Do I need to start a roll call of all the DJ's and producers using the Maschine by Native Instruments at the moment? It'd be a list that would cover this whole review with names spanning from hip hop to goa trance. Ever since it hit the MIDI market in 2011 the drum interface has played a pivotal role in many groove production studios. A piece of gear that many have always wanted, the bridge between the expansive possibilities of software and the tactile feel of hardware. Surely Native Instruments wasn't the first, but they were the first to do it right. Having a strong background in making quality plugins, the company has done a superb job of building its own standalone software to wrap around the piece of gear to making it truly an instrument and not just another bunch of MIDI pads and knobs. The Maschine MK2 is the latest revision to hit the shelves and it's the first sequel in what looks to be a strong legacy. Whether or not it's worth the buck as your first drum machine or newest upgrade, we'll find out.
CUT TO THE CHASE
The good: An ample upgrade to what was already a great tool for live performance and studio production. The vivid display and RGB-coloured pads bring out the beauty and functionality of the Maschine while improvements to the response and dynamics adds a superior feel compared to its MK1 predecessor. Maschine's updated software adds new effects and capabilities making your groove production studio better than ever.
The bad: Nothing worth noting but we would love to see more integration with Native Instruments Traktor which will likely be the next step for refining the Maschine in the future.
The deal breaker: A hybrid of software and hardware that makes the learning curve and workflow of the Maschine's drum station a breeze. Tap out your patterns on the responsive pads and edit your sounds in the Maschine plugin or right on the interface itself. Being able to crossover seamlessly lets you tailor the way you make music yourself without feeling trapped in the confines of an external piece of hardware. Compared to other products looking to be your next drum workstation, the Native Instruments Maschine has more features, more sounds, and more possibilities at a price point much lower than the closest competitor.
BEHIND THE SCENES
To get a deep sense of what the Maschine is we have to trace back to its roots, a time when Native Instruments didn't even exist. We're talking Roger Linn and the cocaine 80s, every artist in every genre that uses a drum machine owes itself to the famous designer who revolutionized the music studio with the LM-1 Drum Computer and later Akai's MPC60, the first handful of digital drum machines. You've heard it in your favourite rapper's lyrics, you've seen it in the hands of Kanye coaxing an anamorphic chick, and Araabmuzik fingering an entire crowd with nothing but a set of pads and some quick hands. The padded 4x4 grid on the MPC is now a feature in drum machines and MIDI controllers that is tried and true. The acronym MPC originally stood for MIDI Production Controller, so it's no surprise that many of the outstanding controllers you see artist's using are inspired by what Roger Linn did twenty years ago.
The big difference today is that we have these things called computers, that are faster, smaller, and carry more space making them more crucial to live performance and production than ever before. This is where Native Instruments and the Maschine comes into the picture, taking the superior processing power of your computer and DAW software and marrying it with the traditional interface of an MPC-style drum machine. I'll stress the fact that they did it right again because even the success of the Maschine MK1 has made Akai sweat a bit as they've seemingly rejected the computer until they saw the potential of the MPC drawn out by Native Instruments, we'll touch on that later in the review.
What needs to stand out is the mindset behind the Maschine, it's a hybrid of both software and hardware. In the box you get a drum pad interface that sends MIDI signals via USB which can be read by your PC and applied to the Native Instruments standalone production software that can also be integrated into your DAW as a plugin. To put it bluntly, the Maschine doesn't make sounds it controls them. By having your computer store and organize the sounds, the Maschine accompanied with its software opens up new features and possibilities previously unavailable to the drum machine. There's a careful balance between the pros of new and old. Take the hands off approach to chop and screw your samples right on the physical interface or use the mouse to quickly fine tune your edits. The Maschine gives you both sides of the coin, allowing you to do things many different ways without being stuck fiddling with hardware or missing the human element in software.
Crossing over between the two worlds is seamless, and it really takes the learning curve out once you get your hands on this thing. Native Instruments has done a great job developing software that is user friendly and easy to update with new sound libraries and presets. As you can see above, recording layers to your beat is a breeze and can be done completely on the physical unit itself. Nearly everything you can do in the software, can be done on the hardware interface which makes the Maschine excel in not only studio production but also live performance.
GETTING DOWN TO WORK
In itself the Maschine is a dead piece of hardware. Just like most MIDI controllers it has no audio out and relies purely on sending messages to a computer or anything with a MIDI input. By having your PC be the brain, the Maschine opens itself up to new methods in sequencing your sounds. The software reminds me of Session View in Ableton but flipped so that your scenes are each stacked vertically. For those who don't know, a scene is a collection of clips you record by tapping out a pattern for each drum kit you want to use. One scene can have multiple clips playing at once, allowing you to layer your beat with a wide variety of drum kits. The kits are called groups, and each group has an editable sequencer where you can click to draw MIDI blocks or hit record and start tapping away your next greatest rhythm. If you expect to write a full song, you'll have multiple scenes with groups going in or out while also changing up their patterns. Don't be fooled into thinking the Maschine can only do drums either, I hope the visuals clued you in on its integration with the developer's other synth plugins like Massive, FM8, and Reaktor. The full version of the critically acclaimed Massive synthesizer is actually included as a freebie so you can play and record melodies alongside your new beat right off the bat.
