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Native Instruments A49 Controller Keyboard

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Native Instruments A49 Controller Keyboard

Postby desmond » Mon Dec 10, 2018 5:03 pm

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The story begins because I wanted an inexpensive 49-key controller keyboard to have by my computer for input. I was toying with getting the older Roland A500 for a while until the new NI keyboards were announced - and they looked like good contenders with some more modern functionality, so I decided to wait for them to be released, and check them out.

I just picked up the A49 yesterday, and wanted to give some opinions and findings so far (just a few hours in to setting it up).

My main requirements were a smallish, portable keyboard that was solid and didn't feel cheap (and wasn't as lumpy/noisy as my current master keyboard - my old Korg Wavestation). I don't require things like plugin editing as I already have a custom solution for that, but the whole NKS thing was intriguing, I hadn't used it, and I've heard good things about it - so was keen to see how it worked and how useful it might be. The controller also comes with a good amount of software, making it quite a bargain at £150. (There is a smaller A25, and a larger A61 model too, differing only from the A49 in the number of keys and physical size.)

In addition, it's good to have performance controls, octave up/down controls, and a bonus would be transport controls - as my portable rig becomes are good replacement for a MCU setup (which I don't tend to have setup often anymore due to space.)

The keybed on the NI keyboard does feel solid - it's a bit heavier than the "el cheapo" plastic keys on the usual cheap controllers, which maybe some people won't like so much, but they feel ok and the velocity response is good. The keys are quieter than my WS. No aftertouch, but then aftertouch on my WS required a good armful of pressure anyway, so I tended to not use it that much in practice. You have to go for NI's more upmarket S-range of controllers to get aftertouch, and more sophisticated interface features and screens to drive the NKS system.

The pitch and mod wheels are thick (which I'm not really a fan of) but they are also quite "heavy" - this is fine for the mod wheel, but does make quick pitch bends difficult as the pitch wheel just can't be moved far enough quick enough.

The rest of the buttons are positive if "clicky", and the 8 main encoder knobs all seem to have varying degrees of resistance - they ranged from light-ish to quite stuff, seemingly at random. They might even up over time once in use, perhaps. Worse still, there are frequent spurious knob movements as a few of them "warble" around their position, outputting data even without being touched. Not so good.

One thing I hadn't really considered - the keyboard is fairly thin, which was good as I was hoping to gain some more leg room under my desk where my current controller sits on a stand. However, I couldn't move the stand to it's next highest setting, and as the A49 is a four-octave keyboard, it's less wide than the 61-key Wavestation - and so the stand supports are too wide to support the controller at the current height. Meaning I can't quite put it under my desk where I want it, without finding some new support solution.

After installing the software, which took a while and was a little bit frustrating (for instance, installing the "Previews" software required an 8GB download, but the installer claimed it needed 36GB free on my system drive before it would install it. I decided to skip that one.)

Running Komplete Kontrol - the main software that the keyboard works with - the first time performed a plugin scan and then my plugins were available from within Komplete Kontrol, and I could try out a bit of the control aspects of the A49. I could choose patch categories, or pick an instrument and choose patches using the little screen on the keyboard and it's main encoder knob, and step through the patches. This is ok, but it seems rather more fiddly and time consuming to do this on the hardware using it's controls and screen, when the main Kontrol software is on screen in front of you showing the same things, with a much more comfortable interface. I do like being able to step through patches on the keyboard though (and I also have this setup on my usual controller).

The instrument plugin editing too worked ok, the knobs being set to sensible mappings (generally, the first page being filter controls, the next being envelopes etc). I don't know what the NKS standard defines, or whether the user can change these mappings. You are limited to four pages of 8 controls though, and the mappings weren't entirely as I'd like - but you can at least see the names of the parameters on the screen when you touch a knob.

(With my own controller scheme, I have control over the mappings for *all* plugins consistently, and I have 32 immediate controls so I don't require paging at all - and as there is no screen, I really on a generalise standard layout so the things I need are where I expect them to be.)

