Review: Native Instruments Komplete 11 Ultimate

DAW users, this may be all the studio software you'll ever need
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Electronic musicians assembling studios often ask me, What software should I buy? Where can I get the most bang for my buck? For years I’ve invariably told them, take a look at Native Instruments Komplete. It has all the software instruments you may need for a long time, and it’s one of the greatest bargains you’ll find.

For 20 years, Berlin-based Native Instruments has been a pioneer and a leader in developing software instruments and soundware for musicians. The company first bundled eight products in a $1,499 suite called Komplete in 2003, and it has updated its flagship collection almost every year since. Now in its eleventh incarnation, Komplete is bigger and better than ever, with all the software you’ll need to assemble a well-appointed electronic music production studio, in a DAW. All the instruments run standalone on the Mac or in Windows and as AAX, AU, or VST plug-ins. Most content requires either Reaktor or Kontakt (or their respective players) to host them.

THREE OF A KIND

Komplete has grown into a family of three distinct bundles to accommodate different budgets and needs. The standard edition, called simply Komplete 11, features all of NI’s most desirable products, ranging from the industry-standard sampler Kontakt to the effects and amp-modeling powerhouse Guitar Rig Pro. Comprising 45 products and more than 155 GB of content, Komplete 11 delivers the latest versions of instruments and effects from Komplete 10 and adds the delay plug-in Replika, the all-new instrument Form, and other instruments that were previously available only as separate purchases, including Reaktor 6 and Una Corda.

Komplete 11 Select ($199) is a budget-minded, entry-level bundle featuring 25 GB of content and 11 instruments, including the popular softsynth Massive, some excellent Reaktor instruments and ensembles, and a few Kontakt libraries, along with two effects processors, Solid Bus Compressor and Replika. Although Select lacks full-fledged versions of Kontakt and Reaktor, it supplies Kontakt 5 Player and Reaktor 6 Player. Designed to get you hooked on software instruments, Komplete 11 Select supplies useful products like Vintage Organ and The General acoustic piano. You’ll receive Komplete 11 Select for free if you purchase a Komplete Kontrol S-Series keyboard or any Maschine hardware.

As its name suggests, Komplete 11 Ultimate is the whole enchilada with extra sauce. The list of included software is so vast I could easily fill up a page briefly describing each component. Whereas Komplete 11 comes with DrumLab, Studio Drummer, and Abbey Road 60s Drummer, Ultimate adds Maschine Drum Selection and Abbey Road 50s, 70s, 80s, Vintage, and Modern Drummer—all terrific kits you’ll find useful. You also get twice as many Discovery Series libraries and three excellent Evolve libraries from Heavyocity. Additional Kontakt libraries include Alicia’s Keys (Alicia Keys’ studio piano), George Duke Soul Treasures (a collection of phrases played by the late funk and fusion master on various keyboards and mapped to MIDI), Scarbee Funk Guitarist, and four more Scarbee basses, among others.

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THE KOMPLETE PACKAGE

You could buy most of the products in Komplete separately, but you’d easily end up paying considerably more if you wanted more than a few. Consider this: Kontakt and Reaktor together cost $1 less than the standard edition of Komplete 11, and that savings extends to all three editions. Each edition also includes Komplete Kontrol, an application that links all of your Native Kontrol Standard (NKS) software together under one roof.

All of the editions are downloadable, though infinite patience may be required to download the 500GB-plus Ultimate edition. You can also order Komplete 11 Select on a USB flash drive and the larger editions on a hard drive. In addition, Native Instruments offers upgrades from legacy versions as far back as Komplete 2 for the same price as upgrading from Komplete 10.

For this review, I upgraded from Komplete 10 to Komplete 11 Ultimate. Because I already had Komplete 10 and had kept up with regular updates, I needed to download only certain portions, but it still took about 24 hours to get everything I needed using the application Native Access, which replaces Service Center.

CHAIN REAKTION

Reaktor is many things. Just as many sample-based instruments require Kontakt or Kontakt Player to run, Reaktor-based synths and effects require Reaktor or Reaktor Player to run, making it the gateway to some of the most spectacular software Native Instruments offers. In Komplete 11 Ultimate, it is the framework for more than 80 included instruments and effects like Skanner XT, Razor, and Monark (a rather convincing Minimoog clone). It is a software toolkit that facilitates designing and assembling your own virtual instruments, effects, and ensembles. It is also a platform for using more than 3,000 free instruments and effects, created by other Reaktor users, that you can download.

