The S88 MkII offers a high-quality weighted keyboard and even tighter computer integration.
Native Instruments' Komplete Kontrol series of keyboard controllers has been around for nearly five years now, having proven very popular — notably amongst studio musicians who work with NI's Komplete series of virtual instruments. The NKS (Native Kontrol Standard) protocol is at the core of the Komplete Kontrol concept, whereby the keyboards communicate bi-directionally with instruments via NI's Komplete Kontrol (henceforth KK) software application.
Whilst control of virtual instruments from hardware knobs and buttons isn't new per se, the KK hardware/software combination takes this much further, providing visual feedback of key parameters on the keyboard itself and using eight rotary encoders for hands-on control of those parameters. The innovative lightguide — LEDs embedded above each key — provide colour-coded information on playable key ranges, scales and keyswitch positions. In order for third-party VST instruments to take full advantage of the KK paradigm, they must be NKS compatible; the growing number of developers adopting this standard is indicative of how thoroughly NI have infiltrated the market and mindset of musicians and developers the world over. For more details on NKS and the KK software, check out Simon Sherbourne's January 2015 review of the S49. The KK software has undergone various enhancements since then, but the principles remain the same.
This review focuses on the new features of the updated MkII S series. The 25-, 49- and 61-note synth-action models have been around for some months now; the review specimen in front of me is the newest 88-note weighted keyboard version.
The principal objective of the KK controllers is to minimise the need for the mouse and computer screen. The MkI succeeded in this to a point, but still required frequent referral to the screen in order to select which instrument to load into the KK software, and to see that instrument's list of preset names. Hence the first major change on the MkII: two HD colour screens (more on which later) replacing the MkI's text-based LEDs. The next significant change — a distinct improvement as far as some are concerned — is the replacement of the pitch and modulation Touch Strips with traditional pitch and mod wheels. Moog got it right all those years ago, and I for one prefer wheels for those tasks to any other device.
The Touch Strip concept hasn't been entirely abandoned, though — one (freely assignable) horizontal strip is positioned below the wheels. This strip is constructed differently to those on the MkI, replacing the previous glossy affairs with a matte-finish shallow indentation very close to the edge of the left panel; it's also highly sensitive — and therein lies a problem. When operating the pitch or mod wheels, it's hard to avoid touching the strip unless adopting the classic 'apple under the hand' position. All too frequently the strip can jump in value, even when your hand is in close proximity, resulting in unexpected sound changes or volume jumps. It would have been better placed vertically next to the wheels, or even above them.
The lightguide has also changed; the LEDs are narrower now, making the distinction between each note clearer — and subsequently having less glare than those on the MkI, which although impressive were bright enough to light up a small studio and could be distracting. Interestingly, the option to turn them off appears to have been removed from within KK.
There's cosmetic improvement to the surface of the top panel; this is now entirely in a matte finish, as opposed to the brushed metal of the MkI. This is especially advantageous on the 88-note model, which has a lot of empty real estate where small devices can be placed, such as additional control surfaces; they're far less prone to slipping around on the matte finish than the brushed metal.
Joining the Octave Shift buttons on the left panel is a Fixed Vel/TS Mode button, which sets key velocity to 127. Curiously, there's no means of fixing velocity to any other value. The button's 'TS Mode' subscript suggests to me that you could use the Touch Strip (TS?) to set the velocity to whatever value you want. This would be very useful indeed, but it's not the case.
The Shift, Scale, Arp and DAW transport buttons are joined by additional DAW controls (see the 'DAW Compatibility' box). On the right, the navigation buttons now provide the means to move around the S88's screens, selecting instruments, effects, their presets, and different instances of KK. The '4D' encoder knob has three functions; rotary preset scrolling, up/down cursor movement, and a push-down selection switch. If you're playing non-NKS instruments or hardware synths, the MIDI button switches the S88 into 'basic' MIDI controller mode. In this mode, the S88's controls (wheels, Touch Strip, pedals, the eight rotary encoders and buttons, keyboard splits and MIDI channels) can be freely configured to your own requirements via the stand-alone version of KK. Custom Templates can be created and recalled as needed — however, the stand-alone KK app must be running in order to create or select different Templates. The rubber-feel buttons have a firm, positive action; if they have functions assigned (depending on the instrument or effect currently in focus), their legending glows gently, becoming brighter when activated — buttons with no function remain dark, a helpful indication of which ones actually do anything.
