Apparently, Kore's mission is to be all things to all people. Native Instruments Kore 1.0.2 is a standalone plug-in host that can turn your laptop or spare desktop computer into a rack of gear. It's a USB 2.0 MIDI and audio interface that, along with a MIDI keyboard, makes your laptop a roadworthy synth. It's a plug-in that can load and save layered combinations of virtual instruments and effects called KoreSounds. It's a KoreSound librarian that, when combined with Native Instruments Komplete 3, includes roughly 11,000 factory KoreSounds. Finally, it's a high-resolution hardware control surface for mixing KoreSounds and tweaking their settings.
You can use the Kore hardware's MIDI and audio interfaces without the Kore software, but you can't launch the software without having the hardware attached to the computer. That is unfortunate because the software could be quite useful on its own — for example, when working on a laptop in a limited space, or in a 2-computer setup with one computer hosting a Kore Performance rack and the other using Kore as a plug-in in a digital audio sequencer.
The Kore software is a cross-platform application requiring Windows XP with Service Pack 2 on the PC and Mac OS X 10.3 or later on the Mac. It is compatible with Intel Macs, but not all the Native Instruments plug-ins that it supports are Intel compatible yet. The software runs both standalone and as a plug-in. It is provided in VST, AU, and RTAS formats for the Mac and VST, DXi, and RTAS formats for the PC. It hosts VST, AU, and DXi plug-ins.
FIG 1: The KoreSound mixer offers three views: Rack, Mixer, and Combined (shown here).
The core of Kore is the KoreSound. A KoreSound consists of virtual-instrument and effects plug-ins, metadata categorizing the KoreSound, keyboard mapping information, MIDI files, mixer routings, and hardware controller assignments. Aside from metadata, most plug-in hosts (digital audio sequencers, software plug-in racks, and so on) combined with a MIDI hardware control surface are capable of similar setups, so what makes Kore special? Read on.
A new KoreSound starts with an empty mixer into which you can insert three types of channels: Source, Send, and Group. You can have any number of Source and Group channels, but at most four Send channels. Each type of channel has an instrument plug-in slot followed by four effects plug-in slots. The instrument slot receives MIDI messages; the others do not.
Kore's graphical user interface affords three views of the KoreSound mixer. Rack view shows the modules as they would appear in a gear rack, with a minimal complement of mixer controls at the right edge of each module. Mixer view arranges the channels as vertical channel strips, giving you more mixing controls and fewer plug-in controls. I found the Combined view to be the most useful; it displays the rack-style module for the selected channel strip along with abbreviated channel strips for each channel (see Fig. 1).
The only real difference between the channel types is how they receive audio input. Source channels receive audio from the Kore software's audio inputs. Send channels receive audio from the KoreSound's four built-in send buses, and any type of channel can send to each of those buses. Group channels receive audio from group buses, one of which is created automatically for each Group channel. You can route the output of any channel to any of the group buses.
Although any channel can host a virtual instrument, Source channels are intended for that. The purpose of the instrument slots in the other channels is to allow effects to be controlled by MIDI. For example, you could use a virtual instrument's filter to process audio and have that filter track the MIDI keyboard or be controlled by a MIDI-triggered envelope generator.
Each KoreSound channel has a MIDI file player and a MIDI filter. The MIDI file player does not record MIDI, but you can load one or more Standard MIDI Files and trigger them from a MIDI keyboard. They can be played one-shot or looped, and you can set the loop's length, though not its start position. You can also quantize playback start and stop to beats or bars, and you can designate a separate note to stop playback.
With the MIDI filter, you can disable specific MIDI message types, select a MIDI channel, and specify MIDI Note Number and Velocity ranges. You can also choose a Velocity curve and set an overall transpose value. You can use the MIDI filter to split and layer virtual instruments, and you can use the Kore hardware, which I'll cover in detail later, for hands-on mixing of those splits and layers.
A KoreSound can be very complex in terms of both signal routing and MIDI options. When you save a KoreSound, you save the complete setup along with metadata for locating the KoreSound in the Kore browser.
The Kore browser gives you several views of the KoreSound library as well as a means to categorize its content. Kore maintains a database of all KoreSounds in the library, based on metadata stored with each KoreSound. In addition to cataloging the factory presets for all Native Instruments effects and virtual instruments in the Komplete 3 bundle, the Kore library contains roughly 200 KoreSounds, called Multi Sounds, that combine plug-ins in the Komplete 3 bundle. They show the true power of Kore, and although more would be welcome, those provided represent a significant creative effort.
FIG 2: The Kore Browser classifies KoreSounds in five metadata categories as shown in the columns on the left. You can add search text in the fields on the right.
Besides Kore's five fixed metadata categories — Instrument, Source, Timbre, Articulation, and Genre — you can enter author information, a rating, and comments in text fields (see Fig. 2). Selecting entries in the five categories narrows the browser's display of KoreSounds to those matching the entries. Typing queries into a search field narrows the display to those presets with matching text in one of the text fields. Unfortunately, you can't use both means at once to, for example, search a category-narrowed list for specific text.
