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Native Instruments Maschine MK3 review: an all-in-one music-making playground

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Upgrades for your on-the-fly creative flow

I’ve spent years making music and programming beats, mostly with software-only tools, such as Ableton and Logic Pro. So, when the opportunity arrived to try out Native Instruments’ newest hardware / software combo, the Maschine MK3, I was intrigued to experience a different way of music-making. Maschine, a hand-in-hand combination of sequencing software with a physical piece of gear, lets you program beats, loops, and melodies by tapping touch-sensitive pads while its software component runs on your computer.

So, just how intuitive is the $599 Maschine MK3 for someone who knows other music production programs? What’s it like to start making music on pads if the Maschine MK3 is your first drum machine? How much learning is involved in order to operate the Maschine MK3 on a basic level? I might not have ever made music on a system like this, but my inexperience here is an asset. I’ll be breaking this down from the perspective of a newcomer to the system, as many of you likely are.

I was really thrown into answering all these questions, as when the MK3 was shipped to me, the manual wasn’t even available yet! So, here’s a review by a producer who had to guess her way through most of the MK3’s interface and has never used a hardware-based drum machine.

WHAT IS IT

When Native Instruments first released Maschine in 2009, there was nothing like it. Physical samplers had existed for ages, but this took the idea and paired it with software on a computer. Since then, the company has released several variations on its hardware / software hybrid, including the budget-minded Maschine Mikro and a premium version of the physical interface called Maschine Studio.

The MK3, which I’ve now had for a few weeks, is the latest update to Maschine’s core hardware controller. It’s used for both creating music and live performances, and while the software portion can be used without the hardware counterpart, the whole point is to use them in tandem. Plus, you can’t buy the software as a standalone. The hardware is designed specifically for the Maschine software, but can also be used with other Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton or Logic Pro, with a little adaptation.

Ultimately, if you’re not familiar with this type of thing at all, Native Instruments’ own description sums it up best: the Maschine suite is for “groove production.” You record loops by playing sounds assigned to pads, then choose effects (like delay or compression), bring different loops or sounds in and out, control automation, and more. Since it’s based on layering loops, or grooves, the Maschine MK3 is great for recording song ideas quickly, and to some degree, finessing them directly from the hardware.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

As a piece of hardware, the MK3 is beautiful and delightful in its restraint. It’s relatively compact, at 12.6 x 11.85 inches, and has a slightly sloped low profile. A matte black blankets most of it, including many buttons that were white in previous versions. This means the portions that do utilize colors, like the main pads, have certain oomph and extra appeal, glowing in hues like tangerine and deep rose. Overall, there’s a refinement with the MK3’s design, down to a font change that’s crisply thin, aligned in the top-left corner of buttons. If there were anything to complain about, a kickstand would have been a nice addition for extra visibility (collapsable kickstands are built into the Maschine Studio, after all), but it isn’t completely necessary.

Native Instruments built a lot of new physical features into the MK3 (like a smart strip, but more on that later) and also increased the size of nearly every button, including the drum pads. Despite there being more things and less space between everything, the MK3’s layout is surgically tidy. I’m a fan of function restraint, and find it irksome when brands offer new features for the sake of offering new features. However, what Native Instruments made room for on the MK3 makes sense, and the company managed to do it in just about the same amount of space as the MK2. Bravo.

WHAT’S NEW

Among the MK3’s laundry list of upgrades, there is a common theme: mindful changes that keep a user creatively jamming on the hardware itself, without having to break away.

The biggest and most obvious improvement to aid this goal is two large, high-resolution color screens. They’re bright and easily readable, even when the unit is only powered by my laptop’s USB port. And, there’s a lot that can be done with this extra real estate. I challenged myself to stay on the unit as much as possible without referencing the Maschine software running on my laptop. It was doable. Precisely slicing audio samples was a breeze, as was navigating through my project to move groups of sounds around. Sure, it’s still faster to execute some refinement actions on a computer, like adjusting settings for a plugin assigned to a single sound. But, for the most part, it’s not overly burdensome to complete most of your basic tasks directly on the MK3.

A lot of thoughtfulness has been lent to navigation in general, but not all of it succeeds. I found, for example, that I didn’t use the MK3’s new push encoder much unless it was necessary. It’s meant to be an additional way for browsing the screens one-handed, giving another option for tailoring your personal workflow. Placing it on the left side seemed a nudge to use it for multitasking (left hand on encoder, right hand on pads), and I tried this, but it felt forced. Even when using it solo for simple exercises like selecting sounds, it’s clunky compared to the strip of touch-sensitive knobs. There are a few places where it shines: in the Mixer panel, using the push encoder is a fast and fluid way to navigate through groups, channels within a group, and then adjust both an individual sound’s volume and panning.

Other navigation fixes are a blessing. From what I’ve read, because people like to complain on the internet, there was a general gripe with the Shift button. Specifically, that many well-used features were buried behind Shift functions. Many of these are now broken out with dedicated buttons above the pads, like Fixed Velocity, a mode where all the pads play at the same volume, no matter how hard they’re pressed, and Keyboard, which allows you to play a single sound at 16 different pitches on the pads. This doesn’t mean there aren’t still a load of Shift functions (there are... everywhere), they’ve just been moved away from the main creative space to remove clutter from where it counts most.

