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NI Komplete Kontrol S49

Controller Keyboard
Published January 2015
By Simon Sherbourne

NI Komplete Kontrol S49

NI turn their hybrid expertise to keyboard design with an innovative controller for Komplete and Maschine.

NI have more or less defined the shape of modern hybrid music production and performance with their Maschine and Traktor Kontrol ranges. The Komplete Kontrol S–Series is the obvious next step, bringing a hardware front–end to the mighty Komplete instruments bundle, and a high-quality keyboard option for Maschine users or NI–centric users of other DAWs.

You’ve probably already figured this is more than a MIDI control keyboard, so what is it? First, it’s not Kore reincarnate, at least not entirely. Komplete Kontrol focuses on one aspect of the Kore vision: providing a unified user experience across all NI’s many and various software instruments. All the presets from Komplete are accessible from a single browser, with plug–in parameters pre–mapped across the eight rotary encoders. The hardware also offers some special performance sauce from the arpeggiator and auto–scale/chord features, and intelligent integration with many DAWs.

Making An Impression

Out of the box the Kontrol S is a pleasingly narrow, low-profile slab of black. Feel and build quality are similar to Maschine — solid and sleek, with the same mixture of glossy plastic and brushed-metal surfaces. The keyboard’s panel couldn’t be more different than most of its contemporaries. Rather than packing every square inch with knobs, sliders, button and pads, all the S–Series keyboards have just eight main rotaries, two modest clusters of buttons, and a selector knob.

While nicely crafted and classy in appearance, the Kontrol–S is rather unassuming... until you switch it on. With power (AC not USB, I’m afraid) a wave of colours washes across the surface as the ‘Light Guide’ key lights come to life causing grins and ‘oohs’ from geeks and non–geeks alike in our house. The touch–sensitive knobs offer just enough resistance to feel expensive, and each is accompanied by a beautifully sharp monochrome display. These displays show mapped parameters, with values indicated by a horizontal slider graphic. In place of pitch and mod wheels you’ll find touch strips with LED position indicators. This might not suit traditionalists, but I liked being able to jump directly to a value, and the option to set pitch–bend ‘springiness’. The OEM Fatar keys befit the price tag, with a solid fast semi–weighted action. I tested the mid–sized S49 version.

The Komplete Kontrol browser overlay screen.The Komplete Kontrol browser overlay screen.The S–Series keyboards can function as stand–alone MIDI controllers, with the Controller Editor software enabling you to define the knobs and touch strips, and create colour–coded keyboard splits. Nice. The rest of the surface’s buttons — and all the advanced functionality — are only available when paired with Komplete or Maschine (see the ‘Komplete & Maschine’ box for more on Maschine integration). Outside of Maschine the software component is Komplete Kontrol, which runs as a stand–alone app or a VST/AU/AAX plug–in. Komplete Kontrol hosts all your Komplete instruments, presents a unified preset browser, and also drives performance features like the arpeggiator. Each instance of Komplete Kontrol hosts a single instrument plug–in, which by default is shown in a simplified panel view, usually focusing on any macros that link to the physical knobs. There is also an extended view where you’ll find all the plug–in’s controls, and an Edit view which gives you access to things like Kontakt or Reaktor’s file systems.

A Komplete Kontrol license is sent to you if you have Komplete 9 or 10 activated in your NI account. That’s right: the keyboards are purely for Komplete; individually purchased NI plug–ins are not eligible, and Komplete Kontrol does not host third–party plug–ins.

Browser & Navigation

Core to the Komplete Kontrol experience is the browser. In the software this is the same as the Instrument tab in Maschine’s browser, allowing you to search for presets across the entire Komplete bundle, or within specific products or categories. You can further filter by Type and Mode then browse the list of patches that fit all your criteria. On the hardware, the right–hand button cluster is dedicated to mouse–free browsing. The Browse button opens a graphical overlay on the computer screen, providing instant access to the browser in the current instance of Komplete Kontrol, regardless of whether the plug–in window is open. You then use the four cursor buttons to drill down through the browser’s categories, and the large, clickable knob to scroll and choose from lists. At any point you can enter the main results list and choose a preset. Once you’ve selected a sound, pressing Browse again brings you back to the patch list, but you can also step through patches at any time with the Next and Previous Preset buttons — probably the most used buttons on my S49 during testing!