Here I started to encounter some frustrations. Things did sort of work (and when it worked it's quite nice, with the encoders feeling quite positive), but I started to get some weird behaviour - I'd pick a plugin, navigate through the preset categories, and then when I tried to load a sound, I'd get "plugin not found". I'd get other crashes and a few lockups of the A49 too (there's no on/off switch, you have to replug the USB cable to reset, which is a pet-peeve of mine). While some plugins worked fine, other Instruments I had that should be available seemed not to be there, still others seemed to be available but didn't work, and others worked when Kontrol was in standalone mode, but crashed when it was used as a plugin. Reliability was all over the place.

It turns out that Komplete Kontrol *only* hosts VST format plugins (I'd seen no mention of this anywhere, previously). As a Mac user, I use the standard Mac Audio Unit plugin format, and wherever possible choose to not install the VST versions as it's just unnecessary duplication and clutter of GBs of redundant files. So to really use the NKS thing, I'd have to reinstall many plugins and put the VST versions back and live with those duplicates on my system taking up previous system SSD space. NI say there's "no timeline for AU support" for Komplete Kontrol.

Even so, in order to use the NKS system in your DAW, you essential have to load Komplete Kontrol as a plugin first, which then hosts your chosen plugin within that. No Komplete Kontrol plugin loaded, and the "Browser" button on the A49 stays stubbornly unlit and unavailable. That means all your plugins in your host become Komplete Kontrol "wrapped" plugins, which I'm not too keen on either for a variety of reasons. And I'm not too convinced of the value of the NKS system - for those who don't yet know what this is, I was also one of you until today. The explanatory "What is NKS?" video from NI reveals very little about what NKS is, leaving you with the supposedly illuminatory "What is NKS? It's what it *does*..!" tag line, which told me nothing.

As far as I can see, NKS is a standard that plugin developers can use to both tag presets so they show up in the Komplete Kontrol browser ("Show me all "Bass -> Analog presets"), and a way of mapping a set of simplified controls for editing (filter controls, envelopes etc). This is very similar to how I've developed my own plugin control scheme in Logic.

Now, I'm all in favour of someone trying to make preset handling in plugins better, and more consistent, because while we have amazing plugins available these days, preset handling is a mess and in many ways far worse than it was back in the 80s, when at least you could have one consistent way to store, manage and access all your sounds for all your devices (eg, generic libraries like SoundDiver.) I go to great lengths to export plugin presets out to Logic's native preset format, so I can have consistent access to these, organise and step through them - just the kind of things that NKS promises to do - but I don't have an abstraction layer of the Kontrol software I have to do everything through.

Anyway, while the NKS system does work, the fact that to use it I have to load plugins within the Komplete Kontrol plugin in my host, the fact that browsing presets on the keyboard is not a great experience on the tiny screen, and the fact that it requires VST format plugins means I'm basically not going to use that whole system, and am therefore passing on what would otherwise be decent functionality. I'm not missing something I previously had, but does seem a bit of a wasted opportunity as the hardware has been designed for it.

On a more positive note, the A49 sets itself up as a control surface in Logic, and has some other nice, useful functionality - you can control the transport, shuttle the song position, control pans and levels for 8 channels, mute/solo the current track, move through the track list, turn the metronome and cycle on/off. (It has similar capabilities for Ableton Live too.) And there are some other useful things like having a fixed velocity mode. These are the core functions I will likely use, rather than the whole NKS/plugin editing thing. I'm not too fussed about the scale and arpeggiator modes and haven't yet played with them.

So - in short, the keyboard itself is ok, and will do what I need it to do - the fact that it adds the physical transport controls that my current hardware controller system is missing means that I really do have a substitute Mackie Control rig in portable miniature now, which is great. Provided I can put it somewhere useful!

But NKS is going to be "Not Kurrently Supported" by me, for now - perhaps I'll take another look if they implement AU plugin support.

I'll follow this up a bit once I've lived with the A49 for a while...
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desmond
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