If you could have an ideal drum machine and sample-slicing workstation, taking the physical control of hardware but the flexibility of software, what would it look like? We talk a lot about hardware control of software, but hardware usually comes second – software gets designed first, and then either you have to figure out how to map hardware to it, or someone else comes along and designs gear. That means there’s usually a disconnect in the design and workflow of the two, and most of the time, you have to reach for the mouse to make up the difference.

Maschine (pronounced as the German, mah-SCHEE-neh) was developed at Native Instruments with the goal to design the hardware and software simultaneously, not separately. That’s not an easy goal, and I don’t expect Maschine to be perfect or please everyone. But I got to visit the prototype at NI while I was in Berlin in October and see it in action, and I can say at the very least, the folks who created feel the way many of us do – they love software, they love hardware drum machines like the Elektron, and this is an attempt to be a real hybrid.

So, while contrary to rumors, NI does not have a box that does any audio generation in the hardware, this is a real attempt to fuse the controller and software in terms of design and workflow. The idea is to use the screen for visual feedback (you do have this big, pretty monitor on your desk or notebook), but to be able to work without a mouse.

Maschine can also work as a plug-in as well as a standalone app, depending on how you like to work (or how you want to play live). That means if you’re already in love with something like Ableton Live, you ought to theoretically be able to put the two together. Unfortunately, you can’t yet use it as a sequencer to drive other software, which would be an ideal next step; sequencing is as big a part of what Maschine does as sampling and sample manipulation. (No official statement on MIDI output has been made yet.)

Maschine’s hardware also works as a controller. So, for those keeping score, you could put Maschine next to the just-announced Akai APC40 and use them both to control Live – or Maschine could compete with the APC for your Live-controlling dollar – even before you touch the Maschine drum machine software.

Here’s NI’s intro video, which gives you a sense of how this stuff ties together (and we are officially the first to post it).

We’ll naturally be looking more closely at Maschine soon (I’m going to buy a new espresso maker and not sleep for the next few months). Here’s a quick overview:

  • 16 pressure-sensitive pads, which light up for visual feedback
  • Step sequencing
  • Polyphonic recording (so it is a real sequencer, too)
  • All software features are available quickly “on the surface,” so not only do you not need the mouse, but unlike a lot of hardware and even controllers, you don’t have a bunch of submenus and buttons to press to do stuff. That includes tasks like automation editing and even sound editing
  • Automatic sample mapping, beat slicing, note repeat
  • Real-time audio recording and resampling – so you can not only record, but resample what you’re working on, MPC style
  • Effects sends “from conventional to experimental” (basically, you can enjoy the kind of sound mangling goodness we’ve had on Kore and Reaktor lately)
  • Kore-style sound browsing, with a multi-gig library to get you started

Availability: April 1

Pricing: US$669 list (EUR 599)

The hardware has a top-notch feel and metal casing; at least from what I could judge from the prototype, this should look and feel absolutely fantastic. My only real disappointment was that there’s no synth engine, but that’s just because I love drum synths. Then again, I love the simplicity of Maschine, so perhaps the best fix would be to add the ability to either host plug-ins, as Kore does, or to provide MIDI output capability to other software, so that you could drive synths and other creations. (Heck, you could even sequence visuals in that case.)

What’s unique to me about Maschine is that it isn’t simply an emulation of an MPC; it still takes a software approach to sequencing, it still supports plug-ins and the things you like about software, and it still has NI-style effects. By virtue of being software, in fact, you can really change how you use it relative to hardware. You can drop it in Live or even in a tracker like Renoise. You can use it not as a drum machine but a pattern-based effects unit and insert it after your voice or an instrument. Then you can switch to a VJ set, ignore the Maschine software, and use it as an intelligent plug-in for running live visuals for your friend’s band. None of this is nearly as practical with a conventional hardware drum machine – and this is a whole lot cheaper.

Also, unlike some attempts to unify hardware and software in the past, the visual relationship isn’t slavish. You see something that looks like it makes sense on a screen when you’re editing; it looks like software, but you can easily control it with hardware and not the mouse. (Nothing against the mouse – it’s fantastic for many jobs; sample slicing and music editing just happens not to be one of them.) When you’re ready to perform, the displays on the device mean you don’t have to look at the screen at all.

It’s also worth noting that this is very different from today’s Akai APC announcement. The Akai is clearly better suited to mixing and clip triggering, but the Maschine has velocity-sensitive pads the Akai lacks, and is better suited to hardware control of beat slicing and editing operations. (That said, someone may decide to use Max for Live to turn Maschine into a hybrid machine that also controls and edits Live itself, so everything is suddenly wide open.) And the APC is all about a host (Live), whereas Maschine is all about adding a drum machine / workstation to a host (which could be Live, or Renoise, or Pro Tools, or something else altogether).

In fact, to me, the real competition is Ableton Live’s Drum Racks, groove extract, and slice to rack features. It’s mouse-based, but it also integrates with a host and can host plug-ins itself. I’m personally excited about using both, so it’ll be interested to see which I wind up preferring for which tasks. And you can meanwhile bend your brain around the idea of Maschine instances running inside Ableton Live Drum Racks and other odd combinations.

If there’s any criticism of Maschine, my guess it that it’s likely to be criticized for over-simplicity: as opposed to the first release of Kore, the approach here is really minimalism; NI did less in the hopes that you’d get more out of hardware integration, and the rest you can make up by working with your favorite existing tools and plug-ins. That’s not to say it’s dumbed-down, from what I can see, though I just have to use it.

Whether NI has nailed this one is another question, of course, and one I’ll want to test vigorously. But I love the idea. Mainly, I just
want to get my hands on one so we can try this out. You’ll definitely want to stay tuned.


Corrections: In the first draft of this story, I suggested that Maschine could output MIDI to other software instruments or host plug-ins; at least as of version 1.0, the software can’t. You can use it as a controller, though, and output MIDI to other hardware (so you could sequence hardware synths or even other drum machines). The thing I’d like to see there is MIDI output to other software; we certainly have enough hosts (NI’s Kore being one of those hosts). I also overstated the connection to Kore (which is why I was confused about plug-ins). Like Kore, Maschine is integrated hardware and software, it shares the Kore browser, and it shares some of the other design features of the current generation of NI software. But Maschine is its own creature – and honestly, that’s a good thing. Stay tuned for more details.