Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I have a medium aged dog, and he’s awful smart and seems eager to learn. In fact, I think because he’s always hungry, he’s hungry to learn new tricks. I don’t feel old but am a little shocked sometimes when I walk by a mirror! The truth is, if you want to stay relevant in the music game, you need to keep reasonably current and learn new processes and concepts. To do so, you gotta be just like my dog – hungry.
I have always been interested in new tech and gadgets geared towards making beat based and electronic music. Be it an Akai MPC, a Roland TR-808, a Novation Groovebox, a Korg Kaoss Pad, various iPad apps, or you name it – I was messing around with it. But, I have never been fond of small screens with layers of menus, sub-menus, and menus below the sub-menus. I know that they make sense to many folks, but for me, not so much.
When the opportunity to check out Native Instruments’ Maschine MK3 came around I was eager to dive in. I have had the Maschine iPad app since it was introduced, and I love it. It’s great for inspiring sounds, ideas, loops, bleeps, and bloops. But it is an iPad app and has its limits. The MK3 is an intuitive, combo hardware/software workstation and controller that features a ton of new upgrades: bigger pads, full color hi-res screens, an integrated 24-bit/96 kHz audio interface, an updated transport section, and an improved workflow over previous Maschine versions. How does it work? The Maschine’s software lives on your computer and the hardware connects via USB (note the controller can operate via its powered-USB port, but also includes a wall wart option that illuminates the pads more brightly). The hardware interface is well laid out and intuitive – even for a Luddite like me. You can browse loops, kits, sounds, genres, effects, instruments, Modes, and instrument groups from your computer or from the Maschine itself via its two hi-res screens. It comes with over 8 GB of sample content, but you can also create your own palette of sounds. Once saved, you can sequence or perform with your sounds to build a song. You can also sample, edit those samples, and integrate them into your projects. All of these functions can be managed from both the hardware or software, and you can use Maschine as a VST2, AU, and AAX plug-in. Worth noting is that the screens and menus in the software are actually nice to look at and easy to understand and navigate.
Note that this is an overly simplified view of what this platform is capable of. In fact, a complete A to Z rundown of all of the features of Maschine is really beyond the scope of this review, so if you are even remotely interested in what this platform is all about, I encourage you to check out the Native Instruments website and its many instructional videos on Maschine and other products. Maschine can be, but doesn’t have to be, a standalone device. Native Instruments has created a whole ecosystem in which to create music. Their different hardware and software offerings are all compatible and complimentary, making the investment in their products even more attractive.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Maschine is a strictly “boots and cats and boots and cats” dance party making box. Pop music, ambient tracks, downtempo grooves, etc. are all possibilities here. Maschine really is just a tool or platform to make whatever music you want that obviously lends itself to making music that is loop or sample based – but in no way does that define the limits of its capabilities. I know several rock bands that use it as a tool for songwriting and arrangements. Whether or not they integrate Maschine into their recordings is up to them.
Once you begin to grasp how the sounds in Maschine are organized, browsing and auditioning can be a breeze. Out of the box I quickly dialed in sounds and performed them on sessions that I had produced and was in the process of mixing. MK3 has larger pads than earlier versions and these pads are incredibly velocity sensitive which makes finger drumming very expressive. I like this feature a lot and being able to finger drum for more dynamics makes performances expressive and human. I found myself having a blast finding a sound, tweaking it to make it my own, flipping over to Keyboard mode (which lays out the sounds in half steps on Maschine’s pads), and then performing it seamlessly in the right key for the track. This is also possible to do with samples, which makes integration into your project or song very streamlined. Maschine’s Chords mode is similar to Keyboard mode with the difference being that each pad triggers a whole chord instead of a single note. Step mode turns the Maschine controller into a full-featured step sequencer.
I liked feeding sounds and samples from Maschine into a recently configured modular synth rig, and creating new sounds that were uniquely mine, then incorporating them into mixes, transitions, intros, outros, and bridge pieces on records. These sounds are not easily recalled and to me, that is the point. Musical happenings like this are not meant to be recycled or reused. They were just fixed in time at that moment, for that purpose, and that is it. However, with Mashine’s sampling and new interfacing capabilities, you could bring the sounds back in to use them again later.
I could go on at some length about the feature set of Maschine, but my main point should be to tell you what is important here. Tools that facilitate creativity are essential to the trade. Those tools can come in many forms. It may be an inspiring microphone, an old upright piano that is a bit out of tune, an archaic mono synth, a beautiful old console, a Radio Shack reverb unit, a great room, or a piece of sheet metal on a stick. The idea is that it opens a door to someplace you may not have gone otherwise. In a world where music is becoming more and more homogenized, you may think that a computer-based hardware device with stock sounds would fall into the category of feeding that trend, and you could be right. But, if you go a layer deeper with your own samples and manipulation of the provided sounds and let a device or platform like Maschine help facilitate and inform parts of the process, you may find yourself in a new territory without a map – and getting lost is sometimes the best way to find a new way home.