Well-known for its popular software synths, Native Instruments recently put forth its bid for host-based sampling supremacy with Kontakt. This powerful and feature-laden software sampler and sound-design environment addresses the needs of pro samplists in a comprehensive way through its well-designed graphical user interface and modular approach.
Kontakt can function as a standalone application and as a VST 2.0, DirectConnect, and MAS plug-in. It supports AIFF-, SDII-, and WAV-format samples, as well as EXS files generated by Emagic's EXS24, KIT files from Native Instruments' Battery, FXP files from Steinberg's HALion, SND files from Akai's MPC2000, and Giga files from Tascam's GigaStudio. The program supports resolutions as high as 24 bits.
I tested the program on a Dual Mac G4/1 GHz with 1 GB of RAM and Mac OS 9.2.2. For audio, I used a Digidesign Pro Tools Mix system with DirectConnect 5.1.1. Kontakt's audio was routed through DirectConnect into either Emagic Logic Platinum 5.3 or Pro Tools 5.2. The DirectConnect environment proved to be the only troublesome area (more on that later).
Native Instruments says Kontakt will provide at least 256 stereo notes of polyphony on any computer meeting the minimum system requirements. During the review process, I never exhausted the polyphony even when I ran two instances of Kontakt with 16 Instruments per instance (and 32 notes of polyphony per instrument) in a dense MIDI sequence. I also built some very elaborate drum maps without encountering polyphony problems, even though each sound comprised a set of two mono and two stereo samples and I used as many as 20 sets at varying dynamics for each drum.
Kontakt can provide 32 mono or 16 stereo outputs under VST (depending on the host) and 16 mono or 8 stereo outputs under ASIO, depending on the hardware. It is possible to freely choose the number of mono and stereo outputs according to your needs, as long as you don't exceed those limits. That's a nice provision, because it means that you don't have to use stereo outputs for mono samples.
Kontakt is laid out in a fairly straightforward manner. Almost everything takes place in a single main window (see Fig. 1). The right side is presented as a virtual rack that is somewhat like the one in Propellerhead Reason. Various elements of the program (such as the sampler Instruments, modulation sources, and effects processors) are presented as modules that appear stacked in the rack as you add them. Most elements can be hidden to allow you to view only the ones that you're working with at any given time. On the left side, a Browser area lets you view samples, Instruments, and Multi-Instruments. This arrangement makes most operations in Kontakt simple and fast.
When you work with samples in Kontakt, they're always part of a Zone. A Zone can span one or multiple keys in the MIDI range, as well as any specified MIDI Velocity range. It's possible for a Zone to contain as little as one sample. One or more Zones can be associated with a Group, which allows easy global editing and processing of multiple Zones. You can have as many Groups as you need (the actual upper limit is 4,096). A collection of Zones and Groups is called an Instrument, and you can combine as many as 16 Instruments into a Multi-Instrument. Each Instrument in a Multi-Instrument can have its own MIDI channel and audio output setting, as well as a specific number of available Kontakt voices allocated to it.
The Sampler module in Kontakt is the heart of the program. A Sampler module contains a Mapping Editor and a Loop Editor, both of which can be hidden. The Mapping Editor uses a familiar graphical keyboard design (see Fig. 2). A Sampler module also includes an Amplifier — a final output stage for each Instrument. Sampler outputs can be sent to Kontakt's effects or straight out the selected output. The Amplifier provides just two controls, Volume and Pan, but you can apply numerous modulation sources to either.
You can save and load Multi-Instruments or individual Instruments. However, the program does not allow you to select and load only some of the Instruments contained in a Multi-Instrument; it's all or nothing. Also, you don't access the Save and Load operations from the usual File menu; instead, you have to use a tiny submenu that appears in the main window itself.
Setting up multisamples in Kontakt is easy and straightforward. Let's say that you want to create a new Instrument with a group of several progressively louder snare drum samples. First, you use the Browser to choose the samples from any mounted hard drive. The Browser is divided into upper and lower panes; the upper pane shows available hard drives and their subfolders. You can preview the samples by clicking on the Preview button in the Browser; you can also activate the Auto feature to make samples play automatically when selected. Once you've chosen the samples you want, they are ready to be dragged into the Mapping Editor in the Sampler module of a newly created Instrument.
