The basic concept behind Kontakt, Native Instruments' flagship software sampler, certainly isn't anything new. Software samplers like Emagic's EXS24 and Steinberg's Halion have been around for a couple of years, and both have amassed a considerable following of loyal users. Low cost and direct integration with sequencing programs have made software samplers a great alternative to expensive outboard hardware, but the trade-off has been reduced sound quality and lackluster modulation capabilities.
Fortunately, it's no longer necessary to make those concessions in a soft sampler. Native Instruments — intent on proving that quality sound shouldn't depend on proprietary hardware — has pulled out all the stops with Kontakt. Packed with an array of top-quality filters, a comprehensive modulation toolkit and VST/DXi integration, and tied together with a user-friendly interface, Kontakt is a monumental achievement that promises to change the face of sampling.
Like all Native Instruments products, Kontakt is a visual and ergonomic work of art. The concept behind the program is clearly to combine the best elements of hardware samplers with software-based emulations, and the interface reflects this design philosophy beautifully. The main window consists of two panes that keep important information available at all times (see Fig. 1). The browser in the left-hand pane keeps programs and samples organized, and the right-hand pane contains the rack, which provides access to loaded instrument parameters. Instrument components are color-coded by function, making it easy to find the component you're looking for in a complex program.
The program operates as a VST or DirectX Instrument from within a compatible sequencing program such as Emagic Logic, Steinberg Cubase or Cakewalk Sonar. To assist in automating parameters in Kontakt, you can assign a custom MIDI controller number to any knob by right-clicking on it, selecting “MIDI remote” and moving the desired controller on your MIDI device. That simple and ingenious method is common in most Native Instruments products and makes it a snap to configure an external MIDI keyboard as a controller for Kontakt.
Although most users will probably operate Kontakt from within a VST- or DXi-compatible sequencer, a handy stand-alone mode is included for operation independent of third-party software. I found this mode useful for in-depth sample programming, in which sequencing isn't an issue. Others may find it convenient for use as a dedicated tone module, particularly in a live-performance environment where performance and stability are primary concerns.
BROWSING THE GOODS
The browser pane is laid out with a familiar Windows Explorer — style interface, making it a simple matter to locate and load desired samples and programs. By default, the browser shows only Kontakt programs and compatible audio formats, which helps keep it from being cluttered with irrelevant files. You can audition audio files directly from the browser by clicking on the Preview button at the bottom of the pane.
If you have a lot of Akai or GigaSampler CDs in your library, you'll be happy to hear that Kontakt supports both formats. Kontakt's approach to converting these CDs, however, is a little unusual: Rather than converting entire CDs to compatible WAV files and storing them on your hard drive, the browser treats Akai and GigaSampler CDs like any other folders on your drive. That allows you to browse the CD structure and load only the programs you like, a convenient feature when you don't have a lot of disk space left. However, if you're like me and would rather have your entire collection of sample CDs converted ahead of time, you'll find the lack of a bulk converter irritating.
The basic building blocks in Kontakt are, of course, samples. Samples are raw audio data; Kontakt will accept WAV, AIFF and SND files. An instrument in Kontakt consists of one or more samples mapped onto the keyboard and arranged in groups and zones. If you've done much programming on hardware samplers, this will all seem familiar; if not, it's a fairly simple concept to grasp.
Kontakt deals with samples, groups and zones in a graphical editor that makes creating complex multisample programs a snap (see Fig. 2). Setting up a zone is as easy as dragging it from the browser to the zone editor, and from there, a zone can span one key or the entire keyboard; it's up to you how to configure it. You can specify the zone's key range by clicking and dragging in the editor or by pressing the two notes defining the range on your connected MIDI keyboard. It's also possible to stack multiple samples on the same key and assign each to a different velocity. This level of flexibility is a necessity when emulating an acoustic instrument like the piano, in which the timbre of each key varies considerably depending on how hard the key is struck.
