NI Maschine Studio reviewed: the ultimate groove-based nerve center?

March 7, 2014
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It’s been four years since Native Instruments Maschine burst onto the scene as a true hybrid tool in which hardware and software were developed in tandem. Since then, it’s become almost second nature to expect hardware/software combos that sequence patterns and manipulate samples. From the software side, Ableton has developed Push (reviewed reviewed Jan. ’14) as a hardware companion to Live. From the hardware side, Akai’s MPC Renaissance (reviewed June ’13) trades the legacy standalone drum machine for a massive controller run by computer software.

Now, NI unveils their next generation. Maschine Studio is the flagship of the company’s fleet of computer music production tools, and hopes to be your go-to workstation for groove-making. There’s a ground-up rebuild of the software, loads of new goodies packed in the box, and the expansive, top-of-the-range controller. This review covers both the Maschine Studio hardware and Maschine 2.0 software (which works with the entire family of Maschine controllers).

 
 


MASCHINE STUDIO CONTROLLER

MASCHINE 2.0 SOFTWARE

PROS  

Beautiful dual color screens. Loads of hands-on control. Easy visibility of arrangements and waveforms in color. Three MIDI out ports. Great feeling pads as on previous Maschine hardware. 


  Makes powerful beat-making faster than ever. Lower CPU usage and speedier performance. Great-sounding, flexible drum kit models. Unparalleled bundled sound value. Improved Groups, effects, routing, and cueing.

Mixer view makes managing levels and routing easier. Easier recording. Slick, clean user interface. Works with all previous Maschine hardware.





CONS 

Large size limits mobility for backpack DJ rigs. No built-in audio interface. USB power not an option; requires AC supply (included).

  Arranging features are still somewhat basic. MIDI recording and playback is limited with external hardware. No realtime time stretch and warping, as found in Traktor DJ.



Bottom Line: This hardware/software hybrid focused on beat production is more competitive than ever. The Maschine Studio unit offers luxurious control at the cost of a relatively large footprint, but the 2.0 software also brings huge improvements to Studio’s more compact siblings.

Maschine Studio: $1,099 list | $999 street (includes 2.0 software)

Maschine 2.0 software upgrade: $99 for existing users 

native-instruments.com


Overview

At its heart, Maschine is exactly what it looks like: a beat production workstation with its roots in classic sampling drum machines like the MPC60. But by combining a tactile workflow with software and Native Instruments’ vast soundware libraries, it’s also a window to your computer’s open-ended sonic capabilities. It runs on its own if you prefer, or in hosts such as Ableton Live and Avid Pro Tools (with AAX, VST, and AU formats all supported).

As before, you get sampling, slicing, groups and scenes, effects and mixing, and arrangement features across hardware and software, and the hardware also doubles as a MIDI controller. The Maschine 2.0 software doesn’t do anything fundamentally new, but it does everything better. It adds a broader range of sound features, and makes everything easier to access, easier to play, and faster and more responsive. 


Software

Native Instruments emphasizes that there’s an entirely new sound engine. That yields various optimizations, the most significant being thorough multi-core processor support. The differences are immediately apparent: The CPU meter creeps up much less quickly, even in big projects, and projects and sounds are far quicker to load. Those load times also increase Maschine’s appeal as a host for Native Instruments’ Komplete sound library. Audio quality is also improved, though the changes are subtle.

You can spot the new user interface from across the room. The look is cleaner and more spacious (see Figure 1 at left). It looks so different, in fact, that Maschine 1.0 users may be surprised to discover that they mostly know where everything is. Where NI has moved UI elements, it’s mostly been to improve access. It’s clearer now how to audition sounds and explore the interface, and the less-cluttered UI is far easier on the eyes. Relevant functions are consolidated on the transport bar, and it’s easier to navigate spatially by pads. There’s also a new browser (with tags) and a useful pair of icons that swaps you between NI’s factory content and your own custom libraries. 

