FIG. 1: The everything-in-one-window interface in Kontakt includes a browser/database pane (left), which can be hidden when not needed, and a rack of Instruments (right).
Software samplers are a vital component in today's studio environment. Whether you're laying down a piano track, composing a film soundtrack, editing a drum loop, or exploring the outer limits of sound design, sample-playback technology will give you the tools to do the job.
Because they're used in such varied ways, professional-quality samplers tend to be complex devices. Case in point: the massive feature set in Native Instruments Kontakt 3. This instrument is packed with options and has a user interface to match (see Fig. 1). Clicking on a button often opens up a whole new panel studded with more buttons, sliders, knobs, graphic displays, or other widgets. Half a dozen video tutorials are included in the installation, but viewing these, while helpful, is only the beginning. Plan on reading the manual.
If you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with mastery of an amazingly capable musical instrument. Time-stretching, streaming of long samples from disk, multisegment envelopes, a basic drum machine, a built-in sample editor, and a good palette of effects are just the start of the story. Power users can use a scripting language, which has its own manual, to customize Kontakt's response to MIDI performance data (see Fig. 2 and last month's “Square One” for more on scripting). Pop musicians may be more interested in the beat-slicing tools. I don't have room in this review to discuss all of Kontakt's features, so I'll zoom in on beat slicing and the new Zone Envelopes, both of which are quite cool. You can find a review of Kontakt 2 in the November 2005 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.
Because Kontakt's 33 GB sound library ships on six DVDs, installation on my elderly but still capable 3 GHz Pentium 4 PC took a couple of hours. After a quick trip to the Native Instruments Service Center to authorize the software, I started loading presets and checking them out. The library is in six volumes: Band (that is, pop group, not marching band), Orchestral, Synth, Urban Beats, Vintage, and World.
For details on what is in the sound library, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com. You can also watch the video The Kontakt 3 Library at Native Instruments' Web site. The quick summary: it's a mixed bag, with lots of great sounds and a few that are flawed.
Kontakt runs standalone or as a VST, AU, DXi, and RTAS plug-in. The plug-in comes in versions with 2, 8, or 16 outputs to the host. The standalone version can use up to 32 outputs on your audio hardware.
The main Kontakt window presents two panes. On the left is a file browser/database display, which also hosts some other functions, such as drag-and-drop envelopes and LFOs. On the right is a larger area where a rack of Instruments can be loaded. Unlike the rack in Propellerhead Reason, this one can't be flipped around backward: all connections are handled from the front. As with Reason, however, the rack has a fixed width, and you can open individual modules vertically to display deeper editing options. The window can't be resized vertically, but it has three possible size settings, the largest of which fills the screen on my 1,280 × 1,024 monitor.
Nuts and Bolts
FIG. 2: No need to open a text editor—Kontakt lets you write code for its scripting interface directly in its own window. The knobs, Learn button, and Velocity Curve drop-down menu in the upper part of the panel have been defined in this script.
Like most samplers, Kontakt has a hierarchical structure. At the top level is a Multi, which can contain up to 64 Instruments. Each Instrument can have its own MIDI receive channel, or you can layer them. An optional container called an Instrument Bank can hold up to 128 Instruments, and you can switch between these using MIDI Program Change commands. In other words, only one Instrument within the Instrument Bank can be active at any given time.
An Instrument contains one or more Zones. Each Zone has a single sample and the voicing data (envelopes, filter settings, and so on) with which to play it. The keyboard and Velocity assignments of Zones can be edited graphically, and crossfades are available from an Edit menu. Zones can be packed into intermediate-level containers called Groups, which makes editing easier. For instance, if you're creating a drum kit Instrument, you could put all the hand percussion in a single Group and then raise or lower the volumes of all the hand percussion Zones with a single knob.
A Multi has its own Mixer panel, which can route Instruments to different outputs. This panel is quite rudimentary: its channels have no mute or solo buttons and no pan pots. The main output channels have no sends to the aux channels — in effect, the aux channels are just extra output channels called by a different name.
