The Maschine Mikro Mk3 offers a huge amount of fun and creativity at an attractive price. Bruce Aisher explores furthers.
There once was a time (barring a few extremely expensive exceptions) when hardware sequencing was the only game in town and with drum machines leading the charge. Of course, this was supremely limited by the standards of any modern DAW. As sampling became more affordable to implement, and alongside the rise of standalone specialist hardware, manufacturers explored ways of expanding the functionality of their beatboxes. At the core of this was the ability of users to record, save and reload their own samples, though this also went hand-in-hand with greater sophistication in the sequencing and post-record, note manipulation department. The lineage of Native Instruments’ Maschine range can therefore be traced back to the original EMU SP and Akai MPC boxes. The latter in particular has a lasting legacy in its 4 x 4 matrix of drum pads.
Unlike these earlier units and other self-contained sound generation boxes, where software and hardware communicate internally, and all that is required is a power source, Maschine is very much a marriage of software, computer and controller technology. In other words, despite its plentiful supply of knobs and colourful display capabilities, Maschine makes no sound itself and relies on the audio output of your computer or external sound card to deliver the sonic goods. This ongoing reliance on off-the-shelf computer DSP is only to be expected given that Native Instruments sprung from the development of a PC-based modular synthesis system (that eventually morphed into Reaktor). However, whilst PC or Mac hosted DSP remains at the core of their products, they have increasingly embraced hardware controller integration concepts.
Rise of the Maschines
The Maschine line-up currently consists of four boxes. Maschine Jam stands a little to one side of its sisters in the Maschine family and is perhaps most similar to the Ableton Push in its approach. The others (Maschine Mikro, Maschine and Maschine Studio) all offer increasing degrees of hardware control and visual feedback, though the whole range connects to the same software running on a host computer (Mac and Windows). To confuse things further, the family has mutated through different versions of some of the units. On test here we have Maschine Mikro Mk3 running version 2.7 of the Maschine software.
The most noticeable thing about the new Mikro, when compared to the Mk2 unit, is the smaller display, greater number of parameter/function buttons, and addition of the so-called Smart Strip (which can be used for strumming or bending of sounds and real-time control of effects parameters).[advert-inline]
The NI spin on the Mikro’s smaller display and additional buttons is that ‘less is more’, with an intent on making the hardware element the primary, or even sole, focus. Overall, the Mk3 has a sleeker, more refined appearance, with most legending now placed on the buttons themselves. Although they remain backlit when engaged, it can be tricky to see the writing on these new black buttons when compared to those on previous units.
Setting-up the Maschine Mikro is pretty straightforward. After following the instructions on the enclosed license-code card, NI hold your hand most of the way via helpful web links and a very-useful Quickstart Tutorial. This introduces you to making a simple beat pattern in both real-time and step modes as well as using the pads to play melodies and chords. Finally it touches on sound tweaking, effects, and exporting the finished result as audio. This aspect of the Maschine is straightforward, and there is plenty of included content to get you going. It’s worth mentioning that although there is plenty of sample-based material here, it is not restricted to this means of sound creation.
The Maschine software integrates well with the whole NI universe and as such the line is blurred to the extent that you don’t really need to know how a particular sound is created. Well-regarded NI synths such as Massive, Monark and Reaktor Prism are included with the Mikro’s software package, but Maschine also has it’s own set of sound generators and effects. This includes the six ‘Drumsynth’ plug-ins, that provide a simple but effective way to create your own percussion oriented sounds. Each one (such as Kick, Snare etc.) has a specific set of DSP engines that form the core building block of its sound – taking-in analogue ‘classics’ to more conventional acoustic drum tones. Additionally, ’Bass Synth’ makes it incredibly easy to add basslines to your tracks, and is designed to be as simple to use as possible. This single window GUI approach is also employed for the comprehensive set of 8 ‘Perform FX’ and 24 ‘Studio’ effects processors.
The Mikro only comes with the Maschine Factory Selection library (1.6 GB), with an upgrade to the full Maschine Factory Library (included with all other units in the current line-up) available for £89. Amongst other things, this adds over 300 additional Kits, 3200 One Shots and 4700 Loops. Themed expansion packs, costing between £25 and £44, are also continuously being released by NI. The Komplete 12 Select upgrade (for £79) includes three of these, and adds 45GB of further content, including Drumlab, [advert-inline] Kontakt instrument libraries and effects.
Making full tracks in Maschine is based around the creation of Patterns, utilising Groups of sounds mapped across the 16 pads. These can then be played together via the use of Scene slots. Different modes on the hardware allow you to use the pads to play in notes, recall patterns or trigger scenes, with adjustable colour-coding making the process much easier if you want to minimise any additional mouse/screen usage.
On the software front, Maschine is now up to version 2.7.9, which adds enhanced audio loop editing and builds on the much-improved audio support in 2.7. This included the new ‘Audio’ plug-in that supports real-time time stretching, pitching and looping. It is also worth pointing out that whilst Maschine is primarily intended as a standalone system, it can run as a plug-in within your DAW. However, given that exporting audio from Maschine can be as simple as dragging and dropping patterns into your DAW of choice, this may not even be required – especially if you mainly use it as a ‘track starter’ tool.
Whilst it may be true that the larger Maschine systems require less referencing of the host computer’s screen, the Mikro’s small, two line, the screen makes things hard going at times. This is perhaps a step back when compared to the Mk2 box. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that all the units in the Maschine range utilise the same software. Therefore, barring the differences between supplied content, you have access to the same sound engine, programming functionality and associated features.
The other significant factor the Mikro Mk3 has going for it is the price. Not only is Mikro less than half the price of the full ‘grown-up’ Maschine, but it is also 30% cheaper than the Mikro Mk2. This makes it much more alluring to those new to beat-making and production (or even a more casual purchase for those with cash to spare). For producers intent on making a Maschine system a serious part of their setup, the question now is whether the maxed-out Maschine Studio offers that much beyond the new Maschine Mk3 and if the Mikro will completely satisfy those who want to avoid too much screen gazing. However, there is no denying that the Mikro Mk3 is both a fun and creative tool for a decent price.
Maschine Mikro Mk3, £199, www.native-instruments.com