Best of all, there’s a new Mix view. Finally, you can see an overview of the levels and routings of your groups, including a new plug-in strip. You can set up a dedicated Cue bus for pre-listening, which is ideal for recording or live performance. The view is more flexible, but so is the routing under the hood—at last, you can sidechain both internal and external VST and AU plug-ins. Now, if NI would only add some interactive help, as what some of the icons do isn’t immediately obvious.

Maschine 2.0 is otherwise more of the same, in a very good way. You get more Groups and effects: each is now unlimited in number (though each Group is limited to two aux sends). And you get a lot more sounds. There’s a set of modeled drum synths as well as more general Percussion. Each of these, in turn, comes with its own set of selectable sound models, ranging from emulations of vintage analog synths to newer digital instruments. (“Fractal” tom, anyone?) The combination of parameters and engines means a wide range of possible sound beyond the already-extensive sampled library in Maschine (see Figure 2 below).

 

There are also more effects, including a lovely plate reverb (a must-have addition to Maschine’s already brilliant reverb collection) and a feedback mode on the compressor. 

Recording and editing is vastly improved. You can now undo by either step or take, choose what sound the metronome makes, and gate recordings in Note Repeat mode. In fact, recording quick takes on the pads is really a strong suit in Maschine 2.0; it should make any finger drummer smile. If you hold down the Record button, you can quickly choose the length and grid of the pattern you’re about to record, plus the metronome settings. Hold down the Shift and Grid buttons, and you can set up metronome, count-in, and input quantize settings. Count-in is also more adjustable.

Improvising quickly is stunningly easy. Unfortunately, arrangement after the fact remains a weak spot, meaning you’ll still likely migrate to a DAW when it comes time to finish your tracks. You still can’t live-trigger scenes to improvise an arrangement (as you can in Ableton Live), and the arrangement itself still involves assembling scenes and patterns as simple building blocks. You can sample, but you can’t record audio in “freewheel” fashion (as with a vocal), or see a preview of waveforms. The workaround remains to use Maschine as a plug-in inside your DAW of choice. But while it wouldn’t makes sense for Maschine to be a DAW, it would be nice if the arrangement tools didn’t feel quite so limited, particularly in contrast to other areas of the software.

That’s not to say that arranging was entirely neglected. Finally, the display at least follows the currently playing position. And on the Maschine Studio unit, arrangement is much easier to see on those beautiful color displays. But it’d still be nice to see this area of the program fleshed out.

Another area that could use improvement is MIDI integration. On the plus side, the 2.0 software adds the ability to assign MIDI controls and host automation to Maschine parameters, import MIDI files as patterns, and use MIDI program changes with plug-ins. But while Maschine Studio now has a whopping three MIDI out ports, you still can’t either record or play back MIDI continuous controller (CC) data. That’s something any self-respecting drum machine has been able to do since the 1980s, and it holds Maschine back somewhat from being a true studio hub.

Perhaps the most frustrating omission is that you can’t perform realtime audio stretching. Sure, a lot of Maschine users combine it with Ableton Live. But while sample editing is more accessible on Maschine than Ableton’s Push, it’s very odd that Maschine is incapable of all the remixing and audio-warping feats of NI’s Traktor software. Add those features, and Maschine could become a live DJ staple.

Still, that’s no reason to be down on this upgrade, which is simply enormous. Plus, the reason we’ve talked talk about software before hardware is that version 2.0 works with all previous Maschine controllers for just a $99 upgrade. Native Instruments could have leaned on its customers to buy the new hardware, but they didn’t. Maschine 2.0 is better, bigger, and faster without disorienting you about where things are or how they work, and after four years, it’s the first paid upgrade. That’s a tremendous value.

Included Content

A hundred bucks seems a reasonable price to pay for the software-only upgrade, given all the new functionality, but NI bundles in even more in the form of included content. There’s gigabytes of new soundware, plus the amazing Reaktor Prism instrument, the Scarbee Mark I electric piano, and the beautiful Solid Bus Compressor. That’s on top of Massive, the soft synth already made available free via the Service Center licensing app. Just remember, you’re a Keyboard reader—if you play the Scarbee from the pads rather than tickling the ivories, please don’t tell us or your piano teacher about it.

