Maschine MK2 is Native Instruments’ two pronged attack on the music production world. The combined threat of a hardware controller and a software brain means that the controller can feel like an instrument in its own right, but one that isn’t constrained by its place in time and the near finality of a pure hardware solution. Is the latest version of Maschine a worthwhile update to the formula?
Maschine MK2 is, superficially, only a very subtle redesign of the original Maschine hardware. The number and position of the physical controls is almost the same, and the screens retain the resolution of the original; keeping the hardware similar helps to ensure that the Maschine software’s main functions can be controlled with either Maschine MK2 or Maschine classic. After all, Maschine has been a huge success for Native Instruments, so tweaking the formula rather than throwing out the blueprints and starting completely anew was wise.
Lights and Colours
So what has changed? Well, firstly and most conspicuously of course is the multi coloured lighting. The original Maschine’s orange only look didn’t exactly throw a spanner in the creative process, though, so other than eye candy what good does this rainbow injection actually do? That was essentially my opinion on the matter before using Maschine MK2, but it turns out the multi colour lighting does make a big difference. Whether it’s creating a mental link between the colours of groups and the sounds inside them, gravitating toward the bright red record control, or simply getting a more defined separation between the white function buttons and the pads, there’s a genuine speed boost as well as a more aesthetically pleasing look. If you’re the minimalist type you can simply set all groups to the same colour, but multi coloured lights are a key feature of Maschine MK2 and – in my case at least – any fears of the lighting looking cheesy were allayed when seeing how nice things looked in use.
The screens on Maschine MK2 now use a white on black (or at least extremely dark blue) scheme in contrast to the original’s black on greeny white. The original Maschine Mikro’s screen blew its big brother’s out of the water when it was released, and this new screen leaves even that one for dust. Aside from looking sleeker, everything’s crisper, there’s less ghosting, and the viewing angle is improved.
Layout and Build
Layout wise, things are almost the same on Maschine MK2 but there have been a couple of tweaks to sharpen things up. The original Maschine had an air of agnosticism about its design; buttons were squidgy and equally sized, lending themselves to the widest potential use case scenarios for MIDI mapping. Maschine MK2 feels more dedicated to its primary use, with ‘clicky’ buttons and some slight size changes around the transport that bring focus to play, record, erase and shift, not to mention the scrapping of the triad of volume/tempo/swing encoders in favour of a single larger encoder that now clicks satisfyingly on rotation. As one of the only things that’s actually been removed in the redesign, it quickly becomes clear that there was rarely – if ever – a need to control tempo, swing, and volume at the same time, and the larger, clicking dial is more satisfying to use. You can still use Maschine MK2 as a MIDI controller of course, but these little refinements go a long way toward making the unit feel even more like it’s specifically dedicated to the Maschine software.
The rest of the Maschine hardware is very familiar. The pads are still excellent – maybe even slightly better than they were on the original Maschine – and the build quality is great. Encoders are smooth, the 5-pin DIN connectors join the USB socket around the back for MIDI I/O, and whilst the unit is slightly heavier than the original it’s the same size and remains pretty portable. There is one really cool new feature left to talk about though: switchable faceplates.
In order to make things as customisable as possible, Native Instruments have chosen to build the capability to personalise Maschine not simply with overlay stickers but actually with high quality aluminium panels and (plastic) knobs that switch its look instantly and look amazing. To give you an idea of how high quality and smartly implemented the switching system is, I actually got confused as I couldn’t figure out why the magnetic plate wasn’t clipping to the front of Maschine until realising that the actual stock faceplate is magnetically attached and needs to be removed to put another one on… I had no idea, as looking at the controller never belies this for a moment. Very classy.
Maschine MK2 being so similar (at least from a core feature-set perspective) to the original Maschine is a bit of a surprise, as is the point release update of the Maschine software to 1.8 instead of a full new version. Presumably 2.0 of the Maschine software is being sketched out in a secret room somewhere at Native Instruments HQ as I type, but with the release of the hardware already it seems unlikely that there’ll be too radical a departure from the existing formula (unless there’s a Maschine Pro on the horizon, but it’d have to be a pretty big leap to stop users upgrading from Maschine 1 to Maschine MK2 from getting huffy… or would it? Let us know). That said, the additions to 1.8 of the software do feel like more than the .09 increase to the version number would suggest, which in turn suggests that Native Instruments have a couple more things to squeeze into the v1 incarnation of Maschine before they turn the page. I’ll be elated if that amounts to paving the way for a linear sequencer and direct audio support, which is starting to feel like the only place left untouched in Maschine’s workflow, but for now let’s focus on reviewing what’s at hand instead of playing too many guessing games based on the hardware’s fairly small step forward and the breathing room afforded by choosing to leave some room in the 1.x roadmap…
The big new feature for Maschine’s core workflow is the addition of time stretch and pitch shift on samples. Interestingly this is done offline in the sample editor, a move that slows workflow a little bit whilst – I expect, at least – improving the overall quality of the result. With the realtime time stretching and pitch shifting that Native Instruments employ in their other software (Guitar Rig, Kontakt, Traktor, and so on), not to mention the high quality options available in software like Reason, Ableton Live, and more, it’s a bit of a disappointment that all time stretching is done offline in Maschine 1.8. Even if quality is improved in this way, some kind of ‘commit’ option to switch from a realtime algorithm to a rendered version to maximise quality would have been great. As it is, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in the time-stretching process that was pretty standard practice until the mid 2000s but now feels a bit… well, old fashioned.