The mapping process, one of Kontakt's best features, becomes invaluable at this point. When you drag your selected samples into the Mapping Editor window, where you position the cursor determines how the samples are auto-mapped. If you hold the cursor over the top portion of the sample area, the entire area turns light blue to indicate that you are about to create a single Zone spanning the entire MIDI range.
As you move the cursor slowly downward in the sample area, the program creates adjacent Zones for each of the selected samples. The Zones span multiple keys as you start near the top of the window; they gradually shrink to single-key width as you near the bottom. When the cursor is below the bottom border of the sample area (on the keyboard graphic), Kontakt assumes you want to create a Velocity stack, and it flips all the samples into an alphabetical, vertical arrangement. If you've ever spent hours putting together elaborate sample maps, you can appreciate how cool this is. It's great for quickly creating complex maps, and it's easily the fastest mapping process I've found among currently available samplers.
Kontakt initially sets up Velocity stacks in which each sample takes an equal portion of the MIDI Velocity range. You can easily adjust the upper and lower boundaries of each Zone's Velocity range by simply dragging the borders with the mouse. Unfortunately, Kontakt's lack of key commands is a bit of a drawback; it would be far simpler if there were keyboard shortcuts that let you jump between Zones and nudge the upper and lower Velocity ranges.
Kontakt allows both Velocity and Positional crossfades between Zones. The Velocity crossfades let you create smooth transitions between Velocity-switched samples instead of the usual hard switch. Positional crossfades let you morph smoothly from one note to the next as you travel up and down the keyboard. By zooming in on the desired Zone, you can gain easy access to its crossfade grab-handles and graphically adjust Velocity and Positional crossfades by dragging with the mouse.
Kontakt has its own integrated Loop Editor window for creating and adjusting up to eight sets of loop points per sample (see Fig. 3). Each loop can play a selected number of times (you designate the number using the Count parameter), and each can be a crossfade loop if desired.
Kontakt's looping tools are excellent. They are useful and musical thanks to the well-executed crossfade capabilities and especially the Count feature. Count allows rhythmic material to be reconfigured into different variations for some unique effects.
So far I've only discussed Kontakt's Sampler mode. But Kontakt offers two other modes, Time Machine and Tone Machine, that take the program out of the realm of ordinary sample-playing and into sound-design territory.
Tone Machine is essentially a granular synthesizer that uses “grains” of the currently loaded samples to superimpose tonal information over the samples. This process is performed independent of the actual sample speed or pitch, so those can be adjusted as desired. When you first switch to Tone Machine mode, Kontakt performs an analysis on all samples in the current Instrument to allow the granular synthesis to take place.
Tone Machine can be useful in a sound-design context or simply to “tune” an unpitched sample to a track. While it's not something that everyone is likely to use every day, it is a nice feature.
Also based on a granular-synthesis algorithm, Kontakt's Time Machine is designed to let you manipulate your samples' timing without affecting their pitch. It has the same Smooth, Speed, and Tracking controls as Tone Machine and adds two further parameters: Hi Quality and Grain.
Hi Quality determines whether the Time Machine operates on the preanalyzed sample data or on the fly, without knowing the sample's characteristics. The latter method produces a less refined (but arguably more interesting) sonic result and is particularly audible when playing samples at slower speeds — less of their original character is evident. The Time Machine's Grain parameter governs the size of the sample grains used for resynthesis and has more audible effect when Hi Quality is off.
I had quite a bit of fun with the Time Machine, particularly using rhythm loops as source material. By turning off Hi Quality, slowing the tempo of my loops with the Speed control, using Kontakt's Legato function, and switching loops midbar, I instantly got some wonderfully destroyed-sounding grooves. The Legato function made it easy to, for example, use the beginning of one loop, the middle of another, and the end of a third to create a new hybrid on the fly, simply by playing my controller keyboard. That is an excellent example of Kontakt's power as a sound-design tool. Needless to say, accomplishing the same result any other way would require quite a bit of tedious editing and processing.
Kontakt allows extensive modulation routings from four categories of sources: External, LFOs, Envelopes, and Others. External sources include MIDI Velocity, release Velocity, key position (MIDI note number), MIDI continuous controllers, Pitch Bend, and Mono and Polyphonic Aftertouch.
The LFO modulators offer a choice of Sine, Triangle, Rectangle, Sawtooth, and Random waveforms, as well as a Multi waveform that combines all of the others. LFOs can be retriggered or free-running, and controls are included for Frequency, Delay, and (for the Rectangle waveform) Pulse Width.
