Ableton Vs Maschine – Which One is Best?
We stumbled upon a bit of a debate while looking into how to deal with some upcoming tutorials. Apparently, a very hot topic of debate out there is being approached as “should I get Ableton or Maschine?” In other cases it manifests as just, “Ableton vs. Maschine.” I think this is an interesting approach to the topic. I’m not going to say this is the wrong way to approach these kind of decisions. I do, however, want to suggest that this mentality suffers from some critical issues that often make the discussion derail itself early on in a forum context.
Forums are a blessing and a curse. Some forums are extraordinarily helpful and even have policies in place about not having “flame wars” and generally being polite to one another. Other forums are less worried about this and the admins don’t intervene until the last possible second, if at all. While one forum might yield amazing answers to difficult and simple questions alike; many will simply result in you being called a “n00b” for asking the question in the first place. The topics most difficult to settle in gear related forums, however, are the “which to buy” posts.
It is easy enough to give one’s opinion on something when asked “do you like product x?” However, the product vs. product discussion generates replies from six distinct groups:
1. Those who think you are a troll.
2. Those who think you are an ideal candidate to be trolled.
3. Those who own product A.
4. Those who own product B.
5. Those who own both products A and B.
It’s fairly obvious why you can’t glean a whole lot from what players 1,2 and 6 have to offer. Less obvious, is the problem with what 3 and 4 have to say. Over the years I have learned to look for key statements in the comments that let me know who I am dealing with. Statements like “my friend had this” and “I used to have” indicate that players 3 and 4 are in the building. It isn’t to say that people have never owned both, decided they only needed product A or B and sold off the remainder. However, people who flip gear often suffer from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome.)
Every time a new bright, shiny next gen piece of kit dances across a banner ad on their screen they throw down the credit card and attempt to finally get that one piece of gear that has kept them from being the next (insert musical hero figure here.) Maybe the gear really is crap, but maybe the would-be wunderkind is impatient. Perhaps this contributor simply lacks the ability to finish what they start. Maybe they didn’t read the manual. Maybe they ordered gear that isn’t appropriate for their setup, due to factors like computing power. Maybe they are just a total n00b and you should troll them. (Only half kidding. Trolling is fun.)
Simply put, unless they just lie and act like they have both pieces of gear, this character is present in any discussion; from DJ controllers, to synthesizers, to guitar pedals, and on down the line.
So what’s wrong with their answers? In some cases nothing. I have unloaded several pieces of gear over the years. In some cases I outgrew the gear and needed more I/O, or just more… something.
There have even been occasions where I got rid of a piece of gear and then came back to it later because the manufacturer had improved it in the interim. However, I am not typically the first guy to contribute on the forums. To be clear here, I am not saying that the person who no longer owns one of the products in question is giving an uninformed opinion. I am mostly saying, “look out for the liars.” After that, the crux of the gear debate problem is that people often defend their investments.
We see this all the time with DJ controllers. No matter what happens, we can always be sure that any controller that we overview and review will get a comment similar to, “no way, I am sticking to my S4.” Why wouldn’t you? You bought it, I bought mine, it’s pretty RAD. Once you have that money invested, you’re happy with what you have, so why would you buy another thing that does the same thing, or doesn’t but is very similar or better?
Naturally, once we put the money into these systems, defending them becomes as much about brand loyalty as it does about defending our own investment. I think it will be a very rare situation in which someone comes forward and says “I have purchased the wrong product and am not going to do anything about it because I get off on the disappointment I feel while performing.”
The ideal candidate for helping you assess whether or not one device is better than another in many cases will be candidate number 5. They own both items in question, so they are familiar with the ease of use of both, the utility, strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, they are not plagued by the need to defend their investments. They may well tell you that you are comparing apples and oranges. They may also tell you exactly what you were thinking in the first place.
DJ controllers and production tools have a key difference here though; Production tools aren’t as simple as “buy one and be done.” I have at least 20 different compressors in my studio arsenal. I used to have even more before I decided I was doing a lot of the heavy work in the box and sold off some of the outboard units. Delays, EQs, synthesizers, guitar pedals, drum machines, sample packs all count for large amounts of space in my own studio and in multiple instances of each.
