Bidirectional MIDI Control in Maschine 2.7.2

My interest in MIDI control goes back way before MIDI Designer. When I think of a MIDI controller, I think of my first one, the Novation Zero SL It has knobs, sliders, buttons.

(The Novation also has a few "rotary encoders," which can respond to MIDI data as well as send it out. Bidirectionality is a big topic in this article.)

But you can also think of a designable MIDI interface, like my own MIDI Designer or Lemur...

...or some new-fangled MIDI controller that’s perhaps a table with shapes that you can push around and rotate, like the Rotor by Reactable.

Back to me... About twice a year I decide that I don’t need an external MIDI controller with Maschine... The thought is that I’ll just do everything with Macro controls for my live performance rig. Then I return to sanity and put a MIDI controller back in my rig. The reason is always the same: to get more control of more parameters visible and accessible at once.

The following is a small discussion of MIDI control of Maschine. For the record, my rig’s physical Maschine controllers are an MK3 (on the left side) and a Jam (on the right). I’m never talking about using the software on the computer with the keyboard and trackpad (except to create my rig).

What’s Wrong with Macro Controls

The main issue is that macro controls involve more menu diving while performing, meaning that you have to navigate from where you are to some other places (on your Maschine 4x4 controller or the Jam) to control your parameters. Also, when you hit the macro button, you often end up looking at the Group Level. Group-level macro controls are great, but you have to be looking at the right group, so if you want to change the delays on your vocals in Kit H and you’re playing an arpeggio in Kit C, you’re stuck.

External MIDI Control in Maschine and the Failure to Persist

So then you think, "great, I’ll use external MIDI control." So you map a knob to the tune knob of a Group and that works great. Then you load another kit group into the slot and the mapping is gone.

So that’s one issue, and it happens whether you use Macro mappings or MIDI mappings. Your solutions are two:
  • Map your Macro controls (or MIDI controls) to something that won’t get overridden when you load a group, such as an effect on the Master signal chain in Maschine.
  • Buy a Maschine Jam. Certain parameters, like both of your Aux sends and the Tune controls for your Groups, are mapped up automatically on Maschine Jam. The Jam has lots of other advantages, of course...

External MIDI Control and Bidirectionality

So you map up a knob to an external MIDI controller in MIDI Designer or whatever, and Maschine won’t send the value back... ever. And you can verify this with Snoize MIDI Monitor and other similar tools.

So I woke up at about 7am one of these weekend days to the realization that maybe Maschine will send back parameters if you use Host Automation. So I fired up Maschine inside Ableton and sure enough, it worked! If you twiddle the knob in Maschine, it moves the host automation sideways slider in Live, and then Live faithfullys sends that back to MIDI Designer. Amazing!

I was ecstatic and I doctored up a small rig like this:

But I had forgotten to check whether the one thing I wanted — snapshots and morphing — would work bidirectionally. To me, it was kind of obvious that it would.

But... it's broken. Maschine does not act bidirectionally and send MIDI out when it is moving between snapshots (and not when it arrives at the destination, either). Maschine will not send back parameters when moving between Snapshots (or with lock and unlock). So this means that your external MIDI controller will get out of sync.

It’s Kinda Bidirectional... So What?

There are other advantages to putting Maschine inside a DAW like Ableton, especially in terms of audio routing (and getting multiple instances if that’s your thing). There are also disadvantages (renders your tempo control and your play button useless). But using host automation for control of parameters inside Maschine is quite bidirectional, has this one weird caveat.

I was going to end this article with, "so screw it, don’t map parameters inside Maschine." However, in my case, I’m mostly using snapshots on my Master macro controls to untwist a bunch of knobs, so in the end they are returned to their default state. Returning a bunch of controls to their default state is easy enough in MIDI Designer, so I can do it when the morph is complete. So yeah, it’s a bit of manual synchronization, but it’s not too bad.

Still, I’m hopeful that Native Instruments will fix this in the future. But first I’d have to get them to hear the problem and classify it as a problem. But perhaps it’s a very niche concern. Is bidirectional MIDI control of Maschine interesting to you? Would love to hear your feedback and thoughts.

Hardware and Software
Just to be clear about what's being discussed here:
  • Macbook Pro 2016 running High Sierra, OS X 10.13.2.
    These findings might work for Windows, too.
  • Maschine 2.7.2 with a Maschine MK3 and a Maschine Jam
  • Ableton Live 9 (9.7.5)
  • MIDI Designer Pro 2 version 2.95 for iPad
  • iPad Air 2