There are two other new features that are borrowed from another Native Instruments product, Maschine Jam: a smart strip, and lock button. The smart strip, found under the push encoder, has greater functionality than its counterpart on Jam. Here, there are different buttons to select above the strip to apply a variety of effects. You can slide your finger across the strip to use it like a pitch bend wheel, or “strum” sounds that are mapped to the pads. It’s fun to experiment with; I liked hearing the twist and curl of a synth dampening under a low pass filter as I dragged my finger across. The strip definitely adds some organic feel to loops you’ve preprogrammed and another performative element as well.

The Lock button, also from Maschine Jam, is wildly entertaining for taking your loops off course. Pressing the Lock button takes a snapshot of your current project, allowing you to play around, add effects, or modulate any other parameter without worrying about losing your work. Once you’re done, just tap the Lock button again, and you’re back to your original project and settings. Like the smart strip, this is another function that begs for live performance. At home, I had a blast spontaneously creating breakdowns within Lock mode. Removing elements from a song, filtering others down for dramatic effect, and then tapping out of Lock mode to slam everything back in full force was very satisfying.

One of the biggest hurdles I had throughout was remembering the myriad of functions assigned to the multi-purpose knobs, buttons, and four-dimensional push encoder, which can scroll, toggle, and be pressed. This definitely tested my frustration levels. But, the MK3 does give you some hints. If the push encoder can be used to toggle on-screen, tiny navigation lights appear around it to indicate actionable directions. Likewise, the top strip of buttons only light up if pressing them will result in an action.

Even when you get used to this, doing your sound fidgeting and fine-tuning here can be a chore. There are several instances where executing a single action on the MK3 itself requires six or seven steps. I suppose it comes with the territory when you’re expecting to be able to condense an entire DAW into a handful of buttons and knobs. Know what would have really helped? Touchscreens! I definitely tapped the screens several times when I first set up the MK3, automatically thinking they would be touch sensitive (especially since I’ve had several hands-on with touchscreen products lately, like Denon DJ’s SC5000 players). Maybe next time.

AUDIO INTERFACE

There are significant core updates here that make the MK3 a more powerful all-in-one unit than its predecessors. It has a built-in 96kHz / 24-bit audio interface, a one-fourth dynamic mic input, a stereo headphone output, MIDI in and out, and perhaps most importantly, line outputs and inputs. It can be powered just with USB, or plugged into the wall for some extra illumination.

As I’ve previously mentioned, those line jacks are a big deal. Before the MK3, the Maschine hardware had no audio I/O, so you couldn’t just plug things like speakers or your headphones into the unit. Now, you can. Having these inputs available also means you can plug in instruments like a synth and record directly into the Maschine software. This is a leg up not only in comparison to the previous MK2, but other products like Ableton’s Push controller, which simply can’t accomplish the same thing without an audio interface.

I currently have the MK3’s audio output only routed to the headphone jack (because I live with people), which leaves my laptop free for, well, everything else. I do have some lovely Adam Audio A7X studio monitors, but here’s where a minor annoyance comes in: the headphone input doesn’t mirror the master outputs. That means if I’m listening in headphones and want to switch to my monitor speakers, I can’t just unplug. I have to go into Maschine’s preferences and reroute the output ports to my speakers. It’s a bummer. A tiny one, but still a bummer.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I have grown to really enjoy using the MK3, and am wistful about sending it back. I have some minor gripes, but they mostly have to do with memorizing workflows and getting used to making music via tapping these very touch-sensitive pads. These concerns would probably go away with time. In the weeks I’ve had the MK3, I’ve learned enough to create the bulk of two house songs, and have spent several late nights hovered over this blinking box, making loops, recording in vinyl samples, and getting lost in the on-the-fly creative process it’s meant to encourage. It takes me away from overthinking, and I appreciate that.

Something I find lovely about the Maschine MK3 is that because so much of the experience lives on the box itself, it feels welcoming and approachable. If you’re a beginner with DAWs, there can be an air of intensity and difficulty while staring at a program’s blank screen — where do you start? Sure, with the Maschine MK3 you have to know some basics, but it doesn’t require you be a pro to figure out how to make groovy-sounding loops and beats. It’s about connecting your brain with your hands without interruption, and since the MK3 comes stock with over 8GB of instruments and effects, there’s a lot of fodder at your fingertips. Also, that $599 price point might seem spendy, but it’s quite reasonable for the market. There’s bang for your buck here.

All that said, the more you know, the more it becomes a playground. You can dig into all the little wonky ways it allows you to change sounds within the hardware, use it in conjunction with a more robust DAW like Ableton or Logic, or connect instruments to record in your own samples. Basically, the MK3 is as complicated as you’d like it to be… to a degree.

Ultimately, I found the MK3’s layout fairly intuitive, and the software very streamlined, though still defined by its limitations. It’s not as comprehensive as other DAWs, but does it have to be? The Maschine MK3 isn’t for hemming and hawing over layers of effects on a single sound; it’s for sparking ideas and getting them out fast. After spending time with the MK3, I’d personally still save a song’s fine-tuning for a more robust DAW, but starting them on this little black box is fun as hell.

Photography by Dani Deahl / The Verge