These days, various combinations of faders and touch sensors and grids of pads and buttons and encoders and knobs appear with cyclic regularity. We’re past the point of inventing the automobile – we’re down to tuning particular cars for particular tasks. But what do you want to use if you’re really playing live? Maschine Jam is a combination of software and hardware that focuses on that scenario. We’ve met with the team that built it at Native Instruments and have our own unit in now to test, so here are some first impressions.

Where Jam fits in

Maschine Jam is, just like other Maschine products, a combination of hardware and software. If you don’t yet own Maschine, you get it in the box. If you do, you can add this on as an additional controller.

And in addition to integrated workflows with Native Instruments’ own software, Maschine Jam also works as a generic MIDI controller for other software. To get you started, there’s an included Ableton Live template – but there’s a lot of power here for hackers, actually, something we’ll get to in more detail.

Granted, on the face of it, you’ve seen the layout of Maschine Jam before. The touch strips on the bottom with colored pads recall, among other things, the work of boutique Texas maker Livid Instruments. And RGB pads are at this point almost an industry standard. (Dig deep into functionality here, and you see a direct lineage to the monome and an early app for it called Pages. The industry has seen unprecedented bottom-up innovation from the DIY community in recent years.)

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So, again, what makes Jam unique is really all in the details. And while you would be inclined to compare it to Ableton Push, it represents a different direction. When Push was unveiled, Ableton’s pitch was that it was a way of starting tracks. Jam has some parallel ideas, but the point is really taking musical materials and playing with them. So you could start tracks this way, but you might be equally comfortable using Jam onstage – without necessarily being a great finger drummer.

The reason for that is that Jam is really built around playing and sequencing musical materials.

With Jam, immediate access to Maschine's sequencing, arrangement, and effects features is easier than ever.

With Jam, immediate access to Maschine’s sequencing, arrangement, and effects features is easier than ever.

Jam workflows

The grid can work as a keyboard for chords and melodies, with arpeggiator and the option to constrain to a particular scale/harmony.

It’s also a rhythmic step sequencer.

It’s also a melodic step sequencer.

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Those features are a bit “flatter” and easier to follow than in a more conventional DAW because you always have the comfort of Maschine’s groups and instrument structure behind them.

Now, where this gets interesting is, Native Instruments have packed in lots of features for generating and modifying ideas apart from just playing them in. So you can generate random rhythms and melodies to start with, constrained however you like, and vary existing materials accordingly. That makes starting patterns – and making variants – far easier.

And then there are the touch strips – this might be the best part. Those eight strips work as you’d expect for mixing and even things like note input, but they’re also parameter controls for effects.

In other words, imagine having eight Korg KAOSS Pads with you, packed into a small space. (Years ago, I marveled at Jon Hopkins’ economical, expressive setup with four KAOSS Pads – and what he was doing would take about five minutes to emulate in Maschine Jam, without all the associated gear and cables.)

Effects

The touch strips have functionality necessary to make that really powerful. They’re crazy sensitive and expressive, about as detailed as anything I’ve found. (I haven’t tried with sweaty fingers, but I’m lucky in that that’s the only part of my body I think doesn’t sweat profusely in the heat.)

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You can use two fingers on them at once, which opens up clever techniques like “fluttering” between two values.

There are new “PERFORM FX” that take advantage of all of this.

New performance effects, seen here with mixer.

New performance effects, seen here with mixer.

And remember, you can launch patterns and scenes, all in a consistent interface, without any additional setup and planning.

But really, Jam’s coolness comes down to one feature – really. It’s called “LOCK.” Yay, exciting. Wait… what?

Mighty morphing power software

Here’s how it works: get some patterns and parts playing the way you want, with parameters just so. Hit lock, and you can take a snapshot.

Play on.

Take another snapshot. And so on…

Now, you can recall those snapshots. But you can also morph between them at whatever rate you want.

