You guys, my home studio now sounds like the Blade Runner soundtrack, and looks like the set of TRON. And, what? There are Ks where all the Cs should be! Wait — lemme explain.
Native Instruments sent us their latest MIDI controller keyboard to test, the Kontrol S-series, along with the latest iteration of their flagship software instrument bundle, Komplete 10 Ultimate. As one would expect, the two are tightly integrated, with many features of the software not only directly controllable from the hardware controller, but performance-enhanced in ways that wouldn't be possible via a standard MIDI integration. We received the 49-key Kontrol S49, but it also is available in 25-key and 61-key versions. All three are similar, with semi-weighted key action, automatic parameter mapping to the eight touch-sensitive rotary encoders, built-in arpeggiator, and an LED-driven performance and control feedback system NI calls Light Guide (Why not "Light Cycle"?). Kontrol requires an external power supply in addition to the USB connection to the host computer, and also offers MIDI I/O, plus expression and sustain pedal inputs.
As software libraries go, Komplete 10 Ultimate is ginormous and does away with the multi-DVD installers in favor of a single 2.5'' USB 2.0 hard drive to facilitate the installation. If you choose to install all of it, you'll end up with 320-440 GB of instruments, effects, and sound manglers, including stalwarts like Kontakt and Reaktor, plus new innovative instruments like Rounds. I went for it and installed everything, but specified that the library locations (the bulk of the packages) be installed on a fast external drive; this is highly recommended, not only for economy of record-drive real-estate, but for the best performance in general. As it is, the applications alone require 12 GB of free disk space. Although faster than the previous Komplete DVD installers, it still is a bit of a time investment to get everything up and running initially. Luckily, after everything is installed, you manage all of your NI software through one simple application, Service Center, which is NI's one-stop-shop for product activation, registration, and updates. Service Center is a comprehensive utility which many others have mimicked since its introduction. Keeping everything up-to-date is a snap, and NI already had quite a few hotfixes and product updates available throughout our test period. One note for Kontrol S users — I had to navigate to the NI website to find a firmware updater for the Kontrol keyboard. Service Center didn't seem to prompt me for a firmware update that was available. I didn't get that prompt until I launched Controller Editor, a separate application dedicated to the NI hardware controllers.
All of the Komplete software, as well as the Kontrol drivers and software browser plug-in (Komplete Kontrol), are available in 64-bit VST, AU, and AAX format — so DAW compatibility is pretty much universal. I had no issues testing in Pro Tools 11 [Tape Op #101 online] or Ableton Live 9 [#95], although many instruments can be fairly processor-intensive, particularly in sample-based applications like Kontakt with high instance count or multi-timbral parts loaded. I found that the instance counts and CPU loads aligned fairly well with other similar applications or plug-ins — no surprises there.
Komplete is a serious composition tool, one that could be almost overwhelming in its depth and complexity. This is where the integration with the Kontrol keyboards really shines; the keyboard controller has a built-in browser function that calls up a simplified navigation structure for all of the Komplete library, filterable by genre, tags, and instrument type. You load the Komplete Kontrol plug-in into an open MIDI track, press the Browse button on the keyboard, and go. The browse window itself pops up in your DAW and maximizes the screen real-estate with clear type and graphics. (It's obvious that the browser was meant to be legible from across the control room or stage.) Having the browser feature alone makes Komplete feel much more spontaneous and inspired. And if this "browse, discover, and load" hardware integration with Komplete feels a tad familiar to NI's now-discontinued Kore controller [#54], well, frankly, it is — and it isn't. Komplete Kontrol feels more like it has taken on the duty of presenting the entire Komplete library as one practical, browsable system of sounds and presets, and it succeeds at that task, whereas Kore was ambitious to a fault with its broader scope including third- party plug-in mapping. You can always dive deeper within the Controller Editor software mentioned above to create your own templates and mappings, but out of the box, this controller is meant to work seamlessly with NI's instrument library.
The Kontrol keyboard has a nice, clean Darth Vader-esque look, and feels like a serious instrument that belongs in a studio. The Fatar keybed isn't spongey, and the encoders, buttons, display, and ribbons are all high quality. Yes, ribbons — the mod and pitch wheels have been supplanted by these cool touch-sensitive strips with customizable physics. If you want to get an endless ping-pong mod parameter going, it's possible. The display strip below the encoders is clean and legible, and the automatic parameter mapping just works. Most instruments have at least two pages of parameters (some many more), so it's nice that the most commonly used parameters, like filter and envelope, are always present on the first page.
Also very compelling for me were the scale and chord features on this keyboard controller. I'm a terrible keyboardist, yet often find myself writing melodies and harmonies — on the damn keyboard. Punishing myself, like an ape-man learning to use a Commodore 64, I hammer away until something useful can be carved out of the hours of, um, "improvisation" I've tracked. Well, similar to the way the scale modes work on Ableton Push [Tape Op #97], Kontrol has an option to remove any non-standard notes from a particular scale, and another feature that allows chord sets to be played with a single key. I think you can see where I'm going with this; hardware tricks like this can be a force of good or a force of evil, my friends — it really depends on the application of said trick. In my case, I've been doing a great deal of short film scoring and also building quick and dirty content for the web, both of which require high production value in a short amount of time. Using the chord modes, grounded in Komplete's cinematic strings, Action Strikes, and the on-board arpeggiator, I was able to build some really stellar soundtrack-worthy material for a short film project with a deadline that would make John Barry blush. And with a recent update to the Kontrol software, you can now "write" arpeggio or chord performance information back into your DAW for further editing, or to simply archive your performance. With a little creative MIDI routing, I had the Kontrol keyboard sending arpeggio and chord MIDI data, locked to a particular scale, to my Teenage Engineering OP-1 synthesizer — all via USB. I could even go back and manipulate that data after tracking it to my DAW. Pretty cool.
Another nice addition to the controller is its advanced host integration, which allows for transport controls and automatic track focus within the most recent versions of Ableton Live, Cubase, Nuendo, or Logic X. This means if you navigate to another instance of Komplete Kontrol in another track (within any of those four DAWs), the controller parameters automatically follow. The hardware automatically switches to MIDI mode if a third-party plug-in is present in the track. This advanced integration is not available in Pro Tools. Hopefully, NI will expand that feature to Pro Tools soon. Note that you can still access, browse, and control your Komplete library in Pro Tools, you're just missing out on the transport controls, track selection, and automatic track focus.
The Light Guide feature, which illuminates notes as they are played, or conveniently illustrates parameter/sample mappings across the keyboard, can be disabled, but why would you do that? It looks so cool! But maybe I've watched too many early '80s sci- fi films. Light Guide is also very handy if you wish to display notes within a particular scale as mentioned above, or if you're a live performer who needs to set up specific key mappings.
This is truly a great controller keyboard. Although the price may seem a bit steep, that price includes Komplete Select - ten NI instruments from Komplete, including one of their stellar sampled pianos (The Gentleman), vintage organs, and the always fun Retro Machines (a deep collection of analog synth instruments sampled from rare original instruments like the Crumar Orchestrator, Korg MiniKorg-700, and Moog Memorymoog). That's a bargain if you don't want to plunk down $500 for the full Komplete suite (or $1000 for Komplete 10 Ultimate). And if you are someone who has invested in NI's Komplete ecosystem, this is a no-brainer pairing. Although it functions just fine as a standard MIDI controller, I couldn't imagine using Komplete without this keyboard. And there is just so much within Komplete to explore; I could get pleasantly lost inside the new Rounds synth and Polyplex drum machine alone, not to mention the 40-bajillion other potential sounds available in the Komplete 10 Ultimate library. Fun stuff.