This is where the debate between Ableton and Maschine returns to our discussion; with two products that appear similar, it is clear that there is a question for those just jumping into the pool about whether or not one needs both. The question for those already comfortable in the DAW of their choice is whether or not they are missing out with Maschine. The Ableton guys are looking over wondering if they need Machine or if they already have the ultimate beat-making tools at their fingertips.
Rightfully so; as Maschine generates some pretty serious workflow related gear lust. Anyone who has done a few years in the Ableton trenches has spent a lot of time mapping their controls of mousing away through endless automations. Maschine offers flexible controls that can be mapped but are already set up as soon as loaded and highlighted. Similarly, the automations possible at the pattern level in Maschine can make for some high speed creativity with quality results.
When I bought my Maschine, I made a point of buying it in tandem with Komplete 8. My logic was that Maschine would make a great standalone writing tool, so I might as well have Massive along to fill in those Moog sized holes as well as the FM8 to replace all my beloved FM synth beauties. In road testing, Maschine does not disappoint.
After years of touring and not ever coming up with a writing scenario that let me focus on automation and getting the sounds that inspire the rest of the writing process, Maschine has excelled in this process. Not only does Maschine bring real time controls and a simple workflow to the process of writing in transit; it also has a pretty great old school feel that lends itself to propping the laptop, well, wherever and just getting down with the controller and navigating via LCD screens. If working in patterns doesn’t make it feel old school enough for you, you can always kick in the step-sequencing mode for kicks (literally, as this is a great way to just get things up and running with your kick drum sounds.)
All that said, what about Ableton? Well, much like Maschine, Ableton didn’t start out as a DAW. In fact, Ableton emerged as something of a novelty. Back when it first came out, many Mac users were just happy to have something that accomplished the tasks PC users were deploying Sony’s Acid for. As with any good idea, it didn’t take long before Ableton revealed itself to be much more than a looping and performance tool. Rapidly, the program earned devotees. As the versions came and went, the one time utility began to take shape into the fairly full featured DAW we know and love today.
As MIDI and audio facilities within the program improved, Ableton became not only responsible for it’s own sort of programming and performance methods, but also lured in programmers and producers from all walks of programming. Within the past few years, Ableton has enjoyed a lot of namedropping in EDM, Hip Hop and everywhere else.
The short version: Ableton may not replace software for devout Pro Tools or Logic users, but is arguably a full fledged DAW, and touts itself as such. Not only this, but Ableton is a performance capable package. Among the masses slinging tunes on the dancefloor via Traktor, Serato, or whatever (don’t get mad if I don’t mention your favorite), there are a number of people DJing out of Ableton or simply performing their original material in live remix styles.
The key difference between Ableton and Maschine any prospective buyer should be aware of is that while Maschine can sample audio and trigger it back in that old school way; Ableton is a proper audio recorder. Meaning that audio can be recorded on the timeline and expected to play back without some kind of slicing, midi wrangling, sampler type workflow. Ableton also is where a lot of the current audio chopping stutter styles have really found their footing in a simple fast workflow.
Between Drum Racks and Impulse, Ableton has a number of editing and beatmaking styles that have developed within its confines. This is no small feat given the mind numbing amount of options the modern producer/DJ/remix artist has to choose from in this day and age. The time-stretching facilities within Ableton are very much a part of this. You can pitch your audio up, down and slow it down or speed it up with a minimum of artifacts. The ease of this process is the big sell, because while other DAWs have perfected their own takes on these processes to keep up, Ableton has working quick and dirty on lockdown. Producers of all styles will readily namedrop Ableton even when they finish their tracks in Logic or Pro Tools, because Ableton is where they can go to start with no inspiration and end up motivating a whole record to complete itself.
If one leans more toward traditional MIDI programming and outboard instruments, Ableton can serve as a fantastic matrix to place in the middle of this process. Ableton’s I/O routing and MIDI flexibility are just incredible. Want to use your impulse to toggle between driving as many outboard units as you can afford? Ableton is there for you. Want to send audio out to your boutique preamp, through 8 guitar pedals and something your dad made that you put a 1/4″ jack into? You can not only do it, but you can toggle to kill the latency caused by such routing.
