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We Tried iMaschine 2, the Digital Audio Workstation That Makes Making Music Feel Like a Game

Native Instruments’ new app is all about getting you to make extensive beats in the fewest number of steps.
November 20, 2015, 9:45pm
Native Instruments

Electronic music technology has a long history of blurring the line between toys and serious music-making gear: pocket-sized synthesizers with studio-quality sounds, technologically advanced keyboards disguised as something aimed at kindergarteners, and video games that not only teach the basics of digital production but have also ended up on more than a few actual releases.

Native Instruments creates some of the most popular and powerful hardware and software gear on the market, including its popular beat-production hardware/software suite Maschine. But one of its best products is exceedingly humble compared to its feature-heavy interfaces and virtual instrument libraries that run into the hundreds of gigabytes: iMaschine, the simplified iOS companion to Maschine that last week just received its biggest update since its release in 2011.

Compared to the app's older bro, Maschine, which has evolved over the years from a drum-focused setup into the closest thing Native Instruments has to an Ableton-style digital audio workstation for complete track production, iMaschine 2 is incredibly bare-bones—even in its 2.0 incarnation. The application is a sort of micro-DAW with four channels that you can use to sequence drum pads, keyboards, or recordings straight off the iPhone's microphone, plus a mixer and a couple of effects, and not much else. It's basically a high-end audio toy. Which is what's so great about it.

At this point in the evolution of DAW, having an even moderately sized library of plug-ins means having immediate access to more sounds than a producer 20 years ago could dream of, and about a million ways to manipulate them. While this can be every bit as much of a heaven-on-earth situation for audio geeks as it sounds, the potential for choice overload is immense–enough to derail a project, especially if you spend so much time tweaking the perfect snare sound that you forget what you were going to do with it in the first place.

Part of the additional beauty of iMaschine 2 is that it keeps these choices to a minimum. Even with a couple dozen expansion packs–99-cent bundles of drum kits and synth patches sorted by mood and genre–available, its library is far from limitless. The sounds are tweak-able through the app's seven effects and filters, plus pitch and gain controls, but everything's designed to facilitate a kind of grab-and-go mentality which urges you to throw a couple of pre-made kits into a project to make a track in real time, then sweat out the details later. (If you have Maschine proper you can also easily import your iMaschine projects.) The whole point of the app is to get you to making beats in the fewest number of steps.

The beatmaking process itself is simple and intuitive: hit the record button, and you get up to 32 bars on a loop that you can build up and fill out on the fly. Quick undo and history options encourage a throw-it-at-the-wall workflow. 2.0 adds in new tools like step sequencing on the drum pads (which lets you program parts visually using a grid) and scale modes on the keys (which reprograms the keyboard so every note fits your preferred scale), both of which help negate the clumsy parts of playing music on a tiny touchscreen. On the other hand, with its touchable interface, making beats on iMaschine 2 feels a lot like a video game, and is more fun than most of the actual games I have on my phone.

NI calls iMaschine 2 a "sketchpad," and its casual low-stakes vibe is highly conducive to quickly roughing out an idea for a drum part, or spending your commute making music instead of playing Two Dots. I learned a lot about the basics about how to work in a DAW from spending a month on tour with my old band and spending drives in the back of the van making beats on my phone with the original iMaschine.

In fact, once I moved up to a real Maschine system, and then further on to Ableton, there were things that I missed about iMaschine. I like that it figures out how many bars long a part is while you're recording, so you don't have to set it beforehand. I like that you can record a sample from your iPhone mic and assign it to a drum pad in as little as two taps, in case you decide to make a beat out of your friend's noisy pet bird.

And if you feel like popping the hood and digging down a few layers, you can find that iMaschine 2 is actually a pretty powerful tool for how simple and compact it is. You can edit samples down to the waveform, manipulate individual note velocities, and create keyboard arpeggios. The 2.0 version has upgraded its sequencing capabilities to include scenes–sets of drum and keys patterns that form a track's building blocks–that work pretty much like they do in Maschine. (In fact I kind of prefer how you interface scenes on the iOS app versus the full version.) Where the original iMaschine only lets you program loops up to 32 bars long, the new version gives you the capability to make whole song-length tracks.

At $4.99 for the month of November, iMaschine 2 is a fraction of the price of even the entry-level Maschine Mikro hardware-software suite, and if you're willing to work within its restraints, you can at least approximate most of the full version's basic functionality. The ability to make full-length songs with it means that iMaschine 2 is pretty much a complete production platform now. It may have its limitations, but then again so do the early versions of Fruity Loops or Music 2000 for the Playstation One, and those programs weaned whole generations of electronic musicians (some of whom never stopped using them). Now that there's an intuitively designed baby DAW within reach of any kid with an iPhone and enough money to buy a meal at Taco Bell, there could be a whole new generation of producers coming up off it. If there's a rap song on the radio within a year that was made almost entirely in iMaschine 2, I wouldn't be surprised.