Native Instruments, known for their unique, high-quality software instruments and virtual studio solutions, have just introduced a distinctive hardware controller/software host called KORE, which they claim will "revolutionize your production and live performance techniques". Well, OK, we'll see. NI also included their comprehensive software bundle KOMPLETE with the KORE review unit, so we'll touch on that as well. KOMPLETE 3 includes thirteen different emulations, samplers, effects, a guitar studio, and four huge sample libraries-all of which are integrated into the KORE software and can be controlled with the KORE hardware.
KORE includes a compact, well-built, and very sleek- looking USB 2.0-based controller interface about half the size of an average laptop. The construction is awesome-rugged, brushed aluminum case with red-on-black indicators. The eight rotary encoder knobs feel great (like expensive pots) and are touch-sensitive and accurate to 500-step resolution (way smoother than standard MIDI controllers). All controls are well-placed and ergonomically sound. While the knobs are awesome, the flush-mounted navigational buttons to the right of the interface require a bit more pressure than you'd expect. Minor gripe, but wouldn't it have been super sexy to have an all touch-sensitive interface? The main backlit LCD screen follows the red-on-black design, is bright and easy to read, and has full contrast controls. The screen on my review unit had strange vertical streaking that didn't really go away after adjustment, but this didn't really diminish the overall clarity of the screen.
What does this thing do? Well, it's a buss-powered controller, but it has many other features as well: MIDI I/O; stereo, 24-bit, 96 kHz converters (two in, two out, TRS jacks); S/PDIF out; two footswitch jacks; a 1/4'' headphone out; and an expression pedal jack. It's recognized as a Core Audio or ASIO interface by the host computer. On the software side, KORE functions as either a standalone application or a plug- in (VST, RTAS, Audio Unit, DXi), which in turn can act as a host for all of your various VST and Audio Unit effects and instruments. Additionally, your plug-ins can be saved along with effects settings, controller maps, metadata, MIDI files, etc. in the KoreSound format, which allows instant recall, preset management, and multi-platform compatibility. KoreSounds and setups can be saved as "performances", each with multiple effects routings and controller assignments. Essentially, KORE unites all of your VST and AU software instruments, effects, and presets under one consistent interface, with the ability to create new multisounds, manage MIDI mapping, even crossfade live performances between different plug-ins without glitches. This is what NI is calling the "Universal Sound Platform".
Sound elaborate? Well, it is. It took me a while just to comprehend the potential of the KORE software. While the manual does contain a few easy-to-follow walkthroughs to get you started quickly, it can be a challenging, if not downright arcane, read. I found myself reading and then re- reading particular chapters just to get my brain around some of the KORE functionality. So the learning curve seems a bit steep, but that's to be expected with such a deep system. The rewards are great for those brave and patient individuals who forage through! I highly recommend checking out the video tour NI provides on its website for more info; just don't let the cheesy house soundtrack throw you.
So will this revolutionize the way you use virtual instruments and effects? It's hard to say, as I think that depends on how you work. I can see KORE being extremely useful to anyone doing sound design or electronic music production, or anyone who has a ton of plug-ins and presets, but no system of organization. In fact, finding sounds with KORE is really one of the cooler features; it has a sound browser that lets you find sounds and effects by pre-defined attributes. So if you need an "organ" sound that is, say, "distorted" and "expressive" within the "avant-garde" and "rock" genres, KORE narrows the search down to the appropriate candidates, as opposed to the user having to launch each instrument and search through a billion presets. KORE could potentially be invaluable to anyone using software instruments in a live or studio setting, as it offers some of the best controller features available. Plus, there are so many other little tricks KORE can do. One cool thing I realized early on is that I can now, under KORE, load up all my VST and AU plug-ins within Pro Tools. No crazy converter program needed. The CPU hit is not insignificant, but hey, anything to avoid the ReWire dance. Also, since I have many of the same plug-ins installed on different machines, I can recall the same presets or effects chains on either machine, even within different sequencers. I just save the setup as a KoreSound and the complex synth & effects chain I used in Ableton Live on one machine can be used again in Pro Tools or Logic on another machine-without hassle-provided that the plug- ins used are installed on both machines. The same exact sound and keyboard mapping could also be recalled later for live performance. NI explains that the KoreSound format is just as easily swapped between Windows and Mac platforms, a plus for multi-platform studios and engineers. And KORE is Universal Binary for Intel Mac support.
The KOMPLETE 3 bundle is so, so deep. It's pretty much everything you'd ever need or want in the way of virtual instruments and sound design tools. A few favorites: Elektrik Piano has some of the best Wurlitzer 200A and Rhodes MK2 sounds I've ever heard in the virtual world-really amazing. Vokator is a cool vocoder and audio processor which (along with Spektral Delay) uses spectral analysis to create unique signal combinations and soundscapes. B4 II is a spot-on B3 organ emulation, with drawbars, tonewheels etc.-details extend to the type of cabinet used and degree of tube saturation. I liked what I saw of Reaktor 5, NI's flagship modular audio production software, but that application will take some serious study; the manual is about 360 pages long. Note that KOMPLETE ships with hardcopy manuals for every instrument included-a nice touch in the age of PDF files. Windows XP and MacOS X compatible, although Intel Mac support is still on the way.
All of the KOMPLETE apps are fully integrated into KORE, which means that every single control has been pre-mapped to KORE's hardware, and all of the sounds and presets are optimized for KORE's sound browsing features. The KOMPLETE bundle will run just fine without KORE, too, just without all the added kung fu.
Overall, KORE and KOMPLETE constitute an extensive, near-limitless, but fairly complex sound laboratory. If you are looking for a quick and simple "right-brain"-type solution, well, you might want to consider your options. However, if you're not intimidated by the deep end of the pool, then jump in; you'll find KORE is pretty amazing once you've learned to swim. (KORE $559 MSRP, KOMPLETE $1499 MSRP; www.native-instruments.com)