This is absolutely huge. It’s a reason to start using Maschine if you never have. Now, NI talks about doing “build ups” – so, sure, you could make really cheesy mainstage EDM that way. (Later, when you’re super famous, just give me some guest list and I will totally wave my hands around behind you. Confetti cannon and everything – sounds fun!)

But it’s obviously not limited to that. Having heard basically all ambitious live sets devolve into never-changing loops for the last, uh, twenty years are so, this finally makes it easier to keep your place and make the music change. It could be a way of creating song structures. It could involve lots of parameters. It could be really minimal and involve just one parameter. It could change fast. Or it could take a few bars.

Maschine alone gives you a lot to play with, but remember this also can host things like Reaktor and Reaktor Blocks ensembles. So while NI will obviously emphasize much more popular beat-driven workflows, someone out there will probably make wild experimental music with it, just using the grid as a means of storing different snapshots of ensembles.

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Controller

I think concerns about lock-in these days are understandable. Are you buying yet another fairly spendy gadget that does nothing but control one piece of software? What if you wind up using something else in 12 months to feel inspired?

Maschine Jam still requires drivers. It still runs only with a computer attached. And it’s USB only – no MIDI jacks, either. That’s pretty much standard for NI hardware.

But that said, NI does seem more committed than ever to making this open to integration with software other than their own. There’s not a single control on there that doesn’t send standard MIDI messages – every single one. And LED lights and colors are addressable, too. You can edit that functionality further, as per usual, with NI’s editor software.

All of this adds up to what may be one of the best and most flexible general-purpose MIDI controllers released recently. it doesn’t do velocity, but it does everything else.

That could open up lots of DIY solutions – NI already feature Bitwig, Logic, and Ableton in screenshots, and of course there are many other musical and visual tools that could work. (For visual apps in particular I think it’ll be great, as you really don’t need velocity.)

Ableton integration

For Ableton Live users, you can actually work with nearly all of the Jam workflows with Ableton as the host and even ignore Maschine software, if you so choose. Maybe you do that all the time, maybe just for a particular project – or maybe you switch as you work, which is also possible. In that case, here’s how things translate:

  • The step sequencer controls drum racks
  • Touch strips control mixing: level, panning, send effects all with visual feedback (meaning this becomes a competitor to things like Novation’s LaunchControl, potentially)
  • Keyboard mode works with instruments and the like as usual
  • The grid launches, creates, mutes, and delete clips (with color feedback)

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/maschine/production-systems/maschine-jam/feature-details/

First impressions

Already, I have to say, the hardware feels terrific. It’s also nicely slimmer than previous Maschine hardware, which makes it easier to tote. (If you want to elevate it, there’s a small screw-on stand; it’s stable but much less intrusive than past outings.) I wish it lined up a little better next to the Maschine dimensions, but it’s close enough.

I definitely miss having velocity sensitivity, personally, but this pairs nicely with a portable keyboard or other pads.

And it goes well with an existing Maschine controller – especially if you love the 4×4 velocity-sensitive pads, which I do. Function keys work on both and focus remains on the same group (so there’s some duplication). But you get those pads, but you can nicely break up arrangement and sound design, or sequencing and sound design. This video shows a bit of that:

We’ll go more in depth with MIDI functionality and performance/sequencing/effects features soon. If you’ve got questions, let us know – I’m walking distance from everybody who made this, so I can pester them.

Pricing: $399 / 399 € / ¥ 49,800 / £319 / AU$ 549

A little break for existing Maschine 2 owners – you get two free expansions through the end of the year.

Availability: September 29.

  • an3

    again no traktor integration 🙁 .. Roland is gonna beat this one don soo hard i think.. if so.. time to leave traktor and move on to serato

    • Chris Bartholomew

      I know right? It seems like a good way to mirror the success of the Toraiz without really having to sell anyone anything new…

      • Wow, really? I didn’t expect *that* response – not at all. Traktor complaints, fine, but that’s really for the Traktor team not the Maschine team.

