NI sent me one of their new controller keyboards to review. I’ve had it a few weeks, had time to mess it about and discover all sorts of interesting things. NI have designed it to compliment their Komplete suite of extraordinary synths, samplers and noise making software, but that’s not all. It also handles third party plug-ins, has some nice DAW control features and can work along side Maschine. It’s not supposed to be a dumb MIDI controller – but it can do that too! I’ve never used the original keyboard, or the Kontrol software, so I’m coming to this completely fresh.
I wrote this in order to produce a video and so I refer to actions that don’t feature in the text. Video version at the bottom including demos of all the functions.
The question is – is it any good? Well, let’s have a look then.
Although “is it any good” is a decent question I think that needs a bit of qualification. I am happy to believe that it’s going to be “good” but what interests me is how well it contributes to the workflow. Do the screens and the control and the integration work well enough to make the playing and recording and music making easier and more seamless than a regular dumb controller would. Can you keep your hands on the instrument, or are you having to drop to the mouse? In working this all out I’m going to break my review up into sections, with each one focusing on a different aspect. Hopefully I can show how well it works and whether it’s appropriate or not to your music making environment.
It’s a big chunk of a keyboard. It’s plastic, but heavy plastic, has the feel of a proper synthesizer about it. It’s a Fatar keybed which is what you tend to find on all premium MIDI controllers. I have the 49 keyed version. They are semi weighted which I guess gives them that sort of thud when compared to a regular keyboard. The aftertouch is deliberate and you can really feel that happening – and it doesn’t occur unintentionally as you can find on some other keyboards. Comparing it to my Bass Station II here I can tell you that it’s not dissimilar, but it’s also slightly better in every respect. It is bigger than I ideally want it to be, but then it has a lot of stuff to get in – it’s just very imposing on the desk.
Part of that size comes from the new pitch and modulation wheels. Apparently people complained about the lack of dedicated wheels on the original keyboard, so Native decided to put the moaners in their place. These are HUGE! I’ve never seen anything like it. They are rubberised, heavy, slightly tapered and wider than my fingers. They are just a bit over the top. Let me show them in comparison to the Bass Station. But – they work just fine so let’s move on. Beneath is a single controller strip thingy which doesn’t seem to do that much, but i’m sure we’ll find a use for it.
And then we move into the “Hotblack Desiato” realm of a black finish with black buttons on a black background that light up black to let you know you’ve done something. The matt finish is great, feels nice, doesn’t show finger prints so badly as a glossy finish. The buttons feel fabulous – these lines and the right-angles are really very pleasing indeed. It’s just this weird thing when under normal lighting the buttons vanish and you have no idea what they do – you can’t make out the labels. I’m sure this is deliberate and actually quite genius once you trust the S49 enough to be showing you the buttons you need, rather than the ones you think you might. You’ll see what I mean later on.
The screens are beautiful – the 8 knobs and 8 buttons less so, but they are all about the functionality and we’ll come onto that. And then you have this one multi-purpose encoder over on the right which you can push about as well as turn. The light-guide lights are very jolly and we’ll discover their usefulness as we dig into the software.
Lastly it’s USB powered…. Which is obvious and expected but apparently the original S49 wasn’t so it seems important to point out that this one is.
Komplete Kontrol software
By way of a quick demo let me find the first Native preset – it’s a Monark preset. Load it up, turn on the arpeggiator and let’s get fiddling. Now there, right there is the beauty of the Komplete Kontrol system. I’ve auditioned a preset, loaded it up and I am immediately editing it like it was a hardware synth. It’s all there, all mapped, displaying all the information I need both on the keyboard and on the screen. That functionality is what makes this wonderful.
The Kontrol software is the heart of the S49. If you don’t like the software then it’s best you stop now and go off and do something else because this is where all the magic happens. The Komplete Kontrol software is basically a browser and librarian editor for all of Native Instruments instruments. It’s that which bridges the gap between controller and software parameter. It’s what fills in all the holes that makes MIDI so terribly rubbish. I’ve said this before – MIDI is dumb, stupid, dated and I don’t know why we continue to put up with it. It’s ridiculous that you have to create proprietary software simply to automatically map parameters to knobs and extract information. But that’s where we are and also why a keyboard like the S49 is light-years ahead of your dumb MIDI controller.
