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Look Mum No Computer!? Standalone-Groovebox & Maschine-Controller

Review: NI Maschine+

Published 10:44 am on Wednesday 9th December 2020 by Beat Magazine

Maschine Mk3 Deluxe

At first glance, you can hardly see any difference between the Mk3 and the Maschine+. Pads, buttons, controls, displays - everything is in the same place and is identically labeled. But if you touch both controllers once, you will immediately notice the difference.

Maschine+ is much heavier because the housing is made of anodized aluminum and not plastic. The same applies to the touch-sensitive encoders, which are also made of metal. This pays off particularly with the four-directional push encoder, which allows for more nuanced use. This is also important because all settings, including naming projects, patterns and sounds, are done on the device itself and the encoder must then also serve as a replacement for the mouse or trackpad. We couldn‘t find any significant difference in the pads in direct comparison, but in our opinion there wasn‘t much to improve compared to the Mk3.

Overall, Maschine+ makes a much more valuable impression than all previous Maschine controllers, leaving the competition behind and presenting itself as a real gem on the desk. Thanks to its rugged design made of anodized aluminum, Maschine+ also looks more trustworthy for live performance on stage than the previous plastic controllers.

Mk3 Connections

The connections on the rear are the same as those on the Maschine Mk3. There is a headphone output and a stereo line output; the volume of both can be controlled separately and can be fed with different audio signals if required. That way the headphones can be used to audition samples without playing them back via the PA. Or you can send a monitor mix or a click to the drummer. A stereo input for direct sampling or looping in external instruments is also available, as is a microphone input; however, the microphone input is still designed as a 6.3mm jack and has no phantom power. This limits its use to simple dynamic microphones. Even with this, it‘s fun to record vocal licks or external noises quickly, to integrate them into a track as a loop or one-shot sample, thereby quickly and easily providing more dynamics and organic sound.

Hardware Headquarters

There‘s also a MIDI input and output for integrating external synthesizers and drum machines. Maschine+ supports the familiar MIDI templates, (i.e. individual assignments of hardware controllers to control external synthesizers and drum computers). Controlling external hardware is even supported by the Lock function, which allows you to quickly and easily save current controller settings and recall them at any time - if necessary, even with continuous morphing over several bars. It‘s too bad that NI didn‘t provide the Maschine+ with CV/Gate outputs; however, this can be retro- fitted via the USB host connections if required. A pedal input can be used for various functions and replaces the missing third hand when jamming or on stage. The USB port allows Maschine+ and Maschine Mk3 to be used as controllers and audio interfaces for computer and Maschine software.

No Built-in Battery

There are, however, two important differences on the back. The Maschine Mk3 Controller also had a power supply connection. There, however, it was optional, because the power could also be supplied by the computer/laptop connected via USB. Maschine+, on the other hand, is dependent on the power from the power supply in standalone mode.

Maschine+ does not have a built-in battery, so if you hoped that you could simply take Maschine+ out of your pocket on the next train ride and hammer grooves into it, you will unfortunately be disappointed. Even on the sofa, the cable connection to the relatively bulky power supply can be annoying.

Reasonable Grounds

The missing battery seems astonishing at first glance; however, we got an understandable explanation from NI circles. On the one hand, the compact form factor of the Maschine Mk3 should be preserved; on the other hand, a built-in battery would have increased the price even more. Last but not least, the consideration of longevity was the decisive factor for not having a built-in battery.

While the manufacturer‘s own NATIVE-OS can be flexibly adapted to future developments, the development of batteries is constantly changing and it‘s difficult to predict how quickly built-in rechargeable batteries will lose power over the years and then have to be replaced. An external rechargeable battery solution as a replacement for a power supply unit, of which there are already several variants, is the ideal alternative for mobile use. According to first user reports, this should also work easily with very useful battery lifetimes.

Controller for Maschine Software

If you set Maschine+ to controller mode, you can use it to control the software on your computer just like with the Mk3. As a pure controller, Maschine+ also works with USB power, the power supply is optional and provides a brighter display. The deeper integration with Ableton Live using the Mk3 script was not something we were looking for. But we assume that a suitable script will be provided later.

USB Host Ports

The two USB host ports deserve a very positive assessment, as they greatly expand the possibilities. You can connect all kinds of class-compatible USB controllers to them, (for example a USB keyboard for recording sequences and melodies). Or you can expand the inputs and outputs (audio and MIDI) by connecting a NI audio interface like Komplete Audio 6 Mk2. Even a USB hub to expand the ports was instantly accepted by Maschine+. Finally, the SD card slot on the left side is worth mentioning. It serves as memory for the library and newly created samples and projects. A 64GB card is included; up to 1 TB is supported.

Atom Inside?

After switching on, Maschine+ first needs a few seconds to start up; after all, even in standalone mode, a standard computer is working inside. NI is silent about the actual equipment and mentions only a quad-core processor and 4GB RAM and 32 GB internal eMMC flash memory (for operating sys- tem and supplied content). The rumor mill suggests an Intel Atom, though this is no reason to panic.

Maschine+ does deliver a solid performance. This is not surprising, since the Maschine software has always been very resource-efficient when limited to NI synths and effects. It runs without problems in our studio on a very rudimentarily equipped older office netbook.

