Adam McLellan Writes: Hands on with Native Instruments Maschine 2.0 -
A couple months back Native Instruments released the 2.0 version of their Maschine software. As an owner of a Maschine Mikro Mk1 I was quick to upgrade. Kudos to Native Instruments for making this upgrade available to owners of old hardware rather than forcing them through a costly hardware upgrade path. I'm impressed that they've been able to maintain software compatibility across all of the various hardware incarnations of Maschine, complete with hardware-specific documentation.
While I was initially disappointed that it wasn't a free upgrade, after seeing the amount that was bundled with it--"Prism" (a Reaktor-based additive synth), "Scarbee Mark 1" (a Kontakt-based electric piano), Massive, Solid Bus Compressor, new drum synthesizers, a $25 voucher for the NI store--it was pretty clear it was well worth the $100 (Massive alone is $200!)
While I won't go into all the details of everything that's new in 2.0, I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight my likes and dislikes with the new software and hardware integration experience. Again this is all specific to my experience with the Mikro Mk1. Undoubtedly the features of the full Maschine, and the new Studio version, will vary in terms of some of the hardware integration points.
What I like:
Multi-core support: a very welcomed addition, as it was all too easy to hit the limitation of single-core architecture of the 1.x software.
The mixer: another very welcomed addition is the fully functional mixer, complete with the ability to select multiple tracks and adjust levels in one go (perfect for level-setting when building a kit).
Hardware navigation: NI has completely revamped the way you navigate via the hardware. It's much more seamless and intuitive, and while the single encoder of the Mkro is still quite restrictive, you can now navigate to pretty much any parameter with just a few button presses and/or twists of the encoder.
Drum synths: these are great! You can quickly build very dynamic kits which respond to macro controls for things like tone/color, pitch, decay, etc. Very analog-esque.
Cueing: While I haven't had a need to use this yet it was on my wishlist of live performance features, and from my quick play around it seems like a decent implementation.
Step sequencer improvements: in 1.x it was only possible to specify 2 velocity levels for the step sequencer (regular and accent). You can now specify any velocity value, or have the step sequencer respond to pad velocity--something which wasn't possible before (or at least not on Mikro Mk1).
Proper "aux sends": as with Maschine 1.x, 2.0's implementation of aux sends is also very clunky and involves repurposing of pads as hosts for audio effects. In other words, you need to give up a a pad for every aux send. To make things even more confusing, the pads light up on the hardware, as if there's a sound associated to them.
You can reduce some of the confusion by dedicating an entire group for aux sends, but it's all very kludgey and strikes me as odd--one would think the addition of a mixer would be the perfect opportunity to create dedicated aux tracks.
Arrangement functionality: while NI has made some improvements in this regard, it still doesn't feel as natural or intuitive as it does with other DAWs. Building up a few scenes is easy enough, but trying to lay out a 6 minute track would be very tedious in my opinion (my patience wore thin just trying to arrange a 2-3 minute sketch)
Timeline/arrangement automation: as far as I can tell this is completely lacking and the only way it can be done is by using Maschine as a plug-in in a DAW and creating macros for anything you wanted to automate from the DAW--all the more reason to arrange in your DAW instead of in Maschine, I suppose.
On that note, dragging & dropping of MIDI patterns is nowhere near as smooth as it was in 1.x. By default, MIDI clips are exported as 16 channels of MIDI data. As you can imagine, if you're trying to trigger more than one group from your DAW this simply doesn't work.
In contrast, 1.x offered a very simple "wizard" approach, asking how you wanted to export your MIDI. As far as I can tell there is no equivalent in 2.0, and instead you need to go through a convoluted workflow that involves mapping the "transposition" of every sound in a group under its MIDI output page (yes, output, not input).
Macro mapping: I would like to see the use of contextual menus to map macros more quickly from within the software (i.e. right-click, "Map to Macro 1"), as in the 1.x software. Instead, you now have to pick from drop-downs, which I feel is a step backwards.
Pad reassignment: another feature absent from the 1.x software is the ability to rearrange pads within the UI by dragging & dropping. Now it seems you can only copy, paste or reset a pad. If you have a full group this makes impossible to rearrange pads without first resetting one.
Some stability issues: I've noticed a few quirks, for example, pads illuminating when they shouldn't be. As 2.0 is still fairly young this is somewhat expected, but I question whether this is a result of NI spending less time testing the Mk1 integration and focusing more so on newer hardware.
Conclusion: Despite all the knocks against it, I feel this is a big step in the right direction for the Maschine franchise and I give it my "Snug stamp of approval". Even if you toss the DAW portion in the garbage you're still getting several hundred dollars worth of quality plug-ins, the majority of which also run as VSTs. And seeing as the software is only at version 2.0.5, I would expect to see many improvements in the months to come.