NATIVE INSTRUMENTS MASCHINE MKIII HARDWARE CONTROLLER
Maschine software can turn your creative cogs at record speed, and the MkIII hardware is here to help you keep up.
Review: Jason Hearn
When Maschine (MkI) hit the scene back in 2009, it was a revolution — it delivered a hardware MPC-style experience powered by any BYO computer technology of the day you partnered with it. Instead of MB of RAM for sample storage you had GB of RAM in your computer. Instead of dealing with proprietary, cantankerous disk formats, file management was no different to everyday file storage. Because its software was written to exploit the control surface, it truly excelled at getting musicians away from their computers and focusing on the music.
NI released Maschine MkII a few years later with a better build quality, the monochrome displays were backlit, and the buttons/pads received coloured backlighting with a more reassuring ‘click’ to the function buttons. Maschine Studio appeared in 2013 delivering the roomier ‘Business Class’ Maschine experience. The substantially larger chassis allowed for more relaxed button spacing and additional shortcut buttons. The full-colour, high-resolution displays provided a graphic-rich means of navigating the browser, a proper mixer and Mix window, and a DAW-like piano roll presentation of the step sequencer. Although it provided the bling experience (with a price to match), its release predated key features, later introduced in the Maschine software, creating a clear application for one-to-one function buttons.
In 2016 a ‘sidecar’ iteration appeared — Maschine Jam — lacking any kind of displays, but with a user interface focused on on-the-fly step sequencing and touch strips that provide easy mixing, lock states and playing notes via strumming.
Over a nine-year period, NI evolved the software back-end of Maschine, incrementally adding new features and substantial improvements. Although covered in modifier buttons the Maschine software began to outgrow its software shell and having a layout consistent with the original hardware no longer made sense. Notably, all Maschine hardware dating back to 2009 is still 100% supported by the latest builds of the software, a real achievement on NI’s part.
Having spent lengthy periods with every Maschine incarnation to date, Maschine MkIII is completely stunning, not just in terms of cosmetics but also functionality. It’s the first significant departure from the original function button layout, so-much-so that for the first few minutes of use I had to re-train my muscle memory before my Maschine dexterity returned. It combines the joy of Maschine Studio’s luxurious displays, a built-in audio interface, an overhaul of its function button layout and a build quality superior to its predecessors. The pads are larger and have better sensitivity towards the corners; playing rolls with multiple fingers on a single pad is a joy. The function buttons are less ‘in your face’ with backlighting that makes the text glow, leaving the button black. Everything about the MkIII control surface feels superior to its predecessors.
Some may compare Ableton’s Push 2 with Maschine MkIII, however, while some aesthetics of Push 2 may have infiltrated design decisions, Maschine MkIII’s hardware feels a touch better.
Unlike previous hardware, the encoders under the displays are chassis-mounted and feel rock-solid with no lateral play. These should last the distance even in the hands of the roughest handler. In a first for Maschine hardware, the encoders are now touch-sensitive. This allows contextual tag browsing of the library in addition to rapid mapping of parameters to Sound/Group/Master Macros by simply touching the encoders for parameters you wish to map. Formerly, macro mapping wasn’t possible to configure from the hardware controller.
CHANGE MODES WITH MOODS
Existing Maschinists would know, changing between the different pad play modes is one of the most frequently used functions, and most of them require modifier keys to access. There are now four dedicated Pad Input Mode buttons, conveniently located above the pads. Pad mode provides regular playback at the root pitch of a sound. Keyboard mode provides chromatic play (or within a selected scale) of the last pad touched. Chords mode provides single-pad triggering of chords (predefined by NI, which can’t be changed). In a welcome move, the Step mode button has moved from the extreme top left hand corner of the surface to this new location. In Step mode, the pads turn notes on/off in the current sequence while the displays show a luxurious piano-roll style editor.
First appearing with the Maschine Jam in 2016, NI added a Lock performance function to the software, allowing storage of snapshots (up to four banks of 16 snapshots) of all parameters, project-wide if you like. You can rapidly switch between them (Target mode) or smoothly morph between them (Travel mode). Snapshots are local to either Master (the entire project), Groups or individual pads. To begin, press Shift and the Lock button, then pick a pad to store a snapshot on. From there, you can tweak any parameters you choose (perhaps to create a ‘peak’ or build up), and instantly return to the previous Snapshot. This allows for some superb real-time arrangement tricks, independent of Scenes and Patterns. My only criticism is that Travel mode could have a maximum length greater than 16-bars, since it serves as a great tool for gradually transitioning sounds over a lengthy period.
A new master multi-axis push encoder has been added providing directional based navigation of Maschine’s displays. This was a logical inclusion considering Maschine’s displays are now more graphics-centric. It’s used for a wide variety of tasks including navigating menu trees, selecting notes in the piano-roll style step editor, and navigating strips of insert effects. My only critique is it feels a touch loose compared with other controls on the unit.
