I will be reviewing the S61 version of the keyboard which offers the same options/controls as the 25/49 key versions. The 88 key version has the same controls again but a different keybed aimed more at the piano players. I am also reviewing the 1.5 version of software which now adds the ability to load and control VST instruments.
Price: $999 (S61)
Pros: Tightly integrates with Komplete 10 Instruments, Simple to learn, Impressive features
Cons: Not simple to browse 3rd party presets, Concerns over encoder quality, Noisy keybed
Manufacturer: Native Instruments
Model: Komplete Kontrol S61
- 25 \ 49 \ 61 \ 88 Key versions available
- Quality Fatar keybed
- Free Komplete Kontrol browser software
- Free Komplete Elements pack for non-Komplete users
- Unified browsing of Komplete 9/10 Instruments using keyboard
- 3rd Party VST integration
- 8 programmable touch sensitive endless encoders
- High resolution VFD display for each encoder
- 16 banks of encoders for each preset/template
- Auto mapping for all Komplete instrument patches
- Programmable encoder maps for any VST
- Komplete Kontrol and MIDI modes
- Advanced Host Integration (control transport and track navigation)
- Pitch/Mod touch strips with advanced programming options
- Scales and Arp performance modes
- LightGuide LED key guidance system
- Sustain + Expression inputs
- MIDI In/Out + USB
To start with plain and simple this is a good looking keyboard! Forget the flashy light guide or fancy touch strips, the keyboard looks quality in all the images you see and I was just as impressed when I first pulled it out of the box. The build quality is excellent with glossy soft keys, brushed aluminium top and a minimal appearance leaving the keyboard looking simple and inviting.
The keyboard is well packaged in the box with support foam under the keys and sturdy foam ends able to protect the device well during shipping. Removing it from the box the appearance is black with the display silent with a mirror black "piano" finish and the keys a gleaming pearl white. Almost instantly by looking at the available controls you can see how to use it and it works in practice just as you think it would from the available controls.
As far as first impressions go I got nothing less than I expected
Within the box there is little other than the keyboard to get excited about:
1 x Keyboard
1 x USB cable
1 x Power Supply inc Multi-plug adapters
1 x Information Card
2 x Stickers
Komplete Kontrol was initially launched with the requirement for users to already own Komplete 9 or 10 with bundles available to purchase both Komplete and the keyboard. Basically if you did not already own a Komplete bundle this keyboard really was not for you unless you were prepared to sink another $1K into software. Not long after Akai introduced the Advance keyboard with a bundled package and ability to integrate with your own VSTs, Native Instruments then released their "Komplete Select" bundle free with every keyboard purchase. The big standouts in this bundle are of course Massive and Monark with The Gentleman being a very nice piano and Retro Machines offering some neat classic synth sounds. This package only adds value to non Komplete bundle owners as all the titles are covered in the Komplete Ultimate bundles.
To get these and also the Komplete Kontrol software you are required to first register the keyboard (and an account if you do not already have one) and then download the Service Centre software which manages the download and installation of all your software. For existing users of Komplete 9/10 you just need to add the keyboard serial to your account and then download the Komplete software.
Installation & Powerup
Installation was a little confusing for a simple fact that everything in NIs range is called "Komplete... Something" I was not sure what was reference to the Komplete Kontrol keyboard, what referred to the Komplete Kontrol software and where I could get the software without installing "Komplete Select" since I already had Komplete 10 Ultimate. For a while I was Kompletely lost and it's not normal for me to be lost at the installation end.
I finally found out that you needed to download the "Komplete Select Installer" and then choose within that the products to install. I also saw on the NI website that as an owner of Komplete 10 I could apparently download the KK software without using the select installer but I could not find out how so I simply selected only to install Komplete Kontrol. Once the software and drivers were installed I was able to then power on the keyboard where I discovered firstly that the keyboard does not power up off just USB. This was a shame since almost every other controller I have does so that is worth noting that you need to allow for a plug pack. With plug pack connected I switched on the keyboard and was greeted with a splash of colour from the LightGuide and then all the controls and VFD sprang to life.