While effective, the browser navigation system took some practice. In particular, it’s not intuitive to move back and forward between the cursors and scroller. I found myself wishing the scroller was a joystick as well. The scroller also takes a bit of cranking to move around fast — some acceleration or even inertia would help zip through longer lists. One other request would be a button (or Shifted button) to open the current Komplete Kontrol plug–in window. This is v1, though, remember, and the interface will likely get refined further. Overall the hybrid browser and pre–mapped controls work well at making the Keyboard+Komplete combo feel like a unified workstation.

In DAWs

To run Komplete instruments in your DAW you insert the Komplete Kontrol plug–in and open them from there. In Ableton Live, Komplete Kontrol is inserted as an Instrument Rack device supplied by NI. In all DAWs you get full control over the plug–in from the hardware; in a few you also get certain ‘Advanced Integration’ features: transport control, track selection, track auto–focus, and instance switching. When available, the dedicated transport buttons on the keyboard will operate your DAW. Track selection lets you use the cursor keys in the Navigate section to move between tracks. With the auto–focus feature, the keyboard will automatically take control of any instance of Komplete Kontrol on the selected track. If there is no KK plug–in on the track, the keyboard switches to standard MIDI control mode ready to play other instruments.

Komplete 10’s new Kontour synth.Komplete 10’s new Kontour synth.Live arguably gets the best integration, supporting the S–Series directly via a remote script. In Logic, Cubase and Nuendo you get all the advanced features via Mackie Control support. This works great, but will likely be problematic if you have another MCU–based controller attached. Most other DAWs will get transport control only, again via the MCU protocol. This rather leaves Pro Tools out of the party, as it only supports HUI and Hypercontrol.

While there are obvious advantages to having all of Komplete in a single plug–in, I can’t help being wary. I got burned when NI walked away from Kore: I have v1 and 2 Kore controllers lying dormant in a drawer, and a large number of unfinished Live projects that I can no longer open because I hosted all my plug–ins in Kore (I know, I should work faster!). In Pro Tools, plug–in hosts can also be a pain for automation, as the names of any automated parameters in the hosted plug–in become generic numbers. So there’s a certain amount of trust involved in committing to a single plug–in that may not be supported in the future. It’s a trend in the industry though, with Waves, Slate, SoundToys and many more developing shell plug–ins for all their products.

Light Guide & Smart Play

Light from the S–Series ‘Light Guide’ LEDs spills beautifully down the white keys and it does look glorious. But beyond the cool factor, this feature really works as an idea and has been well implemented across the Komplete instruments. Kontakt instruments use light zones to indicate splits and performance modifiers. Drum instruments use colours to indicate types of sounds (kicks are red, hats are blue, etc.) and are consistent across products. Even having unassigned keys staying dark is super useful. Keys light up brighter when they are played, and to indicate triggering from MIDI or the arpeggiator.

The lights are exploited nicely by the Scale and Arp modes that NI are collectively calling Smart Play. Both modes can be enabled and edited directly from the keyboard. The Arp does everything you’d like an Arp to do, including variable swing, dynamics and gate length. At the basic level, the Scale button puts you into a performance mode that limits notes to a scale. The neat thing is that the Light Guide shows you which keys are valid. As well as helping us musically challenged music producers get it right, this is a brilliant educational feature. It also lets you cheat hilariously, because if you do play notes that aren’t in the scale they are just rounded to the nearest one that is. And if that’s still too difficult, there’s an Easy Key Mode, which maps your chosen scale to the white keys!

The Polyplex drum machine, also new in Komplete 10.The Polyplex drum machine, also new in Komplete 10.Almost hidden in the Scale settings is a wondrous treasure: chord modes. Harmonic Chord mode will play chords based on any root note you play in your chosen scale. An encoder controls the chord type, so you can perform lovely chord progressions using single keys and judicious knob twiddling. Again, Light Guide provides a fascinatingly educational accompaniment, showing you which keys you would have played to get the chord if you weren’t so incompetent. Finally, there is Chord Set mode, which spills a series of predefined chord variations into each octave, again based on the chosen scale. A knob provides eight major and minor variations. All that’s left for you to do is load a nice Rhodes patch and mash random keys.

One thing that should be noted about all the Smart Play functions is that they are playback operations, generated by the Komplete Kontrol plug–in (or Maschine). This means that the MIDI output only comprises the keys you play; you can’t record the actual arpeggiated notes or use these functions with third–party instruments. Any real–time adjustments you make to the arp or scales/chords are recorded as automation in your host. So it’s a matter of perspective really: there’s an advantage to being able to change the modes after the event (or apply them to existing sequences), while some have flagged this as a limitation.

