The latest incarnation of NI's Kore system introduces an updated controller, redesigned and streamlined software and a generous library of built-in sounds. So is Kore all you need to get the most out of your software instruments and effects?
Kore 2 is a combined software and hardware system for hosting and controlling plug-ins, and, as its name would suggest, is successor to Kore 1 (reviewed in the July 2006 issue of Sound On Sound). The software runs stand-alone, or as a VST, AU or RTAS plug-in within your DAW of choice, and promises a range of benefits to studio producers, composers and live performers.
Kore provides a workstation-like front-end for your sounds and effects, allowing you to pull patches from your plug-in collection into a centralised library of 'Koresounds'. You also gain hands-on control of key parameters from a single plug-in interface and hardware device. This lets you abstract yourself from the underlying sound sources, and deal with your sounds as a unified palette.
The host shell provides a structure for layering and chaining multiple plug-ins into larger blocks that can then be used as single plug-in inserts. This brings exciting possibilities for sound design and for saving complex effects chains, or sound 'Multis', in Kore-speak. Kore can also prove useful for musicians wishing to use virtual instruments on stage or in sessions.
Kore 2 is a major overhaul of the original Kore, with an updated hardware controller, This, thankfully, no longer needs to be attached to allow you to use the Kore software, which itself has been completely redesigned. The biggest change is the addition of built-in sounds; you can now make music just with Kore and a computer. Differences between the stand-alone application and the plug-in are gone, meaning you can use the live performance functionality within a host DAW.
New innovations include Sound Variations, which allows you to store up to eight snapshots of the current patch and morph through them. MIDI effects, including a step sequencer, offer enhanced performance possibilities. And my personal favourite: routing of MIDI and audio between objects in the Kore rack turns the system into a versatile synth studio.
New users get the new controller, while upgraders can choose to keep their original hardware for a significant saving (see the 'Upgrades & Pricing' box). The Kore 2 controller looks very similar to its forerunner. The audio controls are gone (the controller no longer doubles as an audio interface), and the buttons around the scroll wheel have a new layout. The glossy plastic areas of the front panel have been replaced with a less attractive, but less fingerprint-prone, matte finish.
In nearly all respects, the hardware problems I described in the Kore 1 review have been addressed. The menu buttons now have a light, clean action with a reassuring click — a massive improvement over the spongy and unreliable earlier ones. The eight controller buttons also click now, although they require more pressure to engage.
The back panel, although devoid of audio connections, still sports useful MIDI In and Out ports for general interfacing duties and, of course, a USB 2.0 port for connecting to the host computer. Note, however, that the Kore 2 controller itself is not a MIDI control surface, and can still only be used to operate the Kore software and hosted plug-ins. Generous provision is made for foot controllers, with two inputs each for pedals and footswitches.
If Kore 2 is analogous to a workstation synth, its expansion cards are Koresound Packs, 49 Euro downloads adding new sounds to the Kore library.
Best Of Reaktor is the cream of the crop, featuring great instruments from the Reaktor and Electronic Instruments libraries. I said in the Kore 1 review that Kore could make Reaktor into a much more accessible instrument, and this shows how. Decent use of control assignment is made in most cases, although the Photone-based patches all seem to use the same mapping, so some patches have redundant knobs.
Best Of Massive features 200 patches from Massive's library, which means that it's dominated by top-notch, distinctive synth leads, basses and pads. You might think the control mapping is a bit stingy, featuring just one page per patch. By contrast, the same patches on the full version of Massive have two patch-specific pages, and 16 general parameter pages. However, the controls sensibly follow the Macros from the original Massive patches, so are all directly relevant to the sounds.
Synthetic Drums Reloaded adds 10 kits of electronic and processed drum sounds. The kits are large, packed in across the keys, with different 'sub-kits' in each octave. Although you'll find some solid sounds here, this was the most uninspiring pack, for me. These sounds are feeling a little tired now, and the control assignments are mostly effects and seem to have been an afterthought. I'd stick with the factory kits, as the Drum Machine patch takes care of the TR808, TR909 and CR78, and the Electron and G-Shot kits are at least as good as anything in this extra pack.
