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
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.
Large size limits mobility for backpack DJ rigs.
No built-in audio interface. USB power not an option; requires AC supply
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
Maschine Studio: $1,099 list | $999 street (includes 2.0 software)
Maschine 2.0 software upgrade: $99 for existing users
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.