Reaktor Blocks may be Reaktor 6’s coolest innovation. It supplies dozens of modules you can assemble into custom instruments, as well as a useful collection of prebuilt instruments. Individual modules run the gamut from basic components like the ADSR, VCA, and LFO in Bento Box to more complex Boutique and Digilog modules. Blocks even supplies four West Coast modules that emulate Buchla-style synthesis techniques. It also splits the various components that make up some of its complete synths into individual modules. You can build modular instruments using Monark’s oscillator, filter, or envelope generator, for example, or Rounds’ LFO, delay, or reverb.

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Fig. 1. Form is a new Reaktor-based instrument that resynthesizes sampled audio and turns it into pliable material for creating unique and unusual timbres.FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION

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For sound designers, Form is Komplete’s most fascinating new addition (see Figure 1). It’s a Reaktor-based granular synth that generates radically original sounds using audio samples as source material. Just import a single sample of your own or from the included library, and Form analyzes the sample’s audio content and resynthesizes it. It breaks sampled sounds into individual grains and provides a host of techniques to quickly transform them beyond recognition by manipulating playback speed, pitch, and harmonic character.

When you import a sample, Form displays the entire waveform and its pitch curve on the Sample page, where you define which portion you want to play by clicking and dragging on the start and end points. Things get really interesting when you apply any number of motion curves, which determine the rate and direction that the index scans through the resynthesized sample. You can select from a library of curves or create your own.

Access the audio engine on the Sound page, where you control formants and pitch, sophisticated wave-shaping effects, a multimode filter, and modulation sources that include two LFOs and two ADSR generators. A simple audio oscillator lets you thicken the sound or apply FM modulation. Transpose or flatten pitch (removing pitch data to make sounds monotonic), deform and distort waveforms, and apply other processes to create something new and different. The Effects page offers even more opportunities to twist, mangle, and sweeten sounds through frequency shaping and more traditional effects.

Fig. 2. Just as Form can convert pitched sounds to unpitched sounds, Flesh can impart pitch to drum loops and other unpitched sounds to generate melodies and harmonies automatically.PRESS THE FLESH

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Flesh, from the same developer who created The Finger and The Mouth, takes a very different approach to manipulating samples (see Figure 2). Flesh is an interactive looping instrument that loads in Reaktor 6. Designed for performance and creative exploration, it can import any audio loop and generate harmonies and sequences based on its content, even if the original material has no discernable pitch. When you import a drum loop, for instance, Flesh analyzes the audio, detects any transients, divides it into slices, and extracts transient curves from the slices by identifying low-, mid-, and high-frequency content.

Flesh has three main pages: Sound, Samples, and Harmony, each with 12 slots for storing snapshots. During performances, you’ll likely spend most of your time on the Sound page, where five colorful circles control the levels of four sound generators and effects, and four macro knobs control spectrum, character, length, and modulation.

The sound generators are a sample player, monosynth, polysynth, and sub synth. Each has its own page for setting up synthesis parameters and 16 presets that store parameter combinations. The monosynth uses transient curves to generate melodies, the polysynth to generate chord patterns, and the sub synth to generate bass lines. Record chord sequences up to eight measures long on the Harmony page. By fiddling with an assortment of parameters spread across several pages, you can create snapshots of all your settings, trigger them with MIDI Notes, and change modulation values on the fly using your mod wheel.

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POINT OF KONTAKT

Kontakt is the most popular sampler that’s ever existed, and it’s probably responsible for the death of sampler hardware. It’s remarkably versatile and extensible, in part because its scripting capabilities enable soundware developers to create instruments with unique capabilities and distinctive GUIs. In fact, most of the improvements to the latest version are for the benefit of developers. Kontakt also supplies everything you need if you’d like to create software instruments from your own samples. It’s virtually universal, too, because most recent third-party sampler libraries are Kontakt-compatible.

Kontakt itself comes with a respectable soundware bundle, the 25GB Kontakt Factory Library, encompassing many instrument types and musical styles. Komplete adds a variety of other libraries ranging from some exceptional acoustic pianos to ethnic instruments in the Discovery Series. When you download Komplete, most of what you’ll be downloading is Kontakt content.