Here I’m running it on my Surface Pro 2017 which I’m finding is the absolutely perfect computer to run it on. It’s like it’s become a complete device. The touch side just prevents that jarring return to the mouse. In some ways it takes away from the advantages of the keyboard, because that’s what the S49 is trying to do – but you’ll see as i use the software just how useful the Surface is in this context.
Now, it doesn’t have to be a Native Instrument instrument to exist within the software and integrate with the S49. It supports all VST plug-ins at a basic MIDI style level (which we’ll come onto later) but Native have opened up their proprietary format to other instrument developers so give them the same level of integration as the Native ones. This is called NKS which probably stands for something important that I can’t remember. It’s actually supported by a lot of third party instruments which highlights how important this sort of integration is considered to be. I’ll get onto some NKS examples next, but first lets concentrate on the Native stuff.
When you boot up Komplete Kontrol it looks very boring indeed. You have a blank space where the GUI of a loaded instrument will go and a browser on the left. The window is not resizable so after the category boxes I have a ridiculously long list of presets in a ridiculously small window. The keyboard screen looks a lot better. We have little thumbnails of all the NKS compatible library that’s loaded and a scrollable list of presets. If I tap on the All Instruments heading on the comptuer it reveals the same thumbnails in the software – that looks much better. Not sure why that doesn’t happen by default. But anyway. You immediately get this connection between keyboard and software. Maybe the software is dull and unwieldy in order to push you towards the much friendlier keyboard version?
The keyboard lights up, buttons emerge out of the darkness and now the S49 suddenly feels like a workstation keyboard. You get options under the 8 white buttons, data above the knobs and thumbnails on one side, text on the other. Nice! Let’s get knobbing. The first knob selects the category – there’s only three, drums, sampled instruments and synths – seems a little under-served. But you have other knobs that can break it down into Types and Modes which are probably more useful. Types are types of instrument – piano, drums, synths, strings etc, whereas Modes are how they are played – arpeggiated, chord, long release etc. So you can very quickly drill down to the presets that best match what you’re after. Now I should point out that you may have lots and lots of presets. The presets are pulled from every installed NKS compatible instrument. The idea is that you don’t have to load Massive in order to look at Massive’s presets, or Kontakt to look at an instrument in there – they are all compiled in this huge list. This is both awesome and a pain in the arse. Awesome because I can simply dial up the sound I want to use without having to know where it came from – and it will load the relevant instrument for me. A pain because I have an unwieldy 34163 presets to browse through. Rob Papen got in touch because they support NKS and gave me his synths to try with the keyboard – awesome but it added like another 10,000 presets to the list. So, what I am getting at is that in order to navigate the Kontrol software successfully – or at least get beyond the A’s – you have to get the hang of the Category, Type and Mode system.
What turns out to be the most help is the thumbnails of the products. Because although the sound discovery aspect, free from the originating instrument is really interesting, I actually find it easier to browse via the installed products. So if i want to find an Alicia Keys piano i am more likely to find it by selecting that product than by trying to Type and Mode my way down to piano sounds. And that sort of highlights a missing piece of the preset puzzle. When scrolling through a gazillion presets I think it would be really useful to see where that preset came from – alongside the text, it could just say – couldn’t it?
Anyway – back to Native products. All the NI products have this new preset preview called “prehear”. This is really very cool and it’s what keeps me messing about on the keyboard when I should be doing other things. It’s a simple idea – as you scroll through the presets you hear an example of the sound. These are little samples being played – it’s not loading the instrument and auditioning it for you – it’s just a bunch of samples. It’s enormously helpful – i love it! So rather than puzzling over what the preset name could be offering, you get a quick burst. This doesn’t seem to be available for third party instruments at the moment. Which also makes it an easy way to find a Native preset in amongst the others.
Right, lets look at how a loaded instrument relates to the keyboard.
I’m going to load up a good simple synth called Razor. Simple interface and you can see 8 controls at the bottom. Very handily these are mapped to the 8 knobs – nice. The keyboard has sucked out the information – the labels and data above each knob is correct and each movement moves it from that point – there’s no catch-up like you get with MIDI.