        First, this doesn’t really have anything to do with DJ workflows. You’ve got more than enough to keep you busy with a bunch of step sequencers and instruments and effects. (You know – like, play live.)

        Two, I love what Serato is doing and quite frankly, I think Serato on its own also has more than enough for a dynamic performance, without sync.

        Toraiz, I’m really excited to review that but… that’s really unrelated, unless I’m missing your point. It’s a totally different workflow than Jam.

        Also, I’m not sure what you need as far as integration – not at all. (What in the heck are you integrating, anyway?) What you need is working sync. Then you can integrate whatever you want, regardless of vendor.

        Anyway, wait until you see the Roland/Serato collaboration; then you can evaluate it in comparison to other offerings.

        • Dubby Labby

          Well the ToRaiz allusion seems legit due step secuencer and maschine grid. Also Traktor remix decks feels similar to Pioneer sampler so if we look at so demanded “maschine deck” this Maschine Jam seems Ableton session view (remix deck?) inside Maschine realm.

          From Serato I expect same direction but more old paradigm mindset focus: turntable centric.

  • lokey

    huh, the ‘playing notes with smart strips’ sounds a lot like the old vestax faderboard…

    • tom

      interesting device, i somehow totally missed this …

    • Dubby Labby

      But the difference between fader (continuous) and touchstrip (non linear or randomized) makes this better suited for pitching and musicality. I was owner of a faderboard and also I have two stribes (kit) and iPad so I know what I’m saying 😉

      • lokey

        oh yeah, agreed. the livid base operated similarly, being able to hop between finger positions really opens up the possibilities of expression. i just havent see a mainstream use of faders for note control in quite a while, nice to see it getting-promoted here. (stribes were great little kits, werent they!)

  • XYZ

    “Touch strips control mixing: level, panning, send effects all with visual feedback”

    That’s it ? Does that mean you can”t assign a strip to control a specific parameter on a device plugin ( with Learn on Live ) ? That would be a shame. Please say it isn’t so..

    • Foosnark

      Watching the videos, it looks like you can easily assign them to parameters.

    • It’s a MIDI device, so as with any template/script, you can override those settings if you choose. I’m interested enough in this though that we’ll do a full story on how it’s working.

      • XYZ

        “I’m interested enough in this though that we’ll do a full story on how it’s working.”
        Please do. Jam looks to me even more ideal for performing with Live than the already dedicated offers ( Push and Apc40 )

        • David Lopez de Arenosa

          Agreed ^^ I’m personally considering ditching my APC40 for this bad boy, to use with Live.

          I always run into issues with the 40 where the faders aren’t in the updated state, and I can’t use takeover mode because of my other midi mapped gear that sends specific CC value messages… And also two of my APC40 faders are tweaking out and no amount of cleaning/ fader contact cleaner will fix em.

          I just hope that the ableton live template is as attractive and full featured as the maschine features. I’ve never used maschine before so i’m hesitant to get into a new workflow outside of Live.

  • I have just ordered a maschine mikro and wonder if I would be better served with this. What would you recommend?

    • Actually, this would go nicely with the mikro, because then you’d get a compact device with velocity sensitive pads. If you don’t care about that and you just wanted an entry into the software, than this is worth considering…

      • fmap

        yeah they’d be perfect together, turn the Mikro sideways and put it flush against the -uh.. Jam… (I feel like they could have picked a better name here) The touch strips obviate the knobs on the Mk2 to some degree, so the Mikro only takes care of what it does best – 4×4 pads.

        Then again, looking at price, if you weren’t that excited about the touch strips, you could get a Mk2 and a Launchpad Mini; or a Mikro, Launchpad Mini, and something like a Midi-Fighter Twister. The Mk2 has smoother knobs, but the Midi-Fighter has more of them, and push-down encoders.

