It's over five years since Native Instruments released the original version of their flagship soft sampler, and its third incarnation takes the Kontakt concept even further, with a streamlined user interface, a new waveform editor and a massive sample library.
The jump from Kontakt version 1 to version 2 brought a huge number of improvements to all areas of Native Instruments' software sampler. Amongst the enhancements were a more attractive cosmetic appearance, easier modulation routing, more flexible effects routing, a variety of new effects including a convolution reverb, a searchable database, instrument banks, universal file import and the KSP script engine, to name just a few highlights. To fully appreciate the differences, it's worth catching up with the reviews of Kontakt 1 and Kontakt 2 in the August 2002 and July 2005 issues of SOS. The increment to Kontakt 3, whilst not being quite as all-encompassing as the last major integer change, brings some perhaps less dramatic but nonetheless beneficial improvements over Kontakt 2. Included in the roster of changes are numerous workflow enhancements, a substantially reworked and turbo-charged waveform editor, an improved mapping editor, a speedier and more elegant database, some new effects, another cosmetic makeover and a generous 33GB sound library that spans five DVDs.
The program installs alongside any previous versions (should you have any), ensuring that projects using Kontakt 1 or 2 will continue to function correctly. The Kontakt 3 library can be installed at the same time, or at a later date, to your destination of choice. You can also opt to install the entire shooting match, or just specific parts of the library. See the 'Kontakt 3 Library' box later in this article for more information.
Product activation is via the NI Service Centre application included on the installation disk, which allows for both on-line and off-line registration. Kontakt 3 itself works on both PC (under XP and Vista) and Mac, as a stand-alone program and a plug-in that is compatible with VST, Audio Units and RTAS (for Pro Tools 7). Interestingly, NI have chosen to abandon the DXi version.
Kontakt 3's new cosmetics are immediately apparent. Much as I liked the slightly dour, militaristic look of K2, K3 has an altogether more modern, friendly appearance and a fresh, neutral colour scheme that helps clearly differentiate one section from another. Before we go any further, it's worth noting that K3's hierarchical architecture is identical to that of K2, which is as follows: samples are placed onto a keymap within what are known as Zones; any number of Zones can be placed inside a Group, which can be viewed as a sub-instrument and offers parameters such as filters and envelopes for everything within it. Groups are contained within Instruments, which can be seen as being rather like the patches in a synthesizer. Instruments are, in turn, stored within Banks, much like you would find on a hardware synth. Finally, up to 16 Instruments can be loaded into a Multi page, and each can be assigned its own MIDI channel. Each instance of Kontakt can have four Multi pages. Kontakt 3 offers numerous improvements to enable you to navigate all these different levels at far greater speed than before.
The main 'view' controls are clearly laid out at the top of the main screen: of the two groups of icon buttons across the top, the left group allows you to show or hide the Browser, output section, virtual keyboard and Master Control strip. The right-hand group of icons access loading/saving tasks, Options, global sample Purge and main window size. The View button at the far right collapses Kontakt to a compact version that shows just one loaded instrument at a time, which is useful for conserving screen space. A new 'i' button reveals a contextual help strip at the bottom of the main K3 window. This provides extremely useful information when you're not sure what something does; just point the mouse at a knob, button or other screen element, and the strip displays a short description of its function to guide the way.
The Master Control section, which deals with tempo sync and master tuning, has a welcome new addition: a master volume control. This affects the total output level of all Kontakt's outputs, and is a lifesaver when the combined output of all your loaded sounds takes your DAW into the red.
One of the principal new navigation aids is the Instrument Navigator pane below the two Browser panes at the bottom left. This can be shown/hidden using the 'Instr Nav' button along the top of the Browser; all three of these panes can be resized by grabbing and moving their divider strips. The Instrument Navigator helps in two ways: firstly, the instrument rack can fill up very quickly, especially when using K3 library instruments, as all of these include Performance Views that eat up a lot of screen real estate. Previously, you would have had to manually search through the rack to find the instrument of interest, but now, these are listed in the Navigator. Just click on an instrument name here, and the rack scrolls automatically to that instrument. Secondly, and most usefully, this works when editing instruments too. Using the Navigator, you now simply click on the name of the next instrument to be edited, and you're there — no closing and re-opening of editing views is necessary. Kontakt even helpfully maintains the same relative position within each instrument's editing views, so you can instantly compare, for example, the envelope settings of all your instruments with ease. The Navigator also provides instrument solo and mute buttons, so there is no need to scroll down the main rack looking for these.