Installing the S88 MkII into your system is straightforward enough, requiring the supplied external power supply and USB 2.0 cable. However, before powering up the S88 MkII for the first time the stand–alone KK software should be run first; this performs a scan of your system to find all your NKS–compatible instruments and VST effects, so they will be accessible to KK and visible in its library. Some non-NKS instruments can still be loaded via KK's File menu (some not), in which case S88 reverts automatically to MIDI mode and operates as a normal MIDI controller. Most of my NKS–compatible instruments showed up, with a handful of inexplicable exceptions, the latest version of Arturia's B–3 V being just one example. Also, whilst NI's Noire piano loads fine into Kontakt, Komplete Kontrol would have none of it.
Also included in the KK package is a separate Firmware Updater app. This should also be run when the S88 is first connected and you are online — it checks your current version, and prompts you to update to the latest version if necessary.
The S88 MkII is impressive both technologically and physically; solidly built and elegant in appearance, with a keyboard that is a pleasure to play.
The most important aspect of any keyboard controller is the keyboard itself. In that regard, the S88 doesn't disappoint with its Fatar weighted hammer-action. The action is a little heavier than I expected, but it's by no means hard work — a few minutes playing and you get used to it. Even glissandi are surprisingly painless to execute, without leaving a bloodied trail in their wake. The keys have no non-slip coating, but as most S88s will probably spend their lives in the studio, sweaty fingers are less likely to be an issue. Dynamics are very easy to control, and if the response is too light or too heavy there are seven velocity curves to choose from in the Setup menu. The knobs' and wheels' movement feels super-smooth — indeed the whole device oozes build quality.
The two screens and their integration with the KK software are the biggest leap forward from the MkI. Navigating between instances, scrolling and auditioning presets, adding and chaining insert effects can all be done quickly and easily once you're familiar with the process. Basically, in Browser mode the left screen scrolls through your instrument list; the right screen scrolls through the presets. In Plug-in mode, available tweakable parameters are shown both as text and current value, along the bottom of both screens (often across numerous pages), providing a clear overview of what's going on.
The S88 MkII is impressive both technologically and physically; solidly built and elegant in appearance, with a keyboard that is a pleasure to play. Whilst focusing one's attention on the S88, rather than the mouse and screen, is a very different way of working that may not appeal to everyone, there are many advantages to this approach, not least of which is speedy navigation through a potential labyrinth of sounds, and instant tweakability once you get there. Inevitably you will have to address the computer and mouse at times, particularly when dealing with anything not NKS compatible — but it's worth checking your instrument armoury regularly for updates, as more and more products are entering the NKS fold.
Preset previews offer a convenient way to audition sounds without the need to load them up, which with larger sample–based instruments can often take quite a while. Essentially, previews are pre-recorded one-note audio snippets that play as you scroll through a preset list. If you know what kind of sound you're looking for, the browser's Type and Character tags (knobs 5 and 7 under the right hand screen) help to narrow the list down, especially if you're searching among your entire instrument collection.
According to NI, Komplete instruments released after October 1st 2017 come supplied with the necessary preview sounds. Registered S88 MkII owners can download a package of preview sounds (7.9GB in size) via the Native Access app; these, say NI, contain previews for all Komplete and NKS instruments prior to that date. Other than that it's down to third–party developers of NKS–compatible instruments to supply NI with the necessary sound files, which means delegating someone to sit down and record snippets of each and every preset of their products. I don't envy anyone that particular task — on some synths the presets can run into the thousands!
The MkII offers greatly enhanced DAW functions beyond the basic transport controls when paired with a compatible DAW. Currently, the only ones supported are as follows:
- Maschine 2
- Apple Logic Pro X
- Apple GarageBand
- Ableton Live 9
- Steinberg Cubase Artist 8.5/9/9.5
- Steinberg Cubase Pro 8.5/9/9.5
- Steinberg Nuendo 7/8
As well as standard DAW operations such as Play, Stop and Record, the S88 MkII allows you to navigate your project, select tracks, control tempo, quantise, record automation and even do mixing. Selecting any track that hosts an instance of Komplete Kontrol will automatically switch focus to that instance, without the need to make the switch manually. My own DAW (Cakewalk) is not yet supported, so I was unable to test all these features; nevertheless I've witnessed them in action, and they work.
- Elegant appearance, solidly built.
- Classy-feeling Fatar keyboard action.
- Good visual feedback and quick navigation via the two screens.
- The wheels, the wheels!
- Not the best location for the hyper-sensitive Touch Strip.
- Not all instruments were accessible to KK that in theory should have been.
- Complex editing of instruments arguably easier and quicker on the computer screen.
For anyone working extensively with NKS–compatible instruments, the S88 MkII provides much deeper integration with the Komplete Kontrol software than the MkI model, with detailed on-board visual feedback further reducing the need to refer to a computer screen. Build quality is top-notch, the traditional pitch and mod wheels are a welcome improvement, and the Fatar keyboard is a pleasure to play.