If there are any major complaints about Ableton’s routing, they seem to get addressed by the folks in Berlin on a regular basis. My only minor niggle with the MIDI facilities is the resolution limitations and the fact that the program changes are a bit of a pain to come to grips with. However, with a little exploration, one can quickly build the system to work with their personal rig and set up starter clips at the top of a session to recall the series of patch changes essential to their project file.
Ableton’s has two views: the session view and the arrangement view. Session view consists of the mixer controls and a clip launching matrix. These lie not only at the heart of Ableton’s abilities in the live domain, but also in its strengths as a writing tool. Loops of differing lengths can be written on the fly, rapidly juxtaposed and triggered in every combination imaginable. The studious user can even automate a serious of computer driven launching arrangements with the follow actions programmable in the launch section of the clip dialogue. Once a user is happy with what they believe is a solid arrangement, they can then record to the arrangement view as they trigger the clips in the desired sequence. From here they can start programming their final automations in the mix, tailor the timing on the sequence and add in any final bells and whistles they want in their production.
The arrangement view allows for more cut up styles of audio manipulation, mashup wrangling and cut and paste programming styles. The results of working in arrangement view can quickly be consolidated and then taken back to session view for more experimentation. It isn’t uncommon to see a project start in arrangement view, switch to session view and then arrive back in arrangement view for completion. This also lends the program an incredible flexibility for remixing and working in the mode that best suits certain plugins like Celemony’s Melodyne. If one thinks that MIDI programming is tedious and just likes to grab their favorite kick sample, drop four of them in a line and start piling stuff up; they will be quite happy in Ableton. At the same time, tedious programming nerds like myself who enjoy mixing methods to get in different frames of mind are totally free to pick and choose their favorite methods on a track by track basis.
While I am not here to describe every little thing Ableton can do, I am trying to give you an idea of where some of its key strengths are. There are so many effects to discuss that I will leave that to their web site. However, the two features not to be overlooked are the MIDI mapping capabilities. In a word, they are as simple as toggling two buttons, finding the thing you want to move with your knob, pad, or whatever, and then wiggling said knob, pad, or whatever. This is why Ableton has found so many devotees in the controllerism camp.
The icing on the cake after this rad little feature is the freeze functionality. While this is not specifically unique to Ableton, this is a strength that can’t be overlooked in any kind of comparison to Maschine. Freezing allows you to convert process intensive plugins and external instrument tracks or heavily effected audio into a temporary audio file. This audio file can be left alone for the final mix or it can be unfrozen when you decide that clever beat repeat idea you had is screwing up the track now that you have piled all your synth gravy on to the once simple mix.
Where this serves we producers operating in the budgeted domain best is in the ability to use the same outboard unit over and over again. Let’s say I want to use my Slim Phatty on three different tracks: I can. I record my bass line, freeze it. Record the other melody ideas I had, freeze em, or some insane LFO climb etc., and then I just repeat as little or often as desired. In my own studio I use this to be able to avoid programming multi-timbral synths with internal mixes and just use their full power on a per track basis.
Old schoolers, think of using your old Roland 1080 synths at full power for as many tracks as you like or that TX 81z for a Lately Bass and those sweet FM strings and horns. I also turn my Slim Phatty into and army of Phattys as well as converting my DX100 into 100 DX100s. To sum it up, the freeze functionality is more than a CPU load lightener. It is also a hardware recycler.
So, after describing the insane power Ableton can bring to a production, it might look as if there is no room for Maschine in that world. I cannot stress enough that this is not the case. Maschine is one of the most inspiring little boxes I have ever added to my studio. It is a powerful drum programming and sequencing tool. The pattern/scene oriented arrangement styles of it really do put me back in the world of drum machines and LCD screens that I cut my teeth in/on.
While one can easily take advantage of Ableton’s drum racks and an MPD or some other pad entry tool to build drum kits of all shapes and sizes, Maschine has a dedicated functionality that allows a user to quickly pick and choose their favorites and get to work in seconds. Most hardcore Abletoneers will talk of time spent building their templates and starter kits to improve workflow, or those days they went down the rabbit hole trying to figure out the perfect control scenario for their swollen kits many functions.
