Most people credit the birth of electronic music to early analog synths that hit the scene back in the '60s and '70s. I'm not one to dispute the fact that companies like Moog, ARP and Oberheim brought life to the electronic music scene with their legendary wares, but the real catalyst for the worldwide popularity of synth-driven music can be traced back to one instrument in particular — the sampler.
We've come a long way since the 8-bit beasts of the early '80s, whose grimy, lo-fi sound lent an unmistakable grit to early new-wave and hip-hop recordings. Those old workhorses with floppy drives and sub-megabyte memories were far too limited to do much more than play back a few notes or stutter short vocal ad-libs (anyone remember Stacey Q?), but since then, advances in technology have molded the sampler into a powerful stand-alone instrument. Software versions in particular have refined and extended samplers' capabilities with point-and-click interfaces, advanced time-stretching algorithms, complex signal routing and an unprecedented collection of sound-shaping tools that would have left old E-mu Emax and Ensoniq Mirage users scraping their jaws off the floor.
The field of modern samplers is crowded, but a few standouts have risen to the top, Native Instruments (NI) Kontakt among them. Since its original release in 2002, Kontakt has raised the bar for sampling, boasting a pristine audio engine coupled with a unique modular structure that offers outstanding signal routing and sonic flexibility. The third major iteration of this software continues to offer all of those benefits while filling in a few feature gaps and smoothing over some rough edges, polishing this gem of a sampler to a refined, sparkling luster.
Part of Kontakt 3's value is the massive sound library that comes on four DVDs. Installing the entire suite takes a while, so grab a cup of coffee and set aside about an hour just to get everything copied to your machine. A full installation takes more than 33 GB, so clear out the old and make way for the new.
A 239-page printed manual does a nice job of explaining the features in detail, with plenty of visual references and clear explanations of the more complicated tools. Frankly, it can be nice to tear away from the screen for a while to read the hard copy manual; of course, an identical PDF manual is included on the disc for quick searching.
One of Kontakt's most impressive features has been its massive sample library, and version 3 forks over a gargantuan 33 GB sound archive. The 1,000 bundled instruments run the gamut from organic acoustic and orchestral patches to synthetic pads and drum loops, and each one is meticulously multisampled and specifically programmed to take advantage of Kontakt's powerful sound engine.
Kontakt's library is split into six genre segments: Band, Orchestral, Vintage, World, Synth and Urban Beats. You can pick and choose from those during install to save some space. I found usable material in all six banks, so pick up an extra hard drive if you're low on space and go whole hog.
I've come to expect most bundled sounds to serve as mere placeholders to get you started while you shop around for proper sample libraries. Kontakt's library, however, is a pleasant surprise. There's no cut-rate material here — sonic quality on each and every sample is outstanding. All of the sounds are eminently playable and creatively inspiring, and I can easily see putting together an entire song using little more than Kontakt 3 and its bundled patches.
Kontakt's massive library stays in line with the ever-increasing size of sample libraries in general. While it can be inspiring to have tons of quality raw material at hand, it's getting harder to make heads or tails of any of it, and nothing kills the mood faster than putting a hot track on hold to sift through thousands of samples in search of that perfect sound. As we fill our drives with more material, picking the needle out of the haystack is becoming a serious problem.
However, Kontakt neatly sidesteps that with its Quick Search tool. Built into Kontakt's file browser, the Quick Search bar works a lot like Windows Vista's built-in search function. Typing any part of a file name pulls up all matches in real time; for example, if you're looking for piano patches, typing “piano” into Quick Search brings up all of Kontakt's patches with “piano” in the name from everywhere in the library. You can search multis, banks, instruments and even individual samples, so zeroing in on exactly what you're looking for — if you're a meticulous labeler — is easier than ever.
Kontakt's powerful sound engine offers plenty of tweakability — so much, in fact, that the near-limitless possibilities can be rather daunting when you're looking to just sit down and bang out some music. Complex instruments can contain multiple modules with a dizzying array of knobs, so it's sometimes rough to figure out simple tasks such as tweaking filters or adjusting envelopes. Version 3 deals with much of that confusion by including a handy Performance View, a quick-access panel for each instrument in the Kontakt library that puts a pretty face on this powerhouse sampler.
Think of each instrument's Performance View as its own homepage. The view can contain any collection of knobs and sliders from modules the instrument uses, aggregating them in one place for quick and easy control. If you run out of space — or want to categorize groups of controls — you can add as many as five separate pages of controls, easily accessed by a convenient row of tabs arrayed along the bottom of the window.
Keep in mind that only the library shipping with Kontakt is preprogrammed with Performance Views for each instrument. Patches converted from other sampler formats such as Akai or Roland won't have Views preconfigured. However, there's a way to create Performance Views — if you have the fortitude to learn Kontakt's slightly daunting scripting language.