Further features in the main editing window help speed up your work: firstly, at the top of the window is a Group list which provides one of several quick shortcuts to selecting Groups. When lit in solid red, the 'Edit All Groups' button warns that any edit will affect all Groups; clicking on the drop-down menu cancels the 'Edit All' function and allows selection of one Group at a time for editing. Secondly, moving between modulation source routing panels and their respective destination modules is made faster thanks to the new Modulation Quick Jump buttons, which accompany all modulation routings. Instead of having to scroll manually between the two, which is often quite a distance, clicking a Quick Jump button scrolls directly to the relevant module, which itself has a corresponding button to take you back to the source routing panel. Thirdly, the Modulation Shaper now makes light work of creating smooth modulation response curves with its new 'envelope view'. Like Flex Envelopes, the curves allow for multiple break points with adjustable curve smoothing.
Although part of the K3 library duplicates that of K2 (principally the excellent VSL Orchestra collection), if you have K2 and if you have plenty of spare disk space, it's worth retaining the entire K2 library alongside it. The difference is 'only' around 7GB (I can't help but smile wryly as I type that!). While K2 instruments will load into K3, K3 instruments are not backward compatible, so if you delete the K2 duplicates but wanted to return to using K2 for whatever reason, the K3 library instruments would be unusable in that version.
The 33GB K3 library consists of around 1000 instruments organised into six categories; although space restrictions make it impossible to describe the instruments in detail, an overview of each category below gives an idea of what to expect. All instruments in the library make use of Performance Views, the extended 'skinned' panels below each instrument that contains a set of appropriate performance controls. These controls can affect anything from cutoff frequency and resonance, to effects parameters, keyswitchable articulations, legato and hammer-ons, harmonising and more. All Performance View parameters can be automated simply by dragging controllers onto them from the Browser's Auto pane.
- Band: everything you need for a virtual band line-up, including the constituent parts of a horn section, acoustic and electric pianos, loads of organ registrations sampled from a real Hammond, guitars, basses and drum kits.
- Orchestral: extracts from the famous VSL library, pianos, pipe organ, harpsichord and orchestral percussion. This is an almost identical collection to that supplied with Kontakt 2, but with some variations — and, of course, the Performance Views offer enhanced playability.
- Synth: an eclectic range of electronica, but not just the usual pads, leads and basses. Well, they're here, but you also get a diverse range of musical automata, including arpeggiators, mini-sequencers and synth-style drum beatboxes that make extensive use of KSP Scripts. These come ready loaded with groovy patterns and beats, but they can all be reprogrammed to do as you wish.
- Urban Beats: rather like the beatboxes of the synth category, these groove generators offer complete drum-based backdrops in a distinctly hip-hop/R&B flavour. Each instrument also includes a fully playable kit of parts with detailed control over each sound's effects, levels and articulations. The groove loops have their own level and effects controls and are also reprogrammable, making each Urban instrument a very flexible toy, and fun into the bargain.
- Vintage: ranging from classically trendy to shamelessly camp, this category features raw, unprocessed samples from a variety of vintage battleaxes. Some are respected household names (Minimoog, Memorymoog, Mini Korg 700, Logan String Melody II, RMI Electrapiano, Crumar Orchestrator, Linndrum, TR808 and 909) whilst others are less familiar, even humorous choices. The Electronic Toys folder, for instance, includes a variety of Casio Rapman sounds, Suzuki Tronichord, Yamaha Handy Sound, Mattel Bee Gees rhythm machine, a Casio SK1 drum kit and even a complete story told by a 'Droopy The Dragon' speech synthesis toy!