The '57 Drawbar Organ deserves special mention for its seriously impressive programming. This pack, a beautifully sampled 1957 Hammond C3, is the only one which features material that is not available in other products. This probably explains why there are a generous number of controls, allowing you much more access to the instrument inside.
I'm generally in favour of skipping any discussion of installation in a product review — except when it impinges on the user experience. I love NI's synths, and I couldn't be without them, but they do demand a certain level of regular admin. This is especially true when Kore is present, as it needs to co-ordinate with the various plug-ins and sounds on your system.
A fresh install of Kore 2, with no previous NI products installed, shouldn't cause you too many problems. A single DVD installs everything you need, including the Koresound library and the 5GB of sample content used by some of the built-in sounds. To register and unlock the software (with a serial number) and get the latest update, you need to run the Service Center utility which connects to NI on-line. Despite being over 200MB, you should download the 2.0.1 update which adds functionality such as Performance Presets that didn't make it to the first release.
In my case, installing onto a system with Kore 1 and a sprinkling of NI instruments was far from straightforward. Inevitably, numerous plug-in and library updates were needed to make sure everything was happy. Even so, half of my sounds were not seen — a common issue, apparently, and eventually fixed after a trip to the user forum. I also had problems with Kore losing its authorisation and the path to its samples, which required a re-install.
The most straightforward use of Kore 2 is as a 'workstation' synth, browsing for sounds and tweaking them with the pre-defined controls. This doesn't require much understanding or exploration of the software's internal environment, so the user interface has a strip of buttons for hiding everything that you don't need.
The attractive, clean design of Kore 2 is a class above the first version. Coming from Kore 1, I was initially disorientated by the layout and conceptual changes, and by the fact that everything is icon-based, with almost no text. Luckily, the Info Pane at the bottom of Kore 2's window displays the name and function of every object you mouse over, and provides handy usage tips.
By default, just the Global Controller and Browser panels are shown. The Global Controller mirrors the eight knobs and buttons on the hardware controller, labelled with their current functions. This is the only place where controls are displayed, unlike in Kore 1, where every device in the rack sported its own knobs and buttons. While the old way was potentially useful when using a mouse, it caused confusion about what the hardware was focussed on.
Sharing the Global Controller area is the Sound Variation Matrix. Sound Variations are simply snapshots of all mapped parameters and mixer settings in the patch. Library patches have preset Variations, but you can store your own. As well as using the mouse, you can switch between Variations with the controller's buttons, or morph between them with the knobs. Each knob represents one of the eight Variations, and turning a knob morphs the sound towards its corresponding Variation. This is an ingenious and effective design.
The sound browser has been extensively reworked, and is much the better for it. A key concept in Kore is the classification and searching of sounds by their type and character, rather than by plug-ins (an idea that has been quickly adopted by other developers). As well as user-input word searches, you can select from lists of sound types, modes, timbres and so on, producing an ever-diminishing list of sounds tagged with the attributes you require.
The new Browser can be customised by choosing which attribute lists are displayed, or by dragging and dropping existing attributes into a new column to make your own list.
Many keyboard players are replacing synth and sampler racks with virtual instruments and a laptop. Kore 2 is well suited to hosting plug-ins for live use, with all the necessary tools for setting up keyboard ranges, MIDI channels and routing, transposition and hardware control. The MIDI Player plug-in can be used for playback, similar to how the Akai S6000 is sometimes used. Kore 2 can now be used inside Ableton Live, without losing the Performance layer, as happened in Kore 1.
Kore no longer has a Live View, instead having a Performance Presets view. Performance Presets are snapshots of the current configuration, including which mixer channels are enabled and disabled. Typically, you'd set up the instruments needed for a gig or session, and create Presets to enable the right channels for each song or section. Kore 1 had the same concept, although a preset stored everything (including audio routing). You can no longer store routing in a preset, which may or may not be a problem for you. On a more positive note, any controller page can now be 'isolated' from the Performance Preset functionality. This would be useful if, say, you had a piano patch you wished to play manually and keep unaffected by PP changes.
