Na­tive In­stru­ments Mas­chine Mk3

NI re­vamp their core Mas­chine con­troller. Si Truss in­ves­ti­gates how much sub­stance lies be­neath the aes­thetic over­haul

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Back in 2009, when it first ap­peared, NI’s beat-mak­ing plat­form Mas­chine rep­re­sented the tight­est con­troller­soft­ware re­la­tion­ship on the mar­ket. At the ap­pli­ca­tion end, the soft­ware of­fered a pretty much self-con­tained plat­form for sam­pling and se­quenc­ing, while the as­so­ci­ated hard­ware was de­signed to of­fer tai­lor-made con­trol over ev­ery el­e­ment of the plat­form.

Over the years that have fol­lowed, NI have ex­panded the Mas­chine ecosys­tem con­sid­er­ably, adding mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions on the hard­ware and sig­nif­i­cantly ex­pand­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the soft­ware. While there’s no doubt that this has made Mas­chine as a whole far more pow­er­ful, it’s also loos­ened that hard­ware-soft­ware re­la­tion­ship con­sid­er­ably. With the va­ri­ety of func­tions avail­able across dif­fer­ent con­trollers, along with an ex­panded re­mit now en­com­pass­ing ar­range­ment, ex­ter­nal se­quenc­ing, cre­ative ef­fects and much more, there’s no longer one single Mas­chine con­troller that can claim to of­fer truly com­pre­hen­sive ac­cess to ev­ery as­pect of the soft­ware.

Al­though the Mk3 ver­sion of NI’s core Mas­chine con­troller does tout sev­eral eye-catch­ing ad­di­tions to the hard­ware – which I’ll come to shortly – the main theme of this up­date seems to be a re­uni­fi­ca­tion of that hard­ware-soft­ware re­la­tion­ship. While this hard­ware over­haul isn’t ac­com­pa­nied by a sig­nif­i­cant up­date at the soft­ware end, thanks to some sub­tle ad­just­ments to the con­troller lay­out and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, the over­all work­flow ends up feel­ing sig­nif­i­cantly stream­lined and more flex­i­ble.

Mk2 users will im­me­di­ately pick up on a num­ber of ways in which the hard­ware lay­out feels more sen­si­bly aligned with the lat­est in­car­na­tion of the soft­ware. Pos­si­bly most no­table of th­ese is a new row of but­tons sit­ting di­rectly above the pad grid, which are used to flip between Pad, Key­board, Chord and Step modes. While this might be a mi­nor ad­just­ment, it has a no­tice­able

im­pact on the work­flow; on the pre­vi­ous ver­sion th­ese func­tions were scat­tered around the in­ter­face, with some hid­den be­hind shift presses, whereas the new lay­out places ev­ery method of us­ing the pads in one eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, log­i­cal place.

The same goes for the rejigged page/browsing but­tons to the top left of the in­ter­face. Here, along with browser ac­cess, we now get but­tons for jump­ing to the mixer and ar­range­ment win­dows, along with but­tons sim­pli­fy­ing nav­i­ga­tion between each sound’s plugin and chan­nel pages. It makes nav­i­gat­ing around the Mas­chine soft­ware’s (by now fairly com­plex) ar­chi­tec­ture con­sid­er­ably more in­tu­itive.

Mk3 is about more than mi­nor ad­just­ments though. Along with a lay­out reshuf­fle and sleek, in­dus­trial new look, the hard­ware has had sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant new fea­tures, as well as gain­ing a built-in au­dio in­ter­face [see On­board I/O].

The most in­stantly no­tice­able of th­ese ad­di­tions are the re­vamped screens, which are now con­sid­er­ably larger, higher def­i­ni­tion and full colour. Th­ese are very sim­i­lar to those al­ready found on Mas­chine Stu­dio, and func­tion in much the same way, mak­ing the process of browsing, edit­ing sounds and se­quenc­ing far more vis­ually en­gag­ing. As was the case with Stu­dio, this ad­di­tional vis­ual feed­back does a lot to draw at­ten­tion away from the com­puter screen.

Also brought across from Stu­dio are the eight touch-sen­si­tive ro­taries that sit be­neath the screens. Among the ap­pli­ca­tions of th­ese, most in­ter­est­ing is the abil­ity to as­sign Macros by sim­ply hit­ting the as­sign­ment but­ton and then touch­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate ro­tary. This makes the pre­vi­ously some­what con­vo­luted process of set­ting up Macros con­sid­er­ably sim­pler.

Along with th­ese eight smaller ro­taries, the hard­ware’s main browsing ro­tary has been up­graded into what NI call a ‘four-di­rec­tional push en­coder’. This essen­tially acts as a one-stop shop for menu scrolling, browsing and se­lec­tion.

