Komplete Kontrol S Series
The Komplete Kontrol S Series was hugely anticipated by the producer community when the first teaser appeared, me included. Here’s why…
It’s no secret that I’m a Native instruments fan boy, and normally I’d have trouble admitting to something like that but after being completely blown away by their software time and time again over the last 13 years, it’s safe to say that I can rely on pretty much anything they do. Barring DJ software/hardware wars and contentious “sync button” discussions, I also feel that the community at large can’t really fault their forward thinking attitude and massive contribution towards the way us digital musicians work.
They’re not without their detractors of course. Every time a new version of Komplete comes out, whoever bought the last version cries foul about what a rip off the upgrade is for only a handful of extras, and don’t even get started on the poor folks who bought Native instruments last fatefully ambitious hardware controller – NI Kore.
NI Kore tried to assimilate all that was Komplete into one unit and also load up presets from 3rd party developers. In the end it proved too much of an undertaking and the whole line was unceremoniously scrapped – much to the dismay of those who had invested in it. Fast forward a few years and Native Instruments are finally taking another stab at a hardware interface for Komplete.
Komplete Kontrol S Series: Enter Here…
A lot has contributed to the formation of the Komplete Kontrol S Series. The Kore unit established the browsing system that Maschine then adopted and perfected – further refined now in Komplete Browse – and the RGB LED technology introduced in the Traktor Kontrol F1 also makes a big appearance. Throw in some new nifty scale and chord processing functions and you have the Komplete Kontrol S Series – a culmination of years of research across the NI sphere.
SPOILER ALERT: I`m gonna cut to the chase here and just say up front that this keyboard is primarily geared at complimenting Komplete and the Native Instruments experience. Outside of that, it’s fairly limited and maybe there are more jack-of-all-trades controllers available that would better suit the user. However if you are a Komplete user, this will do the job like nothing else. No surprise really. Has Native instruments ever done anything that wasn’t first and foremost meant to complement and exist within the NI software realm? No, and because the Komplete Kontrol S Series looks and feels like a midi keyboard controller it’s easy to forget that its main intention is to be an extension of Komplete and the ultimate way of controlling that.
Komplete Kontrol S Series: The Hardware
So let’s talk a bit about the hardware itself. No doubt it’s an expensive piece of kit so I was expecting a lot when I opened the box. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t disappoint. It’s the same rugged brushed plastic type construction (what is that stuff?) like Maschine and the Traktor Kontrol series but with a few metal panels and the dark glass display sections thrown in to boot. It looks sturdy and expensive, although I wouldn’t fancy it falling off a keyboard stand onto concrete. Then again I wouldn’t fancy any keyboard this size doing that, but anyway. A quick turn of the knobs and tap on the keys and it all feels very classy. The keys are some of the best I’ve come across in this range – not piano emulated weighted keys or anything – just a great synth feel and very wide expressive velocity detail.
Everything is glossy and pitch-black, but I had a feeling that would be different once the drivers were installed and powered up, so I turned the studio lights down low and hit the on button. The resulting light show created the prerequisite oohs and aahs I was hoping for. Long overdue oohs and aahs I might add, as I spent the better half of a day downloading and installing all the software needed to get this baby up and running. Once that was all done though, it was pretty much instant gratification.
Power supply in, USB connection established, and Komplete Kontrol software launched on the computer. The keyboard display prompts you to “Press BROWSE”. Hitting the browse button on the unit launches a window on your computer with a multitude of search options across all of the instruments in Komplete. You can search by specific plugin, by genre, by type (bass, pad, lead) or by name. Clicking the browse dial again will load your selection.
It’s quite easy to forget how amazing this actually is because it works so effortlessly, but in essence what you’re doing is testing out a patch from an obscure Reaktor ensemble one moment, seconds later you’re checking something from Kontakt and at another flick of the dial, you’re in Massive. There is no considerable lag in between loading these up – it’s pretty much seamless. With the library in Komplete growing exponentially with every edition, it’s possible you’d never find a specific sound you’re looking for, or you might not know where to look. Komplete Browse has now solved that problem and also throws up some interesting sounds you probably never would`ve come across otherwise. It helps you discover the depths to which the collection of sounds here really run. Nice one.
You can run the Komplete Kontrol S Series software as standalone or as a plugin in your DAW. If you are in your DAW, you can open as many instances of the plugin as you like and you can quickly change between them with the right instrument being in “focus” on the keyboard displays via buttons in the browse section. Certain hosts (Cubase, Ableton, Logic) have advanced functionality to allow this, transport control and also, that if a non NI instrument is selected, it will go into standard midi mode without custom parameter mappings (custom templates for 3rd party plugins can be made via the included Controller editor though).
Using the Komplete Kontrol S Series
When a patch is loaded, all parameters are automatically labelled and mapped to the 8 encoders on the keyboard. The most important parameters are listed first – then the rest are accessible via different pages. A freaky and cool feature is that the knobs are “touch sensitive”. What this means is that the very, very slightest of touches on a dial causes it to show its value on the display without having to turn it and change the setting just to find out what it is. Technology similar to touch screens on phones? Feels like it.