Kontakt offers three types of envelope modulators: AHDSR, DBD, and Flexible Envelope. AHDSR (Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain, Release) is a variation on the classic ADSR type; it includes the Hold phase for greater flexibility. DBD (Decay, Break, Decay) is a simple two-stage envelope with a center breakpoint, intended for the quick pitch sweeps found in many classic electronic drum and percussion sounds. The DBD is available only for the Sampler modules. Finally, the Flexible Envelope (see Fig. 4) will be familiar to Absynth users; it allows 32 breakpoint stages and can produce envelopes lasting several minutes. Such flexibility hasn't been common since the days of the late '60s and early '70s modular synths, and it's a very welcome feature.
The Flexible Envelope allows its first eight times and levels to be modulated by external controllers (Velocity, release Velocity, key position, MIDI controller, Pitch Bend, Poly Aftertouch, and Mono Aftertouch). The intensity of the envelope can also be modulated.
The 32-Step Modulator allows you to “paint” control changes using a sequence of vertical bars that run above and below a central zero line (see Fig. 5). You can create sequences with a maximum of 32 steps. The 32-Step Modulator also provides Frequency (rate) and Retrigger controls, the latter of which determines whether the sequence will restart whenever a new incoming MIDI note is received.
Kontakt's Envelope Follower converts the amplitude of the currently playing sample into a control signal, in much the same way that the classic analog envelope followers of yesteryear did. The Envelope Follower provides Attack and Decay controls to further shape the envelope signal; a Gain control governs input sensitivity; and an Adapt parameter sets a baseline transient response time for the Envelope Follower.
Last on the list of modulation sources is Glide (also known as Portamento), which adds a sliding pitch transition between consecutively played notes. Extensive as these modulation options are, not all sources are available to all possible destinations at all times, and not all parameters can be modulated. Still, there's more than enough flexibility to do some sonic damage.
Kontakt boasts a number of varied effects modules. You can apply them in three ways: as Group Insert effects, as Instrument Insert effects, or as Send effects. Group and Instrument Insert effects are, as their names suggest, applied in an “insert” signal configuration either to to a Group or globally to an Instrument. Send effects are added after the Amplifier module and are connected in the traditional send/return configuration.
The main difference between Group and Instrument effects is that Group effects are “polyphonic.” They are computed separately for each voice that you play. That lets you apply voice-dependent modulations to an effect parameter — for example, routing Velocity to Distortion Drive. That kind of processing does, however, take its toll on CPU cycles. For that reason, Kontakt's manual recommends the use of Group Effects only when you absolutely need their “polyphonic” processing. I found that Instrument Insert and Send effects were sufficient most of the time.
There is one potentially serious limitation in Kontakt's implementation of Group Insert effects: only one instance per effect type is allowed per Group, so if you've inserted a lowpass filter in a Group, for example, you can't also insert a notch filter or an equalizer in the same group. In such a situation, you would have to use a Send or Global Insert effect instead.
The practical result of this limitation depends on how you use the program. I prefer to do all processing in the TDM mixer where I can insert TDM plug-ins or actual analog outboard gear, so the restriction doesn't bother me much. But if you prefer to do more “local” processing in Kontakt, it could be an issue.
Kontakt's Group Insert effects include Distortion, Saturation, Compression, LoFi, and Stereo Enhancer. Three types of filters are also available as Group Insert effects: Sampler Filters, Equalizers, and Effects Filters.
The Send effects include Panning Delay, Stereo Chorus, Stereo Flanger, Stereo Phaser, and Reverb. There isn't enough space in this review for a detailed discussion of all of Kontakt's effects, so I'll cover the ones that I found most useful and interesting.
While I liked the general sound of Kontakt's filters, the 3×2 Multimode Filter module (see Fig. 6) is particularly noteworthy because of its power and flexibility. It comprises three 2-pole, 12 dB-per-octave multimode filters, each with the ability to morph between Lowpass, Highpass, and Bandpass modes. Each filter also has its own Resonance and Amount controls. There's a master Cutoff parameter on Filter 1; the other two filters offer Shift controls that provide a variable amount of offset from the master Cutoff.
All of that represents a significant amount of power to begin with, but when you take into account that each of the controls can be remotely automated using MIDI controllers, the vast potential of this Filter module becomes clear. Using that automation capability by sequencing control changes in Logic yielded varied and subtle results on just about every type of sample I experimented with. It was particularly effective on sustaining drones, and equally interesting on drum and percussive sounds as well.