Now although that appears to be simple if we look over here we can see that there are actually 16 pages of mapped knobs. Hidden within Razor are a ton of other controls. These are not always labelled helpfully – like this Filter page with knobs labelled as Knob 1, Knob 2 etc. But this stepping through pages can get a bit boggling and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what you’re controlling. Help is at hand in the software. If you hit this little knob button it reveals these same controls in the GUI. Now is it just me or shouldn’t the screen on the keyboard be showing me this? On the keyboard screen you get the same labels but then you get the setting in numbers – in data. Whereas on the computer screen you get a knob showing you exactly what’s going on. But why don’t I get that on the keyboard screen? Also the white buttons at the top don’t seem to do very much. Couldn’t they represent the different pages of editing? So rather than having to tap through each page i could just select them. I can do this on the screen with a tap which works well but it’s a fuss to have to drop to a mouse to do it. So i guess we just button it through those pages.
But with each instrument these controls are different – some are obvious and work really well with the on-screen GUI, some are more hidden. Depends on the character of the instrument – some have masses of parameters like the synths, others, like the sampled instruments have just a handful.
Editing the parameters
The layout and availability of the parameters are completely editable. Hit the unlock button and you can add knobs, delete knobs, add sections, tabs, edit the names and select whatever parameters you want to have available. That’s pretty cool. However, these are only permanent for this preset saved in your user library. It doesn’t affect the layout of controls for any other preset. It would be nice to be able to set up the controls that you want to use for whatever preset loads but that’s not something we can do at this time – as far as I can tell.
During actual playing of the instruments there’s not a whole lot going on in these screens. We have a little thumbnail on the left and a splash screen on the right. The knob labels and a magnifying glass on a white button which takes you back to the browser – which you can also do with the dedicated browser button. So at this stage your eyes are really on the computer screen, or sort of dotting between the two in order to fully interpret what the knobs are saying. It feels like the screens are being under-used at this point. I would really like there to be a knob graphic rather than the data (or as well as). The knobs don’t light up, so a knob graphic would keep you at the keyboard rather than having to look at the computer. And those white buttons could do so much more.
Arpeggiator and Scales
Right lets move away from close analysis to something a bit more fun – the Arpeggiator.
I always love a good arpeggiator and this is a load of fun. Hit the button to activate or shift-hit it to get to the editing. The arp has the usual up/down/played/chord option with 8 “sequencer” variations. You can span between 1 and 8 octaves and go from 1 to 128th time divisions. There’s swing and dynamic controls to give it a bit of feel. Hit the hold button and set it off – fabulous. And here’s where we get some of that Light-guide action – it flashes the notes that are being played, which is actually quite cool.
This becomes even more interesting when combined with Scale mode. Scale mode forces the keyboard into only playing the notes from a particular scale or musical mode. Set it to major or minor, Ionian or Dorian etc etc. It’s a totally awesome way to stay in a sensible key if you are not a virtuoso piano player. There are three levels of discipline – level 1 just shows you the right notes with the guide but lets you play everything. Level 2 kills any notes not on the scale and level 3 with play the nearest right note regardless of what you play. Works a treat. You can also dial in chords in every configuration imaginable. It’s a great tool for inspiration.
Combined with the arpeggiator you can get some quite interesting pattern changes as you fiddle with the modes. What it doesnt do is change the arp notes as you change the mode – you have to hit the notes again to make it happen, which is a shame. But it’s still a lot of fun. And it’s a great place for setting something playing so you can fiddle with the sounds with both hands like i did with the Monark back at the beginning.
So – Kontrol can also work its magic on any third party instrument that supports their NKS format. What does this mean? Well I have the Arturia V Collection and a load of Rob Papen synths that are all installed and they appear just like Native ones. What you don’t necessarily get is the prehear preset auditions – although these are arriving from third parties all the time. And actually I miss them – browsing is not as interesting without them – you have to make use of the Type/Mode system to find what you’re after. Looking at some of the Papen synths there’s tons and tons of parameters all mapped out for you. I asked Rob about the task of making his stuff NKS compatible and he said that it was a huge task because they have so many presets and parameters, each to individually map. I guess that’s the entry price to being part of the Kontrol gang.
But it doesn’t end there. Any VST instrument can be loaded into Kontrol and controlled… They just hide them away somewhat. If you navigate to this little down arrow you’ll find a “Plugins” menu which lists all the VST plug-ins in the system. So I can load up Waverazor and discover that Kontrol has perfectly acquired all the right parameters. However, that sort of helpful configuration depends on how the developers have marked up the controls. For instance if i load the fabulous SH-101 emulator from D15, Lush 101, it has completely crap parameters. Nothing makes sense.
In either case the VST instruments are not accessible via the keyboard – they don’t appear in the browser. I’m not convinced that this is for anything other than exclusivity reasons. If you’re not signed up to NKS then you don’t appear. Or do they? If you load something up and then save a preset into the user library they then can appear – although just in the user library. But it’s worth doing for one preset just to have it easy to find and load.