Once I powered on and the drivers installed themselves I proceeded to start the Komplete Kontrol standalone software (which is required when first getting started) where it scanned and loaded my entire Komplete library. I immediately decided to just load up a preset only to find that every plugin said "Plugin not found". This was due to the fact I had moved my VST.dlls into different folders since I had installed Komplete years ago and NI have a tool to help address this issue which can reset the registry paths to the new locations (look for NI VST Tool) since most of us move those DLLs around into sub folders.
After installation I then needed to follow some steps to get the keyboard working with Ableton Live correctly which was all straight forward stuff for someone with a little experience in control surfaces but the steps are well explained.
In both cases I was able to get the software and drivers installed and running within about an hour and without any headaches. Installation may take longer if you do not have Komplete 9/10 and have to download and install the Select bundle.
Komplete Kontrol Software
The Komplete Kontrol software manages both presets and controller mapping and has 2 components to it. The first component is the main browser software pictured above. This allows you to use your computer keyboard and mouse to sort through the content, select tag filters, setup keyboard parameters and map and change controls. The second component to this software is the OSD popup browser that allows the KK keyboard to browse the same content and basically it looks almost the same except is a larger display and even more streamlined appearance.
For some of the older users Komplete Kontrol may seem like an updated version of the old Kore product that has helped divide Native Instrument users. While I was never a Kore user I can certainly see the similarities between what Kore attempted to offer and what is now possible but the design and technology has come a long way and Komplete feels like it has been built off a lot of experience and design.
One of the best things about both the keyboard and software is the fact that a manual is almost not needed at all. Even a novice should be able to spend 10 minutes clicking through the controls and menus to see how it all goes together and since I always love to read the manual anyway by the time I did flick through it there was little left to discover after a week.
Browsing is accomplished by either selecting an instrument or sound tag and filtering down or optionally you can browse by plugin/library. The browser window allows comprehensive filtering and enough information to help find instruments or presets quickly without overloading you with useless controls and information. The uncluttered look is very easy to understand and it really only takes a few minutes to understand how the browser works.
There are 2 libraries that you can select to browse through: The Native library which consists of the Komplete instruments and any NKS enabled VST plugins, and the User library that is for user saved presets and all other 3rd party VSTs.
I was a little disappointed that there was no way to browse both libraries as a collection so searching for a synth sound you would have to look in the Native or User libraries.
Upon loading a preset a "Mini Instrument" is loaded into the window which is a scaled down interface for the full plugin. I thought this was quite neat as it simplifies some of the instruments. The full interface can be opened by pressing the + button at the top and this expands the window to display the full plugin.
New in KK 1.5 is the ability to edit control assignments for Komplete instruments. This same editor is also used to map controls to VST instruments too. At the top of the software the little dial button opens a control edit window. You need to click the Unlock button in the top right to open the edit options and they you can create and label pages, change and rename controls, Add section tags and delete unused controls.
The ability to leave spaces and spread controls over 16 pages is brilliant. What is NOT is the fact you cannot change the order of pages or controls once created which seems an oversight but I am sure this will be added in a future update.
Driving the software and editing controls is simple which is the way it needs to be. No one likes spending hours creating mappings so this gets you up and running quickly and without the need to pick up a manual.
Browsing From Keyboard
Pressing the Browse button will bring up an OSD popup browser on your computer screen which closely resembles the KK software but just has the browser features and not the control/edit features and also is a bigger display. This does mean you need to have a screen in front of you and it doesn't really allow you to move from your PC in this case so this may be a big thing for you.
I was pleased that it works with multi-display monitor setups and I was able to shift the browser to the display that is close to my keyboards. You can easily select plugins and tags to help narrow your search and the use of the menu knob and arrow keys to get you around the interface is quick and simple to master.