UNDER THE HOOD
While scripting sounds more akin to systems administration than songwriting, Kontakt's programming language isn't as scary as it looks, and it significantly extends Kontakt's already powerful capability by letting you modify its inner workings. While scripting isn't new to Kontakt 3, it is a key element that sets Kontakt apart from other samplers.
Scripting allows you to pop the hood on Kontakt's powerful engine and extend it to suit your precise needs. Need an arpeggiator? Program one yourself. Feel like modifying a module's signal flow or slapping on a few extra control knobs? No problem, just tweak the existing code and whip up whatever you need. The 88-page PDF scripting manual is an excellent reference and has a great plain-English tutorial to walk newcomers through some simple scripting.
If that all sounds like way too much, don't worry. You don't need to write a single line of code to harness Kontakt's power. However, if you have the time and a little dedication, you can use scripting to make Kontakt do just about anything you can imagine. There's also a worldwide community of Kontakt coders out there who freely share scripts and tips. Check out the Kontakt User Library on Native Instruments' site for just a taste of what you can do with Kontakt's scripting.
One of the most exciting (and long overdue) features in Kontakt 3 is the expanded Wave Editor. Working with raw sample material in Kontakt has never been easier thanks to a number of upgrades like the wave grid, which lets you edit samples in rhythmic slices much like Steinberg's venerable Recycle. The grid can be manually set to incoming tempo and associated musical intervals such as quarter or 16th notes, or it can run in automatic mode, where you simply select a minimum slice length and let Kontakt insert grid markers at rhythmically significant points. In practice, Manual mode worked great for electronic drum loops, but transient detection in Auto mode was spot-on and offered tighter results for looser acoustic loops.
Kontakt's new destructive editing tools can trim and polish each slice in the wave grid. Rather than shuffling samples off to a third-party editor to trim silence, reverse a segment, etc., you can do many such tasks inside the sampler's edit window. In fact, Kontakt 3 has the ability to perform all of the basic cut, crop, reverse, normalize, fade and other destructive operations you'll need to get samples cleaned up. Don't let “destructive” scare you, either; you can use the editor's 20 levels of undo/redo if you make a mistake.
The real stars of the new Wave Editor are the Zone Envelopes, which allow you to apply any of Kontakt's modulators to individual samples within an instrument. The Zone Envelopes pane in the Wave Editor allows you to access as many as 16 modulation parameters, including volume, pan, tune, etc. and draw them directly into the sample window. If the wave grid is engaged, edits snap to the nearest grid marker, ensuring all of the events you add are synced to the master tempo. There's even a handy tool that creates random envelopes if you run out of creative juice.
Zone Envelopes' level of control is unprecedented — a major advancement in Kontakt's toolkit that opens a whole new realm of possibilities for tempo-synced instruments. Combining the power of the wave grid with Zone Envelopes means individual slices in a drum loop, for example, can be manipulated separately from the rest of the sample; you can ramp up the volume on a snare's reverb tail, for example, or highpass kick drums while leaving the rest of the sample untouched. The potential to create complex rhythmic soundscapes is also limitless when you begin layering samples with separate Zone Envelopes into a single Kontakt instrument. A single note can trigger multiple samples, each with its own rhythmic modulation, potentially unleashing pulsating, evolving pads or throbbing lead tones. The possibilities are truly exciting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Kontakt's sound-design community handles them.
3, 2, 1, KONTAKT
Having followed Kontakt closely since its debut back in 2002, I'm pleased with the refinements NI has made over the years. The first version of Kontakt sported a revolutionary (if somewhat confusing) interface, and Kontakt 3 smoothes over some of the rough edges in that department, bringing a more elegant look to the table along with robust searching, convenient tools and a split-rack interface motif that keeps things organized. Sonically, things are very much the same as Kontakt 2, but the wave editor's direct-draw modulation tool, destructive editing options and waveform grid are powerful new additions for sound designers who regularly create patches from scratch.
If you're new to sampling and are looking to get your foot in the door with powerful software, Kontakt remains an ideal choice despite its steeper-than-average learning curve. Its quality is second to none; the 33 GB library will keep you supplied with fresh sonic stimulation for quite some time, and the upgraded wave editor provides fertile soil for shaping samples. Version 1 users have plenty of reasons to upgrade, while sound designers and version 2 users with vast sample libraries will appreciate the usability improvements in Kontakt 3. All in all, Kontakt 3 is a worthy purchase, whether you're stepping up or starting fresh.
KONTAKT 3 > $449 ($169 UPDATE)
Pros: Flexible and powerful sampler second to none. Top-quality 33 GB sample library. Improved editor with wave grid and per-sample zone envelopes. Performance views offer easy parameter access. Powerful sample-search functions.
Cons: Powerful interface means difficult learning curve. Complex instruments are processor intensive.
Mac: G4/1.4 GHz or Intel Core Duo/1.66 GHz; 1 GB RAM; OS 10.4.x; 34 GB free disk space for complete installation
PC: Pentium or Athlon/1.4 GHz; 1 GB RAM; Windows XP/Vista (32-bit); 34 GB free disk space for complete installation