STRING THEORY

The first time I heard Una Corda, I was immediately intrigued with the diversity of unusual sounds it achieves with such simple source material. Although Una Corda is a sampled piano, it has a very distinctive sound. Most pianos have three strings for the upper and upper-midrange keys, two for the lower midrange keys, and one for the lowest keys. The custom-built upright instrument sampled for Una Corda has a single string for each of its 88 keys, as well as an open cabinet and a thin, ribless soundboard, resulting in an unusually pure and resonant tone.

Fig. 3. Una Corda’s Workbench page lets you control prepared piano parameters, such as fabric type, mechanical and pedal noise, reverse playback, and harmonic intensity. During sampling, the piano was played softly and microphones were positioned close to the strings, capturing more ambient noises than usual. To dampen the tone and soften the attack of some samples, felt and cotton fabric were placed between the hammers and strings (see Figure 3). Una Corda’s instrument presets—Pure, Cotton, and Felt—supply 100 variations with descriptive names such as Somber Horizon, Kind of Scary, Panning Sphere, and Harmonics on Dope. Many of them sound like nothing you’d expect from a piano (or any other instrument) and benefit from imaginative manipulation.

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ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS

More than anything else, perhaps, orchestral sounds make Komplete Ultimate stand out from the standard edition. In addition to Kontakt Factory Library, Komplete 11 comes with Session Horns and Session Strings. Komplete 11 Ultimate upgrades those to Session Horns and Strings Pro and adds Action Strikes, Action Strings, Emotive Strings, and five Symphony Essential libraries—all available as separate purchases, though their total cost is more than the Ultimate bundle.

Fig. 4. Emotive Strings’ GUI displays standard notation showing which of the 175 phrases are assigned to keyswitches. I found Emotive Strings especially useful. The library supplies 175 phrases, mostly looped legato articulations, arpeggios, and ostinato patterns. Once you’ve assigned as many as ten phrases to keyswitches, just select them with your left hand as you play notes with your right, and the phrases play in sync with your host DAW (see Figure 4). Hold down a chord, for example, and Emotive Strings will play it rhythmically. Because the phrases are recorded performances of real string players, Emotive Strings can add substantial realism to your string arrangements.

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The five Symphony Essentials are from one of my favorite soundware developers, Soundiron. The Essentials collection is an entry-level version of the Symphony Series, which offers more versatility and much more content at greater expense. In addition to ensemble strings, the five Kontakt libraries furnish solo and ensemble woodwinds and brass.

None of the instruments in Essentials has velocity layers, and most don’t respond to velocity at all. You can control dynamic levels with the mod wheel, though, and you have impressively flexible articulation, with tremolos, trills, harmonics, staccato notes, and similar variations enabled by keyswitching. Controls for dynamics and a handful of other parameters are also available.

KOMPLETELY ORIGINAL

It’s been almost two years since Komplete’s previous incarnation, but it’s been well worth the wait. Some things haven’t changed much, with only incremental updates to Kontakt, Guitar Rig Pro, Absynth, FM8, and a few other mainstays of Native Instruments’ product line. But the updates to Reaktor, the inclusion of Form, Una Corda, Session Guitarist – Strummed Acoustic, and Discovery Series: India, as well as Kinetic Metal and other content not previously included in the standard edition, make updating to Komplete 11 a no-brainer. I did, however, encounter a few rare glitches, like when Reaktor quit unexpectedly.

If you go all the way and spring for Kontakt 11 Ultimate, though, you’ll get much more creative potential for your money, whether you’re upgrading from the standard edition or from Kontakt 10 Ultimate. If you’ve never owned Komplete, though, no matter whether you’re a serious electronic musician or just a weekend dabbler, I couldn’t recommend Komplete 11 more enthusiastically.

STRENGTHS
A studio full of virtual instruments at a bargain price. Gigabytes of useful soundware. Many additions to the previous version. The ability to design and assemble your own virtual instruments and effects.

LIMITATIONS
If you purchase a downloadable edition, it’s a huge download. Occasional, infrequent crashes.

Komplete 11 Ultimate $1,199, upgrade $399 Komplete 11 $599, upgrade $199 Komplete 11 Select $199
native-instruments.com

Former senior editor Geary Yelton has contributed to Electronic Musician for more than 30 years. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina and Venice, Florida.