Native Instruments Kontakt 4

Software Sampler

Published in SOS February 2010
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Reviews : Software: Instruments

It's got a bigger sample library and some whizzy new features, but what Kontakt 4 really wants to do is make your life easier...

Nick Magnus

Kontakt's rack view, showing the library browser (left) and an Orchestral instrument loaded. Note the Dynamic keyswitches (blue) and the Standard keyswitches (pink) on the keyboard.

Kontakt, as I'm sure you all know by now, is Native Instruments' flagship software sampler, and, as the large number four above suggests, it has now reached its fourth version. Each major Kontakt update so far has brought significant usability enhancements, improved stability and reliability, and new tools with which to manipulate and process samples. Kontakt's impressive sample library has also matured in presentation and grown in size with each version, and this library, for many, must be amongst Kontakt's major selling points.

Version 4 sees little change to the software's core functionality compared to, say, the differences between versions 2 and 3. Nevertheless, version 4 does include a major new feature called Authentic Expression Technology (AET), plus a reworked Database with attribute-based browsing, an updated version of the library which adds 10GB of new sample data to the collection, as well as many new Presets and all-new Performance Views for every instrument in the library. Version 4 also benefits from a number of other under‑the-bonnet improvements which were pre-empted in the version 3.5 update, released just prior to version 4. A quick run-down of the changes implemented in version 3.5 can be found in the 'Kontakt 3.5 Updates In Brief' box overleaf.

Cosmetically, Kontakt 4 sees a return to the slightly more dour, monochromatic style of version 2. I preferred the brighter look of Kontakt 3 personally, but that's just a subjective opinion. Nevertheless, the graphics and text in the new colour scheme are all very clear and legible.

Authentic Expression Technology

This is how the AET filter displays its morphing layouts. This one is an Articulation Morph from the Choir collection.

Kontakt 4's big new feature is designed to aid the authentic reproduction of acoustic instruments. AET works by introducing gradual timbral transitions between one set of samples and another, allowing you to 'morph' smoothly between them in real time. This concept might initially be open to misinterpretation: one sample doesn't literally morph to become another. This is because AET (which is inserted as an effect at the sampler's Group level) is actually a sophisticated Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) filter which acts upon groups of samples. In essence, what happens is that the AET filter analyses the spectral content of one group of samples and applies it to another in continuously variable amounts. The degree of morphing is determined using one of two methods: a Velocity Morph (via key velocity), or an Articulation Morph (via a continuous controller such as the mod wheel).

Velocity Morphing is designed to provide naturalistic timbral transitions between adjacent velocity layers. We're all familiar with the usual problem with sampled instruments using multiple velocity layers: the tonal jump from one layer to the next can be painfully obvious. Using AET's Velocity Morphing, each sample in a layer progressively takes on the timbre of the layer above as you approach the velocity boundary. When the boundary is crossed, the next group of samples takes on the characteristics of the layer below. As you continue to increase velocity, they regain their original timbre in the middle of their velocity range, and towards the top of that range they gradually take on the timbre of the next velocity layer, and so on. You can think of it as a timbral 'relay race', where each velocity layer hands its timbral 'baton' to the next.

Attribute-based browsing in the updated Database, with the attributes pane at the top and the results pane below. Note that sounds can be star‑rated and colour‑coded for additional visual feedback.In an ideal example of this scenario, a more naturalistic dynamic timbral progression occurs, masking transitions between velocity layers as you cross velocity boundaries. This process can be applied to any number of velocity layers. NI expect this to be one of the most common uses for AET, and have simplified the procedure by providing an 'Auto add Velocity Morph' function, making this the easiest AET type to set up.

The Articulation Morph method takes a different approach, and is most suitable for sustained sounds such as choirs, strings, woodwind and other sounds that exhibit a generally constant tonality and volume. With Articulation Morphing, vocal 'oohs' can seamlessly become 'ahhs', soft muted strings can progress gradually into a loud, triple f ensemble, and so on. However, unlike Velocity Morphing, there is no 'auto setup' option available — Articulation Morphs must be configured manually.

The procedure is explained clearly in the PDF manual, and although it involves a little effort, it's easily grasped. Let's say you want to make an Articulation Morphed brass sound, using three dynamic levels of samples, p, mf and ff. First, you need to prepare an instrument that contains all three sounds layered together, each covering the full velocity range and each assigned to their own sample Group. To describe the entire process in detail would take much too long: it involves creating a Morph Layer for each group, then creating a Morph Map from those layers and loading it into the AET filter. This Morph Map automatically assigns the three sounds into three equal morphing 'ranges', which can be swept through using the on-screen Morph knob, or any external controller such as the mod wheel. The end result is a smooth progression from p to ff, but without any of the volume dips or phasing problems usually encountered with the traditional sample crossfading method. However, it's important to bear in mind that we're not transforming one set of samples into another, we're applying the spectral characteristics of each sample group onto just one of those groups. Therefore we have to decide which group is to be the 'master' — the one we will actually hear — and then mute all the other groups so we can't hear their original samples. Having experimented with the possible choices, I found that the best group of samples to use as the 'master' is the one that has the richest harmonic content — usually this will be the loudest, brightest samples. So, at the top of the Morph range we hear the ff samples au naturel, and as we morph downwards, these samples progressively take on the tonality of the mf samples, and at the bottom they sound very much like the p samples.