Hardware

So, now you know you don’t have to buy the Maschine Studio hardware to get a stunningly powerful workstation. What do you get if you do buy it?

Maschine Studio is probably the best looking hardware NI has ever made. In black or white, it’s simply gorgeous. It’s also clearly the SUV of the family. At 17 inches wide, it’s significantly bigger than past controllers, and it’s tough to fit into just about any laptop bag—ditto for small DJ booths that are crammed full of the venue’s equipment. [If you’re used to carrying keyboard instruments, though, Maschine Studio is still more Vespa scooter than SUV. —Ed.] Also, USB power won’t drive all the bells and whistles, so there’s an AC supply. That said, it’s surprisingly light—the plastic feels rugged and premium, but the whole package weighs just over seven pounds. You can also angle it towards you with two solid-feeling, snap-out stands that are embedded in the base.

The center of Maschine Studio is essentially identical to the Mk. II unit. It has exactly the same pads with the same feel and multi-colored backlights, and a nearly identical control layout. That’s good, because upgraders won’t have to re-train their muscle memory.

The big addition is multiple displays. Two large, 480 x 272-pixel color displays are crisp and bright, even in the age of the iPad. These make a significant difference in workflow and the overall experience. You can now view waveforms, patterns, and scenes in vivid detail. You can see color-coding in the arrangement. You can use the Mix view right on the hardware. And because there are two displays, you can see an overview on the left and details on the right—that’s enormously powerful when editing waveforms, for instance. You also get splashy images for all of NI’s factory sound libraries, though this is more cosmetic than essential. It seems likely these displays will see even more uses in future versions.

The extra real estate is put to good use in other ways, too. The screens are nice, but the Maschine Studio feature I miss the most when going back to the original or Mk. II hardware is probably the large LED level meter. There are also dedicated edit controls that save you all the Shift-press finger twists, and a beautiful jog wheel that seems to have been designed by the special effects team from the movie Tron. 

Around the back, you get three MIDI outs and two footswitch inputs (see Figure 3 below). What you don’t get is any audio interfacing. That’s really too bad, as its presence would make Maschine Studio a stronger choice for someone on the road who wants to pack light. Even the addition of a couple of balanced 1/4" TRS outputs would be all you’d need for a wide variety of live gigs. NI shoehorns perfectly good audio interfaces into inexpensive DJ controllers and iPad accessories, so leaving one out here seems odd.


 

Conclusions

We could talk about feature sets and workflow all day. In the long run, a production tool like Maschine is about finding something that increases the pleasure of making music. There, Maschine remains a spectacular choice. It strikes an ideal balance between what’s tactile under your fingertips and what’s onscreen, somehow besting both dedicated hardware and standalone software when it comes to basic beat-making tasks. It makes creation truly addictive in a wonderful way. 

There isn’t anything else quite in Maschine’s category. Ableton Live is still a better DAW (Maschine isn’t really trying to be a DAW), and Ableton Push learns the tactile lesson that the first generation of Maschine taught. But there’s a reason so many people use both: Maschine is nicely focused on tried-and-true sample-based workflows without being a whole DAW. And while Akai’s MPC Renaissance hardware is formidable (it includes audio interfacing, for one), the software doesn’t show the same refinement and breadth as Maschine. 

Does Maschine deserve our Key Buy award? No question. The question is, which Maschine? If you’ve got the budget and you intend to leave it in your studio (as the name implies), or don’t mind carrying it plus an audio interface, Maschine Studio’s dual screens and added controls are the height of groove-production luxury. But Native Instruments has done such a good job making Maschine 2.0 work with its earlier hardware that the Mk. II remains the best balance of mobility and cost. Maschine Studio is brilliant for those who want the extra visual feedback and control, while the version 2.0 software makes any earlier Maschine hardware feel like a new instrument all over again.

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