The zone editor is easy to understand, and its graphic nature makes it simple for you to set up complicated programs with just a few mouse-clicks. This is a refreshing change from hardware samplers with tiny screens, in which in-depth programming often means hours of tedious work. With Kontakt's streamlined and intuitive interface, you can achieve the same results in minutes.
Much like a hardware sampler, Kontakt uses Multi-Instrument programs and Instrument programs. Multi-Instruments can contain as many as 16 individual instruments, allowing you to quickly and easily recall groups of programs that you use often.
Kontakt keeps all of the loaded instruments in the virtual rack. Each instrument displays basic information — such as name, key range, MIDI channel, audio output and MB used — in an easy-to-read fashion. Three large knobs provide quick control of tune, pan and volume, and a detailed meter lets you know exactly how much signal you're cranking out.
The basic instrument view is pretty simple and straightforward. Things get more complicated, however, once you get into the inner workings of an instrument (see Fig. 3). The plethora of options is intimidating at first, and some buttons aren't clearly labeled, so have the manual handy on your first encounter with the instrument editor. Once you get the hang of it, though, Kontakt supplies all the tools you need to create the sound you're looking for — and many more you never dreamed possible.
Kontakt's Loop Editor features a basic complement of looping tools. You can define a total of eight loop points per sample, and loop points can snap to 0 crossings or values equal to the loop start for smooth transitions. A basic crossfade function is included to smooth out any leftover clicks or pops.
Kontakt's loop editor is okay for quick-and-dirty jobs, but it doesn't include advanced features like adjustable curves on crossfades or loop tone equalization. If all you need to do is loop a phrase of drums, Kontakt's built-in editor will suit you just fine. However, if you plan to loop complex material like acoustic instruments or atmospheric pads, consider a professional-grade audio editor such as Steinberg Wavelab or Sonic Foundry Sound Forge.
Two of Kontakt's most unique features are the Time and Tone Machines. Both are based on granular synthesis, a resampling technique that allows you to dissect your source material and get your hands on some really interesting sounds.
The Tone Machine is reminiscent of a vocoder and allows you to impart new tonal qualities to an existing sample. Unfortunately, you don't have control of the modulator wave, so it always sounds slightly robotic, but you do have control of sample tuning and playback speed. You can also modify formant information on the fly, allowing you to easily morph from a throaty Darth Vader — style rumble all the way up to a nasal Chipmunk sound.
The Time Machine operates on a similar concept but preserves the tonal characteristics of the source material. Drum and vocal samples benefit most from this tool — you can adjust the tempo of your source material so that it's in time with your song without altering pitch — but just about anything sounds interesting when you tweak the parameters during playback. If you're looking for that drum 'n' bass — style “stretched” vocal effect, this is the place to get it. Just turn on the Time Machine, turn the Speed knob down below 40 percent and presto: elastic audio!
Software-based samplers rarely stack up to their hardware counterparts when it comes to filters. NI refuses to be outdone with Kontakt, though, and to prove it, the company packed in 17 different types of quality filters that let you shape, sculpt and massage sound in just about any way you can imagine. All of the standard highpass, lowpass and bandpass variants are included, as well as three parametric EQs and esoteric selections such as phaser and vowel filters.
Variety is great, but it doesn't mean much if the quality isn't there. Don't sweat it — these filters sound incredible! I fired up my E-mu E6400 to give Kontakt a little friendly competition, and I was amazed at how admirably Kontakt held its own in comparison to the 6400's highly praised filter section. The tone was slightly sharper and colder than the 6400's, imparting a bit of hollow-sounding digital coloration at higher resonance settings, but for the most part, all of the filters had a fat and rich sound that compared favorably with everything I pulled out of the 6400.
All of the filters are commendable, but my favorite by far is the 3×2 multimode filter, a knockout combination of three 2-pole filters with a full array of controls for every parameter (see Fig. 4). Having such detailed simultaneous control of so many filter options — especially when combined with Kontakt's modulation tools — opens up some fascinating sonic possibilities.