With Maschine, the “grab it, turn it, select something else, grab it, turn it” functionality allows for a lot of the control made possible in Ableton to be accessed in a much quicker and dirtier timeframe. It is very easy to dive straight into a Maschine session and have that thing kicking even faster than the already ridiculously truncated Ableton workflow.
Out of the box, Maschine and the entire Komplete 8 package are made to work together. Throw that FM8 instance into a track, get a melody going, and then hurriedly grab a knob and twist to taste for excessive FM synth sexiness. Grab a cell from Battery and drop it in to have the completely articulated snare cell from your favorite jazz kit along side that dirty thumping kit from the dubstep sample pile you grabbed in lust mode at Loopmasters a week ago.
You can also use the sampling mode and quickly grab all the thwacking your drummer can throw at you for a quick and easy homemade sample kit. I am certain you can see where I am going here; Maschine makes all things it does very simple and fun. It allows a novice to get cracking and a “tweak head” to move rapidly through the tedium and get to the fun part. The pattern functionality allows you to quickly explore a series of automations and store each one for instant recall. Not only this, but there are no words to describe how fulfilling the immediacy of grabbing the ends of a sample and shaping it in the onboard LCDs is. It feels like you have the best of both worlds. If suddenly you just can’t handle dealing with it in the Maschine windows, you can simply turn your head to the laptop/desktop and mouse your way through a task.
What I am saying here, is that there are differences between Ableton and Maschine that are impossible to overlook. One records audio and manipulates it with unparalleled ease of use, the other functions like an MPC on steroids and any other performance enhancing chemical you can think of. Both are capable of making tunes in a flash. Both will get you the drum sound you so desperately crave so fast it makes you wonder why you didn’t grab them ages ago. However, the reason I am writing this whole article is to attack the idea that they should ever be pitted against one another. Together, Ableton and Maschine are like a superhero duo.
Dynamic Duo Workflow
I am now going to describe the workflow I used to work with Ableton and Maschine together on an 80s inspired instrumental I have been working on recently, called “Good FM.” I wanted to just go crazy with FM sounds and the Moog Slim Phatty to make things sound retro. Here’s how I went about it using an Ableton/Maschine workflow.
I started with the drums and bass, because that is how I typically work. Using Maschine, I entered a simple kick/snare pattern and worked up my fairly simple bass line (in G maj, for those who care) for the Moog in clip mode in Ableton. I used the “Simple Deep” preset from the Moog to get things started, then mostly killed the release and adjusted the decay and sustain times on the amp and filter envelopes, added in a second oscillator at a slightly lower volume and then spent the standard amount of indecisive tweak time before freezing the track. The bass line had been rooted in a chord progression I had been messing around with on a simple pad I had built with my Roland Gaia SH-01. This was a pretty quick thing to get entered in, so I played it in real time and got it up and looping as an Ableton clip.
At this point, the layout so far was two Ableton clips and a looping pattern in Maschine. Maschine was running as a single instance in Ableton. While I could have separated Maschine’s outputs to individual tracks within Ableton, I quite like the old school approach of just keeping them mixed in Maschine and piping them into the single Ableton track. Electing to stick with that approach, I then set up two more patterns within Maschine. One was a standalone kick version of the pattern and the other brought in a little shaker accent and a hat pattern. I liked the feel of the shaker accent, so I made it a part of the original kick/snare pattern.
Also worth pointing out, is that that many of my kick/snare patterns, like this one, are actually kick/clap and kick/white noise patterns. Sometimes, depending on styles, the harmonic content of a snare is too much for me.
I was lacking some kind of melody at this point, so I threw an instance of FM8 into Ableton and called up a chiming little FM sound called “Dream Sequence.” I wrote a little theme melody and set it as an Ableton clip so I could access it in pieces or whole. I then took the patterns I had ritten in Maschine and enabled Maschine to receive program changes.
In practice, this lets you place a pattern, or patterns, in a scene that can be called up from the host software via program change.
I then created clips in the session view that called each of these scenes up as well as a simple silence clip that could turn Maschine’s output off. I use a Novation Launchpad to arrange tracks that I develop like this, so I grabbed it, played around with my order of playback, got to a point where I was happy with things and then hit record and played back my clips as I wanted them to appear in arrangement mode. After this, I spent 5-10 minutes tailoring the results.