- World: it may not scale the same heady heights as Quantum Leap's RA virtual instrument, but K3's collection of World instruments delivers an impressive range of flavours from around the globe. Flutes, recorders, reeds, metallophones, stringed instruments, accordions and percussion make up the menu. My personal favourites are the bagpipes, including Uilleann and Highland versions, complete with drones and chanters.
A PDF manual for the library installs with K3, providing detailed descriptions of every instrument and full instructions on how their Performance Views work. It should be noted that the Performance Views were made using Kontakt's KSP Script engine, which means that the creation of customised Performance Views is reserved for those souls adventurous enough to learn KSP Scripting. I had hoped that NI would make this process as easy as drag'n'drop, but alas no; something perhaps for the future. Oh, and be warned that some of these library instruments can be quite CPU-hungry!
Still on the navigation theme, a Monitor button has been added to those at the top of the Browser pane, offering three tabbed views: Group, Zone and Parameter. Group view provides an overview of all Groups that make up the Instrument currently being edited, as well as being another convenient means of selecting Groups without needing to open the Group Editor in the main window. This even has its own search function, which is handy for filtering a lengthy Group list down to specific types. Zone view shows a list of all Zones within an Instrument. It's also searchable by name, and any combination of zones can be selected from here for editing. Single-clicking a Zone name automatically selects that Zone's Group, whilst double-clicking on a Zone name opens up the waveform editor in the main editing window, just as it does in the Mapping Editor. Parameter view shows the value of the last-touched parameter across all Groups of the current Instrument, or across all Instruments in a Multi if you're not in Instrument Edit mode. This is very handy for side-by-side comparisons, and displayed parameters can be edited from here by clicking and dragging their values' text with the mouse. (See the composite screenshot of all three tabbed views above.)
Not to be confused with Modulation Quick Jump, the Browser View tab also incorporates a Quick Jump function, which allows you to 'tag' up to 10 frequently visited folders in your library and go to them with a single mouse click. This is very handy if you have a large library with instruments stashed away inside many embedded folders.
The Engine tab adds one new feature: CPU Profiling Mode. When this is activated, constantly updated CPU usage is displayed in each instrument's header, and is also superimposed upon every active effect slot when the edit window is open. This makes it easier to identify which elements are responsible for excessive CPU usage.
Kontakt's searchable database has also been improved both in appearance and operation, and now performs searches at lightning-fast speeds. Simply choose the search level (Multi, Bank, Instrument or Sample) and enter a search term (the list updates instantly as you type). The screenshot below shows the results for a search for Wurlitzer pianos, using the search term 'wurl'. For me, the greatest improvement is that the parent directory of each search result is now also shown, making it far easier to identify suitable candidates, and to discount any ambiguous results the search may return.
New to the Mapping Editor are six tools which can assist in the laying out of key Zones. Auto-Spread Zone Key Ranges and Auto-Spread Velocity Ranges automatically fill in any holes there may be between key and velocity Zones by extending the Zones horizontally or vertically until they touch their neighbours. Root does the same for key Zone ranges, but keeps the root keys in the centre of Zones to ensure the minimum transposition from the root key in either direction. Resolve Overlapping Key Ranges and Resolve Overlapping Velocity Ranges both do the opposite to Auto-Spread; in other words, wherever overlaps occur, ranges are reduced to make the Zone transitions clean.
Auto is the most elaborate tool, and attempts to create a Zone map based upon the samples' names. This can only work if samples' names contain meaningful clues to their pitch range and/or velocity, such as 'Bass_ 64-100_C2.wav'. The names are broken down to a series of 'tokens', to which certain conditions can be applied (the example just given would break down to three tokens: name, velocity range and pitch). Using this information, Kontakt makes a stab at placing the sample where it ought to be. There is also an option to read the root key from embedded sample metadata, if it exists. Unsurprisingly, if the sample names are less than informative, like 'Piano #31' or 'sample 374', the Auto tool is unlikely to offer much assistance!
Also newly implemented is 'rubber band zooming' — this allows you to zoom in on the Zone Mapping area by holding down the Alt key and lassoing with the mouse.
Lastly, it is now possible to drag samples from the desktop, or any directory browser, directly onto the Key Mapping area. Sonar users will be pleased to know that this includes dragging samples from Sonar's Loop Explorer window, obviating the need to locate and load them from Kontakt's own browser window.