The Komplete Solution?

The burning question I had about the Komplete Kontrol package was about its scope, and where it might go. Right now, its brief is quite tightly focused: it turns Komplete into a hardware hybrid, provides an integrated keyboard option for Maschine, and gives you a very nice keyboard and a handful of MIDI controls as a bonus. Of course we always want to know what’s next, and like other ex–Kore users I was interested to know if Komplete Kontrol would inherit more Kore features, like generic plug–in hosting, multiple plug–ins, internal effects, live features and so on. Looking at it again now, though, I see that Maschine is in fact the true successor to Kore. I suspect NI will be cautious not to cram too much into Komplete Kontrol, which was ultimately what made Kore unsustainable. If that’s right, Komplete Kontrol will likely remain more akin to a self–contained synth workstation keyboard than a generic platform, and on reflection that’s probably a good thing.

Komplete 10’s Rounds is an instrument in its own right. Komplete 10’s Rounds is an instrument in its own right. Having said that, there are some smaller-scale improvements that would make the system more useful. My primary issue is the limited ability to save into the library. The Komplete Kontrol browser is mostly a one–way street. In Maschine I’m used to right–clicking on any Sound instance and ‘Saving As’ into the library — there’s no mirror function in Komplete Kontrol. NI explained a way to save updated patches by revealing the instrument plug–in’s own filing system, then saving out into a directory. This directory can then be declared in the Preferences along with any third–party sample content. This must then be rescanned each time you save something. Once it’s done your patches appear in the User tab sorted by instrument, which is good, but should be much easier to achieve. There’s also no ability to map the knobs yourself. Any patch you save will have the same knob assignments as the patch you started from. Ironically, it’s easy to map the knobs to third–party synths when you’re in standard MIDI mode. I’d definitely like to see some improvement here, and if I could have one thing it would be a ‘favourites’ system (which is essentially what I use Save As for in Maschine). Faced with the huge expanse of Komplete’s library, I want to be able to ‘star’ patches that I like and get back to them quickly. Finally, I imagine NI will face pressure from users to support third–party plug–ins in Komplete Kontrol and, at the very least, NI plug–ins purchased outside of the Komplete bundle.

Conclusion

During this review, more than anything I wanted to really get where NI are coming from with the Komplete Kontrol S–Series. It hit me when I realised that all I’d done after three nights was sit there in a daze drifting through the ocean that is Komplete, re–experiencing years of favourite Reaktor instruments, grinning at the new Rounds synth, just playing the keyboard. First and foremost, the S–Series makes Komplete an instrument. While the keyboard is sold separately, in most respects it’s not competitive as a pure MIDI controller, although the ability to create colour–coded key zones is unique and would be great for live use. However, the keyboard is not entirely dependent on Komplete as it also achieves its full potential when coupled with Maschine.

Light Guide is much more than a gimmick and the integrated browser and DAW track/instance navigation really do provide a hands–on hardware experience. The encoders and the displays are lovely, although the lack of programmability meant I found myself paging or reaching for the mouse more than I’d like. Yes, the keyboard is expensive (though I remember the first few versions of Komplete costing more than the S–Series keyboard and Komplete 10 put together). There are many cheaper keyboards with more controls, with a more generic approach. But, as Apple have shown us, an elegant solution in a controlled ecosystem can be worth a big premium to many, even while being too restrictive for others. For my money, once Maschine 2.2 is out, this set–up is going to be very hard to beat.

Alternatives

Competition for the S–Series depends on your usage. As a dedicated front end for Komplete, the S–Series of course has unique features. You could, however, use other MIDI keyboards with the Komplete Kontrol software, you just wouldn’t get the dedicated hardware tie–ins and key lights, for example. Likewise, you can use any keyboard with Maschine, but the S–Series has the dedicated mapping. So it all depends how in bed you are with NI; if you use a wide range of other instruments and don’t work in Maschine, there are an awful lot of control keyboards out there. The higher end, with intelligent integration and auto–mapping schemes, includes the Novation SL, Korg Triton Taktile, Nektar Panorama, M–Audio Axiom AIR, Akai MAX and many more besides.