ENVELOPES AND MODULATION
Based only on sonic quality and ease of use, Kontakt is a solid piece of software that easily matches other soft samplers on the market. But Kontakt gives the competition a sound beating with its extensive toolbox full of innovative and flexible modulation sources.
The usual suspects are present, and a variety of LFOs are provided with assorted waveforms as well as an AHDSR envelope. However, the real fun begins when you dig into Kontakt's more innovative modulators, such as the Envelope Follower, 32x Step Modulator and Multi-Shape LFO. Like most other elements of Kontakt, all of the modulators are easy to use and fully controllable via MIDI. The Flexible Envelope, however, is one modulator worthy of special notice (see Fig. 5).
The Flexible Envelope is reminiscent of NI Absynth's envelope structure, allowing you to define as many as 32 custom envelope segments and offering complete control of the curve slope from one break-point to the next. Your custom envelope can be synchronized to incoming MIDI Clock, and in this mode, all changes made to envelope break-points are snapped to the nearest 32nd note. Detailed programming in the Flexible Envelope, coupled with Kontakt's powerful filters, is capable of producing exotic soundscapes of exquisite detail that morph and evolve in time with your music.
Kontakt is outstanding in its own right, and the software itself would be well worth the asking price. As an added bonus, though, Native Instruments has kindly elected to toss in more than 3 GB of samples spanning five CDs. These are not raw WAV or AIFF files, but expertly programmed, meticulously looped samples, and the majority already have controllers mapped to commonly used parameters. All are provided in Kontakt's native NKI format and are ready for use out of the box.
Each of the five sample CDs includes extensive documentation detailing program size (in MB), key range, effects, layers, zones and mapped controllers. All docs are in HTML format with hyperlinks to each section. If you prefer to have a hard copy of this information, printable PDF files containing the same information are also provided.
Regardless of what kind of music you make, you're bound to find a lot of material in this library that fits your style. Samples culled from Native Instruments' line of vintage-synth emulations — such as the Pro-52, FM7 and Reaktor — provide a vast array of cutting-edge sounds for electronic-music producers. Musicians with a more acoustic bent will appreciate the inclusion of a Yamaha grand piano and two CDs' worth of guitar and bass samples. Both camps will get considerable mileage out of the Drum and Percussion CD, which includes electronic, acoustic, world and orchestral drum samples.
3, 2, 1, KONTAKT!
Native Instruments' Kontakt is a remarkable program boasting so many useful features that it's just not possible to cover them all here. From customizable controller smoothing to DSP insert and send effects such as reverb, flange, lo-fi and saturation, Kontakt is absolutely jam-packed.
The crew at Native Instruments has done a remarkable job of fusing the best elements of hardware and software samplers into one easy-to-use, powerful and efficient program that integrates easily into any VST or DirectX sequencer setup. A few things are missing, like the lack of bulk Akai conversion and the inability to enter parameter values directly from the keyboard; however, the massive amount of sound-sculpting power that Kontakt puts at your fingertips, and the ease with which it does, eclipses those minor omissions. Whether you are a serious sound designer or you are new to the world of samplers entirely, you owe it to yourself to check out Kontakt. Sampling doesn't get any better than this.
MAC: G3/300 MHz; Mac OS 8.6 or higher; 128 MB RAM; CD-ROM drive
PC: Pentium II/300MHz; Windows 98/ME/2000/XP; 128 MB RAM; CD-ROM drive
Pros: Comprehensive filter section with rich sonic character. Extensive modulation capabilities. Intuitive, ergonomic interface. Outstanding graphic design. Fully VST 2.0 — compatible with multiple outputs. Large library of quality samples included.
Cons: No support for bulk conversion of foreign samples. No direct parameter entry.
Overall Rating: 5