Of the two Morphing methods, Articulation Morphing provides the most successful and musical results. The success rate of Velocity Morphing is variable, and highly dependent on the nature of the samples involved. In either case, don't expect to be able to transform a piano into a tambourine — realistic results are more likely when the inherent envelope characteristics of the morphed samples are very similar to each other. On the other hand, some very interesting hybrid sounds can be created using the AET filter to process disparate sample types!

Database Browsing

An example of how the Quick Load Catalog is used to create a customised, folder-based directory of your favourite sounds.

Attribute-based browsing is fast becoming the standard way to search the large preset libraries found in soft synths such as Massive and Absynth. Kontakt 3 already offered three types of browsing: the standard File menu, the Library Browser and the Database's keyword 'search string' method. Attribute browsing is now part of Kontakt 4, and it works in conjunction with the 'search string' method. The entire Kontakt 4 library has conveniently been pre-tagged, enabling searches to be progressively narrowed down by type. Simply click on one or more attributes in the upper pane, and the search results appear instantly in the lower pane. You can also narrow down the results within an attributes search by typing in keywords into the centre search field — for example, if you just select 'Bowed Strings' in the upper pane, then type 'Bass' into the search field, only bowed string basses will be shown in the results pane.

Out of the box, Kontakt's database is populated only with its own library, so if you want your personal sample creations to be included, they need to be added to the database. That in itself is easy enough: just add the folders you wish to include using the database Options box, and click Update. However, at this stage you'll only be able to search for your own material using whole or partial patch names as keywords. To search by attributes, you'll have to tag them yourself manually, and happily, Kontakt provides the tools to do this. You can customise the attributes pane exactly to your own requirements, creating your own sets of attributes or removing attribute types that you feel aren't relevant. The PDF manual explains the whole tagging procedure in detail, and as you might imagine, tagging a large personal library is likely to be a lengthy task — one best reserved for times of unemployment or several very rainy days!

As well as being able to search for Multis, Banks, Instruments and Samples, Kontakt 4 provides two new searchable categories: Groups and Presets. The Group type takes advantage of the fact that any instrument sample Group can be exported to disk as a separate file — think of it as a mini instrument in its own right. These can be imported back into any other instrument from within its Group Edit window — but how useful it would be if they could simply be dragged onto the Group Edit window from the database browser? Well, that's exactly how this works. NI have already exported and tagged many (if not all) of the Groups that make up its library instruments, and these can be searched for by attribute just like any instrument. It's a brilliantly simple idea, and makes the creation of composite instrument sounds a complete doddle. Fancy having an 'ooh' choir pad along with the electric piano you just loaded? Just drag the 'Choir U' Group from the browser into the piano's Group Edit window, and there it is: an instant layered sound with a single mouse movement.

The Preset category works in the same way, only this time all Kontakt's presets for Effects, Filters, Modulators, Convolution, KSP scripts and more are represented — and searchable — by attributes. For example, selecting Convolution and Big Rooms as attributes displays all the relevant Presets. Just drag one from the browser and drop it onto an instrument's Effect slot, and Kontakt loads the Convolution reverb with the appropriate reverb impulse in place.

The Kontakt 4 Library

Each of the seven Performance View categories now has its own distinctive graphic styling and dedicated controls. This is the Choir instrument.

NI have added 10GB of new material to the library, upping its size to 43GB. Pride of place goes to the new Choir collection, specially recorded for Kontakt 4. Featuring soprano, alto, tenor and bass choir instruments, each range of the choir has been sampled singing six different vowel sounds: ah, eh, ee, oh, ooh and mm (A-E-I-O-U-M). Several Choir patches take the opportunity to show off Kontakt's new AET processing, using the mod wheel to morph through various combinations of the vowel sounds. The results are quite impressive — I think I feel a Stabat Mater coming on.

Next up are the new Solo String instruments comprising violin, viola, cello and bass solo instruments, adding to the already well-stocked Vienna Symphonic Orchestra section. The Keyboards category gains new concert organ samples, whilst the Band section has been augmented by all the electric pianos from NI's Elektrik Piano virtual instrument. The final new addition is in the Vintage category, containing a collection of 13 classic sounds from the mighty Mellotron.

