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Product Review – MASCHINE From Native Instruments – Part I

MASCHINE, is both an instrument and controller that is made by Native Instruments, the maker of the KOMPLETE 8 Ultimate ensemble of musical instrument plugins and applications. MASCHINEcombines a pattern-based sequencer, professional sampler, multi-effect unit, and VST/AU plug-in host with tactile control. Because this is such a complex system I will break this review down into two parts. Part I will cover the hardware aspect, and part II will cover the software portion though there may be some crossover.

First, what is MASCHINE? MASCHINE is controller hardware and computer software that works together to create music. It can be used live on stage as well as in the studio. It has the qualities of a dedicated instrument, with the advanced editing capability of a software system that can become the creative center of your musical production. You can incorporate it into any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that supports VST, AU, or RTAS formats, or use it as a stand-alone unit. You can even use it to control your external MIDI hardware and software.

There are actually three types of MASCHINE. The one I am reviewing is the original and is the granddaddy of them all. There is also MASCHINE MIKRO which is the entry level version with its smaller footprint and is made for those who work primarily in their DAW and are not in need of in-depth hardware tweaking capabilities. And then there is iMASCHINE, a professional beat sketchpad app for your iPhone or iPod touch providing the same workflow as MASCHINE.

MASCHINE, introduced in 2009, creates a new workflow for beat making with integrated hardware and software. It gives you the ability to create tight rhythms, harmonies and melodies. It is a groove box and sequencer that provides for a very intuitive method of creating beats. You can tap freely on to the pads or build your beats using the Step Sequencer as you would in a classic drum machine. Patterns can be combined and rearranged on the fly to form larger patterns, and since it can be integrated with your favorite DAW, whole systems of music can be created easily.

The MASCHINE hardware sits at 12.5 x11.5 and 2.4 inches tall and weighs in at 4 lbs. It has 2 displays, 16 illuminated pads with velocity and aftertouch. There are 11 endless rotary encoders and 41 backlit buttons. It has MIDI in and out and a USB 2.0 interface. It also comes with a 6 GB sounds. For more system information check out the Native Instrument specifications page.

MASCHINE is organized into five main areas. At the top is the Control Section. This provides access to all sound, group, and master parameters. The displays give you visual feedback on the state of MASCHINE and this area is also mirrored in the software side as well. There are eight buttons that perform different tasks based on the context shown in the display. There are eight endless buttons that also edit various MASCHINE parameters depending on the mode of the system that are also shown in the display. On the left, just below the Control Section is the Master Section which contains the knobs that control the volume, tempo, and swing for the entire system, groups, and sounds.

Below that is the Groups Section. This contains eight buttons labeled ‘A’ thru ‘H’. Each group has 16 sounds slots that hold the sounds along with all of their parameters. It can have up to four Insert FX and 64 patterns assigned it which are organized into four banks. The final section on the left side is the Transport Section. This area allows you to work with your composition. It performs like the transport on a tape player where you have the ability to play, restart, move forward and back, record and erase, and otherwise work with your project.

Below the Control Section and on the right side – taking up the most dominate area of space, is the Pads Section. This is where the music happens. Along the left side of the Pads Section are a series of buttons. Using these buttons you can create scenes to work out the structure of your track, patterns to create different beats with the same sets of sound, and much, much more. Then there is the pad area. There are 16 ultra-responsive pads that will play the corresponding sound that is assigned to them.

MASCHINE is designed to produce and record drum sounds, but the pads can be used to play melodies and even chords from just about any kind of source. There is the standard layout mapping as well as two options to map a single sound to all 16 pads. Doing this you essentially change to a keyboard mode in which the pads represent 16 chromatic steps that ascend from the root note giving you the ability to play a selected sound like an instrument. By using buttons 7 and 8 in the control section, you can transpose down or up respectively an octave at a time. All of these sections are mirrored in the software that comes with the package, but you can manipulate everything through the hardware.

A project is the basis for producing music using MASCHINE. It contains references to all of the sound content – the instruments, sounds, and samples as well as the effects that you apply to them. The project also contains the arrangement of your song – how the patterns are built from events which trigger sounds and how they are arranged into a song structure using scenes and pattern clips.

The two main areas of a MASCHINE project is the sound content – all of the audio material as well as those things that affect the sound content, and the arrangement – the placement of the sounds into patterns that form a song structure.

While there are a lot of methods of working with MASCHINE, it all starts with sounds. In the main controller section there is a browse button that you can access all of the sounds that are associated with MASCHINE. Out of the box, you have over 6 GB of sounds, samples, and effects. You can also add your own samples and sounds as well as from other sources.

Essentially you browse to the sounds that you want to use and you assign them to one of the pads. You can also select a kit – such as a drum kit, and have it assign the various parts of the kit – kick drum, snare drum, cymbals, high-hat, etc., to the various pads. From there you can start working out a pattern.

Next, you begin to build a group. Groups are collections of several sounds (up to 16 per group). You can have up to eight different groups. Once you get things set up you can start recording your music. In the Transport Section, you select PLAY and the REC buttons. From there you tap out your beats. There is a metronome available to help you keep rhythm as well as other tools for manipulating your sounds. If you make a mistake, there is a handy undo button as well.

Now you are not limited to drum kits, you can also load other instruments such as guitars, bass, keyboards, and more into chromatic steps and tap these out as you would on a keyboard. Press PLAY and REC and you can now add to your composition. Now say you would like to add a keyboard sound, but would rather play it from a real keyboard. That is easy as well. Take your keyboard MIDI output and plug it into the MASCHINE’s MIDI input. The connected MIDI keyboard (or any MIDI instrument) will always play the selected sound chromatically.

You can also use MASCHINE to make your beats in the same way that the classic drum hardware that used a step sequencer did. All that you have to do is select the pad with the sound that you want, press the STEP button from the Control Section and then press PLAY. The lights will sequence through the pads. Each pad represents one step of a 16 step sequence. You just press the pads that you want to activate in the sequence. To move to a different sound in a specific kit, you just move buttons five and six in the top display to rotate through. It is that easy.

There is so much more that you can do with MASCHINE and all of its abilities that it would be impossible to address them all here, but if you want to see more about its beat creation, sampling capabilities, and samples of it sounds and demos, then you can check out Native Instrument’s MASCHINE Media Page.

Not only did I find MASCHINE easy to use, but it is incredibly addictive. There is so much that you can do to create just from the console itself. If you add in a DAW your abilities are endless. If you add in KOMPLETE 8 Ultimate, your abilities to create sounds are endless as well.

If you are looking for the most complete beat creator/groove sequencer on the market today, then you want MASCHINE. Does it take a while to work through to learn how to make things work? Sure, but with the large volume of instructional videos on Native Instruments site as well as on YouTube, it is easy to figure out how to accomplish the tasks you want to accomplish. Next time I will examine the software aspect of this product and show what it has to offer. Based just on the hardware alone and all the features it contains, I can very highly recommend MASCHINE.

About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.

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