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NATIVE INSTRUMENTS Kontakt 2 (Mac/Win)

November 1, 2005
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With the release of Kontakt 2, Native Instruments has raised the bar for software samplers. Features such as automatic translation for a large and growing assortment of sampler formats, a built-in MIDI Script Processor, an impressive collection of effects (including a flexible convolution reverb), a 15 GB instrument library with usable content, and numerous enhancements to the user interface make Kontakt 2 a whole new beast (see the May 2003 issue for a review of Kontakt 1.1).

Kontakt 2 arrives in a box containing three discs and a printed manual. The installation disc is a CD, which allows you to install it even if your computer lacks a DVD drive. The Kontakt library fills two DVDs: one holds the 7.5 GB Kontakt edition of the Vienna Symphonic Library, and the other holds the remainder of the library. Kontakt 2 comes in standalone and plug-in versions for Mac OS X and Windows XP. VST, Audio Units, MAS, and RTAS plug-in formats are supported on the Mac, and VST, DXi, and RTAS formats are supported on the PC.

Back in the Rack

One thing that hasn't changed about Kontakt is its rack-of-gear paradigm; getting around in the rack, however, is significantly easier. For example, you can now use the browser to drag effects and modulators to the instruments in the rack and to assign remote controllers to control-panel knobs and sliders.

The main section of the rack holds Kontakt instruments. Instruments can be freely spread over four rack pages, with each page capable of holding 16 instruments. Each instrument can be assigned its own MIDI port and channel, and Kontakt 2 supports simultaneous input from four MIDI ports. That allows for 64-part multitimbral operation with a fully loaded rack, although that would push the limits of almost any computer. (A convenient Purge function makes it possible to winnow out all but those samples used in a project, thus greatly reducing the memory required for a multitimbral setup.)

Collections of instruments can be saved as a single multitimbral object called a Multi. A Multi contains all instruments on all pages of the rack, and the rack can therefore hold only one Multi. It would be nice to be able to combine Multis by dragging several to the rack, but I imagine that could raise more problems than it would be worth.

FIG. 1: In addition to instruments and Banks, Kontakt''s rack now features an output mixer, an interactive keyboard, a Multi Header panel, and a Master Tempo section for global tempo, tuning, and metronome settings.

Bank on It

Kontakt 2 introduces a new rack object called a Bank. Banks work just like preset banks in synthesizers, and their primary purpose is to allow different instruments to be called up instantly using MIDI Program Change messages. Beyond that, Banks, with their onscreen menu for selecting individual instruments, are handy for organizing instrument sets. Furthermore, any instrument in the Bank can be opened for editing. The only downside to opening a Bank is that all samples used in all instruments in the Bank will be loaded into memory, which is necessary for smooth instrument switching. For direct-from-disk (DFD) instruments, the memory hit is not that large.

In addition to instruments and Banks, Kontakt's rack sports several new modules (see Fig. 1). A Master Tempo panel allows for global tempo, metronome, and tuning settings. A Multi Header panel gives quick access to the rack's four pages and has buttons for collapsing, expanding, and displaying auxiliary sends for all modules. A user-configurable output mixer provides multichannel mixing (including full surround support) and send-effects management. Finally, an interactive onscreen keyboard displays the note range and the currently held notes for the selected instrument. You can trigger notes by clicking on the keyboard with the mouse.

Instrument editing is now a rack mode — clicking on an instrument's Wrench icon opens the editor for that instrument and simultaneously hides the Multi Header panel and all other instruments. Although instrument editing still involves a good bit of unavoidable scrolling, you won't accidentally grab and adjust a control for the wrong instrument.

Editorial License

There's no getting around the fact that Kontakt's instrument architecture is complex, and that is reflected in the Instrument editor (see Fig. 2). The action starts with the Source section, which does everything you ever wanted to do with samples, and then some.

FIG. 2: Kontakt''s Instrument editor contains sections (from top) for editing the sound source, inserting effects, and managing modulation settings and routings. Sections expand as necessary for further editing.

The Source section's Mapping editor, for mapping samples across MIDI key and Velocity ranges, can now be torn off and resized (standalone version only), and it has a new List view as well as Kontakt's original Zone view. List view is particularly welcome for editing maps whose zones overlap.

Samples are loaded by dragging them to the Zone view either individually or in batches. When dragging, horizontal motion positions the sample(s), and vertical motion controls the zone width (or, equivalently, the MIDI note range). In a nice touch, dragging multiple samples to the keyboard at the bottom of the Zone view divides the samples across equal-size Velocity zones at the targeted key.

Samples can be assigned to Groups, and most Kontakt settings can be made for individual samples or all samples in a Group. In addition, each Group has eight insert-effect slots, and a utility insert effect called Send Levels allows Groups to have independent sends as well.

Mean Machines

Each sample in an instrument can be assigned one of six sample-playback methods: Sampler, DFD, Tone Machine, Time Machine, Time Machine II, and Beat Machine. Sampler and DFD are standard sample-playback modes that play from RAM or stream from disk, respectively.

