Review: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49

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If you’re in the market for a MIDI keyboard controller, you might have a hard time deciding what to get with so many models available. But if you are a Native Instruments Komplete user, the Komplete Kontrol S-Series makes a lot of sense.

NI Komplete Kontrol S49The Komplete Kontrol S-49 looks wireless here, but this USB keyboard actually requires AC power.

The KOMPLETE KONTROL S-Series combines smart, elegantly-designed keyboards with advanced control software to form a fully integrated centerpiece for studio and stage – matchless control over all your software instruments from one award-winning keyboard.

The Komplete Kontrol S49 sure is a nice looking controller. At a little over 5.5 kg it feels like a quality build. Knobs and buttons are similar to the ones on the Maschine 2 controller. The knobs are touch-sensitive, and a slight touch will show its value in the screen below. Love that.

I am not a keyboard player, but I think the semi-weighted Fatar keybed is really nice, and I prefer this over the keys on my trusty ReMOTE SL.
Instead of modulation and pitch wheels the Kontrol S-Series have two touch strips. The modulation strip has multiple modes making it more versatile than a wheel.

So it’s a great piece of hardware, but you’re not going buy this for the controller keyboard alone. Surely there are cheaper options that will get you more or less the same.

The Komplete Kontrol concept is more than just hardware. It is the software counterpart and integration with Komplete (and Maschine) that makes the Kontrol S-Series something special.

Komplete Kontrol with KontourKomplete Kontrol software with the Reaktor-based Kontour synthesizer instrument.

The Komplete Kontrol software application ties together the controller and the Komplete instruments. In the library you can browse both factory and user content, and filter by instrument tags for type and mode. I really like the way Komplete Kontrol puts thousands of sounds at your fingertips, but there are a few little things I’d like to see improved.

The text search filter searches through all instruments or only a single instrument if you select one. Unfortunately you cannot search in a selection of instruments, and the result list does not show what instruments the sound will use. So when I pick an acoustic drum kit it might load Polyplex, Drum Lab, Studio Drummer, Abbey Road drums, etc. The only way to find out is to hit the edit button in the bottom of the browser and select bank.

Komplete Kontrol with Drum LabKomplete Kontrol software with Drum Lab. The browser area is a bit small.

Browsing for sounds like this makes me wonder why I can’t resize the Komplete Kontrol screen. It just feels a little cramped. Maybe it was left out since there’s not much space in the current browser to display a whole lot more, but I should be able to rate presets so I can find back my favorites.

You can also browse for sounds from the keyboard. The most top right section of the controller has some buttons and a rotary knob for navigating the sounds. Pressing the browse button shows the modal window below.

NI Komplete Kontrol BrowseBrowsing instruments from the keyboard looks a little more streamlined.

It is fairly easy to navigate on the controller, but now you really can’t tell what instrument will be used for a preset from the list of all instruments. And once you select an instrument it seems there’s no way back to get the list of all instruments presets unless you go to user sounds and then back to the factory library. Not a big deal but there is room for improvement.

Once you load a sound, the control section will have parameters automatically mapped, with the most useful ones in the first page so you can tweak sounds with ease. The touch strips are also automatically mapped. This Native Map technology is a real time saver.

One of the main features of the Kontrol S-Series is the Light Guide.

NI Komplete Kontrol S49 Light guideThe rainbow colored LEDs from Maschine 2 & Studio make their way to the Light Guide.

The Light Guide is one of KOMPLETE KONTROL S-SERIES’ most prominent features. It visualizes the key mapping of loaded KOMPLETE instruments as well as the Smart Play features.

By color coding sample based instruments and indicating active and inactive keys in scales using the LEDs above the keybed, the Light Guide always presents you important information in a clearly visible way, even during live performance situations.

It may look a little gimmicky, but I think it the Light Guide is simply fantastic. Having a visual reference for things like key switches, splits and sample mapping is really helpful. Especially drum instruments are so much easier to play as you can quickly see which notes have certain sounds by their color, without having to look at your computer screen.

Pair the Light Guide with NI’s Smart Play and things become even better. You can set musical scales and chords, and there’s a powerful arpeggiator. Like I said, I am no keyboard player, so I really enjoy this technology that shows me which keys belong to a scale, or correct the wrong notes I play. You can even set musical scales to the white keys.

Check out the video below for a quick overview.

So all of this is pretty good if you are using Komplete instruments a lot.

The Kontrol S-Series come with Komplete Select, a bundle of 10 instruments and effects, including Monark, Drum Lab, and staple synth Massive. To make the most of the Kontrol S you will probably want to pair it with Komplete 10, creating a hybrid solution with a comprehensive, versatile collection of synths, effects, and sampled instruments.

Of course you can also use the Komplete Kontrol controller as a regular MIDI keyboard as well. With NI’s Controller Editor it’s easy to setup MIDI assignment parameters for your VST instruments. But you can do that with any other controller as well.

Wouldn’t it be great when plug-ins get to use the same features that Komplete instruments do? Native Instruments has just announced an upcoming version 1.5 update that allows just that.

So the Native Kontrol Standard extended plug-in format will allow third-party instruments to have the same deep integration that now is only available for Komplete instruments. Additionally, VST support will let you use your plug-ins in Komplete Kontrol, and a new Control Panel will also be included for customizing instrument parameter mappings to the keyboard’s eight control knobs.

I’m pretty excited to see what kind of support we will see from plug-in developers. The initial list of confirmed partners using NKS technology already includes some of my favorite developers.

So what do I think?

The Komplete Kontrol S-49 is a lovely keyboard. I like the keys, the knobs and buttons feel good, the screens are clear, transport controls work great in my host. It’s all good. But it’s also quite expensive at 599 EUR/USD. Additionally, you should also have Komplete 10 to make the most out of this experience.

That said, the Komplete Kontrol S-Series is a superbly-integrated, tactile interface for Komplete. The Light Guide and Smart Play features are simply fantastic. They really increase productivity and creativity.

There is still room for improvement on the software side of things. Especially the browser needs some more work I think. Also, having everything “wrapped” in the Komplete Kontrol software is a bit of a scary thing when you think back of what happened to the Kore platform a few years ago. Then again, new developments will always happen and nothing is future proof.

I like to use the best tools that are available right now, and Komplete Kontrol definitely is one of the best hardware/software keyboard controller solutions at the moment.

With the NKS extended plug-in format and VST support being around the corner, I am looking forward to seeing where Native Instruments is going to take Komplete Kontrol.

More information: Native Instruments / Komplete Kontrol S-Series

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