Performance Views for all instruments in the library have been completely redesigned: each of the seven categories has its own distinctive graphic styling to reflect its musical genre. The Orchestral graphics, in particular, look very opulent, with a dark, polished finish adding a touch of class. The Performance Views for each category provide controls specifically designed to suit each instrument — this is especially evident in the Band category. The views are also much larger than before, giving more of the feel of a virtual instrument to each patch. The Orchestral instrument Views have had a lot of attention given to them, especially with regard to key‑switched articulations, making them accessible in a very user-friendly way. In addition to the standard keyswitches, a new type of Dynamic keyswitching allows articulations to be changed while a note is still sounding.

Noticeably missing from the Orchestral category are the legato, release, repetition and mod‑wheel crossfade instruments from the version 3 library. Fortunately for those of us who liked and used them, NI have thoughtfully included them in a dedicated 'Legacy VSL Instrument' folder. None of these Legacy presets include Performance Views, but if you have the original version 3 library installed on your drive, you can always load those if you miss the facilities offered by the Performance Views. Interestingly, the solo strings are also offered as Legacy sounds, even though they didn't exist in previous versions of the library!

Significant Others

The Synth category Performance View graphics.

Kontakt 4 now offers the option to re-save instruments in 'NCW' Lossless Sample Compression format. This proprietary codec can reduce memory footprint by between 30 percent and 50 percent, the advantage being that disk streaming is more efficient, especially for large instruments such as grand pianos, using very little CPU overhead as Kontakt decompresses the samples 'on the fly'. Re‑saving instruments in compressed format does not alter or overwrite your existing files, but it makes sense to save them into a dedicated folder to avoid confusion.

Finally, and at long last, Kontakt 4's GUI is now fully resizeable, which is sure to please anyone (everyone?) for whom the three preset size options never quite fitted comfortably into their screen layout.

Conclusion

Kontakt has unquestionably inherited the 'professionals' sampler of choice' crown previously worn by Gigastudio, and deservedly so. The software has matured into an exceptionally musical and creative tool, and it's no surprise that so many third-party sample libraries are being made available in Kontakt format.

Although version 4 offers only one major new sound design tool (AET), the improvements and new additions made to the library will be welcomed by many. The benefits of attribute-based browsing and enhanced database functionality are also a major plus for anyone concerned with efficiency of workflow. It's somewhat strange that there are not more instrument Presets than just the Choir taking advantage of the new AET filter, but I have a feeling that keen sound designers will be only too happy to have a go at forging their own AET creations. Perhaps we'll see a library update featuring more AET Presets — how about it, NI?  .

Alternatives

These are some of the better-known software samplers (as distinct from sample players, or virtual instruments based around a themed library in combination with a dedicated sample player):

• Emu Emulator X3 (PC only).

• Apple EXS 24 (only for Logic Pro on Mac).

• Steinberg Halion.

• MOTU Mach 5.

• IK Multimedia SampleTank 2.

• Yellow Tools Independence.

• Digidesign Structure (Pro Tools only).

Kontakt 3.5 Updates In Brief

The incremental update from Kontakt 3.0 to 3.5 saw a number of significant changes and improvements which, as you'd expect, also form part of Kontakt 4. Firstly, the library browser from the separate Kontakt 2 Player application was integrated into Kontakt 3.5, negating the need to use Kontakt 2 Player any more. All registered libraries appear under their own dedicated tabs, and can be loaded, edited and saved just like normal Kontakt patches. True multi-processor support was introduced, along with 64-bit compatibility, and a redesigned sample playback engine is quoted as bringing substantially improved performance.

The DFD (Direct From Disk) streaming engine also received a makeover. Certain playback restrictions were removed, so that reverse playback and loop crossfades work in DFD mode in just the same way as in Sampler playback mode. Loading times were also improved, with less memory being required for DFD mode. DFD memory is now handled dynamically as you play, which means more instruments can be loaded — good news for those working with less than 4GB RAM.

The now-standard MIDI Learn function was implemented for all knobs and sliders, including those in Performance Views. Also added were a new Files pane under the Database/Quick‑Load tab, plus Auto-mapping improvements, new KSP scripting commands, and a whole raft of de-bugs to improve reliability and stability. One word of caution: if you re-save (overwrite) any instrument patches from within Kontakt 4, they can no longer be loaded into Kontakt 2, 3, or the Kontakt 2 Player!

System Requirements

  • Kontakt 4 works stand-alone, or as a VST, Audio Units or RTAS (Pro Tools 7 or higher) plug-in.
  • Windows requirements: Windows XP SP2, Vista (32/64-bit) or Windows 7, Pentium or Athlon 1.4GHz processor, 1GB RAM.
  • Mac requirements: Mac OS 10.5, Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz processor, 1GB RAM.

Quick Load Catalog

Faster working is a major theme of Kontakt 4, and the new Quick Load Catalog (sic) provides yet another means of swiftly tracking down frequently used sounds. Right-clicking in an empty space in the instrument rack brings up the Quick Load window, within which you can create your own custom folder structure based on whatever criteria you see fit. Simply drag files from the main Browser into the folders you've created in the Quick Load window to build your own quick-access directory of favourite sounds.


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