Of all Kontakt 3's features, the Loop Editor has received the most substantial reworking. Now known as the Wave Editor, this offers a marked improvement over its previous incarnation, with additional tools to aid looping, beat-slicing and more. The Wave Editor can be called up manually via its own button, and also opens when any Zone is double-clicked, showing that Zone's waveform. Four sets of 'tasks' are laid out across four tabbed views, and we'll look at them each in turn in a moment.
To the right of the screen, the Grid control panel is always visible, offering two options: Fix and Auto. Fix divides the waveform into equal slices, or Zones, based upon selectable musical time values ranging from 1/1 to 1/64. These may not necessarily line up precisely with the individual beats of a drum loop, and so Fix is not the best approach to take in this case. However, there is a perfect application for Fixed slices, which we'll come to in due course. The second option, Auto, slices the loop using transient detection methods, and is more appropriate for beat slicing. The sensitivity slider adjusts the density of slice markers, and here the improvements are immediately apparent: K3's beat detection is manifestly superior to that of K2. The 'Min Slice Duration' parameter allows beat detection to ignore any low-level transients that fall within the set duration, giving precedence to 'valid' beats. I rarely had to delete or move any markers using the default 50ms setting — a far cry from the endless adjustments required in the previous version! Markers can, of course, be added and deleted manually, and locked to prevent further accidental movement. Now, let's examine the four tabbed views:
Sample Loop: up to eight different loops can be specified, offering the usual one-shot, forward, alternate and loop-in-release options. Note that alternate looping only works on samples using the 'sampler' engine mode, but not DFD, Beat Machine or Time Machine engines. The start and end points of loops (highlighted in orange) can be dragged to position, and will snap to the grid lines if Grid is active, or can be positioned freely if the Grid is disabled. Dragging sideways within the Loop area moves the entire loop. The Loop Edit button displays a highly magnified waveform view of the loop point, which can be finely adjusted (when the Grid is disabled) using the numerical Start and End values.
Sync/Slice: this determines how a sliced loop behaves when triggered via MIDI. Kontakt can take its tempo from either the host DAW or its own internal clock — either way, there are four options. The first, Time Machine, uses time-stretching, allowing the pitch of the entire loop to be altered without affecting tempo. The second, Beat Machine, triggers each slice as a discrete sample, producing cleaner audio across a wide tempo range. Thirdly, turning both Time Machine and Beat Machine off forces the loop to play back at its original tempo, instead of in sync with the DAW or Kontakt's own internal clock. The final option, Drag MIDI to Host, will be a familiar concept to Spectrasonics Stylus users: simply click on this button and drag directly to a MIDI sequencer track. Kontakt creates a new Key Zone for every slice, and drops a 'driver' MIDI part into the sequencer to play them at the project's tempo. Every nuance of timing (as determined by the slice markers) is preserved faithfully; this is so much easier and faster than the old K2 method of exporting MIDI files and re-importing them to the sequencer. If you wish to MIDI-slice more than one loop, selecting Auto Find Empty Keys ensures that each loop's newly generated Key Zones don't overlap each other, although the limit of 128 notes (and therefore Zones) per Key Map limits how many loops you can 'MIDIfy' this way in a single Kontakt instrument.
Zone Envelopes: new to Kontakt 3, this highly creative feature allows you to freely draw envelopes onto a waveform. Up to 16 envelopes can be assigned to control any modulatable parameter that exists in the loop's current Group. Just click on the parameter for which you want to create an envelope, then click Add Last Touched in the Zone Envelope area. Nodes are automatically placed at (and snap to) every Zone's Grid line, and can be moved, deleted or added to. Nodes can also be moved freely in time by disabling the Grid. Sub-nodes (red dots) enable the shaping of smooth curves between nodes, and the envelope itself can be looped using loop points completely independent from those in the actual sample loops. This is where the Grid's 'Fix' setting comes into its own; for example, any non-rhythmical sample, such as a pad sound, can be given 'rhythmic envelope' treatment by selecting, say, a eighth-note fixed grid. Any Zone Envelope applied to this Grid will now modulate the sample in sync with the host DAW. It's virtually identical in concept to Kontakt's tempo-sync'able Flex Envelope, but the beauty of using Zone Envelopes is that every sample that makes up a multisampled instrument can have its own independent modulations (or none) whilst still being part of the same Group. Similar effects could conceivably be achieved using multiple Groups and Flex Envelopes, but would be infinitely more complicated and time-consuming to set up.