Now the track needed a little drama and technical flare. I have some pet peeves about cymbals, so I decided this track would use anything but cymbals to mark the transitions. My first stop was to use the Analog synth unit from Ableton’s suite to make a quick white noise sample. I set up a simple four kick pattern to create a sidechain, and then placed a sidechained comp after the white noise synth I just set up. I tied a knob to the low-pass filter and went to town playing in rising and falling swells. It sounded good, pumped, and “ocean like.” With the sidechained compressor working at a high ratio, I was satisfied enough to edit things down for maximum impact.
I wanted the melodies to gradually evolve through the track, as I was keeping things musically very simple. I returned to my Roland synth and placed an instance of auto filter in Ableton. I manually tied the filter to a knob and made a series of automation passes over the sound through the track. Then I took the Roland and FM8 tracks and set them to route through a single audio track in the mixer view. I placed an instance of “Beat Repeat” in line and then dropped yet another compressor that I routed back to my sidechain channel for input.
I placed a delay with too much feedback behind the FM8 and then set about automating the on/off control of the Beat Repeat unit after I had it to a setting I liked. Since the bass and drums were unaffected by the Beat Repeat unit, I was able to be kind of violent with its application to give the pads and chimes a sort of dirty, chopped up feel. I wanted it dirtier and more chopped up, however, so I then repeated this automation process with an instance of Izotope’s Stutter Edit being activated at a few key places in the song. Stuff was sounding just glitchy enough to make me feel like my retro was a new enough to be more than kitsch, so I moved on.
In reality, at this point I passed out. Getting to do what I love for a living has slowly become “working til I drop.” I returned to the session the next day, with a fairly skeletal arrangement in play. One thing I really like in tracks by bands like FM Attack and Anoraak is the use of synthetic toms tuned to a track. With a little delay they become one of those “not a cymbal” transition elements I am looking for. I found one that I quite liked in Maschine and tuned it to G2.
Important to note here is that this is where Ableton and Maschine make each other a little stronger.
I didn’t want to mess with the basic patterns I had rooted the song in the day before, so I used a separate instance of Maschine. This is as simple as dragging Maschine from the VST area in Ableton’s instrument dialogue to the left and dropping it into position. The freedom in this is obvious, but I will still spell it out. If you are the kind of person who likes to keep things separate for processing options, this allows you to use Maschine’s pattern functionality with the scene/clips method I detailed above to keep all of that information separate. It also gives you the option of using your favorite master bus effects on each subset of drums.
So I built my little synth tom noise with a touch of delay, and made a simple one strike pattern, and a silence pattern. I then dropped the Ableton clips that corresponded to these in my arrangement in all the places where I felt a more marked turnaround needed to appear. From this point forward we will call this application of synth toms the “Disco Paw” because that’s what it was called in some sample pack I used to use, and I like saying it because it makes me think of a kitty wearing sunglasses and a leisure suit. Whatever it takes to get you there, right?
At this point, with my mental kitty image and my thrumming bass sound, I was really getting into the 80s vibe of the track, so I decided to just go full on with it. What could be more 80s than a ridiculously tuned synth Tom solo? There are plenty of answers to this question, but let’s just pretend that the one we all agree on is “nothing.”
I found some synth toms in Maschine that reminded me of an old Simmons Octapad, set up yet another Maschine instance and created a pattern. I used four toms, each tuned to C, F, G and A, then added a wonky reverb to the sound to give it that 80s cheapness, and dropped the solo in at the end of the song. In my mind, as I played this phrase, I thought of ridiculous 80s theatrics where some synth pop dude would be whacking on rubber pads like they were Gongs being played live in Pompeii.
So the track is pretty close at this point. The transition elements were still lacking and I felt it needed a bigger finish. The Moog was feeling ignored, so I decided to go with a cool monophonic lead sound to appear alongside the 80s toms. The sound I chose was just a cutesy saw that I shortened a bit to keep it plinky and then added a bit of Ableton’s ping pong delay.
Happy with the resulting melody I played, I decided I wanted the melody to get more intense as the song drew to a close. I duplicated the midi track, froze the Moog I had just recorded, and made a sound with a longer sustain/release on the amp envelope and even more delay. In the arrangement, I then set the first instance of the melody to appear, drop out, then re-appear solo for a few bars, then added the second instance of the melody in. Underneath these, I then pulled out a lot of the background instrumentation. Then, at the end of the song I reverted back to the first instance of the melody.
