Native Instruments-a company whose reputation was built on software as opposed to hardware-just released their Audio Kontrol 1 into a market already crowded with affordable portable recording interfaces with excellent audio quality and reasonable flexibility. But rather than just follow the expected product-design path of most other audio-interface manufacturers, NI offers their own, rather unique approach that combines audio hardware-only considerations with a feature that directly ties in to their core product line of software instruments-a simplified onboard MIDI controller.
The AK1 is a two-in, four-out USB 2.0 interface. The controller is comprised of one large rotary knob and three pushbuttons mounted on top of a very small aluminum case which houses the audio internals. Software for the AK1 includes controller templates designed for all NI software (naturally) and just as significant, templates for major recording applications (Cubase, Nuendo, Samplitude), plus iTunes, Winamp, and Media Player. There is a high degree of user-programmability afforded through this feature. If your specific application has programmable hot keys for core functions, then you'll be able to create your own template if it's not already included.
Of course, programmable hardware controllers are nothing new. They've been available in many form factors and prices, but they've almost exclusively been designed as dedicated devices. I can't speak for a great cross section of home users, but personally, I've often longed for a very simple device that would allow me to control my recording application and software instruments without having to shell out hundreds of dollars or more to get a mini-console sized box of buttons, sliders and knobs; most of which I would probably never use. The AK1 elegantly combines the features of a small, high-quality USB recording interface with a controller so that things like transport commands and virtual instrument parameters are at your fingertips. I tried out the supplied templates for Cubase SX as well as my NI B4 plug-in and really enjoyed the distinction of controlling routine functions without reaching for the mouse.
Other strengths of the AK1 include excellent build quality, great audio specs, small size, and a great software bundle. Included are Traktor 3 LE; Guitar Combos (based on Guitar Rig); and Xpress versions of B4, PRO-53, and FM7. Instead of a single Neutrik Combo mic/line input and a second line-only TRS input, I wish it had two Neutrik Combos, both capable of mic/line. Compared to other similarly featured USB interfaces, you'll be paying a $50-$75 premium for the integrated MIDI controller, so make sure this feature is important to you. ($299 MSRP; www.native-instruments.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.