Native Instruments just released MASCHINE MIKRO MK3 – the new entry level hardware controller for MASCHINE – its hardware-software beatmaking/groovebox platform, and two immediate questions come to mind – how is it different from the MK2 version of MIKRO, and how does it compare to MASCHINE MK3 – it’s bigger brother in the product line.
What is MASCHINE
A bit of an intro to MASCHINE as a platform: unlike standalone hardware, like the Elektron Digitakt, the Korg Electribes or the Novation Circuit, MIKRO and other MASCHINE controllers are just that – they need to be connected to a computer to work. That has advantages and disadvantages – the advantages being powerful software and an immense content library, the virtually unlimited storage of computers, the flexibility of software and support for third party plugins. All those things though do come with a layer of complexity, and that’s exactly where the MIKRO and MASCHINE controllers come in – their goal is to bring you back to the feeling of using hardware, but with all the advantages of software that I mentioned before.
Even though MIKRO MK3 and MASCHINE MK3 use the same software, their overall goal is different. The MASCHINE MK3 is designed to give you access to almost all the features of the software in hardware form, so that you don’t need to look at your computer.
The MIKRO MK3 doesn’t aspire to do that, it’s more of a hardware form companion for the things that are more difficult to do in software, with the pads, smart strip and encoder being the obvious hardware advantages. That said, you can get surprisingly far with your beat-making just using MIKRO MK3, creating patterns, scenes and arrangements and playing live.
MIKRO MK3 vs MK2 – what’s gone
Usually when a new product version comes out, improvements are expected – and that was certainly the case with the move from the bigger MASCHINE MK3 from its MK2 version.
With MIKRO MK3 however, while a few very nice features were added, some were also removed. Most noticeably, the screen is much smaller. This could also account for the reduction in price (now $250 instead of $300), but if you were used to or expecting the same degree of control as MIKRO MK2 – that’s not the case. The screen in MIKRO MK3 is much smaller, more focused and limited. For example, browsing is only possible in the currently selected tab (i,e., project, group, sound, etc). Sampling is limited to starting and stopping sample recording. All this obviously in the current version of the firmware, but with that screen size, some things like sample slicing or level metering may not be coming back.
I asked Native Instruments about this and they said this focus on a more limited hardware-screen based functionality came based on feedback from users that the previous MK2 screen, though bigger, still required too much menu diving and that most users weren’t using that functionality on the hardware anyway, so it was better to make way for more controllers and a lower price, and indeed that’s what we see in the new MIKRO MK3. MIKRO MK3 is based on a workflow philosophy of controller-computer-screen-mouse rather than trying to go for the controller-only workflow of the bigger MASCHINE MK3 and MASCHINE STUDIO.
Funny as it may sound, where I miss the screen the most is when playing the MIKRO pads in CHORD mode – where it would be nice to see the chord names on a screen. Currently the chord names don’t appear on the software either, though you can see which notes are in a chord on the piano roll. It would be nice if Native Instruments implemented some sort of UI where the chord names could be seen on screen.
One more thing that was not available at the time of this review, was the ability to use MIKRO MK3 as a MIDI controller with other software. It would seem that kind of functionality can be added in a future firmware update, but it’s not there as of now (September 2018) and I didn’t see the word “MIDI” printed anywhere on the panel, so if that’s important to you, check again before you buy.
What’s new in MIKRO MK3
So that’s what’s gone, let’s look at some improvements: first, as I mentioned above, the price – MIKRO MK3 is now $50 cheaper, which makes it easier to enter into the MASCHINE ecosystem.
Two other noteworthy additions are the Smart Strip and Pad Mode shortcuts. Those are welcome additions also previously appearing on the bigger MASCHINE MK3.
The Smart Strip is a four function touch sensitive controller. Two of its four modes are Pitch Bend and Mod Wheel, and behave as you would expect on regular MIDI keyboards.