Another technique that worked very well was modulating the 3×2 Multimode Filter's master Cutoff with Kontakt's 32-Step Modulator and feeding the result to a Kontakt Stereo Panning Delay. Because both the 32-Step Modulator and the delay can be synced to the tempo of the VST host, it was easy to create locked, hypnotic effects using complex sustaining textures as the source material. That configuration allowed many variations, because Kontakt's tempo-sync facility lets you choose any standard rhythmic subdivision from whole notes to 64th-note triplets.
I had my doubts about Kontakt's Reverb algorithm, but I was pleasantly surprised when I tried it on a variety of sources. While I wouldn't put it up in the pantheon of Lexicon and other world-class reverbs, it certainly is more than adequate for utility reverb and ambience. I found it useful for creating space around drums without tying up my expensive outboard boxes and also liked it for pure effects washes on more ambient material. Strangely, there is no reverb Time parameter, just Size. Still, it was serviceable and exceeded my expectations.
I also liked the sonic quality of Kontakt's Phaser effect; it suited my ears better than many of the other digital approximations of analog phasing that I've heard. That's mainly because it was possible to produce a phasing effect that wasn't overly resonant, yet still did something musical to the sample I was using.
Routing audio out of Kontakt VST is, of course, done inside the host. With standalone instantiations, you can use Sound Manager, MOTU Audio System, an ASIO sound card, or (if you have a TDM Pro Tools system) DirectConnect. Because I work solely with Logic and Pro Tools TDM, I chose DirectConnect. That method was, however, not without its problems.
Though not entirely bug free, DirectConnect has worked well in the past with such programs as Native Instruments' B4 and Spektral Delay. However, with Kontakt, I had considerable difficulty getting it to work reliably.
When I was working in Logic, quite often the connection between Kontakt and TDM would simply die, and I'd loose the audio link altogether. That inevitably forced me to remove and reinstantiate the Kontakt DirectConnect plug-in in TDM. That didn't always fix the problem, however; often it simply froze my system and I'd have to reboot my computer, which was very frustrating.
Although this is a known issue at Native Instruments, it was thought to have been fixed during the Kontakt test phase. The problem might, in fact, result from the combination of Logic, TDM, and Kontakt, but that was never completely determined. I had slightly better results with Pro Tools and Kontakt, but never found a definitive solution to the problem. The good news, however, is that DirectConnect is likely to vanish entirely now that Pro Tools has migrated over to OS X, so this issue is a temporary (if annoying) inconvenience.
I didn't test Kontakt under Sound Manager, because its excessive latency makes Kontakt (among other programs) pretty much unusable. However, I did test Kontakt using just an RME Hammerfall 9652 card and encountered no problems whatsoever, so the DirectConnect problem is clearly related to DirectConnect itself and not Kontakt.
With its simple, modular approach and well-designed layout, Kontakt is a brilliant first effort for Native Instruments' sampling flagship. The modulation and effects capabilities only add to its power. The mapping method makes for superspeedy creation of Instruments, and the Time and Tone Machine modes let you bend and twist samples well beyond their original form.
On the minus side, the lack of key commands makes operations that should be fast far too mouse intensive. Another minor but noteworthy gripe is that you can't freely resize Kontakt's main window. Instead, you must choose between Normal, Bigger, and Large sizes, which can be customized only by actually typing in the desired size in pixels (for example: 1024×768). That's an annoying limitation.
Overall, however, Kontakt is an elegant and powerful tool with tremendous creative possibilities. I have completely switched over to it, and that should give you an indication of my verdict: highly recommended.
Peter Freemanis a bassist, composer, and producer in Los Angeles. He has worked with John Cale, Seal, Jon Hassell, Shawn Colvin, and Nile Rodgers, among others.
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE3.5DOCUMENTATION3.0VALUE4.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Extremely powerful. Simple layout. Very convenient mapping. Handles many sample formats.
CONS: No key commands. Use with DirectConnect can be problematic. Nonstandard file access.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/350 (G4/733 recommended); 128 MB RAM (512 MB recommended); Mac OS 9.2 or higher
(1 GHz recommended); 128 MB RAM
(512 MB recommended); Windows 98/2000/ME/XP (XP recommended)