Kore 1 had a Performance Presets list you could use to create an automated sequence and set transition rules such as bar/beat quantisation and crossfades. This has gone, replaced by a display of 16 banks of eight Presets. Quantisation of changes is global, and you can't crossfade between Presets. NI say that where crossfading is necessary you should set up Sound Variation snapshots instead, which are similar to Presets anyway. However, this means leaving more channels enabled, so CPU load may be higher.
The basic install includes a library of over 900 Koresounds, split roughly into Instrument and Effect patches. Kore 2 is advertised as coming with 'over 500 production-ready sounds'. There are actually 439 Koresound Instrument patches, but I won't quibble, as the Sound Variation snapshots in each patch put the number of actual preset sounds into the thousands.
The library is rich and varied, thanks to the diverse onboard 'sound engines'. Special versions of Massive, FM8, Reaktor, Kontakt, Guitar Rig and Absynth are installed, and used like regular plug-ins within the Kore 2 patches. Unlike the full versions of these instruments, the sound engines don't show up in the plug-in list for use in your own patches, and you can't access their software interfaces. Instead, they are controlled only by whichever knobs and buttons have been assigned in each patch. The extended general control mappings that you get with the full plug-ins are absent, so low-level sound programming isn't possible.
This is fine for finding and tweaking sounds, but if you prefer to build your own sounds from scratch, you'll be looking to buy the full versions of the plug-ins. You will then be able to open and fully edit the plug-ins used in the Koresound library. NI's instruments also come with extensive Koresound libraries, so your Kore database swells considerably as your instrument collection grows.
Kore 2 avoids much confusion by removing the difference between the stand-alone and plug-in versions of its software, and presenting all patches in a single page view. There is still a distinction made between a Performance (the top level of any instance of Kore) and the Koresounds and devices contained therein, but this is actually quite arbitrary.
A Performance is basically a mixer, which can contain Input, Source, Group and Master channels. Each channel has controls for routing both audio and MIDI, as well as aux sends, allowing for complex structures to be assembled. Channels have insert slots where you drop the sound sources and effects that make up your patch. The simplest patch would be a single instrument plug-in on a single source channel. Things get more interesting when you put a chain of devices on a channel; for example, an Arpeggiator (MIDI plug-in) followed by a synth (instrument plug-in) followed by a delay unit (internal or plug-in effect).
Adding another channel creates a layered sound, or a split using the Sound Manager view's Channel Mapping area — as in the screen below. By assigning different MIDI channels to the mixer channels, you can create a 'Multi', which could be played back by multiple DAW tracks.
The most powerful aspect of Kore's structure is that any slot in a channel can contain a Koresound instead of an individual plug-in. This Koresound may itself contain an internal structure, with MIDI effects, multiple plug-in instruments, and audio effects.
Selecting a Koresound in any channel of a Performance now displays that sound's internal structure below the main mixer level. This layer may contain other Koresounds, so a complex sound may have several layers of 'nested' mixers, which will be displayed one above the other.
One of the most elegant functions in the new versions is the 'Save Performance as Sound' command, which packs the entire current plug-in configuration into a Koresound, ready to be slotted into a channel later on.
If youre upgrading from Kore 1, you can get a hardware and software upgrade via the NI web site for a discount on the price a new user pays for Kore 2. However, you can opt for a software-only upgrade (from UK distributor Arbiter or via the NI site). Although the build quality of the new hardware is superior, the original controller offers full functionality with the Kore 2 software. In fact, if you are using Kore 1s built-in audio interface, you may be better off staying put.
When browsing and loading Koresounds in individual instances of Kore 2, you'll always get at least one top-level page of knobs and buttons that adjust significant parameters of the patch. However, once you grasp Kore's internal structure, you can navigate through it with the hardware, accessing different control pages for each channel and device. The controller displays the structure as a grid and you use the cursor and menu buttons to focus different slots and move between layers.
