Review: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88

An impressive alternative to hardware workstations
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Since its introduction in 2014, Native Instruments’ line of Komplete Kontrol controllers has won many awards and amassed a dedicated following. And with good reason, as the line’s combination of gorgeous design, intelligent performance tools, and seamless integration with NI’s vast array of softsynths and sample libraries make it a must-have for fans of their products.

Last fall, Native Instruments announced a massive software update to the Komplete Kontrol series, along with a brand new 88-key weighted-key edition, aptly named the S88, that adds even more value to the system and positions it for a much wider audience.

Key Designs

Like the original 25-, 49-, and 61-key versions, the S88 is absolutely stunning, with a brushed metal front panel, smooth rubberized knobs and a crystal-clear OLED that shows parameter functions. NI’s innovative rainbow-hued Light Guide feature—essentially context-sensitive multicolored LEDs above every key—is even more impressive on the S88, which is based on a Fatar keybed that feels great.

Around the back, it remains quite minimal. There’s a single USB 2.0 port, DIN MIDI In and Out ports, and jacks for expression and sustain pedals. Frankly, I was a wee bit disappointed that a sustain pedal wasn’t included.

We covered Komplete Kontrol’s original feature set in depth in the December 2014 issue of Keyboard, but it’s worth a recap in this context: The essential concept behind the Kontrol series is tight integration with Native Instruments’ extraordinarily comprehensive Komplete suite of softsynths and effects. Superficially, this means that Kontrol’s knobs and display are instantly configured to reflect specific softsynth parameters, such as filters, envelopes, wavetables, and so forth.

While we’ve seen similar features on other new controllers, Native Instruments’ approach offers a few unique twists, like the ability to incorporate custom scales, intelligent chording, and arpeggiators directly into a given Kontrol configuration.

I’ve seen a few reviewers lightly gloss over the Kontrol series’ Light Guides, but as a professor and educator, I have to say that this feature is one of Kontrol’s coolest and most meaningful innovations. In terms of software integration, it allows NI’s percussion products, such as the included Drumlab, to color-code various sounds by category—kicks, snares, hats, etc. It also serves to visually display split keyboards, which is a nice bonus for gigging keyboardists. As a teaching tool, the guides allow the Scale feature to display which notes are true to any given key and mode, making it easy for students to grasp certain elements of music theory quickly. And yes, it is dazzling in a dark studio.

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What’s New?

While the biggest draw for the updated Komplete Kontrol package is the bundling of a huge assortment of NI’s best instruments, there are several other new features that make the experience even more fluid, whether you’re using it in the context of a DAW environment or taking it on the road with your laptop.

For starters, they’ve added compatibility with third-party VST plug-ins, allowing users to fully integrate the S88 and other models into a diverse collection of software, instead of the previous Native Instruments-only approach. The biggest news here is that Arturia is also onboard with the platform.

I tested Komplete Kontrol with Arturia’s V Collection and everything worked without a hitch, with essential synth parameters intelligently assigned to the S88’s eight parameter knobs. Other manufacturers, including Waldorf and u-he, have committed their support, as well.

Equally impressive is the ability to create your own parameter mappings within the Kontrol host plug-in. If you’re an Ableton user, you’ll immediately be reminded of their macro paradigm in Push, which is similar to how this feature functions: It allows you to hand-select exactly the parameters you need for a given performance situation.

Finally, Komplete Kontrol 1.5 introduces a brand-new plug-in format from Native Instruments called NKS, which lets compatible software access the deeper functionality within Kontrol, providing total integration with the keyboard’s performance features: arpeggiators, chord sets, scale mapping, and the aforementioned Light Guides.

I’m often a little skeptical of new formats, but Avid’s transition to AAX went relatively smoothly and Propellerhead’s Rack Extensions has done nicely, so here’s hoping the porting process for VST developers is straightforward.

Rocket 88

All of these new features really take Komplete Kontrol to an entirely new level of flexibility, both for gigging and in the studio. The whole interface intelligently adapts to your musical and sound design objectives, especially now that you can include your other VSTs in the program. What’s more, the Komplete Kontrol software also works in standalone mode, allowing you to create presets on the go with just your laptop – an important consideration since the S88 isn’t as portable as the smaller controllers. With it, I was able to create a slew of new patches that make great use of the arpeggiator and scale functions, applying those to both NI’s synths and Arturia’s V Collection, then returning to my studio to use them in conjunction with the S88.

Native Instruments’ dedication to advancing and opening up the Kontrol platform really inspires confidence that these products are going to change the way electronic artists interact with their software, to the point where there’s a very real possibility that traditional hardware workstations may one day become irrelevant. While this has been an industry prediction for decades, Komplete Kontrol is a clear indicator that it’s finally visible on the horizon.

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KOMPLETE SELECT SOFTWARE BUNDLE

All keyboards in Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol series now come with an impressive collection of their softsynths, adding tremendous value to the package. One minor caveat: These instruments are available via download only and weigh in at close to 20 GB, so if you don’t have a speedy Internet connection, prepare yourself for a few overnight downloading sessions. That said, it’s a fantastic bundle that makes the Komplete Kontrol products instantly useful without the need for additional purchases. Here’s what you get.

Massive: The sound of Massive’s wavetables and filters literally defined the sound of dubstep and was a huge component of countless early EDM tracks, so its inclusion here will be a big enticement for electronic music producers with a taste for the heavier stuff.

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Reaktor Prism: In reviewing Komplete Select, I used Prism for the first time and wow—I’m hooked! Combining elements of physical modeling with a gorgeous interface that clearly displays what’s going on harmonically is a knockout combination when it comes to whipping up organic percussive textures of all kinds.

Monark: While there’s certainly some competition for the title, most synthesists will agree that Monark is arguably the best Minimoog emulation on today’s software market.

The Gentleman: A great sounding, distinctive upright piano and cuts through dense mixes nicely.

Drumlab: A go-to for pop and R&B producers, thanks to its ultra-punchy sound, integrated sequencer and ability to quickly layer a huge assortment of brilliantly recorded studio drums. It also includes a spot-on array of processing tools for putting these drums right in your face for “that sound.”

Retro Machines Mk2: This is a great little collection of 16 sampled analog synths from yesteryear with integrated arpeggiator and chord functions for added vintage authenticity.

Vintage Organs: This collection of Hammond, Vox and Farfisa organs covers the basics well and includes integrated Leslie elements along with EQ and reverb, making it a useful bread-and-butter instrument for most applications.

West Africa: Covering percussion instruments such as djembe and dunun, along with African mallets and flutes, the West Africa library is fantastic for both tribal dance music and Peter Gabriel covers.

Scarbee Mark I: A lot of players swear by NI’s sampled Rhodes and for good reason. It is beautifully recorded with great dynamic response and a ton of authentic warmth.

Solid Bus Comp: Most modern DAWs already include excellent emulations of the SSL master bus compressor. However, NI’s take has its own subtle flavor and is an excellent alternative for producers looking to widen their processing palette.

Snap Judgment

PROS Top-notch Fatar weighted keyboard action. Seamless integration with NI softsynths. Support for third-party VSTs. Light Guide LEDs. Intelligent chord and arpeggiator functions. Komplete Select. Gorgeous design. Roadworthy construction.

CONS Damper pedal not included. Komplete Select software collection requires extensive downloading.

Bottom Line

An impressive alternative to hardware workstations.

$999
native-instruments.com