Product Review: Native Instruments' Kontakt
February 15, 2003
Anyone considering a versatile software-based sampler should take a close look at Native Instruments' Kontakt. This full featured, easy-to-use program mirrors the capabilities of expensive hardware samplers while adding its own unique sound creation tools, giving the $399 (MSRP) price tag greater value.
Kontakt is designed as a stand-alone VST 2.0 or DXi instrument for use with Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, and MacOS 9.0 or higher. It combines a virtual rack of sound modules which depict your loaded samples, with an interface similar to that of Windows Explorer. Accessing sample CDs or sound files stored on the hard drive is easy, with a simple drag and drop to the rack window instantly loading them for use. Additionally, numerous filter types, modulation capabilities with real-time display, onboard effects, granular time-stretching and re-synthesis options, and a loop editor round out this program's ability to play back standard samples and shape fresh sounds.
The program ships with over 3 gigabytes of playable samples. Drums, percussion, bass, guitar, piano, and synth samples are keymapped so you can get started immediately. Kontakt can load a multitude of formats, including Akai S1000/S3000, Gigasampler, SF2, Battery, Halion, EXS, Reaktor, LM4, and 8- to 32-bit AIFF/WAV files. NI plans to add support for Emu very soon.
Kontakt currently boasts a polyphony of up to 256 stereo voices per instrument with the capability to run 16 instruments at once. Output capability ranges from 32 channels when used as a plug-in to 16 as a stand-alone unit. Like normal hardware samplers, the real limitation is the amount of RAM available when loading samples. However, the folks at NI have announced a direct-from-disc extension which, by the time you read this, should be available for download. As samplers go, Kontakt has all the standard features you'd expect.
Keymapping and multi-creation is simple; ranges and layered patches are easily established with a simple click and drag. Other parameters are highly useable; LFOs, envelopes, and modulators can be controlled via MIDI or separate controller. Everything is depicted graphically, giving you a distinct perspective of what's actually happening.
The LFOs come fully equipped with the standard options: sine, triangle, sawtooth, rectangle, random, and a multi setting to combine them for some interesting effects. There are three types of envelopes on board which can add some nice depth to your sounds, all with the ability to stretch over several minutes. AHDSR (Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain, and Release) and Flexible are the two standard envelope types, and DBD (Decay time 1, Break, Decay time 2) is an envelope specifically designed to affect pitch.
Step modulation allows for 32 steps of custom modulation effects, Glide (or portamento, in more musical terms) adds a sliding pitch transition between consecutive notes. Envelope Follower translates a sample into a control signal which can then be applied to other samples to give them the same characteristic.
Kontakt's intuitive control panels offer users several options in developing their sound.
A great selection of effects processors, including distortion, saturation, lo-fi, compression, stereo enhancer, delay, chorus, flanger, and reverb satisfies even the most discerning musician - they all sounded first-rate. One surprise was the low CPU usage; when using multi-track software with numerous plug-ins running, I'm always looking at the meter, and I found Kontakt's effects to be easy on the overhead.
Kontakt's two most distinctive features are its Tone Machine and Time Machine modules. The Tone Machine is a granular synthesizer, which will analyze a sample and then provide several knobs such as tune, smooth, speed, and format to adjust that sample. Time Machine also uses granular synthesis, and allows for playback of a sample in its original pitch while changing its length. This is a great feature for matching the sample to the tempo of the song, or trying something interesting such as bringing the sample to a complete halt with the pitch still ringing.
The biggest complaint I have is with the small font size. Most sound designers have their screen size set at 1024x768 or higher. At these resolutions, it's very difficult to see the text clearly.
For those of you who haven't made the move to a software-based sampler, Kontakt may just be the one to motivate you to do it. Since I gave up my hardware sequencer for a software-based one many years ago, it's almost a necessity now to see my sounds and be able to manipulate them graphically. This program is perfect for that continuing tradition. For Gigasampler owners or those who have hardware samplers with some life left in them, Kontakt would make another great tool in the shed.
System Requirements: Mac: MacOS 8.6 or higher, G3 300MHz, 128MB RAM.