Kontakt can load files in a number of nonnative formats, including many varieties of Akai (from the S1000 forward), E-mu EIV and Emax II, Kurzweil K2500 and K2600, Tascam Giga, MOTU Mach 5, Reason NN-XT, HALion, REX and REX2, SoundFont 2, LM-4, SampleCell, and some older Roland and Ensoniq formats. The fidelity with which the voicing parameters will be interpreted will inevitably vary, but at least you can get your hands on the sample data.
FIG. 3: In Play mode, each of Kontakt''s drum kits includes a 6-sound, 32-step drum sequencer with a graphical interface for editing Velocity and pitch.
After loading a rhythmic loop into a Kontakt Instrument, you can use the tools in the Wave Editor to slice it (automatically or manually) into individual hits. A click on the BeatMachine button will then allow you to transpose the loop up or down in pitch without changing its tempo, simply by playing different MIDI keys in the sample's Zone. Single hits within the loop can be given parameter offsets using Zone Envelopes (more on this later). For example, you could push up an effects-send knob during the snare hits, adding reverb to the snare while keeping the rest of the loop dry. This is a great implementation.
If you want to edit the groove of the beat, just click on the Drag MIDI To Host button and drag it into a sequencer track. If you're working in standalone mode, the same button will drag a Standard MIDI File to your desktop. Using this button also assigns the slices to individual keys. At this point you can add shuffle to the beat, edit it to create a fill, or whatever you like. This feature was a bit buggy in the 3.0 release, but when I downloaded 3.01, I found that the bugs had been fixed. Because handling beats is so important, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Kontakt also loads Apple Loops, Acidized WAV, and REX/REX2 files with their timing information. The same drag-and-drop method is used to export MIDI clips from them.
The factory drum kit Instruments include a basic step sequencer called Drum Computer (see Fig. 3). This is a cute device, but I couldn't find a word in the manual on how to add a Drum Computer to my own Instruments. Nor was there any information about how to export beats created with it as MIDI data.
In the Strike Zone
FIG. 4: Every sample in Kontakt can have its own Zone Envelopes, which can be edited in this graphical interface. Note the segment curvature and the easy snapping of the envelope points to sample slice points.
Sometimes an ADSR just won't do the job. Kontakt's new Zone Envelopes allow you to apply multisegment envelopes with programmable curvature for each segment to any sample (see Fig. 4). Any parameter of the Zone — filter cutoff, panning, or pitch, for instance — can be modulated by a Zone Envelope. These envelopes are displayed graphically on top of the waveform, making it easy to create rhythmic envelopes for drum loops.
Zone Envelopes can be looped, and the loops don't have to be the same length as the sample. (This feature reminds me of Ableton Live's Clip Envelopes feature.) Cut/copy/paste and a snap grid for rhythm-based editing are both implemented for ease of editing. I created an ear-catching 2-bar loop by modulating the effects-send level from a Zone Envelope and sending only the last two beats to a resonant delay line to add a metallic ringing tone (see Web Clips 1 and 2 for some examples of audio created in Kontakt 3).
The Big Picture
After spending a few weeks with Kontakt, I respect its power and appreciate having it in my kit, but I still don't find its user interface very intuitive. Maybe the plethora of opening and closing panels doesn't sync with the way my brain works, or maybe the huge number of useful features means I'll need a bit more time to learn where everything is.
Kontakt has become my first-call sound module for both REX files and other drum loops. I love the Zone Envelopes implementation, the browser/database is very handy, and I know I'll use some of the sounds in the library, especially those luscious orchestral tam-tams. Native Instruments is known for its high-quality software instruments, and Kontakt firmly upholds the tradition.
Jim Aikin is a frequent contributor to EM. His new interactive fiction novella, Lydia's Heart, is available for download from his Web site (www.musicwords.net).
software sampler $449
PROS: Beat slicing with MIDI clip export to host. Huge sound library. Integrated browser and database. Multisegment envelopes for all zone parameters.
CONS: Learning curve can be daunting because user interface is packed with features. Library presets are a mixed bag.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5