No Third-Party Plug-ins

And with Maschine+, you have to limit yourself to NI products anyway, since plug-ins from other vendors are not supported in standalone mode. In addition, NI has been able to completely optimize the Maschine operating system to the computer hardware without regard for compatibility with other vendors.

Library and Sync via WiFi

At the first start, you must first connect the Maschine+ to your NI account. This is done wirelessly via the built-in WiFi receiver, which also provides stable wireless synchronization to your DAW or other compatible synths via Ableton Link. You can then either start directly with the abundant factory content or select additional plug-ins or expansions from your NI account and load them into Maschine+.

Very Low Latency

The first time you launch it, you immediately notice that Maschine+ Standalone works without any noticeable latency. A 2.9 millisecond delay for the output is a value that is hard to beat even on a high-end notebook via USB. The same values apply to the processing and the input, so that even with a looped-through and processed audio signal, the roundtrip latency is still less than 9 ms.

Limitations Compared to Mk3

The entire operation, including the indicators on the two displays, is completely identical to Maschine Mk3 combined with the current Maschine software. That‘s why we don‘t want to go into greater detail in this test, but rather concentrate on the differences.

In summary, it can be said that Maschine+ Standalone can do nothing that Maschine mk3 cannot do combined with an external computer. In fact, there are several limitations to consider with Maschine+. As already mentioned, only plug-ins from NI can be used; and these plug-ins can only be modified in the given parameters. The combination of Maschine Mk3 and computer, however, allows you to use the mouse if necessary and, for example, to change the operator links in FM8 or to exchange the wavetables in Mas- sive. Also, detailed post-processing of automation is not possible on the hardware.

Reaktor and Kontakt

There are also restrictions when using Reaktor Ensembles and Kontakt Libraries. The included Ensembles like the excellent Minimoog emulation Monark or Prism run without problems on Maschine+. The same applies to the Kontakt-based Sample Library Retro Machines. Apart from that, there seems to be a limitation that all Ensembles and Libraries compatible with the free player versions of Reaktor and Kontakt do not run, at least for the time being. So you need the full versions of Kontakt and Reaktor. Protected third-party libraries loaded for testing purposes ran in the test but, thanks to streaming from the SD card, the limitation to 4 GB RAM can also be circumvented. NI does not, however, guarantee that all your favorite libraries will run. And the tested libraries still lacked the customized user interfaces and presets.

The Competition

Maschine+ is currently facing stiff competition from Akai, whose MPC line has now overcome almost all its teething troubles. The advantage of the MPC Live II, which lies in the same price category, is the built-in rechargeable battery and speaker for mobile use, the connection for an SSD, a variety of connections including CV/Gate and the touchscreen. With the MPC One, you have to do without the battery, but this version costs about half as much as Maschine+. Since the software is also available as a plug-in for all DAWs, similar to the principle of Maschine, the MPC principle can be integrated into any existing workflow and setup.

Akai Force is an alternative for users of Able- ton Live, because its operation is very similar to Ableton Push - and Force can also serve as a controller for this Live. If you‘re looking for a classic groovebox with very good sound quality without fingerdrumming, you should also consider the Roland MC-707.

MPC or Maschine?

MPCs in particular appear to be more attractive in terms of price/performance ratio; however, thanks to the new cross-pattern and cross-scene clips, Maschine offers clear advantages when creating complete tracks and scores points with the much better range of basic plug-ins. Be it the wavetable classic, Massive, with its huge preset library, various Reaktor Ensembles, including Monark, or the outstanding sounding built-in drum synth engines, here Maschine clearly scores over MPCs. In the end, however, the question of which workflow is better suited for the job is probably the most decisive one, since this is where the biggest difference between the Maschine and the MPC lies.

Maschine+ or Mk3?

If you are more inclined to use the Maschine and/ or want to integrate the extensive and high-quality Komplete package from NI, you will have to decide whether the Maschine Mk3 is the more flexible version. After all, for the price difference of a good 700 Euro, you can also get a compact and comparably powerful notebook whose battery can take over the entire power supply on the road.

After an initial test, we tended towards the second, more flexible variant on paper. But after a few days with the Maschine+, this subjective assessment changed. Due to better hardware, especially the classy controls and the imperceptible latency, Maschine+ feels much more like an instrument than the combination of a Maschine Mk3 and notebook. And this feeling may well justify the high price tag. The limitation to optimized NI plug-ins was even more of an advantage for us.

Verdict

For many Maschine users, Maschine+ makes a long-cherished dream come true. Finally, the intuitive Maschine workflow can be used without an additional computer. Since the user interface and equipment are almost identical to the previous Mk3 controller, Maschine+ requires no additional training time for experienced operators. Unfortunately, a pitfall in the truest sense of the word limits the range of applications: Maschine+ has no built-in battery and, therefore, needs an external power supply - making carefree jamming in the park or on the train not so easy. But if you want a high-quality Maschine as an instrument and center for DAW-less jamming at home or on stage, and if you can make do with the large NI portfolio of instruments and effects, you can be very happy with Maschine+.


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