A strong direct competitor is the Arturia Keylab, which is also a nice semi–weighted keyboard, forms a hybrid team with the Analog Laboratory plug–in, and has more controls and pads for less money. If you’re a composer/keyboard player mostly interested in the S–Series with Komplete as an overall instrument, the package could compete with traditional synth/sampler workstations like the Roland FA08 and Korg PS3X. Finally, if you’re trying to decide if you need Maschine or Komplete Kontrol S, it’s easy. Maschine is what you need if you want a full production/arrangement environment. Komplete Kontrol is pure sound source and performance control.

Komplete & Maschine

A key question I had coming to Komplete Kontrol was how it works with Maschine. In third–party DAWs Komplete Kontrol runs as a plug–in, bringing the Komplete browser front–end with it. Early tests in Maschine were a dead–end (the Komplete Kontrol plug–in could not be inserted at all), then I discovered that full integration comes with Maschine 2.2, which will hopefully be out by the time you read this. With the update the S–Series becomes a powerful enhancement to the Maschine environment, beyond the usual benefits of having a keyboard hooked into Maschine. The library and browser will be unified, so you’ll be able to access everything from the built–in Maschine browser, but also use the Navigate buttons and HUD that come with Komplete Kontrol to browse both the Komplete and Maschine libraries at once. Maschine’s pad/bank colours will be reflected on the keyboard and show what notes are playing from Maschine. The Smart Play functionality (the Arp/Chords/Scales performance features) will be shared across the environment and accessible independently from Maschine and the keyboard. Several commentators have suggested that it makes no sense that you can buy the S–Series keyboard without Komplete, but it does when you see that the keyboard brings all of its benefits to Maschine.

New In Komplete 10

Komplete Kontrol is compatible with both Komplete 10 and Komplete 9 (with a library update). I was lucky enough to test it with 10 Ultimate, meaning many enjoyable hours lost in the new instruments and libraries. Many of Komplete’s components have been reviewed in these pages before, but what’s new? The headliners are three new Reaktor–based instruments.

Kontour is a particularly playable and tweakable Phase Mod–based synth. Two oscillators with shapers can be combined and cross–modulated, and blended with a comb filter and regular filter. The result is kind of a grungy organic synth with a character somewhere between FM and Physical Modelling. The name comes from the synth’s front-panel performance view, which has four modulators, each with built–in motion sequencers. Of course these are mapped to the knobs on the KK keyboard.

Polyplex is a simple-to-use, but deceptively powerful drum machine, again with immediacy and hands–on playability a priority. It has eight pads, each of which can stack up to four samples, and each with its own effects. Seven variations can be recalled from MIDI notes, and the whole instrument is playable from two colour–coded octaves on the keyboard. Randomisation is available at the kit, pad, and parameter level so you can generate new kits and sounds quickly. There’s a great built–in palette of sounds for pop, club and urban styles, with samples instantly swappable from sliders within the pads.

Rounds is the star of the show for me; you really have to experience it to get what it does, but I’ll try to sum it up! The main panel looks a bit like eight Trivial Pursuit wheels. Each of the four ‘cheeses’ within each wheel can be assigned to one of Rounds’ 16 synth voices. Various performance modes then decide how these engines are triggered, stacked and sequenced, for example. Triggering can be static, or cycled through the cheeses and/or wheels based on time, successive notes, or internal sequencer. This architecture can be used in many different ways, from massive trance arpeggiators, to slow shifting soundscapes, to full–blown multitrack loops. There are two basic synth engine types: a traditional two–oscillator subtractive analogue type, and a two–operator FM digital. You get eight of each to play with. Again, Rounds is highly integrated with the KK keyboard. The C0 octave provides override selection of wheels and cheeses. The notes can be used like keyswitches for selecting different sounds, but you can hold multiple keys to stack sound elements or change sequences. Rounds is pure genius and I predict you’ll be hearing it on everything for the next year.

On the sampler side, The Definitive Piano Collection is new, plus the Session Horns and Drumlab Kontakt instruments are now included. On top of these Ultimate gains Rise & Hit, Action Strikes, Kinetic Metal, and Cuba. Two new effects plug–ins, the Supercharger tube compressor and Driver distortion filter round out Komplete 10, with Ultimate also getting Molekular.

Komplete is simply a no–brainer, the only question you have to ask yourself is whether to get the regular or Ultimate edition. The primary difference is in how many Kontakt libraries you get (and it’s a metric shed load with Ultimate), so if you’re primarily into the synths then the standard bundle should be enough. Having said that, I’d miss the Razor and Skanner XT Reaktor synths and some of the extra effects plug–ins that come with Ultimate.

Published January 2015