The two other Smart Strip modes are the PERFORM and NOTES modes, which behave just like the similar controllers in MASCHINE MK3. In Performance fx mode the Smart Strip becomes a controller for a few built in effects, like Filter, Stutter and Echo and more. In NOTES mode, the Smart Strip lets you strum notes like a guitar. If you don’t touch any pads the strip will cycle through all the notes represented on the pads, and if you hold pads, only those pads held will be strummed through.
MIKRO MK3 VS MASCHINE MK3
As I mentioned above, MIKRO is going for a different workflow than its bigger brother. Let’s start with what’s the same: as far as I could tell the pads are just as good in MIKRO as they are in MASCHINE, and the Smart Strip is just as responsive, so if you’re in it for the finger drumming and expressive control, you’re not missing out on anything with MIKRO.
Another thing in common with both controllers is that they’re also both USB powered – I’ve already mentioned in a previous review that while you can use an external power supply to get some more brightness with out of MASCHINE MK3, unless you’re working in direct sunlight or want to save on your laptop’s battery power, external power isn’t necessarily – it works just fine on USB.
In terms of differences, the most striking difference is , obviously, that the entire top portion of MASCHINE MK3 doesn’t existing MIKRO MK3.
You’d think the biggest difference is the screen, but I think that almost equally important if not more are the encoders and shortcut buttons above the screens. It’s not just about changing more than one parameter at a time, even though there’s that too, but more the fact that you can just reach out and touch the parameter you want to change, rather than have to use the MIKRO arrow keys to reach it. The MIKRO encoder is still more useful than changing parameters with a mouse, but getting to the right parameter is a bit of a chore on the MIKRO, and a pleasure on MASCHINE.
The next big difference is sampling. I mentioned this before – sampling functionality is basically all but removed from the MIKRO controller, and relegated to the computer screen and a mouse, whereas on the MASCHINE MK3 you can do everything just fine on the hardware. With the MIKRO MK3 you can start and stop sampling, but that’s pretty much it. Whether or not using a computer for this impedes on your workflow or not is obviously an issue of personal preference.
Browsing functionality on MIKRO was described above so I won’t repeat it, but of course on the bigger MASCHINE MK3 – everything is accessible directly using the hardware controller. Same goes for the graphical Arrangement views, MASCHINE MK3 makes these fully accessible on the hardware – whereas on the MIKRO series this was always a computer screen view. That said, you can of course edit your arrangement using the SCENE and PATTERN buttons on the hardware – you only need the computer screen for things like the overall visual graphic view and labels.
Another big difference between the two is that the MASCHINE MK3 also has a built in audio interface with a good amount of outputs and inputs including 5 pin MIDI out and in. MIKRO on the other hand is USB only.
Finally, the last noteworthy difference is the group buttons – each group gets a dedicated button on the MASCHINE MK3, whereas on MIKRO swapping groups is a “shift” function using the GROUP button.
The final small difference is that the encoder is also a joystick on the MASCHINE MK3 and just a push button encoder on MIKRO. It may be just me but I feel more comfortable using the left right buttons most of the time anyway, so that’s not that big of a deal in my opinion.
Price is obviously a factor and MIKRO definitely has that going for it. MIKRO sells for $250 and MASCHINE MK3 for $600. So in light of all the above you need to decide if the screens and extra hardware control, and the audio interface are worth it for you.
MIKRO obviously also beats MASCHINE out on size. MIKRO is definitely more portable and with no big screens to worry about getting scratched it feels like it’s something you can just throw in your bag, and if you don’t mind using a computer screen and mouse, then MIKRO will definitely take up less space on your table. MIKRO MK3 is no compromise when it comes to pad size, quality or sensitivity and the same goes for the Smart Strip.
MIKRO MK3’s reduced price and portability make for an easier entry into the MASCHINE ecosystem and its bundled software is both fantastic and something that can be expanded upon. MIKRO MK2 didn’t have a hardware only workflow regardless of its screen, so if you don’t mind using a mouse and computer, MIKRO MK3 will fit very nicely in your setup doing things a mouse and keyboard can’t.