You can use the browser's file-tree view to manually locate KoreSounds on your hard drives. The file-tree view has Sounds, Plugins, MIDI Files, and Performances tabs for displaying files of only those types. Once you find what you're looking for, you drag-and-drop it into the appropriate place in the rack or double-click on it to have Kore decide where it should go.
In standalone mode, Kore has another level of operation called a Performance. A Performance has a structure very similar to a KoreSound, and you can think of a Performance as a rack of KoreSounds, just as a KoreSound is a rack of instruments and effects. Among other things, you can use a Performance to layer or split KoreSounds.
FIG 3: A Kore Performance hosts KoreSounds, which you can enable, split, and select using Performance presets.
As the name suggests, Performances are great for live performance. For instance, you might load up a Kore Performance with all the keyboard KoreSounds you use on a gig — acoustic and electric pianos, organs and clavinets, lead synths, pads and ambient sounds, and so on. Then, using Performance presets, you can switch between sounds with the Kore hardware or with MIDI Program Change messages sent from your MIDI keyboard.
Each KoreSound in a Performance has a MIDI file player and a MIDI filter. You can use the MIDI filter to split and layer the KoreSounds in the Performance, and you can use the MIDI file player to sequence entire multichannel KoreSounds rather than using a separate MIDI file for each channel in the KoreSound. But a Performance goes beyond simple MIDI channel and Velocity splits and layers.
Performance presets hold the complete status of the Performance mixer. That includes all mix, pan, solo, mute, and send settings, and perhaps most important, the on/off status of each KoreSound in the Performance. You can set up a huge Performance rack of keyboard KoreSounds and use presets to ensure that only one is active at a time, thereby limiting the CPU hit but still being able to switch keyboard sounds instantly (see Fig. 3).
Performance presets are managed in a panel that opens to temporarily replace the mixer panel. You use the Presets Manager to append, insert, and overwrite presets with the current Performance settings. You can drag presets up and down the list to rearrange them. You can also specify how the transition between presets is to occur by setting fade-in and fade-out times and a wait-for condition (next beat, next bar, Note Off).
A clever Auto Next feature will automatically select the next preset in the list after a specified period of time. Using that together with the MIDI file player, you can sequence a looping MIDI performance of KoreSounds for those long breaks between sets (see Web Clip 1). There are two time modes — seconds and beats — but beats mode is not implemented in version 1.0.2, and Auto Next suffers from its absence.
Beyond live performance, you can use a Performance to turn a second computer in your studio into a rack of virtual instruments and effects. That, of course, lightens the load on the computer running your audio sequencing software, but as mentioned, it precludes your using Kore on that computer.
A Plug for Plugs
When used as a plug-in, Kore hosts KoreSounds, but Performance mode is disabled. Instead of a Performance, you use multiple instances of the Kore plug-in to host multiple KoreSounds. That seems a puzzling design decision, because one of Kore's primary roles is to make the virtual-instruments and effects setups you use in a song easily archived and transported between platforms. To that end, it would be a lot more convenient to load a single Kore Performance than to remember which KoreSound belongs on which track.
Nevertheless, having access to KoreSounds in your songs is a big plus. For one thing, it makes you much less platform dependent. If you have a virtual instrument in AU and VSTi formats on the Mac and DXi and VSTi formats on the PC, use the VSTi format in a KoreSound, and it will transfer between platforms. Along the same lines, you can use Kore to host plug-in formats not supported by your sequencing or editing software. Examples would be VST plug-ins in Apple Logic Pro and AU plug-ins in Steinberg Cubase SX.
The Kore hardware is an integral part of the Kore package, both for its high-resolution control surface and its audio and MIDI interfaces. For audio it has stereo inputs and outputs as well as a separate prefader stereo headphone output for cueing (in standalone mode only). Audio resolution is 24 bits at 96 kHz, and the main stereo output is duplicated at a S/PDIF jack (see Fig. 4).
FIG 4: Kore''s rear panel houses jacks for audio, MIDI, hardware controllers, and USB.
The MIDI interface has standard MIDI input and output jacks. The output jack is powered and was easily able to power my Native Instruments 4Control. The assignments of Kore knobs and buttons to plug-in and Kore mixer parameters can also be set up to send and receive MIDI messages on software MIDI buses as well as through Kore's hardware MIDI ports. That works only in standalone mode, however, so the Kore hardware can't be used as a MIDI controller when running as a plug-in in your audio sequencer.
The Kore hardware's rear panel also houses jacks for a footpedal and two footswitches. You can assign these controllers to Kore software interface elements, including plug-in controls. Finally, there is a USB 2.0 jack for connecting the audio and MIDI interfaces to the computer.
