Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S reviewed

December 29, 2014

Anyone who’s familiar with Native Instruments’ impressive Komplete bundle of software instruments knows it offers a lot of sonic horsepower. The challenge for many of us, however, is making the most of all that content. NI offers a solution with their new Komplete Kontrol S-series keyboard controllers.

I hear you—do we really need another USB MIDI controller? It’s a crowded field, to be sure. So how is NI differentiating their first effort here? For starters, they’ve forgone the now familiar combo of trigger pads and faders. Instead, the S-series sets its sights on discerning players by focusing on the keyboard action, and on tight integration of browsing and control mapping with NI’s Komplete range of software instruments. Scroll past the video first look for our full review.


Overview

The Komplete Kontrol S-series keyboards (KKS hereafter) are available in 25-, 49-, and 61-key versions, with identical features across the range. We received the 49-key model for review. They feature MIDI in/out ports and two pedal inputs, one for sustain/momentary switches and one for continuous/sweep controllers.

The KKS doesn’t run on USB power but instead requires a power supply (included) that comes with adapters for Europe, Asia, and the United States. NI has made some interesting choices with the hardware. There’s no built-in audio interface, for example, which might get some grumbles from folks who hope to use the KKS live. But most NI software users live in studio-land and don’t need a keyboard controller to pull double duty as an audio interface.

Instead of adding cost for audio I/O, NI chose to focus resources on what matters most to players: the keyboard action. The KKS boasts a Fatar keybed that feels and plays unquestionably better than any other synth-action controller I’ve ever used. There’s a smooth finish to the keys and a nice, positive resistance that feels expensive and satisfying.

This same upscale ethos is applied to the rest of the hardware. The knobs are solid, with a slightly rubberized grip that feels reassuring, the chassis seems well constructed, and the “Clear View” display area below the knobs has the look and legibility of a high-end control surface.

While you can purchase the keyboard separately from any NI software and use it as you would any other MIDI keyboard controller, you’d be missing out on its reason for being, namely tight and intuitive integration with all of NI’s wonderful synthesizer and sample-based instruments included in the new Komplete 10 and Komplete 10 Ultimate software bundles. (KKS will also work with Komplete 9.)

This integration is made possible by the Komplete Kontrol software, which is part of the Komplete software bundle and allows for direct, automatic mapping of instrument parameters to the KKS’s eight endless rotary encoders, through what NI calls Native Map. (Note that the Komplete software is a separate purchase, and, when combined with a Kontrol S keyboard, puts the starting cost of entry at over $1,000.)

The idea of automatic parameter mapping isn’t new, of course. If you’ve ever tried to configure a “dumb” controller for use with software instruments, you know why automatic mapping is such a big deal. Beyond just the time saved, having immediate access to a sound’s filter cutoff, resonance, envelope, effects, and so on, makes working with a software instrument more like working with a hardware synth.

With Native Map, NI’s sound development team customized the parameter mappings for each of the virtual instruments and sound packs in Komplete, assigning the most musically useful parameters to the first bank of Clear View cells and organizing them in a sensible way. For example, if you load an acoustic piano into Kontakt, you get access to a variety of tone-shaping and virtual mic placement parameters, which you could tweak to dial in the right piano sound for a mix. If you load a synth patch, you’ll get access to filter type, cutoff, and other parameters from the first page of available controls.


“Perform” Features

The Kontrol software features a MIDI processing engine that serves double duty as a scale and chord generator, and a full-featured arpeggiator. These can be enabled via the software’s “Perform” panel, but to access all of the functionality you’ll need to use the dedicated Scale and Arp buttons on the KKS. Arguably, this kind of precise parameter setting—e.g., selecting different arpeggiator patterns, modes, and rates—is easier to do with a mouse.

With the Scale mode enabled, incoming MIDI notes are remapped to trigger notes from a variety of user-defined or pre-programmed scales, such as harmonic minor, blues, and Japanese. Essentially, you can’t play a wrong note, and you can experiment with different tonalities. The chord feature works in a similar way. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say these Perform features are certainly fun and I can imagine how they might help kick start musical ideas.

The arpeggiator is equally inspiring, and can be combined with the scale/chord features to create complex and interesting results. It’s not quite the same as being able to make your own arp patterns from scratch, but there’s still a lot you can do by bringing all the Perform features to bear on a single sound source.


Light Guide

Above the keys are a series of multicolored LED lights (collectively called the Light Guide) that provide visual feedback to indicate a variety of information, such as which keys have drum assignments, which notes belong to a selected scale (a Perform feature), and which notes are used for key-switching articulations in Kontakt instruments. While a couple of online forums have criticized Light Guide for looking toylike, as someone who uses a lot of key-switched instruments I find it to be extremely helpful. If you don’t like it, you can turn it off in the preferences.


