2 keyboards now have for several popular DAWs. The Maschine software could also do more to make using it as a plug-in hosted within a DAW even more seamless. With the possibility of Maschine version 3 software looming in the near future, all that and more could be forthcoming.

But in terms of a hardware upgrade that maintains the same price as the previous model, Maschine MK3 exceeded all expectations.

Markkus Rovito writes words and music from the Urban Hermitage in San Francisco, California.

STRENGTHS

Color displays. Touch-sensitive encoders. Larger, more sensitive pads with four performance modes. Smart Strip. High-quality audio interface. Terrific value.

LIMITATIONS

Noise on the audio line outputs when not connected to AC power. No phantom power on the mic input.

$599 street
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