Sonic LAB: NI Maschine MK3 Review

Gaz Williams takes a look      03/10/17

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22:0 mins    

Buying Choices

Native Instruments Maschine has now reached its third hardware incarnation over its nearly 9 year lifetime and with it comes a whole slew of improvements and refinements. The software, however, is still on version 2 (2.6.9 as of writing). Originally focused on beatmaking duties, Maschine is currently heading toward a more complete music production role and some of this is apparent with the new hardware. Let's take a look at what's new:

Audio interface
The most obvious new addition to the hardware is the inclusion, for the first time on a Maschine ,a basic but very useful audio interface.  This 96khz 24bit interface includes balanced stereo in and out jacks on quarter inch sockets, a microphone input (again on a quarter inch socket) and a headphone output. The input can either be microphone or line in but it is able to run both outputs (line out and headphones) as two separate mixes. This is handy as Maschine has a cue bus facility allowing for independent headphone monitoring, very handy for live. It's worth noting though that the headphone output can't be set to mirror the master outputs so if you regularly swap between listening on monitors to headphones this would necessitate going to the master bus and toggling the outputs there.

This minor annoyance is easily outweighed by the added functionality the separate outputs allow. The mic input is slightly annoying in that it doesn't support phantom power therefore reducing its use to dynamic microphones. I can understand that in a live situation dynamic mics are far more practical and less prone to feedback but within the confines of a studio a phantom option would have been useful. I did find, however, that there was plenty of gain on this mic input and enjoyed using it as a guitar input which sounded surprisingly good.  All inputs, outputs and headphone sockets have small physical volume knobs.  The headphone amp seems to provide plenty of output and drove the two very different headphones I used with more available gain than I needed. How this would fare within the noisy confines of a club I'll let some other intrepid explorer find out!

Dual colour screens and four directional push encoder
Making their debut on the "regular" Maschine model, these nice and clear colour screens first arrived on the deluxe 2013 Maschine Studio controller and it is excellent that they are now standard. They have been tweaked slightly in terms of their power consumption allowing the Mk3 to be powered purely over USB albeit with a slight brightness hit that the separate (and included) power supply offers.  The screens make a huge improvement to using Maschine without having to reference the computer monitor which along with the built in audio interface help give the impression that you are working standalone.  In fact there are very few instances where it's necessary to view the computer display with file naming being one example.

Sample tweaking is fast and fluid using the knobs below the screen to speedily zoom in and edit. I wish though that in the midi event display, the right screen could be used to select all visible as counter intuitively you have to use knobs under the left screen for selection purposes. The knobs, like the bigger Studio model are touch sensitive displaying context sensitive menus which is another great workflow addition.

There is sometimes a natural inclination to assume the screens are touchable especially when they display the various Native Instruments libraries but navigating those involves either using the aforementioned knobs or the new four directional push encoder. This method isn't quite as intuitive as NI would like you to think but once you adapt to where the focus is, it is an enjoyable and speedy new browsing experience. This new encoder is certainly very clever but feels slightly delicate and I wonder how robust it will be over time.  It does have very useful albeit subtle navigation LEDs that indicate whether there are functions available in whatever direction.

Smart Strip
Making its first appearance on 2016's Ableton Push like Machine Jam, the Smart Strip allows for a bunch of useful performance features such as pitch and mod wheel control, a nifty notes mode where a swish of the finger plays through all the notes currently assigned to the pads and a performance fx mode which has a bunch of funky group level realtime effects such  as filter, flanger, stutter etc.  The silky and responsive smart strip is a welcome performance feature and experienced Maschinists will certainly enjoy it's inclusion.  I personally would like to be able to use the strip in notes mode concurrently with the pads but it's an either/or situation with the pads being used to select what notes the strip can play. An option to toggle this behaviour would be nice.

New button layout
One of the more unexpected bonuses of this new Maschine is the new button layout.  As Maschine has evolved from its initial design, a whole raft of new features and usages have emerged such as using it more for melodies and harmony etc.  The new button layout recognises this and includes dedicated buttons for some of these new arrivals. Above the 16 pads are four buttons which allow for quick access to pad mode, scale, chords and step.  Although these functions were available before, the new location and the lack of menu diving has significantly improved the workflow. Dedicated buttons for follow and fixed level (with shift for the classic MPC 16 levels) are appreciated as is a lock button.