Speaking about touch technology, I was a bit worried when I saw that they`d done away with traditional pitch and mod wheels, but after about 2 seconds of playing on these, I think its safe to say they make the old versions look absolutely silly. They`re extremely responsive and playable in a completely new fashion. You can create multiple finger guitar-esque tapping/trill effects not possible on standard wheels and what’s even more impressive is that you can control and set the physics of them too. The weight and “spring” of the mod wheel can be adjusted and the pitch strip can have gravity and friction adjusted. Sound confusing? Basically you can set the mod wheel to bounce off the maximum values (clearly showing up visually with nice LEDs next to the strip) not unlike a good ol` game of Pong. You flick it and it bounces back and forth and the friction and gravity will control how long it takes for the bouncing to stop. Loads of fun and a very interesting concept.
Komplete Kontrol S Series: Light Guide
So about those lights on the keys everybody is wondering about. The kind of patch you load determines what the lights might do. Key switches and splits in a Kontakt sample bank will be denoted and easily identified by different colours. Nice, and handy. Even more handy is loading up a serious drum patch like one from Abbey road with various different multi stick/hit/mic samples all the way across the key range and you get Kick/snare/hat/toms/etc all categorised by colour and easily identifiable at a glance – making sense out of an otherwise chaotic patch and maxing out on trippy colours too!
Scales, chords and arpeggiators
The light guide also helps out when you get to what is arguably the most interesting part of the Komplete Kontrol S Series: The Scale/chord settings and the arpeggiator.
Via the edit menu on the keyboard, you can set a root key and a scale (major, minor, pentatonic, Phrygian, Japanese, gypsy etc.) and the right keys in this scale will be lit up on the keys. What`s more, is it also prevents you from playing notes outside of the scale, keeping you in tune even if you hit a wrong note. There is also an “easy” mode for all notes in the scale to be mapped only to white keys, although this can get random as octave repeats are then out the window.
The scale mode gets even more interesting when you activate the chord function, which will play chords from single notes matching the scale based on the chord form you choose, and there are many. From octave to 1-3, 1-3-5, 1-3-5-7, etc, etc. It works extremely well and when you add this to a Kontakt grand piano patch, you`ll be sitting there grinning like an idiot thinking you’re in a tuxedo tickling the ivories like a maestro. Good times!
The arpeggiator is also very good when used in combination with scale mode etc and does what you’d expect an above average tweakable arpeggiator to do. You can get up to 1/128th divisions and get into glitchy territory which is quite cool if you’re into that. It’s also worth noting that both chord and arpeggiator mode use the light guide to show you which notes are being triggered, so even though you’re totally cheating on a performance, you still at least know what you’re doing!
This brings me to my first gripe with the Komplete Kontrol S Series. I`m hoping it’s a temporary thing and that a future update will add this functionality, but for now I’m quite surprised that there is no way to get the keyboard to output its midi chord or arpeggiator data out to another device or even to record this into your DAW. It gives you the ability to easily create chords in a scale and wicked arpeggiators but then limits you to use only within the Komplete Kontrol software. For example, you`ll use Komplete Kontrol to browse and find a great sound, use the scale and chord settings on the keyboard to find something cool – hit midi record on your DAW and……just get the actual notes you hit on the keyboard without the added extras.
This would’ve sold the unit on its own for me as I think it’s such a handy feature, but perhaps there are technical reasons why it’s not possible at this stage. Maybe this data is something that’s created in the software plugin and not an easy thing to output it elsewhere. It’s far from a deal breaker though as you can load up as many instances of the Komplete Kontrol plugin into your DAW and have different settings on each without any hassle. You can even automate different chord settings etc to change it up via the host sequencer, but it’s a tad disappointing because this device could`ve been a great source for creating midi information to be used anywhere, but for now, its limited to use within the Komplete Kontrol S Series.
I suspect (and hope) there is a very good chance that my gripes about the midi data are going to be sorted out in a future update of the Komplete Kontrol S Series. That amongst other things is keeping me very interested in the future of this product. I think there is a lot of potential for even more wow factor on the way. There is already an impressive wish list going around on the NI forums for future updates and if the developers are listening to the users’ needs there is no doubt it will become an absolute beast.
In use with Komplete 10 it already all feels so natural and seamless you even take it for granted. It’s the kind of integration software/hardware experiences strive to be – unnoticeable. In this regard, it’s a winner; unlocking doors you didn’t even know were there.
As regards the hardware, it’s clear that NI opted to fill a missing link in their product line here rather than creating something which might compete with their other products (aka Maschine). This would explain the lack of pads and other bells and whistles. That’s probably clever business, but there is something else too. You look at this keyboard and it doesn’t look like a Swiss army knife at full extension – it looks lean and mean, ready to shred with no distractions. I prefer this rather than a few token drum pads cluttered into the corner of the unit ruining the vibe for those who don’t use them. It makes for a more focused product in my opinion and that can only be a bonus. Never mind that, hands down the Komplete Kontrol S Series controller is the sexiest midi controller I’ve ever seen!
Words I don’t use lightly. If you’re into that kinda thing, make sure you check it out.
Komplete Kontrol S Series