The touch-sensitive encoders are still one of the highlights of Kore, and now have a new trick. The brightness of the lights around the bottom of each knob now indicates the value of the currently mapped parameter.
The plug-in feels more integrated with the hardware, and it's much easier to tell where you are, partly because the plug-in window updates to show changes of focus from the hardware. You can also scroll through the Browser's results list from the controller, and the on-screen list follows, allowing you to preview attributes. Each instance of Kore in a project has a button that focuses the hardware to that window. You can also switch between different instances from the hardware, although unless you rename each instance they are all called 'New Performance'. Couldn't the name default to the first Koresound you load, unless you choose to change it?
Browsing from the hardware is limited to the results list in the software, whereas in Kore 1 you could navigate a hierarchical list. It takes four steps to go from a control page to changing a patch and back again; it works fine, but it's quicker to use the computer's cursor keys. On a somewhat related note, the Next/Prev buttons that used to be displayed on plug-in objects are now gone, meaning that you have to open the plug-in's interface to switch patches at that level. However, many VST plug-ins don't have patch-selection controls, assuming that the host will.
All NI plug-ins now work with Kore; controller pages have been set up and Koresounds created for all the presets. In fact, Koresound is now the native preset format for most of the NI range.
But what about other plug-ins? Firstly, the factory instruments and effects that come with your DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, Live, etc) will not work because they can only be hosted by their own application. However, any VST- or AU-format plug-in should open in Kore 2. A growing list of third-party plug-ins have pre-defined controller pages, so will work with the Kore hardware without needing you to map parameters.
A notable advance is the ability to batch import sounds from any plug-in that uses the standard VST patch-bank scheme. If you first set up some controller mappings, these will be saved with all the imported patches too. This is a great feature, although it falls foul of Kore 2's lack of patch/bank controls for plug-ins, meaning that you may only be able to grab the default bank.
Kore 1 showed much promise and was, indeed, useful for live work, but it was complicated and temperamental, and many users found they drifted back to using individual plug-ins in their DAW. Kore 2 is a marked improvement in most areas and I found it much more enjoyable to use. The integrated sound engines are NI's smartest move, as Kore 2 is now useful to anyone, not just those who already have plug-ins. In fact, I had a lot of fun making tracks while restricting myself just to the built-in sounds, drum kits and effects. Sometimes it's a relief to just get on with writing a tune instead of getting bogged down with programming.
A powerful reason to look at Kore is for use as an effects hub. As well as being able to build complex serial and parallel chains for unique effects, you can set up your day-to-day EQ and dynamics chain as a patch, with a simple page or two of hardware controls. With over 30 built-in effects, and many Reaktor and Guitar Rig effects in the library, Kore 2 is a cost-effective way to add a suite of processing options to your DAW.
Kore 2 is probably the most powerful software-based solution for performing with virtual instruments. Although some Kore 1 functionality is lost, the ability to work with Performance presets inside an application like Live is an important step. MIDI effects, and the step sequencer, along with MIDI routing between objects in a patch, let you experiment with Kore as an analogue-style synth studio. And, of course, the Sound Variations give you another way to store sound presets and morph between them.
Despite some false starts, NI now seem to have found their direction with the Kore project. If NI synths are an essential part of your music making, as they are for me, Kore is of real benefit and opens new creative avenues. Kore 2, with a laptop and controller keyboard also represents a real and intriguing (if less straightforward) alternative to a hardware workstation. .
Ableton Live's Racks can be used to many of the same ends as Kore 2, as can Reason's Combinator, although both offer less Macro controls and the latter within a closed environment. Logic's library can store instruments and effects in chains. Apple's Main Stage offers a similar solution for live/session work, and has access to Logic's instruments. However, it can't run in a host (or on a PC), and of course there's no integrated hardware. A number of smaller developers have plug-ins for grouping other plug-ins; examples are ART Teknika's Console, and Audiofile Engineering's RAX. Another established software solution for live work is Brainspawn's Forté. For those who prefer not to take a laptop on stage, Muse's Receptor hosts plug-ins in a hardware rack unit.