FIG. 3: The tear-off Loop editor serves two purposes: beat slicing and loop management. As many as eight loops can be defined simultaneously.

Tone Machine is a granular resynthesizer that replaces the pitch content of the source audio. You can use its formant shifting to tweak or mangle vocals and other sounds. The two Time Machines are optimized for independent pitch shifting and time stretching. Time Machine II is higher quality, whereas Time Machine is better suited to special effects.

Kontakt's Loop editor, which can now be torn off just like the Mapping editor, has always been one of its strong points (see Fig 3). It allows you to define as many as eight loops — each with its own number of repetitions (see Web Clip 1).

In Beat Machine mode, the Loop editor is used to place slice markers at individual events within an audio file, which it does using threshold sensing. Threshold sensing is most successful with rhythmic loops that have clearly defined events, but you can add and delete slice points at will, so any audio file can be sliced to your specifications.

Beat Machine sequences the slices created in the Loop editor; you can vary the speed at which they are sequenced either as a percentage of the original speed or in note increments at the master tempo (or host tempo in the case of the plug-in). The rhythm of the slices (that is, their relative spacing) is preserved in either case. Kontakt can automatically map individual slices to individual keys in the sample map and generate a matching MIDI file to play them back in rhythm. That gives you the flexibility of reordering and otherwise munging the slices.

Plug for Plug

Kontakt 2 introduces a new drag-and-drop architecture for managing effects and modulators. The browser's Modules tab has Effects, Filters, and Modulators sections — each of which has subsections for displaying modules and, optionally, a description of their operation (see Fig. 4).

FIG. 4: The Module Browser allows effects and modulators to be dragged to the instrument rack. Here a breakpoint envelope has been dragged to modulate the instrument''s pan position.

A variety of envelope generators and LFOs, as well as a modulation step sequencer, an envelope follower, a glide (portamento) control, and MIDI-message-routing modules, are available. As in previous versions of Kontakt, you can assign any modulator to any control using modulation drop-down menus. But Kontakt 2 allows you to drag the modulator from the browser to the desired control, after which it inserts the modulator's control panel at the bottom of the rack and inserts a modulation router below the targeted control.

Additionally, MIDI Control Change messages and, when Kontakt 2 is running as a plug-in, host-automation messages can be assigned to Group controls by dragging from the browser's Auto tab. Assignments made this way differ in two ways from the MIDI-message modules just described: they support Soft Takeover, whereby the target control isn't affected until the incoming value matches its current value, and they allow you to set the control range as a percentage of the target control's minimum and maximum values.

Filters and Effects

Kontakt 2 has the standard array of compression, distortion, and delay effects. Beyond those, there is a high-end convolution reverb with 150 MB of impulse-response samples and a sophisticated surround panner that can be used with output configurations ranging from 1.1 mono to 16.0 surround. A separate Filters subsection contains 18 filter types.

Kontakt 2's filters are divided among four categories. Sampler Filters are an assortment of 1-, 2-, 4-, and 6-pole lowpass, bandpass, highpass, and notch filters. The Synth Filters section contains emulations of the classic Prophet 5 and Moog Ladder filters and a multimode filter containing three 2-pole elements that can be freely mixed. An allpass filter for phasing effects and two formant filters make up the Effect Filter section. In the EQ section, 1-, 2-, and 3-band parametric filters round out the complement.

Filters and effects can be inserted at three locations in individual Kontakt 2 instruments: Instrument Insert slots, Group Insert slots, and Instrument Send slots. There are eight slots of each type, and each Group has its own complement of eight slots. Group Insert effects affect only the samples assigned to the group, which allows you great variety in processing an instrument's samples. For example, you can easily apply different compression and EQ to different Velocity layers. Effects and filters can also be inserted in the output and auxiliary channels in the output mixer.

Effects and filters are inserted in instruments by dragging them from the browser to the desired slot. Their controls then become accessible from the slot's Edit tab. Each effect and filter has its own preset menu, and there are global preset menus for instantly recalling effects chains for each slot type. Effects are inserted in the output mixer using drop-down menus.

FIG. 5: The Script Processor allows as many as five scripts to be run in series. The factory drum-sequencer script is shown here.

The Word

Kontakt 2's Script Processor is one its most powerful new features (see Fig. 5). In short, it runs MIDI-processing scripts and comes with an editor for creating them. A separate PDF manual is devoted to creating scripts. Creating scripts probably won't appeal to most users, but there are many useful factory scripts, and scripts are constantly being added to the Kontakt User Library on the Native Instruments Web site. The upcoming Kontakt Experience library will contain many new scripts.

The Script Processor can run as many as five scripts at a time; multiple scripts are run in series with the MIDI output of each one feeding the next one in line. Typically, scripts process incoming MIDI, performing tasks such as arpeggiation, automatic chord generation, and MIDI echo. They can also, however, be constructed to run by themselves (for example, as step sequencers and drum machines). There's even a MIDI-recorder script, complete with a prerecorded Bach harpsichord piece to show it off.