Of course sound design is critical when it comes to making a tight groove and this is where the Native Instruments groove studio shines over its competitors. By taking the middle road between hardware and software, the Maschine gives you access to control a wide variety of parameters for every single sound like ADSR envelopes, EQ, pitch shifting, time stretching and FX that are constantly being added within every new update. You may recognize some of the filter, distortion, and reverb FX from Traktor while some are more targeted towards polishing your beat like the latest additions Transient Master and Tape Saturator which I've found to be the cherry on top of some punchy percussion. When was the last time you've updated any piece of hardware or software for that matter and got a whole host of new features and effects? Native Instruments loves to spoil its customers and it's made possible with the ease of having your Maschine already plugged into your computer.
Think of the groove production software as a DAW within itself. It works great as a standalone and can tackle some very fine tuning to your sound's parameters via automation which can be tracked and recorded live or drawn in with a mouse. This is what drew me in the most with the Maschine, it gives you the choice in the way you want to do things so that it accommodates to your production style. Personally, I like to get surgical with my sounds so I make my velocity and automation edits with a mouse after hammering out a beat. If you're more of the traditional type that likes the tactile feel of hardware, you'll be making edits by using the buttons and knobs with waveforms and values displayed right on the physical interface. The included 1.8 software update adds the new colour-coding scheme which is tailored to the Maschine Mk2's new RGB coloured pads. Anything from sounds, groups, to even patterns themselves can be assigned a colour that will be reflected on the Maschine's 4x4 grid so you can read visual feedback or just stare at the pretty colours.
MK1 VS MK2
Owners of the MK1 debut are probably scratching their heads about whether the tag of revision two is worth the upgrade. And considering there's no major redesign in the unit's interface, they have every right to. The improvements made by Native Instruments on the surface are quite subtle, but their impact on build, workflow, and performance is definitely considerable. The illuminated RGB pads which can be coded to display 16 different colours is a major enhancement to the unit's ease of use and can be critical in executing the perfect live performance that doesn't have your eyes locked on the computer monitor. The sensitivity of the pads have been also refined which gives them a more responsive and dynamic feel when playing them. If you're looking to hone in on your finger drumming technique, being able to adjust the pad sensitivity will give you ability to pull off some advanced maneuvers like snare rolls.
In terms of updates to the control layout of the Maschine, Native Instruments has replaced the three knobs for Volume, Swing, and Tempo for a master knob that can do all of those tasks plus more. It's a push button encoder (as shown at the side) so you can move and make edits to your arrangements or browse your sample library to add and replace sounds in your kit all with one knob. You can now make adjustments to Volume, Swing, and Tempo by triggering their respective button and turning the master knob, you can even press the group button to modify the parameters for an entire group. Super useful for doing a quick mixdown of all your scenes to keep the levels balanced. Some may say the more knobs the better, but in this case the push button master knob is very intuitive and easy to pickup giving a nice lift to your workflow.
It's worth noting that Native Instruments has made substantial improvements to the build quality of the Maschine. Taking it out of the box I noticed it was beefier and heavier than its predecessor. The buttons now have a nice click to them which is really satisfying to see considering the MK1 felt a bit loose and squishy. Native Instruments has taken the rubber out of the knobs and replaced them with sturdier plastic. As corny as it sounds, I'm a big fan of Native Instruments knobs on their latest products as they've hit the perfect compromise between feeling confident and buttery smooth. The two displays are also vivid and much more clear to read out from, I found myself using them more often than the MK1 version.
Making that final decision whether to grab or not really depends on who you are and what your current situation is. If this is your first time getting into hardware drum machines, considering what you'll get at that price point, the Maschine MK2 is really the only place to start. You can look at getting the MPC Rennaissance, Akai's first stab at combining the MPC with software, but you'll be paying at least twice the amount even though it's one of their cheapest models yet. Native Instruments has jumped into the drum machine meets PC game super early, and this gives them the advantage in developing more stable software with an always expanding amount of features. Previous owners of the MK1 version will have some assessing to do as the MK2 isn't going to breathe new life into your setup, but rather work out the kinks so you can get your ideas down as fast and effectively as ever. All in all, the MK2 is a better Maschine and whether or not you've played around with its predecessor, the upgraded unit is at the top of groove production gear at a price that shames the nearest competitor.
To close I give you the future of turntablism via the Maschine's incredible interaction with Traktor and NI's first audio-MIDI-frankenstein mixer the Kontrol Z2. When it comes to breaking the bounds, Native Instruments shows no mercy whatsoever.