Another change likely to catch the eye of sea­soned users is the over­haul to the cen­tral pads them­selves. The 16 pads are now larger with im­proved sen­si­tiv­ity, par­tic­u­larly to­wards their outer edges. De­spite the beefed-up size, the pad grid main­tains the same cen­tre-to-cen­tre po­si­tion­ing as the pre­vi­ous ver­sion, mean­ing that sea­soned fin­ger-drum­mers can still rely on their mus­cle mem­ory. I’m more of a se­quencer per­son than a pad drum­mer per­son­ally, and prob­a­bly lack the beat-bash­ing dex­ter­ity to give th­ese new pads a de­fin­i­tive test, but they feel cer­tainly feel nicer to play and are no­tice­ably more re­spon­sive to ve­loc­ity changes.

The other ma­jor front panel ad­di­tion is the new touchstrip, which sits just above the trans­port con­trols. This is essen­tially a single, hor­i­zon­tal

ver­sion of the touch­strips found on Mas­chine Jam, and brings some of that con­troller’s best func­tion­al­ity across to the Mk3. This in­cludes con­trol over Mas­chine’s Per­for­mance FX and the abil­ity to ‘strum’ notes across a scale, mul­ti­ple drum sounds or slices of a sam­ple.

One area where it does feel like NI have missed a trick by not im­ple­ment­ing touchstrip con­trol is the note re­peat. As be­fore, re­peats are trig­gered by hold­ing down the note re­peat but­ton, with but­tons above the screen con­trol­ling the beat di­vi­sions of the re­peats. Given that the touchstrip is placed so close un­der the note re­peat but­ton, it would be great to be able to use it to con­trol re­peat tim­ings, for a more con­ve­nient way to sculpt drum fills.

On the sub­ject of fills, another Jam-era func­tion added to the Mk3’s in­ter­face is ac­cess to Mas­chine’s vari­a­tion en­gine, which can be used to hu­man­ise and ran­domise pat­terns. The fi­nal Mas­chine Jam feature brought across is the abil­ity to cre­ate and morph between pa­ram­e­ter lock states. This is a great tool for au­tomat­ing live per­for­mances or A/Bing mix states; it’s just a slight shame you can’t cur­rently record pa­ram­e­ter morphs into ar­range­ments as MIDI au­toma­tion.

What’s im­pres­sive about the Mas­chine Mk3 is that it man­ages to add func­tion­al­ity to the con­troller while si­mul­ta­ne­ously feel­ing like it’s been sim­pli­fied. Thanks to the smart reshuf­fling of the in­ter­face, some clever use of the new screens and im­proved ro­taries, and general er­gonomic im­prove­ments, the Mk3 ends up be­ing less clut­tered while also putting more func­tion­al­ity at your fin­ger­tips.

It’s im­pres­sive too that, de­spite the added in­ter­face and en­larged screens, Mk3 main­tains the rough size and weight of its pre­de­ces­sor, and even still runs on USB buss power. The con­troller does now come with an op­tional power adap­tor, and you’ll need to use this to get full bright­ness out of the screens and pads, but the drop when run­ning solely via USB is fairly neg­li­gi­ble.

In all, this is the slick­est, most user-friendly in­car­na­tion of Mas­chine we’ve seen so far. For new users it rep­re­sents ex­cel­lent value too; de­spite the added in­ter­face and screens, the Mk3 comes in at the same price as its pre­de­ces­sor. Add in the in­clu­sion of the – now ex­cep­tion­ally pow­er­ful – soft­ware, plus Kom­plete Se­lect, which in­cludes Mas­sive, Monark and a healthy se­lec­tion of qual­ity sounds and ef­fects, and the pack­age seems very rea­son­able.

As an up­grade it’s less of a no-brainer; NI have never been great at re­ward­ing ex­ist­ing hard­ware own­ers, so there’s lit­tle to sweeten the deal if you’re com­ing from Mk2 or Stu­dio and al­ready own the full suite of soft­ware. A few free ex­pan­sion packs or some bonus Kom­plete con­tent would cer­tainly be wel­come. Don’t get me wrong, the Mk3 is a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in terms of work­flow and over­all ex­pe­ri­ence but, if you can sur­vive with­out the sleeker work­flow and in­ter­face, it doesn’t rev­o­lu­tionise what the plat­form is ca­pa­ble of.

Up­grade con­sid­er­a­tions aside, the over­all Mk3 ex­pe­ri­ence is prob­a­bly NI’s finest prod­uct to date and ar­guably the pin­na­cle of con­troller-cen­tred mu­sic mak­ing right now. Sleek, fun and in­spir­ing – what more could you ask for?

TOUCHSTRIP The Mas­chine Jam­style strip can con­trol per­for­mance FX and ‘strum’ through sounds. PAD GRID The 16 pads are now larger and more sen­si­tive, but main­tain the cen­tre-to-cen­tre po­si­tion of the Mk2. SCREENS As with Mas­chine Stu­dio, the larger...

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