Native Instruments Kore: The Workflow Machine

Kore is a new type of product — and EQ demystifies what it’s all about

A lot of people think that Native Instruments’ Kore looks really interesting, but have a hard time wrapping their head around the concept. Is it hardware? Software? For the studio? For live performance? Does it work only with Native Instruments products? And most importantly, do I need this thing?!?

A new type of product deserves a new type of review. We’ll get heavily into the hands-on aspect of actually using Kore so you can decide whether it’s for you or not; see the Expert Opinion sidebar for additional information.

Kore is a package with Mac (Universal Binary)/Windows software and a USB 2-based hardware controller. The controller has two main functions: An audio/MIDI computer interface, and a control surface dedicated to ergonomic control over the software — you don’t have to rely on a mouse and keyboard. You’re not obligated to use the Kore audio/MIDI interface, but the software won’t run unless the controller connects to your computer.

Whether for studio or live, Kore’s main element is the KoreSound — a “container” for VST/AU plug-ins you can save and recall. A KoreSound can be as simple as a single instrument or effect containing one preset, to a complex combination of instruments, effects, mixing, and routing. (For example, two layered synths split with a third bass synth, each going through a different plug-in, and mixed so that the synths pan hard left and right while the bass synth goes in the center). Furthermore, all these plug-ins’ programmable parameters are accessible through a hardware, hands-on interface that’s also mirrored in the Kore software, should you favor mousing around.

The KoreSound is not tied to any particular host or program other than Kore. You could use a KoreSound with Logic Audio on a Mac, then load that same KoreSound into Ableton Live or Sonar running on Windows. As long as the same VST plug-ins are installed on both Kore-friendly platforms, the KoreSound is transportable. Also, Kore itself includes many effects you can load into a KoreSound. This increases transportability, as you can be sure any Kore system has these effects.

Kore is designed to work with a large number of plug-ins and possible sounds. So, another Kore function is to streamline the process of finding sounds. It’s a selling point for instruments to have lots of presets, but learning them so you know which one to load for a particular musical situation can take forever. Kore “tags” presets with attributes, then assembles these in a database. All presets included in NI’s Komplete 3 and Komplete Sound 2 have been tagged (you can download these for any of the bundled products from the NI web site). Plug-ins from other companies including Arturia, Korg, GForce, Spectrasonics, etc. are supported in the controller pages, which we’ll cover in a bit. (However, you’ll need to add tags to these program’s presets yourself.)

For example, suppose you like warm, synthesized string sounds with an analog character. You really like NI’s Pro53, and you want to use that. You basically select the desired attributes (“warm,” “string,” “analog”), then Kore displays all sounds meeting those criteria and the instruments to which they belong. If there’s a suitable sound generated by the Pro53, start loading.

You can also add tags to your presets; the documentation spells out the intention of various attributes in detail so you can maintain consistency between your presets and already-tagged presets. (Note: If you have existing versions of NI plug-ins, they’re updated automatically to be “Kore-friendly” when you install Kore.)

Kore inserts into your host like any other plug-in (Fig. 1). Each instance is basically a KoreSound, and you can insert as many instances as your computer can handle — a KoreSound “container” by itself doesn’t take up a lot of resources, but as expected, packing it with soft synths and effects does.

The working dynamic goes something like this: You want to add a bass track while using a sequencing program, so you insert an instance of Kore. You’re now at the Sound Level. You use the browser to find KoreSounds that match your needs (acoustic bass, synth bass, whatever), then load it. Once it’s loaded, if you want to tweak it, you . . . well, that’s next.

The controller (Fig. 2) is a relatively compact, metal box housing 8 programming switches, 8 touch-sensitive knobs, data wheel, navigation controls, and a display (it also contains the audio and MIDI interface, but we’ll stick to the programming aspect for now). The controller serves up a series of pages for whatever plug-in you’ve selected; you change parameters using the knobs and switches.

Wherever possible, NI shoots for consistency. For example, the same knob that controls filter cutoff in their FM7 controls filter cutoff in the Pro53, and is located on the same page. Manufacturers who support Kore also try to follow this protocol, although given the great differences among synths, not all controls have a one-to-one correspondence among various products.

I’ve also loaded synths that do not yet support Kore, such as Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro. In this case, automatable parameters are mapped across the controller pages. At first, it seems easier just to grab a control with a mouse. But with Dimension Pro, there are four different programmable “elements.” Suppose you want to tweak the Bit Reduction parameter on the four elements. Kore happens to display these on the same page, so you can tweak them with four knobs in real time. Without the controller, you would need to adjust one element, click over to the next one, adjust that one, click over to the next one . . . you get the idea.

The other big advantage is having a tactile controller for doing automation moves. The only real drawback is you can’t tweak parameters simultaneously on different pages. There’s logic to how the parameters are grouped on the various pages, but that logic can’t cover all situations. Therefore, you can add User Pages that group any controls (from plug-ins, the mixing environment, etc.) into individual pages. These are particularly useful for live performance. However, I still tend to think of the Kore controller as a programming/tweaking tool, because for “live performance” moves, I find I really need 16 faders — so I’m not about to throw away my Peavey PC-1600x. Then again, I can plug it into the Kore controller’s MIDI input.

For live performance, Kore becomes a standalone program that adds an additional “performance mixer” layer. This consists of “performance channels” that hosts groups of KoreSounds, and offers a complete mixing/processing environment — think Steinberg’s V-Stack on steroids.

For live use you can save performances and when you change from one preset within the performance to another, parameters can crossfade smoothly to “morph” from one sound to another. (You can also switch between Performances, but note that you might call up an instrument that needs to load lots of samples, and this may take some time. As a result, it’s best to load as much as you need within a single Performance, and just switch between presets.)

Yes, it really is for the studio and for live performance, and is indeed part software and part hardware. Kore gets high marks for original thinking, and works as claimed. I would have preferred pages with 16 parameters and 16 controls, along with a bigger LCD . . . although eight parameters is convenient if you don’t want to have to think about too much at once. For additional opinions about Kore, check out the sidebar.