Native Instruments’ Maschine & Ableton Live… together

maschine_heinrich_pic 1By: Heinrich Zwahlen

Should we take the time to learn a software-specific piece of hardware, rather than focusing on open and freely configurable control surfaces that can be programmed however we want?

More than the APC40, Native Instruments’ Maschine strongly says ‘yes,’ and after some initial reluctance to go down that road I can now clearly see the benefits.  If you optimize an environment for a certain task you can improve your workflow and be more creative…resulting in less headaches and more fun with actual music making.  Of course, it’s also fun to spend your time building and inventing new devices and set ups, but ultimately we be better of getting started with making some music right away.

There is a lot to be said for having a dedicated and specialized controller for a specific task: Maschine shines when it comes to loop style midi recording in a grid/step environment.  It’s charm is all about eliminating too many options and focusing on the essential functions of midi programming while mapping them out to a well designed piece of hardware.  The software and plug-in complement the hardware, and they both not only replicate but enhance each other so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  This makes for an intriguing experience, and surmises what is novel about Maschine (whereas an APC is solely mirroring and controlling some functions of the software).  Generally some tasks can better be done with the software (computer) and some better with the hardware controller.

What musical tasks exactly are going to be easier or better done with Maschine than with Live and an APC?

Some of the uses are:

1)  MIDI control mode: as controller for Ableton, Battery, Massive, Traktor and more.  The knobs transmit MIDI CC messages.
2)  Pad control for impulse or drum racks in Live.
3)  Drum sequencer: Real time step recording and editing by using the pads for entry and display.
4)  Input quantization changeable to correct as you play.
5)  Sounds and effects: outstanding library for many styles, plus easy browsing and great sonic quality.
6)  Slicing: quantized or transient based.
7)  Automation: real time or by drawing using hard and software for unique sound design.

In MIDI control mode we can use Maschine as a controller to jam with clips and scenes, however we only have 16 pads, 8 knobs, and no crossfader, which will give us less immediate control. For that use I would prefer an APC, especially when working with a big set.  However Maschine is cool because it’s smaller and bus powered and offers many other functions all in one box.

Obviously there are the drum pads that have a great touch and track all the subtleties of live playing. Any MPC users will feel at home right away, and NI being a great sound design company, you get a superior drum library with a more intuitive and easier to use browser system than the one in Live. The value of better organization and a GUI (Graphical User Interface) with more visual feedback cannot be understated.  Like Traktor, the Maschine plug-in has a clean look and is easy to read.  You can use it as a more specialized production tool inside Live for hands on MIDI production (mainly drums, but not only).  Compared to the endless possibilities of Ableton, Maschine is all about gaining a better focus through simplification and strategic limitation: it basically is an eight-track sequencer which can use up to eight separate kits or instruments (groups).

In Maschine you get 8 instrument groups with 16 sounds, and 64 MIDI patterns can be associated with each group.  A pattern combined with a group in arranger is called a ‘clip.’  Songs are created with up to 64 scenes, with clips organized vertically for simultaneous playback. You can freely switch between them very much like in Live.  While a scene is running you can easily flip thru the patterns associated with each group.

Everything can be done with the illuminated pads very much like with the APC, except here the pads will display the MIDI content of the selected group as it occurs in real time, or as part of a step grid. This allows for a much deeper live interaction with the music than you would get with an APC (at least at this point).  Also, lets not forget that unlike with the APC or Launchpad you get touch sensitive pads, which allows for additional control possibilities using velocity and aftertouch.

I would use Maschine to do live MIDI programming and modification, while the APC and
Live’s session view would be better at playing clips in a big set or for control of effects and racks, as well as DJ style mixing/mashing.

Unlike with Ableton’s Drum Rack, a kit in Maschine is limited to only 16 individual pads; however you are not limited to one sample per pad.  A sound can use several samples that can be arranged across velocity layers for incredibly expressive results.  A really cool feature here is that a pad could also be played chromatically by switching to keyboard mode.  Used as such, every velocity layer would be mapped to a different key( at least as far as I know).

Another level of drum interaction is provided by the quantized Note Repeat function, which allows for 4 programmable preset stages set anywhere between ¼ to 64th notes.

When in record, it automatically writes the selected sound across the grid at a given quantization for accelerated beat programming.  This is particularly useful for adding live fills, translating pad pressure into volume intensity.