Pages and Pages
Kore's hardware control surface is centered around eight continuous-rotary knobs and eight buttons (see Fig. 5). The continuous-rotary knobs have a 500-step resolution, which is much higher resolution than MIDI offers.
FIG 5: The Kore control surface offers eight continuous-rotary knobs and 8 buttons that you can assign to any KoreSound or Performance parameter.
Kore uses a system of Controller pages to change the assignments of the knobs and buttons as well as to track their values for each set of assignments. In short, when you change pages, both the hardware controls and their software counterparts on the Kore software GUI change to reflect the appropriate settings. That makes for a virtually unlimited number of Kore knobs and buttons.
Kore's scheme for assigning knobs and buttons to mixer and plug-in parameters is both simple and powerful. You click on the Assign button on the software GUI, and then either click on the Kore knob or button to be assigned onscreen or touch it on the Kore hardware. Next, click on the target control on the Kore or plug-in GUI, and you're done. You can assign the same knob or button to several parameters, and each assignment can have its own range and polarity. For example, you can assign a single Kore knob to pan two mixer channels in opposite directions.
Kore has two types of Controller pages: Channels and User. Channels pages are fixed; you can't reassign the knobs or buttons, and you can't create your own. User pages are completely under your control, and you can copy any Channels page to a new User page, which effectively gives you control of the Channels pages, too.
The Performance and KoreSound levels have separate Controller pages. The hardware and software are always in sync in that the page displayed in the Master section of the software GUI always corresponds to the page displayed on the hardware. Furthermore, you can change pages in either location. Each of the rack modules in the mixer section of the GUI also has a Controller page display, but in version 1.0.2, those pages do not sync with the pages on the hardware or in the Master section, a limitation that Native Instruments says it will address in an update.
In addition to the Controller page knobs and buttons, the Kore hardware has input-, output-, and headphones-level knobs; 4-way arrow keys for navigating menus and Controller pages in its 64 × 128 — pixel LCD; six buttons and a data wheel for quick menu navigation; and transport controls. There's also a Pre-Listen button for auditioning KoreSounds before actually loading them into memory, but that feature is not implemented in version 1.0.2.
The Kore Experience
Kore wears a lot of different hats, and Native Instruments took on a daunting task in designing such a complex hardware and software tool. The software may have been released slightly before its time, but despite some unimplemented features and odd behavior, Kore does what it does well and is a pleasure to work with.
Kore has a lot to offer as a hardware control surface: it's well engineered and sleek looking, and the controls feel good. Attention to detail when you set up Controller pages and control assignments will give you a consistent hardware interface for all of your plug-ins, and Native Instruments has paved the way by creating a consistent batch of Controller pages for all of its virtual instruments and effects.
As a plug-in for hosting plug-in combinations in your audio sequencer or editor, Kore certainly offers something unique. The librarian features, control surface, and KoreSound management are worth the small extra CPU hit that running Kore requires.
Kore together with a reasonably powerful laptop invites comparison with dedicated hardware plug-in hosts like Muse Research Receptor. Kore offers a more convenient control surface, but you still need the computer. You don't need special authorizations for your plug-ins, but you need the Kore hardware to use the KoreSounds you create. The quality of the basic 1-port audio and MIDI interfaces is excellent.
For managing combinations of plug-ins, the KoreSound structure is top-notch. Once you've set things up, browsing by attributes is a real time-saver. If you happen to already own some Native Instruments plug-ins, you get a substantial library of KoreSounds and a great librarian right out of the box. If you don't already own Native Instruments products, buying the Kore and Komplete 3 combination, although not cheap, gives you a huge library of KoreSounds and some of the best virtual instruments available.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. For an earful, visit his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
Audio Inputs (2) ¼" TS Audio Outputs (2) ¼" TRS Additional Ports (1) ¼" TRS stereo headphone out; (1) MIDI In, (1) MIDI Out; (1) RCA S/PDIF digital out;
(2) ¼" TS footswitch in; (1) ¼" TS footpedal in; (1) USB 2.0 Audio Sampling and Bit Rates 24-bit, 96 kHz Level Controls 3 knobs: Input, Phones, Output Rotary Encoders 8 continuous with 500-step resolution Buttons 8 toggle or gate with LED Display 64 × 128 — pixel backlit LCD Navigation Cursor Up, Down, Left, Right Data Wheel replicates Cursor Up, Down Mode Buttons 6: Control, Menu, Sound, Enter, View, ESC Transport Buttons Play, Stop, Record (not implemented) Pre-Listen Button (not implemented) Dimensions 11.85" (W) × 1.5" (H) × 7.25" (D) Weight 3 lbs.
plug-in host and control surface
$1,708 bundled with Komplete 3
FEATURES4EASE OF USE3DOCUMENTATION3VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: World-class sounds browser. Facile management of plug-in combinations. High-resolution control surface with flexible paging scheme. High-quality audio and MIDI interfaces.
CONS: Software requires hardware. No Performance level in plug-in mode.