Native Instruments Kontakt 3.5 (Mac/Win) Review

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Kontakt 3.5 can now access 32 GB of physical RAM. Here, a 3.69GB Mixosaurus drum kit is loaded into Kontakt.

A new dawn for virtual sampler-based production has arrived with the release of Native Instruments' Kontakt 3.5. Its completely rewritten sampler engine gives a huge performance boost and lets you gain access to 32 GB of RAM.

A number of other important functions and enhancements add to Kontakt 3.5''s appeal. These include full browser integration with Kontakt Player, a MIDI Learn function for all sliders and knobs, individual bypasses for effect slots, scripting for aftertouch interpretation, true multiprocessor support in stand-alone mode, support for Pro Tools Leopard (7.4.2), and reduced sample-loading time and memory usage for DFD (Direct From Disk) mode.

Kontakt 3.5 is a free update for owners of Kontakt 3 and higher. Kontakt 3.01 was reviewed in the March 2008 issue of EM. For my review, I''ll talk about Kontakt 3.5''s new features. I tested Kontakt 3.5''s stand-alone version and the AU plug-in in Digital Performer 6.02 using an 8-core 2.8GHz Mac Pro loaded with 6 GB of RAM and running Mac OS 10.5.4.

Breaking the RAM Barrier

Kontakt 3.5 incorporates full support for 64-bit memory addressing in both Mac and Windows. This breakthrough blows away the theoretical 4GB RAM limit that Kontakt had been hamstrung by until now. (Due to memory requirements for the operating system—and for the DAW host with plug-in versions—the practical RAM limit has actually been closer to 3 GB.) Kontakt''s opening of the RAM floodgates is especially great news for composers who must have simultaneous access to multiple articulations for large virtual ensembles such as orchestras, string sections and high-end drum kits like Mixosaurus, which can require huge amounts of RAM.

How Kontakt accomplishes its RAM-access breakthrough is different for Mac and PC. For the PC, special stand-alone and VST plug-in versions of Kontakt 3.5 support 64-bit Windows Vista and DAWs. These 64-bit versions are bundled with 32-bit RTAS and VST plug-ins that can only access 4 GB of RAM. The RTAS version is only 32-bit because Pro Tools doesn''t yet accommodate 64-bit operation.

Kontakt 3.5 vanquishes the Mac OS''s historical 32-bit RAM bottleneck by running the new Kontakt Memory Server (KMS)—a separate application—in the background to load and manage samples. KMS allows all versions of Kontakt 3.5 for the Mac (stand-alone, AU, VST and RTAS) to access 32 GB of RAM.

Whether you''re a Mac or PC user, you''ll only be able to take advantage of Kontakt 3.5''s turbo-charged RAM-access capability if your CPU, motherboard and operating system meet certain requirements. For more on these system requirements and how KMS works, see the sidebar, “Take It Past the Limit.”

In addition to providing far greater access to sample RAM, Kontakt 3.5 reduces the amount of memory used for DFD mode by using a dynamic allocation scheme for DFD channel buffers (aka, voices streaming memory). Kontakt no longer allocates any DFD memory on startup.

In Play

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Kontakt 3.5 features improved auto-mapping.

As mentioned earlier, Kontakt 3.5 incorporates Kontakt Player. In fact, it''s not even possible for Kontakt 3.5 owners to install the new Kontakt Player 3.5, which now provides all of Kontakt 3.5''s performance-related improvements (extended RAM access, greatly reduced memory footprint for DFD and so on). And, as in the past, all your Kontakt Player, Intakt, and Kompakt instruments and Multis are directly accessed via Kontakt''s Library Browser. The big news is that users who own Kontakt Player but not the full-featured Kontakt can load all of their libraries into one instance of the new Kontakt Player.

Kontakt 3.5 doesn''t add any new sample content to the Kontakt 3 library, which boasts roughly one thousand instruments. However, an additional installer updates library patches to include Performance views that were missing for some instruments before. (Performance views provide convenient access to parameter controls for instruments in Kontakt''s Rack.) The only instruments that don''t have Performance views now are the third-party Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) ones that ship with Kontakt.

You can map all controls in Performance views to MIDI controllers using Kontakt 3.5''s MIDI Learn function. Multiple controllers can be mapped to one Kontakt knob, and you can program macros by assigning a MIDI controller to multiple parameters.

Importing third-party and custom sample libraries is easier in Kontakt 3.5, thanks to improvements to auto-mapping. In the drop-down menus in the Auto-Map Setup dialog, you can select Set To Single Key for any token in a file-name string (see the figure above). The new Apply button speeds up workflow by letting you make several mapping adjustments in turn without closing and reopening the Auto-Map window.