When it comes to adding swing Maschine also offers some interesting new concepts: there is group swing and master swing setting.  Individual controls for each instrument are applied as a percentage where 0% is straight, 50% is funky, and 100% pushes the notes all the way (nothing new there); however, it will let you apply that swing with different ‘cycle’ values (besides the typical 8th) which opens the door for experimentation with less mechanized or grooving feels.  Add to that the ability to invert the swing to create a push feel for some note values, and a lazy one for others, and you end up with a very innovative and detailed groove control system.  Nothing quite like Ableton’s groove pool though, and I wish I could export my MIDI to use some of their good stuff here, or let me import groove templates. I’m not complaining though.  Also, for each REX file you import a pattern will be created and added.

Maschine offers a good amount of detailed editing, including velocity (start, decay, cut-off, volume), pitch, sample start/gate/reverse/sustain, attack/hold/decay, amp and mod envelopes, variable LFOs with phase and sync, as well as multimode filtering.  You can record each parameter in real-time with the controller or the software.

maschine_heinrich_pic 2Native Instruments is already known for interesting effects and great sounding filters; with Machine you can apply them both with inserts or auxiliary sends, and easily create automation tracks for every parameter as you play a track.  With real-time tweaking and the great overall sound quality, the mangling and transformation possibilities produce amazing results almost instantly. You can record real-time automation tracks as a part of each pattern. I really wish I could do that in Ableton to clip envelope automation instead of just using a pencil.
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When it comes to integrating Maschine into Live, you should look at it almost as a parallel universe that coexists side by side with only a few bridges in between.  The most powerful one at this point (Version 1.1) is the ability to render a MIDI pattern into an audio clip in Live simply by drag dropping it from the Maschine plug in.

maschine_heinrich_ pic 5Individual group outs can be routed to separate tracks of course, however besides sync there is no MIDI CC integration provided at this point.  This might be frustrating when you don’t accept Maschine as a hardware/software environment, and only want to use it as a plug in. You really have to learn both the hardware and software usages if you want to get the best use out of this Instrument, well worth it since it will make some important things easier and better in the end.

The functions are generally very ergonomic and stripped down to the basic options required when making beats or other musical parts.  Eliminating extraneous options is the nature of the game when it comes to create an ideal workflow for studio or performance.  Like with an MPC, you can put together an entire track in no time in a very fluid and direct way – and it’s always fun to do.

For future updates I’m wondering if Native is going to open up Maschine’s automation for use with other controllers.  That would be a game changer for plug-in users.  MIDI file export or groove template import would also be a desirable addition… it might already be in the works for the next update, or so I hear.

Maybe NI doesn’t want to see the same thing that happened with KORE repeated, where many opted to go just for the software version and use other controllers, even though as a controller Maschine’s hardware generally has a lot more to offer than Kore.  NI’s main achievement lies in their innovative approach to integrating software and hardware in a very functional way, whereby the combination is more than the sum of its parts.  Here, most of the heavy lifting has already been done, as the conceptual groundwork has been laid and there seems to be a lot of interest both in the Ableton and NI communities to see more integration in the future.  For now, you will have to accept some limitations when using Maschine with Live.  Nonetheless, users get a superior setup to compose MIDI drums in a more hands-on way, and for MPC users this will be a no brainer thanks to the many parallels in functionality.  For Live users, in Version 1.1 we now are able to trigger scenes and sounds, either with program changes or notes. Sounds can be switched to ‘MIDI out,’ and may use other instruments instead of the built in sampler as sound sources.  But, this is also where the tricky part starts: when using Ableton as a host you have to use the VST plug-in (not AU) to get just one MIDI channel output routed. Still, you could easily trigger a Drum Rack loaded with synths or simpler/sampler drums when in piano roll mode… one note per instrument only of course.

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Since Ableton is not able to transmit on more than one MIDI channel you might want to run Maschine in NI Kore, where you can use all 16 channels to play separate plug-ins across the entire keyboard, in addition to the Maschine samples.  This really seems to be the only way to go if you want full MIDI implementation, which Ableton by itself strangely lacks. However, Kore offers a formidable solution for that and many other tasks, a worthy topic in its own right: using Maschine in Kore for triggering plug-ins on multiple MIDI channels.

to be continued…

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  • King Britt
  • 12/10/2009

This is so useful. I sent this to NI because they really need this information for users.

It has been fustrating trying to implement MIDI of Maschine inside of Live. When moving to another group to overdub on that channel, it will not do it.

So I see you set up a drum rack with vst in each slot. So really making a template of 8 slots for Maschine is an option although it would be easier to do within Maschine.

You have no idea how much this helps!


King Britt