Lock function is one of the standout features of Maschine and allows for mix snapshots. A swift press of lock will memorise all the levels and parameters across the whole project so after tweaking and fiddling with the settings that locked state can be returned to either immediately or over a set amount of time using the morph function. My initial guitar demonstration at the top of the video review showcases this. The morph range can be set from half a bar to longer and the parameters slowly transform until they reach the locked state. Pressing shift and lock allows for up to 64 lock locations and this is genuinely a brilliant and innovative idea. Older Maschines also have this feature albeit without a dedicated button.

Bigger Pads
The new bigger and more sensitive pads are the new standard for pad controllers as far as I'm concerned. They are more dynamically responsive and playable as a result.  I have noticed my shonky finger drumming has improved from mediocre to slightly less mediocre as a result!  I'm intrigued to see how 16 pad virtuosos such as Jeremy Ellis or David "Fingers" Haynes will perform on it as the more musical experience will surely raise their game.

Maschine software and future plans
Native Instruments have signposted the direction Machine will take in the future with a new and much needed song mode and audio track functionality. The lack of both severely limits Machine as a standalone creation platform often needing either DAW integration or tedious track bouncing to see projects through to a final state. For instance adding a vocal or guitar track to a Maschine project involves the sampling path which although a great and powerful function is clunky and unituitive for this purpose. NI have stated their intentions to include audio loops in the future which should fix this shortcoming along with the song mode which hopefully will allow for recording pattern and scene switching and muting, a feature desperately missing.  This new MK3 hardware has certain features which will benefit from these future updates such as the audio interface and arrangement buttons so let's hope it won't be too long until we see these arrive most probably in the version 3 of the software but maybe before fingers crossed.  One brilliant thing that should be mentioned though is that the original MK1 unit is still fully compatible with the Maschine software and although some of the newer features are slightly awkward to access, they are still available. This bodes well for the platform and shows a terrific commitment from Native Instruments to their customers (this may be to atone for their dreadful Kore platform and subsequent abandonment!).

Conclusion

This new MK3 controller though is an excellent evolution of the Maschine platform. The new layout, bigger and better pads, touch sensitive knobs, lovely screens, smart strip and most importantly, the great audio interface all add up to a superb update.  The fact that it sells for the same price as the previous version, especially impressive due to all the premium NI instruments included (no new ones specifically for the MK3 but since v.1 you get Massive, Monark, Prism etc), mean that there has never been a better time to come aboard the Maschine platform. The physical footprint this seemingly bigger unit takes is surprisingly identical to the early models which showcases the clever design that has gone in to this model. One small note though is there doesn't appear to be any way of attaching the previously available stand or due to the lack of recessed sides, any of the third party wood end cheeks.  I'm sure some enterprising soul will find a workaround but just be aware that you won't be able to use any of the existing customisation options with this model.  Also there is currently no upgrade path for owners of earlier models as the software serial number is tied to the hardware. You would have to sell your earlier model privately if you wanted to reduce the cost of this upgrade.

So, should you upgrade if you are an owner of previous versions?  Well, if you have any model other than the Studio and love the platform then a resounding yes,  if you were underwhelmed by it or didn't use it much then I don't expect this new model will change that so possibly not.  Maschine Studio owners though pose the biggest quandary as the new features are much less impressive compared to this model. The new pads, touch strip and button layout I don't think make enough of a difference to warrant the switch. The lack of an audio interface on the Studio model was a contentious issue when it was released due to it being assumed that, being a studio focused unit, the user will probably have a premium interface already so the inclusion of one on the new model is unlikely to sway them.

Kudos to Native Instruments for releasing this new model and as I mentioned showing renewed commitment to the platform. This is an excellent and versatile tool that can be used equally well in the studio, on the go or live and most importantly, is a fun and inspirational device for music creation.  Highly recommended!

Maschine MK3 available imminently £479/€599/$599


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