Native Instruments Kontakt 3.01 (Bonus)

Native Instruments Kontakt 3 is packed with options and has a user interface to match. Clicking a button often opens up a whole new panel studded with more buttons, sliders, knobs, graphic displays, or other widgets.
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This online bonus material supplements the review of Native Instruments Kontakt 3.01 in the March 2008 issue of EM.

The Kontakt 3 Library

Describing 33 GB of sounds in any detail would require a book as thick as a novel. The following notes are based on an almost random choice of presets to load.

The documentation for the sound library was not included with the initial 3.0 software release, but it''s installed with the 3.01 update. With hundreds of instruments to cover, this 39-page manual is not packed with detail, but it''s worth reading because the major features of the presets are discussed. For instance, I learned about the Articulation knob in the sax section presets. This switches among four articulations: legato, short stab, sforzando-piano with a swell, and a fall-off. The fall-offs sound rather studied—I would never use them in a Tower of Power tribute track—but the other three articulations are very useful. Being able to switch among them using MIDI continuous controller messages is handy.

The library includes six folders: Band, Orchestral, Synth, Urban Beats, Vintage, and World. Oddly, the database doesn''t have a keyword search function that will bring up the contents of a given bank. Type “orchestral” in the search field, and the results are nil. Navigating to the correct folder using Kontakt''s browser is easy enough, however.

The Concert Grand piano is very playable. I detected no loop artifacts, and the Velocity layers (three per key) are beautifully matched. NI provides no information on what piano was used, but the individual sample files start with the letters Stein. The August Foerster Grand piano, on the other hand, is thin, thuddy, and a bit nasal. A couple of the low-register samples have too much detuning between the unisons, and some of the hammers in the melodic register are mushy.

In the Band category, Electric Piano MK2 is smooth and rich but suffers from a fairly common problem among electric piano multisamples: the top Velocity layer jumps out too much. A release-noise layer is too loud by default, but it can be tamed by turning a knob. The sample on A below middle C has some tremolo (not present in other samples), and the tine on the top B-flat sounds as if it''s cracked.

The first two drum kits I loaded (Chocolate City and Funk Kit) had good, usable samples and also a built-in beatbox with a variety of 1-finger beats. I wasn''t excessively fond of the beats themselves, but they''re editable. The World folder has subfolders for flutes, percussion, and so on. I loaded Kalimba from the Metallophones folder and immediately discovered a cool bit of programming that could be used for a haunting effect: if you press the sustain pedal, repeated notes have a brushed attack rather than a sharp one. The Highland Pipes preset shows off another Kontakt script trick. The drone notes, in the left-hand keyboard zone, operate in toggle mode rather than in the usual way: tap a key and the note starts, tap the same key again and the note stops. The chanter tones (in the right hand) are deliciously non-equal-tempered. Because I have Scots blood in my veins, the harsh, reedy sound of the pipes made me want to put on a kilt and march up and down.

The Vintage folder includes a Drum Machines subfolder with some classic analog beatbox samples (you know the models I''m talking about). The Mini subfolder sports what certainly sound like authentic Minimoog tones, right down to the absence of Velocity response—that''s pretty darn authentic, but at least the pitch-bend wheel is calibrated to a whole step, which was not the case on the original instrument. In the Digital Machines subfolder, I fell in love with the knocking attack and rolling decay of Wurlitz-FM, which sounds a lot like a DX7 patch I vaguely remember, though it can''t very well be authentic because it''s in stereo. (The DX7 had only a mono output. Okay, maybe they sampled this one from a TX802.) Then there are oddments like Droopy the Dragon in the Electronic Toys folder, whose lurching metallic sound seems to consist of phrases sampled from an early talking toy. I might even use the sample of Droopy saying, “This is a big blue egg” in a tune sometime. In the VSL Percussion area of the Orchestral folder, I love the Tamtam preset. These big cymbals are rich, exotic, and detailed. In a different folder, the Cymbals preset serves up some orchestral cymbal rolls that are problematical: the samples are looped and the release time is quick. There''s no easy way to get a roll that ends with a naturally ringing cymbal decay.

The Hammond organ presets I tried sounded very authentic, right down to the choice of second or third harmonic for the percussion. (Percussion refers to an attack transient that tonewheel organs can produce.) In the 3.0 release, the percussion in these presets didn''t work properly. Sometimes the percussion would sound even if you were still sustaining another note, which is not how real Hammonds work. I alerted NI to the problem, and in the 3.01 library update it was fixed. I''m guessing this implementation is built into a script that switches the MIDI data, but I''m not enough of a geek to be messing with the scripts.

Violin Ens 14 (All) is a large (300 MB) preset in which the section plays sustained notes that start rather quietly and swell a bit in volume. The tone is somewhat rosiny, and the section plays without vibrato, making this preset more suitable for cool, withdrawn textures than for lush, romantic moments. Playing anything rapid with the preset is impossible because of the slow attacks. At extremely high Velocities, the notes attack quickly, but they''re also quite loud.

The Oboe (Sustain) preset has lovely full-length tones, which attack quickly enough that they can be used for articulated passages. The mod wheel is not attached to anything, so if you want to add vibrato, you''ll have to edit the preset. The Oboe (Sforzando X) preset uses the mod wheel to do two things: as you push the wheel up, the basic tone rises in volume; in addition, a short attack sample with a sforzando articulation is brought into the mix. I feel there''s too much volume swell when the wheel is pushed all the way up—an oboe does not have such a wide dynamic range. A middle setting of the wheel produces a clearly articulated oboe tone. Of course, the sampled oboe player is tonguing every note, which is not necessarily what a real player would do with a real line. Jazz Guitar is a large (442 MB) preset with a lovely warm tone. I immediately noticed that the low A has some dead air at the beginning of the sample in the lowest Velocity zone. This instrument has low-level quasi-random finger-shifting noises, which add to the realism. Or do they? The noises are triggered by the start of a new note, so they occur within long notes as they''re sounding. Needless to say, actual guitar performance noises occur between notes, so these artifacts are useful only in fast passages. Fortunately, the performance panel of the instrument provides a knob with which you can get rid of them, or automate them so that they pop up during fast playing.

The synth pad presets I tried were uniformly bright and airy, with slow attacks. The mod wheel shuts down the filter, allowing you to do swells. These pads would be great for underscore in film and video, but they don''t seem too suitable for pop music.

In the Vintage category, RMI Lute has some out-of-tune key zones. Kontakt gives you a parameter for fine-tuning a single sample, but you may not want to go to the trouble of fixing this preset, because the RMI was not a stellar-sounding keyboard even by the standards of the early ''70s. Adding effects to the preset can give it some flavor. When I tried this, I discovered something odd: the Twang effect (an amp simulator) is monophonic. The RMI preset attaches a stereo-panning LFO to the mod wheel, but adding Twang defeats this, turning the panning into an ugly tremolo.

There''s really no way to sum up this vast and varied library except to say, “Gee, there are a lot of sounds here. Bet you''ll find plenty of things you like.”