On the plus side the actual sound from the algorithm is fantastic. Even going down to half speed with richly harmonic sounds gives impressive results, and pitch shifting is helped dramatically by formant changes. A sampled multi key piano chord and melody (thanks Muppet Show vinyl) tweaked up an entire octave doesn’t just sound higher in pitch when the formants of the sound have been massaged, it actually sounds more like the entire sample was played further up the piano keys.
Time-stretching isn’t the only change to Maschine, though, and in our books just as important than the new effects or even the bundling of Massive (all discussed further down) is how the software/hardware combo handles the tasks that we do on a day to day basis. Auditioning samples in place before they’re loaded, for instance, is an excellent and overdue addition to the software, as until now samples needed to be loaded to hear how they’d sound which created a ton of largely unnecessary undo steps.
At last, being able to pin the automation control to free up both hands for tweaking is available – this is something I mentioned would be a smart idea when I reviewed Maschine’s initial incarnation over three years ago and it really does make things feel more natural (especially for me and the other lefties out there, as I have been reduced to using my right hand or the uncomfortable workaround of crossing my hands over to hold down the function key with my right hand). I wouldn’t be surprised if Massive’s tweaking potential provided the impetus needed for this to happen, but whatever it was I’m glad it happened.
Little bits here and there, like a panic button, sample play position during playback, saving groups along with their sounds, and some slightly improved hardware shortcuts for selecting and deleting are nice, and host transport control support when Maschine is used as a plugin is very handy indeed, but there are a couple of things that have edged forward but not quite enough for my liking.
I have a ton of projects that have long since been separated from their original directory structure through stupidity, emergency hardware restore, reformats and so on over the years, and Maschine still lacks a top-down auto search of a directory with multiple sub directories for missing samples. The implementation isn’t terrible, and it will find samples within a directory, but if you have a slightly awkward sample library with samples called the same thing (blame importing project folders from workstations and other hardware), multiple folders, and other bad practice things you shouldn’t be doing but do anyway, expect to have to rebuild projects from MIDI data up if your Maschine projects get separated from their original directory structure. Maybe some kind of ‘Maschine pack’, a project wide file that contained all sounds used would be a nice idea to prevent this happening – saving groups with sounds is a start here.
I also feel like the new master encoder is ever so slightly under utilised, as browsing through categories and types of things to load is still done with the top encoders and the steps are so small that it can be a bit too fiddly to just go one forward in the list at times. These are just little blemishes on what is otherwise a very good iterative improvement on Maschine’s bread and butter, though.
Even though Maschine’s had the ability to load plugins in for quite some time now, it’s worth applauding Native Instruments for continuing to dedicate development to new effects built in to the software engine. Unlike synths (see below), most effects have a fairly limited number of controls. I really feel like a key part of the success of Maschine – or any other groovebox for that matter – is the in-the-box workflow, so porting over some popular effects from Guitar Rig rather than simply improving (admittedly already good) integration with the Guitar Rig Player is definitely the right move.
Transient Master and Tube/Tape Saturation effects are the new kids on the block, and all three have genuine uses in day to day applications – especially for those of you that sample into Maschine. Transient Master is a transient shaping device that, with three simple controls, allows to you make the punchy part of a sound more or less pronounced (you can check out our tutorial video here). The saturation effects are fairly self explanatory, but they sound great and I guess they are to the standard drive and single knob compression controls, that’ve been present in Maschine since day one, what the MPC60/SP1200 modes are to the bit depth and sample rate controls. Whilst there’s nothing ground breaking with the effects, it’s an indication that development on the core feature set of Maschine is still alive and well despite the efforts to improve integration with all the tools in Komplete.
For many a producer, Massive has been a cornerstone of their productions for a good five years. By extension, a lot of the general aesthetic of modern electronic music is owed to Native Instruments’ synth-to-end-all-synths. A huge part of this, from my perspective at least, is the way that Native Instruments created a vastly powerful synth that confuses all but savvy and experienced synth users and then distilled all this power down to eight macro knobs whose purpose is to inherit the functionality of user defined sections of Massive’s deep and dark sound generation engine and make them easily tweak-able.
This has created two categories of Massive user; both purists who carefully sculpt patches from scratch and ‘light’ users, who are content with tweaking the macro knobs on presets to shape sounds to their liking, are equally catered to. Indeed, Massive has over a thousand presets in myriad categories, and the eight macro knobs are capable of morphing those presets into very individual creations.
As for how this works with Maschine? Using the eight knobs on Maschine to tweak Massive, and indeed the fact that Massive’s presets are immediately accessible from a ‘blank slate’ Maschine sound, means that basic level integration with the Maschine hardware is more or less seamless. If Native Instruments had created a synth engine to sit directly inside Maschine, it stands to reason that they would also have had to make it simple enough to be tweaked with – at most, preferably less – four pages of eight knobs. For a synth to be highly configurable, wide ranging in its application, and intuitive to use, this style of control isn’t ideal. The bundling of Massive allows Native Instruments to avoid creating a simplistic synth but get all the advantages of simple 1:1 control, at the same time providing power users with a keyboard and mouse led synthesis engine that has stacks of sonic potential. All in all, good call.
Maschine MK2: Overall
Native Instruments have essentially taken their modern classic and added to it – there hasn’t been much taken out, so other than for price reasons there’s no reason I’d recommend an original Maschine over its new brother. Even though it’s a little more expensive than the classic Maschine has been for a while, Native Instruments have been pretty aggressive with the value adders and the addition of the new effects and Massive represent a couple of hundred pounds/euros/dollars of software that until last month you would have had to pay for separately. With competition finally hotting up in the hybrid groovebox market we’ll have a look at the difference between the new MPC Renaissance and Maschine MK2 very soon, but on its own merits alone Maschine MK2 is an excellent piece of gear that feels mature, intuitive, and fun to use.