Komplete Kontrol Software

Komplete Kontrol can run as a stand-alone application or as a single-instance plug-in within compatible DAWs, and is designed to make it easier to browse for sounds within the expansive Komplete collection. “Easy browsing” might not seem too ambitious a goal, but when you consider that there are over 17,000 sounds across the range of instruments, finding and managing the kinds of sounds you want becomes a major concern. Fortunately, Kontrol has you covered.

From Kontrol’s browser, sounds can be searched by instrument or sound pack, and by Type, such as Bass, Bowed Strings, and so on. You can further refine a search by choosing Mode criteria, such as Long/Evolving, Sample-Based, Slow Attack, and so on. Type and Mode criteria rely on attribute tags assigned to each sound, and you can assign your own tags, all of which are referenced in Kontrol’s library database.

It’s very clever, and the result is that Kontrol gives you multiple points of entry into the universe of Komplete. Want to dive straight into Kontakt for some acoustic pianos? Start by choosing Kontakt as your instrument and then go from there. Not sure whether the synth bass you’re hearing in your head lives in FM8, Monark, or Massive? Start with Type and drill down.

To minimize confusion and manage screen real estate, instruments loaded in Kontrol can be viewed in three different ways: Default view presents a simplified interface and limited set of parameters, the Additional view presents more detail by providing access to additional parameters, and the Edit view lets you open the full user interface for Reaktor and Kontakt instruments. This is one of many thoughtful details that really improve the overall workflow.

I do wish it were possible to tag sounds as “favorites” and put them into project-specific collections the way you can with sounds in Propellerhead Reason’s browser or Spectrasonics Omnisphere. I frequently spend time in pre-production auditioning and choosing sounds for specific projects, and throwing the results into a favorites group that I can then return to when I’m writing. I also do this with Kontakt’s own Quick-Load, which offers similar functionality. While there is a workaround that sort of provides similar functionality in Kontrol, it would be nice if it this was fully implemented.


Stand-Alone MIDI Control

With the included Controller Editor software you can create custom MIDI CC assignments and keyboard zones/splits, which can be saved as a template. You can create multiple templates and switch among them from the keyboard by pressing the Preset up/down arrows, letting you recall custom mappings for non-Komplete software instruments, which is useful for studio and live use (as of this writing, the KKS doesn’t send MIDI via the five-pin port in stand-alone mode). I put this to good use by creating a template for Omnisphere and one for Vienna Instruments Pro, and then switching manually depending on which track I selected in Logic.

From the editor you can also choose between eight velocity sensitivity settings. I’m glad this can be adjusted, but it seems like a setting that ought to be available from the hardware directly.

It’s also worth noting that the controller needs to be connected to a computer for it to function. There’s no true stand-alone operation (e.g., patch memory, programmability from the hardware alone, and the like), which might be a deal-breaker for keyboardists who want a master controller for a stage rig that combines software and hardware instruments.


In Use

I’ve been using various instruments in the Komplete collection for years, but I have to say that having Kontrol as a central interface that organizes all those sounds in an intelligent way—and lets me work directly from the keyboard without having to use a mouse—definitely made me a believer. If I were primarily an “NI guy,” no doubt this would be my controller of choice.

I did run into a number of technical issues. The KKS crashed randomly a number of times during the review, both in Logic Pro and in stand-alone mode. Sometimes the hardware wouldn’t sense when I switched from a track loaded with a Komplete instrument to a track loaded with a third-party soft synth. Other times it would work as expected. There were other unrepeatable crashes that required full restarts. I’m hoping these are merely growing pains that NI can sort out in future updates. 


Conclusions

The Kontrol S series is a worthy contender in the USB MIDI keyboard controller market. If you’re invested in Komplete, the browsing and control mapping features alone make it a no-brainer. Even if you have an 88-key master keyboard you already love, the software integration makes a serious case for perching at least the 25-key unit on top of it as “mission control” for all things Komplete. It might not be the best choice for those who need a more general-purpose controller—especially for onstage use—but that’s not the target user for this instrument. If you own (or are thinking about buying) Komplete, you’re serious about your keyboard feel, and you want to improve your entire workflow in the studio, Kontrol S is the obvious choice.



PROS

Excellent build quality. Best feeling keyboard of any synth-action controller we’ve played. Intuitive, flexible patch browsing without having to use a mouse. Intelligent, automatic mapping of parameters via Native Map.


CONS

Limited functionality for live stage use. Pricier than competing models. No pads or faders. We experienced some glitches in use.


Bottom Line

An absolute must-have if you use Komplete, and still a great USB MIDI keyboard controller for the studio if you don’t.

25 keys: $499 | 49 keys: $599 | 61 keys: $699 | all prices street

native-instruments.com

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