Browsing Komplete instruments is a breeze and fantastic.... VST is a little meh at the moment.
To access VSTs you need to first save a VST preset to have it appear in your User library. This separates the komplete browser from your own Presets and 3rd party instruments which kind of slows down the browsing experience. And then there is the issue of browsing 3rd party presets. There isn't a way easily.
Basically to browse a preset you need to first load the VST and save the preset to be able to then open it again. Take Omnisphere 2 for instance that has about 12,000 presets. This is a lot of work to click through each one, save and tag them. Users have already started on this (me included) using scripts to do the work but even after this if you want to locate a Grand Piano for instance you have to do a separate search in the main library then in the User library. Hopefully these can be tied together at some point.
All versions of the Komplete Keyboard have the same control panel and same keybed. There is no difference between either of the models except the number of keys. The 88 key version apparently has hammer action keys so the keybed is different (more aimed at piano players) but the controls are all the same. The layout is clean and clutter free which personally I prefer over a panel full of buttons and controls.
Firstly looking interestingly at the Pitch Bend and Mod controls we see these are replaced with Touch ribbons for the controls. I was initially put off by this because my Push controller has a touch strip and I found it not all that smooth to operate. However I was very surprised at how smooth and responsive both the pitch and mod controls were and the illuminated bars really helped feedback the controllers state. Then there is the customisation of these!
You can customise the way these behave using software or the keyboard itself (press Shift + Oct) which is simply not possible with physical controls. For the pitch bend it "snaps" back just as a spring loaded control would but you can adjust how fast this occurs which makes for very smooth bends with little effort.
The Mod control can also be programmed with "gravity" and "friction" settings to allow it to act almost as an oscillator and it can be set to ping pong or simply scroll through the top back in from the bottom and can even be tempo locked to your daw. Because you can assign this to anything in your DAW it opens up some creative possibilities and simply seeing this operate put a smile on my face. Also it is worth mentioning this Mod strip is automatically mapped to a useful control in each Komplete instrument which always has me checking what it will do next.
One issue these present though is the accuracy of a physical control. I find with the pitch bend for instance it is very hard to get your finger directly in the middle without causing the sound to bend initially just a touch however Native Instruments have considered this and allow the user to set "Absolute/Relative" option for the strips that allow it to either jump to the fingers position or simply start from that point.
The left of the control panel we have the Performance and Transport buttons. The Performance controls allow activation of the Scales and Arpeggiator feature which it has to be said are a very good feature. These require the KK software to be used (not available in MIDI mode) and it is possible to engage both modes together to allow a scaled arp or even a chord based arp. Holding Shift and pressing one of the modes allows editing of the parameters on the encoders giving access to many scale and arp parameters. The buttons are illuminated to indicate when a feature is engaged and the actual note data can be exported quite easily to apply to other tracks.
The Transport section is mapped to your DAW (if supported) to control Loop and Playback actions and if setup correctly will also offer proper feedback from the DAW causing the buttons to indicate exactly what is going on.
The right of the control panel we have the Navigation section which is used to both browse the Komplete software and also navigate the DAW. The blue directional keys can change tracks in the DAW (Live in my case) which then automatically sets the keyboard controls for that track. If a KK instance is not loaded into a track the keyboard switches to MIDI mode automatically.
Holding Shift + Instance will toggle the keyboard between KK and MIDI control mode so it is actually possible to switch to an instance of KK on another track without selecting the track.
The encoders are touch sensitive and display a bar indicator for position but display the numerical value when touched. Operation is smooth and accurate and the VFD display offers great feedback of what you are controlling which really does make all the difference.
The Page buttons allow you to step through the banks of encoders and the KK software allows creation of pages, renaming of controls and even allows controls to be left empty to help divide up banks and pages. I simply cannot express how good the management of controls is and even with a dozen pages of controls the ability to lay out the banks to your liking makes it just work! Additionally having possible access to 128+ parameters all labelled and nicely laid out is probably one of the best features of the whole product.