Scripts aren't limited to clever effects, either. The MIDI-monitor script is useful for discovering why notes aren't playing or why a MIDI controller isn't doing what you expect. Many of the VSL instruments have custom scripts that make it easier to execute nonkeyboard playing techniques from a keyboard.

Sprechen Sie

One goal of Native Instruments with version 2 of Kontakt is to make the software sampler format-transparent, allowing you to load samples, instruments, and Multis in any format you own, regardless of the sampler they were designed for. To that end, the company commissioned Garth Hjelte of Chicken Systems (www.chickensys.com) to build a version of his Translator software into Kontakt 2.

The list of supported sampler formats is long, with popular entrants such as Tascam GigaStudio, Emagic EXS24, Steinberg HALion, MOTU MachFive, and Soundfont2, as well as a variety of legacy hardware-sampler formats from Roland, E-mu, and Akai. Digidesign's SampleCell II format was curiously omitted (it is supported in earlier versions of Kontakt), but SampleCell II support is slated for a future upgrade.

I tried a variety of sampler formats on my Mac, and aside from occasionally having to manually locate samples or remove non-ASCII characters from filenames, they all imported without problems. Some tweaking was required for more-complex instruments, but that's to be expected considering the variety of samplers involved.

All popular sampling formats are supported: AIFF, WAV, .S, .SND, and the sliced formats ACID, REX I and II, and Apple Loops. If you drag one of the sliced formats to a blank space in the rack, Kontakt 2 will build an instrument in Beat Machine mode using the embedded slices, which makes it almost ready for tempo synchronization (you need to manually select one of the Beat Machine's note-increment modes to sync to tempo). It would be handy to see compressed formats such as MP3 and AAC supported, but perhaps that will also come in a future release.

Not Quite Paradise

A database feature has been added to Kontakt 2's browser. Its purpose — refining the file tree to show only relevant files — is noble, but the current implementation is flawed.

Anytime you create or modify an instrument, Multi, or Bank and save the result, you need to manually invoke a database update — a process that can take 10 to 15 minutes on a large hard drive. If you delete, move, rename, or otherwise change files manually, you must rebuild the database — a process that can take several hours. (On my system, rebuilding the database constantly crashed Mac OS X Tiger; it worked properly, however, in Panther.)

The shortcomings of the database made it so inconvenient as to be unusable, and I went back to using the standard file tree. But therein lies another problem: convenience shortcuts such as favorites categories have been removed from the standard file tree and now apply only to the database. Because there are no key commands for moving around in the file tree, locating objects without those shortcuts requires a lot of mouse activity.

A Trip to the Library

Kontakt 2's 15 GB library of samples, instruments, Banks, and Multis is spread over ten categories. The separate 90-page PDF manual is an indication of the importance Native Instruments attributes to the library. While most of the content comes from outside vendors (Web links can be found in the documentation), this is no demo library — all the collections are complete and useful.

Roughly half of the content is taken up with the Kontakt edition of the Vienna Symphonic Library. The next largest categories contain 2.1 GB of instruments illustrating the Script Processor and 2 GB devoted to pianos: Steinway D and August Foster grand pianos along with several prepared pianos (see Web Clip 2). The keyboard collection is rounded out with selections of electric pianos, organs, harpsichords, and synthesizers.

Percussion is divided into three categories: Acoustic Drums, Electronic Drums, and Percussion. Many of the kits conform to the General MIDI drum-map standard and can, therefore, be used with any GM drum sequences you may have. Many of the kits also make use of the Script Processor's Drum Sequencer script, with which you can step sequence five drums at a time.

Finally, there are bass and guitar libraries, a collection of 250 loops and construction kits, and 1 GB of surround instruments, including a 5.1-surround cathedral organ. Banks containing all instruments in each category make auditioning similar instruments a breeze.

Get Creative

It's easy to lose sight of what Kontakt 2 is all about in a blizzard of features. Although the library of ready-made instruments and its ability to import instruments in many other formats may fill all your sampler needs, Kontakt 2 offers a world of creative potential.

Even if you artificially restricted yourself to basic waveforms as source material, you'd have a sophisticated modular synthesizer at your fingertips. Add MIDI programming using the Script Processor, five varieties of effects routing, layering and zoning of individual instruments, and the four playback Machines, and you have the power to make Kontakt 2 do exactly what you want it to.

The move from previous versions of Kontakt to Kontakt 2 was a huge undertaking, and Kontakt 2 bears only a superficial resemblance to its predecessors. In spite of a few things that need smoothing out, Kontakt 2 is a job well done. If you're currently a Kontakt user, upgrading is a must (and it does not overwrite or disable your previous installation should you need it). For new buyers, Kontakt's library and feature set easily justify its somewhat high price tag.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.


PRODUCT SUMMARY

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS Kontakt 2
software sampler
$579
$169 upgrade

OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4

PROS: Huge, well-documented library of sounds. Multiple sample-playback methods. Large array of effects and filters with flexible routing scheme. Drag-and-drop modulation and automation setup. MIDI script processing. Built-in file translation for other sampler formats.

CONS: Browser's database implementation is somewhat flawed.

MANUFACTURER

Native Instruments USA, Inc.
www.native-instruments.com

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