Where the Lush 101 was concerned what you can do is map MIDI controls to it using it’s own internal MIDI learning. Let’s do that.
The dumb MIDI control aspect of Kontrol is always available. You’ve got 8 knobs and 8 buttons plus wheels and strips, all of which can be mapped to whatever. You used to be able to set this up in the “Controller Editor” but now you can do this within the Kontrol software itself. Let me show you how that works. So you create a new template – which you can’t rename for some reason – and label your knobs and buttons, and you can change their assignment if you wish. Then go back into the instrument and map them to the knobs you want. Save the mapping in the instrument and then save a preset in Komplete and you have a mapped non-NKS instrument ready to go, as long as you can remember which template to use.
The MIDI control is simple but it works well enough either in instruments in Kontrol or outside of that – inside a DAW, a standalone or whatever. The one thing that bugs me slightly is that selecting MIDI mode kills buttons to stuff that still should be working. The Arpeggiator and Scales still work even in MIDI mode and yet you can’t select them or edit them without coming out of MIDI mode. It’s a minor gripe.
At the time of writing the Kontrol S49 only supports one DAW on Windows – Ableton Live. Apparently support for Cubase and others are coming but it requires more than a bit of Mackie Control support. On Mac there’s full integration with Logic and Garage Band – but I’m on a PC so…. Ableton then.
Setup requires the moving of scripts to those mysterious Ableton Live folders that reside in the dark recesses of your system. You also have to install an instrument rack which is absolutely vital to having a nice time in Live..
When you launch Live your keyboard changes. It’s a remarkable thing this darkness approach to the buttons. A load of buttons light up that you weren’t previously aware of and others have completely faded into the nothingness. You probably can’t see it in this light but under normal conditions it’s quite beautiful – if a little unnerving.
So over on the left we have some transport controls, plus a row of undo/redo, quantise and Auto – whatever that may mean. Mute and Solo buttons have appeared out of nowhere and over on the right the Mixer button is lit. Press that and the little screens become 8 channels of mixing – awesome! This is all without the Kontrol software.
The level meters on the display are lovely – far superior to looking at Ableton Live’s tired old interface. The 8 knobs become your level controls and work just fine. If you hold the Shift key you can make fine adjustments rather than just wanging it about. You can select tracks with the white buttons at the top but these also serve as mute and solo buttons. You hold down the mute or solo button on the left and then hit the buttons above the track to action that emotion. It’s also at this point that the uber knob comes into play. I’ve largely ignored it up until now because it’s only done things that are better done elsewhere, but now it’s having its time in the limelight. I can use this knob to move about in the session and control the level of whatever track I’m on – all on the one knob. It has a very loud and clunky clicking motion – which some may like but it’s not my thing particularly. If you move to an empty clip you can start it recording by pushing on the knob. If a clip exists it will trigger it. If you’re over on the Master fader then you can trigger whole scenes. All very useful.
What has me slightly puzzled is that it’s all about level and nothing else. Pan is displayed on the screens but there’s no way to control it. You would have thought that they’d be a way of scrolling to other mixer controls such as pan, sends, or even effects and devices. But none of that is accessible. So ultimately the DAW control amounts to transport controls, level controls with a really nice display, and some clip/scene launching with slightly laborious single knob navigation. It’s nice and everything, just not exactly comprehensive nor much of an advantage over what a regular MIDI controller can do. It’s elegantly done, but basic.
It does have a few other useful buttons we haven’t pressed yet so lets start a new session and see how we use the Kontrol software within Ableton.
So, you may think that to load an instance of Kontrol you should drop the plug-in on a track. No no, that would ruin everything. Because of the scripting and integration with Ableton Live the keyboard gets confused if the Kontrol plug-in is also running. It’s using all the same controls to do two things. However, Native have got around this by using an Instrument rack rather than a plug-in. So don’t go to “Plug-ins” go to “Instruments” and “Instrument Racks” and drop that into the session.
Now we can browse and load plug-ins like the standalone version and then swap back to mixer or even MIDI control.