I really thought I would prefer a nice colour screen such as on the Akai Advance keyboard over simple VFD display but actually found the opposite after testing both the KK and the Advance options for 2 weeks. The benefit with the control section under bthe actual controls is it is just simple to figure out what you are controlling.
The last feature though not a "control" as such is the Light Guide which is an RGB LED above each note that cnahges dynamically for each loaded patch or when Scale/Arp features are enabled.
The light guide assists with showing where key ranges and keyswitches are when playing Kontact instruments. This can be very helpful in Scales mode to actually show which keys are in a scale. Additionally when activating a chord mode all notes that make up the chord will illuminate on the keyboard.
Users can also create templates for MIDI mode and assign different colours (and even channels) for the keyboard notes allowing the keybed to be split up to play multiple instruments which can be indicated by colour. Any NKS enabled VST can also take advantage of this feature.
The keybed is quoted as a "Fatar" semi-weighted keybed and while that does not mean much to myself I take it as a sign it's a well known and accepted option. That and the fact that NI have not released a keyboard before so having something people will trust to some degree is needed.
The keybed appearance is glossy, polished and looks of quality. Keys have a subtle curve to them and alignment and spacing was all nicely uniform (as one would hopefully expect for the cost). The feel of the keys is firm to the press with a good recoil action and doing some quick finger movement exercises I liked the feeling and response. While I wouldn't say the feeling is "stiff" it is certainly not soft and allows easy resting of the hands without accidentally pressing a key.
Once I loaded a piano and started to play some chords and actions I immediately noticed the dynamics and expression were really not what I hoped. I had to really hammer a key to get full velocity. I found the velocity settings in the KK software and managed to set it to a softer option (Soft 3 in my case) to get a much better response. This will differ between players and I still find myself not 100% happy with the dynamics even after weeks and many tweaks and sessions. I either have to press too hard on some presets or I trigger notes way too loud on others. I am hoping the keys will break in a bit and I can adjust to the keybed but certainly it's one area that will divide some players and probably the reason there is a completely different keybed on th 88 key version (because Piano players may struggle a little here, it's more a synth keybed)
Another thing I began to notice with the keybed after some time was it was "noisy". The keys have a bit of a click/rattle sound when you play fast and it appears to be on release of a key quickly it creates a sound that really is noticable. Many people have complained of this and it appears from reports that it is worse on some keybeds than others as people who have swapped theirs out found in some cases a replacement was better. It does not affect the playability but is a bit dissapointing for a keyboard at this cost.
Simply put I love this keyboard. Comparing this option and the Akai Advance I was torn between which one would fit my needs and the KK comes as close to 100% as any option. I am sure the software will improve and offer us some great features down the track and the first and foremost thing that had the KK in a winning light was just minutes after I had it setup I was having fun and coming up with ideas. My experience with the Akai had me dealing with forums and support for days over bugs and issues in the software.
The keyboard and software are a very good option for Multi-DAW users because it should work pretty seemless with any setup and the fact you have some basic track navigation and transport controls means you now have some control surface elements in your setup. This could easily take center stage in your studio.
There is still the question of longevity with the product though. After users have been burnt with Kore and other discontinued products will we see the KK continue to grow or be a distant memory in 5 years? Something tells me it will stick and a new version will add probably a screen for browsing and advanced plugin feedback and possibly a few extra controls.
The only thing I am really disappointed with is the lack of 3rd party VST browsing. While I know why this is it is a shame that Akai offer this where KK only offers it for the Komplete package instruments. This is obviously a way to pull people into considering the NI offerings first but at least you can now add this support manually by creating presets yourself which is not far removed from the Ableton Push method.
For owners of Komplete that need a good keyboard with good control options, this is a sure bet if you can afford the price as long as you don't need pads for drumming or a DAW mixer section. This will not do everything but it does do what it does very well and the KK software really is well designed and so easy to understand. I would probably recommend if you can to test the keybed first and see if it is to your liking.