To close the song I used beat repeat to extend the last notes of the FM8 melody and then automated a big “suck out sound” at the outro. I let this sit for a day or two and would listen to a bounce I made of the track. I like to do this as I think it is good to get away from the visual component of recording and just listen. I decided that even with my glitches, white noise swells, and disco paws; the transitions still needed just a hair more punctuation. Time to add one more instance of Maschine!
To do this, I raided the “zaps” section of my Maschine library. I found two suitable noises I liked and assigned each to a pad. I built yet another single trigger pattern in Maschine where I activated both noises simultaneously. I then returned to the clip building process in Ableton and placed these in the places I felt need the most love in the song. I added a little reverb to each within Maschine to extend their tails a bit. Things were good by my estimation, so I did a little dance.
I was enjoying this noise so much that I then decided a third pattern should be built using both noises reversed over a two bar timeframe. I used the Maschine sampler dialogue to record the two noises as a single sample and then reversed it. I then placed a clip throughout the song that called up this pattern in Ableton. I was officially happy, or happy enough to mix the thing.
I tend to get things louder and louder as my ears get tired, so I took some time away from the track, it kept me from rushing the mix. I returned the next day to the mix and did some make it quiet stuff overall to build a bit more headroom into the mix. Then I used some excessive and gratuitous limiting to squash it all over again. For the record, I used Izotope’s Ozone 5 for this process.
My goal in doing this is to make things more modern. A lot of that hyper excited modern sound we have become accustomed to is accomplished at the final stages of the mixing and mastering process. I know some people probably struggle to get their kicks right and make their snares and claps sizzle, so this is me telling you:
Don’t get too hung up about it, worry about your attack and decay and transient values while creating and then shape the mix once you have all your desired elements in place.
I don’t expect everyone to go in for my retro take on house music, nor do I particularly go for everything that everyone else loves. However, I am quite happy with this track and I think the bottom line here is not about aesthetics. This article is about how the processes between Ableton and Maschine are fantastic for turning ideas quickly into realized productions.
Good FM by Lonely Paul
The Big Picture
The value of both Ableton and Maschine has been hard to deny for me. Even if I am in the mood to use Ableton to obliterate my drum tracks, having Maschine for fast programming let’s me bounce them rapidly to Ableton for maximum glitch fun. I am not saying my order of operations is the “one true way” either. I illustrate it to point out possible work methods that allow you to keep things simple in terms of tracking your work and not have to keep a pen and paper around or feel the need to restore millions of clips in your production just in case you want to return to your original programming.
The one thing I will say that I feel is fairly inarguable is this; Ableton, or any DAW for that matter, gives Maschine the ability to appear in multiple instances. this extends Maschine’s capabilities far beyond standalone use. As for my workflow, the two have become a dream team that helps me meet deadlines and track my work more efficiently. In people with far greater powers than mine, I can only imagine this amounts to even greater displays of strength. I am also a huge fan, as previously mentioned, of being able to work in different ways to put myself in a different space creatively.
The bottom line here is that I think approaching the decision on which to buy is less about which is “better.” The real question, for your budget, is which one you want first. I focused on Ableton, rather than evaluating Maschine’s performance with other DAWs; because this was the comparison that the internet seemed to be rife with.
Why pit two things against each other when they can do such beautiful work together? Whether you are in some kind of “dubstep for life” camp, into making house in its many incarnations, or are just a freak about trance or any other genre, the combination of Maschine with your personal favorite DAW might be just the workflow enhancement you are looking for. Don’t let the forums turn you away and don’t let the investment defense force you to turn a blind eye to the possibilities on offer.
After that, I think the next question worth grappling with is whether or not plans for Traktor integration and the impending release of Traktor 2.5 Remix will just totally change the game for everyone. That, however, will simply have to wait until May 30th. In the meantime, get some work done!
If you have any questions about techniques, gear suggestions, etc., leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you about how you use the two, or any questions you have about integrating these products into your own workflow. In addition, what do you guys want to hear about at the production level?
Thanks for sticking with me through this. There’s more to come.