I have some useful recording features here with the Metronome, loop and transport controls. I can hit record and start making a clip. There’s a Quantise button and the most useful button of all “UNDO”. So, without taking my hands off the keyboard I can load instruments, record into clips, add automation, quantise and undo things. That’s all pretty awesome. It stops short at being able to edit notes. Your User library is all still here – that Lush 101 we setup is there and the MIDI mapping works from our template. If you want to control other things in Ableton you can switch to MIDI mode and map away. You’ve just got to remember that MIDI is stupid so whatever you map is still mapped regardless of which track you’ve selected whereas the Kontrol plug-in mapping is specific to that instance of that plug-in.
Here’s a demo of building a track in Ableton Live
The last key feature of the S49 is its support for Maschine. A keyboard companion if you will – so that you don’t have to play melodic parts on the pads. For this there’s a column of dedicated buttons that you will never use in any other context. You will only ever have the Maschine software if you own Maschine hardware – so this is quite a bit of dedicated usage for a narrow field of users. I should also say that you don’t need to have Maschine attached in order to use the S49 with the Maschine software. Which begs the question – shouldn’t the Maschine software be made available for S series keyboard users?
I mean the integration is complete – it’s all there. I can trigger scenes, record patterns, mix and load instruments. The light guide goes bonkers the whole keyboard is fully awake for the first time. And yet if you don’t have a Maschine you can’t experience all this. That makes no sense. Let me see if i can build a track with just the S49.
And yes indeed i can. Once you’ve worked out how to get to what you need the workflow is very much like using the Maschine hardware – but on a keyboard. Why does the software not come in the box, or at least as an optional upgrade? Maybe this is what the integration with Logic and Garage Band is like – I don’t know – but with the Maschine software this is a complete solution.
And there’s one thing the Maschine software allows which the Kontrol software doesn’t – the adding and editing of effects. In fact if there is one major flaw in this Kontrol software system it’s the lack of a multi instrument and effects option. You can do it Kontakt, but there’s no special connection to the S49 unless you go via the Kontrol software. But in the Kontrol software you can’t layer up Kontakt instruments and effects. Weird.
Native Instruments are trying to build a workflow around their awesome Komplete range of instruments, synths and sounds. What this whole system does for me is to somehow pull the enormity of Komplete, the expanse of all those instruments and synths, together into a playable instrument. I spend time here playing and enjoying these sounds in a way I never have before. It makes me realise how little of Komplete I’ve been using and rediscovers the joy of going on adventures into sound.
The use of light in the buttons and navigation is brilliant, it lets you know what’s possible at any given moment and lets you keep track of where you are. You’re not dumbly punching buttons trying to find something that works, because only the relevant working ones are lit. It does take a little bit of time and thought to find your way around. I had it for a couple of weeks without a manual and had some difficulty intuiting my way around. But after a couple of pointers it all started making sense.
The support for other NKS instruments is perfectly adapted to the keyboard. The dumb MIDI support is basic but totally usable and user definable within the confines of the Kontrol software.
The DAW control with Ableton Live works fine – the meters in the display are an awesome thing and it swaps between mixer and instrument editing without a worry. But there’s nothing particularly special going on in Live that any other controller couldn’t handle.
The screens are great but I can’t help feeling that they are under-used in everything except Maschine. I’m not particularly fond of the Native Instrument browsers in their software and actually the keyboard screen interface makes me use it more intelligently. I can find things quicker and the previews are excellent – they have to open that up to other NKS developers as it makes it all so much easier.
The performance controls, Scales and Arpeggiator, are excellent, the light-guide is pretty if only useful with occasional instruments. The look and feel of the keyboard are top notch. It’s a brilliant thing to play and I am thoroughly enjoying discovering the power of Komplete.
I have questions though. Why not include regular plug-ins in the browser? Why not allow you to add thumbnails of them and samples of presets? Would it be possible to have pictures of knobs rather than, or along with, the data shown on the screens? The screens are under utilised and although they do keep your hands on the keyboard you are looking at both the computer and the keyboard – it doesn’t replace the GUI as well as perhaps it should.
But perhaps my two biggest criticisms are firstly the lack of multiple instrument and effects combinations – like what you’d find in the Akai VIP software. And secondly the awesome Maschine software integration only being available if you own Maschine hardware. The whole system felt at it’s most alive when doing stuff in Maschine. If you could also edit the notes on the screen then they would knock it out of the park – fabulous.
So to summarise my summary. Great keyboard, fabulous integration with software, it works to keep you making better use of the Komplete library. Some decent control in Live, exceptional with Maschine, but it does feel like there’s a lot more they could do. If you use Komplete and/or Maschine then this is the keyboard you should get.