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Louise - System UK

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It's been over two years since Native Instruments hit their Maschine controller with the shrink ray, resulting in the Mikro controller and their first app for iOS, iMaschine. These were useful new designs for the beatmakers who wanted the core features of Maschine but weren't necessarily interested in diving into advanced arrangement or mixing. NI must have realized that there were also producers for whom Maschine has evolved into a vital tool, and who want to be able to get even more hands-on with their controller. This past October, Native Instruments surprised us all with the announcement of a new larger flagship controller called Maschine Studio, designed with these very producers in mind. The announcement included something for the existing Maschine users as well, a brand new version of the Maschine software loaded with new features.

[maschinestudio464]

Maschine Studio is the first version of the controller family that matches the feel of the classic Akai MPC 2000XL. Its expanded surface area allows for two new, larger displays, which are located prominently in the middle of the controller. With full OLED color and the ability to adapt the UI layout to match different possible workflows, these offer a huge step up from the other Maschine controllers. This is especially evident when browsing the library, as all of the NI content is represented as individual product icons, making them easily distinguishable. Arranging and sequencing patterns is another area where the Studio shines—in the left display you get an overview of all of the scenes and patterns in the timeline, with detailed views in the right display. Having the pattern names and colors represented in this view allows you to keep your focus on the controller and away from the laptop screen more than ever.

Mixing is another area that's enhanced by the Studio controller. This is due in part to a new sophisticated mixer UI mode on the Studio's displays, but NI helped further by adding a Master section to the right of the displays. This includes a large segmented LED level meter that, at the press of a button, can be switched to show the volume at the master, group and sound level. The volume at the selected level can then be easily adjusted using the knob below the meter. You can also monitor the incoming sound from Maschine's four stereo inputs using this meter, which makes it useful for sampling as well. 

The last of the big new features is the Edit section that is anchored on the lower-right portion of the controller. A large clickable jog wheel is the primary control here, and it can be used to adjust a number of parameters, depending on what's currently in focus within Maschine. A good example of this is when one or more notes are selected within a pattern. The Edit section can be used to transpose or nudge the notes as well as adjust the volume and swing. This can also be done at the group level, which can lead to some very interesting results. The Edit section is actually useful in nearly every possible Maschine task, from browsing the library to mixing, which leads to my only gripe about it: the documentation isn't exactly clear about what's possible in all situations, so a bit of play is required to get your head around it.

All in all, the new Studio controller feels like a big upgrade over its siblings in the Maschine family. The build quality is very impressive—it feels very substantial, and that's important for drum pad gear (which generally takes more of a beating than other types of gear). Its larger size and an integrated stand provide excellent ergonomics and make it a good choice for the spot behind a keyboard and mouse. On the other hand, Studio's size and more expensive (and crackable) displays would probably prevent me from taking it on the road without a good case or bag to tote it around in.

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NI packed a substantial amount of new features into this second version of the Maschine software. The audio engine was reportedly reprogrammed to support multi-core CPU processing and improve the audio in general. The result is that Maschine runs lighter than ever, and can better handle anything you might throw at it. The timing of this change is fortuitous, as Native Instruments removed two very crucial restrictions from the first version: the number of groups allowed in a session, and the number of plug-ins available at all levels. These changes move Maschine even further towards DAW-level flexibility and make the extra CPU headroom that much more important.

The new feature that I was possibly most excited about is the addition of the new drum synthesizer engines. The drum synths show up as five internal plug-ins within the Maschine browser, one for each category of drum: kick, snare, hi-hat, tom and percussion. Each drum synth comes with a set of engines that allow you to create and shape different styles of each drum type. For example, the kick drum synth has eight different engines ranging from classic analog drum machines to acoustic bass drum emulations. Sample-based playback may still be Maschine's bread and butter, but there is a remarkable amount of sonic shaping possible with these. My only complaint is that the plug-ins lack some of the features, like modulation and an always-available filter, found on the normal Maschine sampler. Regardless, this is still a huge addition to the world of Maschine.

There are a number of other notable changes to the software—more than I could possibly cover here—but the two that stick out are sidechaining and enhanced undo functionality. Sidechaining is now built into and natively supported by a handful of Maschine's internal compressor, maximizer, limiter, gate and filter. This makes it very easy to set up sidechain compression on the fly, without having to look up from the controller. 

The undo functionality in the previous version of Maschine could be frustrating in that it was applied at the step level. This meant that performing undo for a series of mistakenly recorded notes often required hitting undo multiple times in a row—and being careful not to go to far. Undo now comes in two levels: Step Undo (i.e. classic undo) and Take Undo. Take Undo is now active by default, and as a result pressing undo will allow you to cancel the last set of actions as one group. You turn on Step Undo using a shift-button combo. Interestingly enough, this change resulted in a labeling update for the Maschine MK2 hardware: Compare and Split have been replaced with Step Undo and Step Redo, respectively. This means Compare and Split have been removed from Maschine 2.0, which may not be well received by some users. You can achieve the same ends using the pattern duplicate command, though, so it should just be a matter of getting used to a different workflow.

Overall, there is very little to complain about here. As I noted in my review of the original Maschine release back in 2010, the ability to record and transmit MIDI CCs to control external gear would bring Maschine closer in line with the MPC as the centerpiece of the studio. This is still true today. More efficient handling of audio tracks would also be great, but I understand how NI might be resistant to convert Maschine into a true DAW. Despite those grumbles, the Maschine Studio / Maschine 2.0 combo packs a powerful punch. There are enough features in the new software release to make the upgrade a no-brainer for existing users, and the Studio hardware is an enticing option for anyone who really wants to get hands-on with Maschine. All in all, it's a fantastic release.


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