Let's Get Loaded

Loading a 900MB Mixosaurus multichannel drum kit (a Kontakt Player instrument) in Kontakt, I immediately noticed much speedier sample-load time than in Kontakt 3.02. The entire kit loaded in about a minute-and-a-half. A 2.19GB kit took about four minutes to load.

With the 2.19GB Mixosaurus kit loaded, I instantiated several more instances of Kontakt and went on a feeding frenzy. I loaded boatloads of VSL instruments with multiple articulations from Kontakt''s stock library. Those included harp, piccolo, flute, oboe, French oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, tuba, timpani, celesta, glockenspiel, marimba, xylophone, and metal and wood tubular bells.

Not yet satisfied, I loaded VSL violin, viola, cello, double-bass, trumpet, French horn and trombone ensembles, followed by concert grand piano, jazz guitar, upright bass and several synths. I finally stopped loading instruments when I''d used 4.3 GB of physical RAM. When I was finished working, it took about a full minute for Digital Performer to quit while KMS purged all the samples I''d loaded.

To put all this in perspective, I could load only a 1.29GB Mixosaurus drum kit in Kontakt 3.02 before getting low-memory warnings, and attempting to load a kit more than 1.65 GB in size would crash Digital Performer 5.13. Those days are happily gone!

Of Note

On a minor note, I wish the bypass button for each effect slot was situated in the respective channel insert itself or that there was some keystroke combination available as a shortcut for bypassing individual effects. The bypass buttons are accessed by way of the Edit Effect view in Kontakt 3.5''s output section, which isn''t as convenient as clicking on a channel insert.

While Kontakt 3.5 offers a number of helpful new functions and performance enhancements, the big story is its ability to access huge amounts of RAM—theoretically as much as 32 GB. With the release of Kontakt 3.5, the days of manual sample-purging and other distracting RAM workarounds are over for all but the most demanding projects. Kontakt 3.5 removes the shackles that have historically hindered composers'' creativity. Run, don''t walk, to get Kontakt 3.5!

EM contributing editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Ore. Visit him at

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Take It Past the Limit

Until very recently, no Mac operating system could access more than a theoretical 4 GB of RAM per application (and considerably less in the real world). That has changed with the newly released Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which promises support for accessing up to 16 TB of RAM . Still, it''s going to take a while for software vendors to rewrite the code for their programs so that they''ll be compatible with Apple''s new operating system.

Native Instruments isn''t waiting. Its new Kontakt Memory Server (KMS) allows Mac users to access much more RAM today as long as they''re using OS 10.5 (Leopard) or later, a 64-bit Intel or PowerPC processor, and a motherboard that can address more than 4 GB of RAM; 64-bit hardware drivers are not required. KMS is a separate application that runs in the background. It usurps sample-loading duties from all instances of Kontakt under use. KMS automatically detects your Mac resources and determines the appropriate amount of RAM it can use. KMS requires negligible CPU power and RAM itself.

Access to KMS is via Kontakt''s new Memory tab, which replaces the DFD tab in V. 3.5''s Option menu. In the KMS dialog that opens, you choose which of two modes you want KMS to use. Automatic mode automatically purges unused samples (such as those from instruments that have been removed from the rack) from the server''s sample pool and shuts the server down when all instances of Kontakt are closed. Manual mode, on the other hand, keeps all samples in memory even after an instrument has been removed or all instances of Kontakt have been closed. This speeds up load times when re-opening your DAW if you''re using many instruments in the Kontakt plug-in. When in Manual mode, you can gain access to a KMS utility from the Mac''s Menu bar. Clicking on its icon produces a drop-down menu from which you can choose to manually purge unused samples from Kontakt''s sample pool.

Kontakt 3.5 is available in the following 32-bit versions for Mac: stand-alone, AU, VST and RTAS.

PC versions of Kontakt 3.5 don''t require KMS but take advantage of Windows Vista''s 64-bit architecture to access 32 GB of RAM. In addition to 64-bit Vista, you''ll also need a 64-bit processor, 64-bit DAW (for the 64-bit VST plug-in version), 64-bit hardware drivers and a motherboard that can address more than 4 GB of RAM. Kontakt''s PC and Mac versions are identical, save for the latter''s KMS-based memory addressing.

Kontakt 3.5 comes in the following PC formats: 64-bit stand-alone, 64- and 32-bit VST plug-ins, and 32-bit RTAS plug-in. (Pro Tools is still limited to 32-bit operation.) The 32-bit plug-ins for the PC can''t take advantage of Kontakt 3.5''s increased RAM-access capabilities but are otherwise fully functional. When you reload a pre-existing 32-bit project using Kontakt 3.5''s 64-bit VST plug-in, the project is automatically converted to 64-bit.