        It really depends on what you value more in your personal workflow, what features you’ll get the most mileage out of. I find splitting up duties between controllers gives you more flexibility to fine tune things to your personal style and workspace layout. If you care about playing velocity sensitive pads, a Mikro handles just that. An 8×8 grid for sequencing is handled neatly by a launchpad mini. Need knobs? How about a box of them? Need touchy thingies? Get a cheap multi-touch tablet. Need a screen but no touchy thingies? Upgrade the Mikro to a Mk2. Need velocity sensitivity for your sequencer? Upgrade the Launchpad Mini to a LP Pro.

      • Which one is simpler to use? If you could only have one which would it be? Thank you.

      • .A.D.

        I agree using both seems great.

    • .A.D.

      I would return it if I were you, get the Jam and look for a used Mikro.
      Here in nyc used mikros mk2 pop up for $180-$250 on craigslist

      So you can have both for $600-$650 ish Around there 😀

  • Foosnark

    I use Maschine primarily for composition, not for live performances with pattern switching etc. But I’m still kind of excited about the Jam for step sequencing, which is awkward on the regular Maschine hardware and relies on mouse/keyboard. Do you think the Jam would make my life better as a studio dweller? 🙂

    One other thing that’s painful in Maschine is precision editing of parameter automation events. E.g. I’m tuning the frequency of a ring modulator and I want to hit a precise pitch for exactly one quarter note. It’s not possible to select a parameter event and turn an encoder to adjust it, so it requires mouse dragging. But I need it to be exactly 0.802, and the tiniest possible mouse movement brings it from 0.7984 to 0.8133. I don’t guess that’s improved in any way?

    • Foosnark

      Now that I look more into the Lock feature, that might solve that second problem. Tweak the parameter exactly right with encoder/strip and snapshot it… hmm!

    • Step Sequencing on Maschine MK1/2 hardware is one of its best features and absolutely does not need to involve the mouse/keyboard.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–b8iue5lAk

  • Freeks

    “A little break for existing Maschine 2 owners – you get two free expansions through the end of the year.”

    Not for MK1 users???
    I don’t know anyone who have upgraded to MK2 from MK1 as MK1 works perfectly. I hope that NI understands that and keeps MK1 supported.

    But for Mk1 user, this looks super juicy! Gotta have one, but this end of the year there is just too much new gear coming out! It’s only 8 hours to Roland 909 day!!!!

  • lokey

    hard to tell: is the lock feature maschine specific, or does the device itself morph between midi states? ie: can i use in with ableton to morph between states?

  • Heinrich Zwahlen

    I see this as a great addition to Maschine mainly due to its better step sequencing layout and more accessible pattern launch pad. The missing velocity would make it a non-starter for me as as my sole writing tool, but i understand that this needed to be sacrificied probably to keep the price so much lower than Push.

  • Will Lock and the new performance plugins come to Machine/Mikro/studio? I don’t see how they could limit it to one device since you can use the Machine software without plugging the hardware in, i.e there are Studio features I can’t directly control from my Mikro but they are still there in the software. I love snapshots and morphing in Reaktor — will it be anything like that, or is it just one lock at a time: as in you can’t save a lock as a snapshot and come back to it?

  • SyntheticJuice

    The extra touch strips for live manipulation can be helpful – I’d imagine they’ll be easier to manage than midi mapping macro’s and stuff to my keyboard controller faders today.

    Sequencing drums with a larger grid will be nicer too – it’s so much easier for me to sequence beats when I can easily see the seq relation between sounds – one less reason to glance at the screen!

    Hmm, I can totally imagine a tidy JAM + MK2 + Keystep improv setup!

    That said, I hope they release the new “song layer” capability shorty after the Jam release.

  • dustinw

    Why do manufacturers insist on requiring drivers? If it had a driver-less mode I could use it with my iPad and I could continue to use it even if NI decided to stop updating their drivers.

    I have a bunch of gear I need to toss out because I can’t get up-to date drivers.

  • Judity

    I’m waiting for mine to ship and I’ll have a unique setup of a Maschine Jam, Maschine Studio, and Komplete Kontrol keyboard. I hope they all work well together.