Below it, you’ll find the new Performance Strip — a four-mode horizontal touch strip. The first two modes, Pitch and Mod, essentially provide an onboard means of generating Pitch Bend and Mod Wheel events (previously, you’d need to attach a MIDI keyboard). The third mode, Perform FX, controls eight single-parameter optimised effects algorithms, including a filter, a freeze delay and even a turntable scratch effect. The fourth mode, Notes, provides a means of strumming notes. If the pads are set to Keyboard mode (best used with a scale selected), the strip will sequentially trigger the pads that are held down. With no pads held, the strip will sequentially play the whole grid of pads. With practice it’s possible to approximate strummed note triggering, however, approximation was as close as I could come.
Including an audio interface has long been on the requested feature list, and it makes the MkIII the most convenient of all Maschines for gigging and mobile composition. NI says the interface is an entirely new design. It has two inputs and four outputs, and although it lacks an XLR input, dynamic mics can be connected via the jack in, automatically switching on a mic preamp. The headphone output has plenty of drive for loud environments and is addressed by a separate bus so you can assign Maschine’s metronome to the headphones but not FOH. Physical knobs are provided for controlling output levels and are sensibly located on the rear panel.
Some internet naysayers have asked, ‘if you’re going to add an audio interface, why not make it 100% standalone like an MPC-X or MPC-Touch?’ Not only would this push up the price, but you’d also be locked to the computer resources within the device and miss out on the joy of hosting any VST/AU plug-in from your arsenal within Maschine. The joy of Maschine is it is as powerful as the computer it’s attached to, and that combination of flexibility, sustainability and power will never be possible with a frozen-in-time standalone piece of hardware.
SOFTWARE STICKING POINTS
As much as I love the new MkIII hardware, issues remain with the Maschine software (at the time of writing, version 2.6.10). My biggest bug-bear is that as soon as Maschine detects a new or updated plug-in, it scans all your plug-ins on launch; not just the new ones. This can take a fairly long time, and to date, there is no (official) means to conveniently stop this in software preferences. My frustration with this re-scanning cycle only ended when I discovered a hack workaround that limited Spotlight’s search on macOS (youtu.be/cRPKYOHR04w). Plug-in verification should operate like other DAWs; scan only plug-ins added or updated since last launch.
Although it’s now possible to enact the saving of Maschine projects via the MkIII hardware, if you wish to Save a New Project or Save As an Existing Project, it’s necessary to return to the computer to do so. Maschine offers no method to perform text entry for naming/renaming items from hardware. While your computer’s QWERTY keyboard performs the job better, the very essence of the product is to ignore the computer. In fact, I conducted much of this review with Maschine on the patio table attached via a 5m USB cable. In hardware sampler land, we tolerated fiddly text entry methods with no complaint. Furthermore, there is no means to rename recorded audio files or new audio files created through re-sampling.
If you’re hoping to finish mixing projects in Maschine without incorporating a DAW, be aware there is still no Plug-in Delay Compensation (PDC). If you make use of plug-ins requiring substantial buffering to work their magic (or UAD plug-ins), elements will go out of time in your project. To properly mix Maschine projects, it’s necessary to migrate your project to a fully-featured DAW. It would be great to have a preference setting to engage PDC for studio situations.
In Maschine MkIII’s preferences, display brightness is linked to the brightness of the backlighting in the function buttons. It’s difficult to find the right compromise of button readability versus having a nice bright display in brightly-lit environments. Independent brightness controls would be handy, because it’s impossible to read the labels on the function buttons without backlighting, however, setting the brightness too high results in too little contrast between active and off states. I feel it could pose a problem for some live performers in sun-kissed festival marquees, though it’s sometimes difficult to even read laptop displays in those environments.
Although Maschine MkIII will sit on the stand NI released for previous versions, it no longer locks in securely due to the repositioning of screw holes. I’m sure I’ll Macgyver a solution in time.
Just like Push 2, I can’t help but feel Maschine MkIII would benefit tremendously from touch functionality (particularly when selecting and moving notes in the Step edit window). Imagine being able to bank the mixer rapidly across projects with more than eight groups by just swiping your finger left and right.
MASCHINED TO PERFECTION
For an existing Maschine MkI, MkII or Mikro lover, MkIII is a no-brainer upgrade; you will fall in love with Maschine all over again. While Maschine Studio owners already have screens and four MIDI outputs, they miss out on MkIII’s superior aspects including the audio interface, bus power, a smaller chassis, and the new function button layout. What’s more surprising is how much value has been added to the Maschine MkIII hardware yet the price remains consistent with Maschine MkII.
For any newcomers to Maschine, this is a great time to jump on the platform. Don’t expect Maschine to be a one-stop DAW replacement — consider it akin to what can be accomplished on an MPC in terms of taking a tune to completion, with the added benefit of your computer’s power at your disposal. It’s an amazing live performance tool for the stage and a rapid means of capturing ideas in the studio. Its pads are even better than previous Maschine iterations and feel superb for fluidly performing drum and percussive parts. If I have any reservations about Maschine MkIII — not enough to keep me away — they would be focused on improvements which may come about in future software iterations anyway.