Sample Editor: samples can be directly edited here, without the need for an external wave-editing program. After drag-selecting a region of the sample using the mouse, a number of processes can be applied to the selection: cut, copy, paste, duplicate, crop and delete are all to do with re-ordering a sample's content or otherwise altering the sample's length, whilst fade-in, fade-out, silence, reverse, normalise and DC removal are 'transform' processes. Kontakt applies these changes destructively, but to a backup copy (which Kontakt subsequently references) that's written to a special folder alongside the original sample on your hard drive, so the source sample remains unchanged.
Version 3.0.1 had just become available for download when the review copy of Kontakt 3 arrived, so this review is based on that version. Issues addressed include cosmetic improvements, updates to the Library and a number of bug fixes. Notably, Cubase users had complained of crashes, particularly when running Kontakt 3.0.0 alongside third-party plug-ins. There were also reports of major problems using Kontakt 3.0.0 with Sonar. These included total failure to load the plug-in, and frequent crashes. I've now been using version 3.0.1 for two weeks in both Sonar 6.2.1 and 7.0.1, inside busy projects running numerous third-party plug-ins, with no obvious problems. There have been occasional crashes — twice whilst using the Wave Editor, and twice in Stand-alone mode — but these were not repeatable and the reasons remain unclear. The only other issue I found is that K3 fails to pick up Sonar's 'zero controllers when play stops', causing notes that were held by the sustain pedal to continue sounding when the sequencer is stopped.
Kontakt's already varied list of effects gains four new members in v3. First up is Rotary, a (you guessed it) rotary speaker simulation sounding not unlike the ones found in NI's B4 and B4 II instruments. Although it's not as editable as those, it offers control over acceleration and deceleration for both horn and bass rotor, along with horn/rotor balance, mic distance and wet/dry balance.
Next we have Skreamer. Although this is primarily intended for producing lead guitar sounds, NI would do well to include this effect in their B4 II organ. Warmer and smoother than Kontakt's Distortion effect, it sounds much closer to an overdriven Leslie preamp than B4 II's present Overdrive effect. It runs very hot, though, so you'll need to substantially reduce the gain at its input if you want subtle distortion!
Twang is a retro-oriented guitar-amp simulator capable of producing clean through to highly distorted tones. The controls are simple: input gain with bass, mid and treble EQ, a Bright switch to add that extra bite, and the oddly named 'Polyphonic' button which, when active, processes each side of a stereo signal separately.
Cabinet (what, not 'Kabinet'?) is a microphone/speaker cabinet simulator featuring 11 different cabinets, ranging from small combos to a Leslie 122 cabinet and 4x12 configurations, some with a choice of on or off-axis mics. Controls here are cabinet size, treble and bass EQ and 'Air', which adds convincing-sounding early-room reflections.
Existing Kontakt 2 users who are happy simply to load and play third-party libraries straight out of the box may not be seduced by the enhancements Kontakt 3 has to offer. However, anyone who views a sampler as a tool for creative sound design and manipulation surely won't fail to appreciate the ways in which this new version extends the sonic possibilities and speeds up work. The new Wave Editor is simply streets ahead of the old version, with pride of place going to its Zone Envelope tools, providing endless ways in which to warp, mangle and generally mess with your samples. The new effects are fine additions to the roster, and in fact, the full complement of Kontakt effects would make a very respectable suite of plug-ins by themselves.
An honourable mention must also go to the user manual; it's excellently written in a friendly, conversational style, and in perfect English (might we therefore infer that the author is not English?) The installation also includes a number of helpful and informative video tutorials.
To anyone yet to jump on the soft-sampler bandwagon, Kontakt 3 should certainly rank highly on your list of contenders.