Obviously, Kontakt is no big secret. For well over a decade, producers, sound designers and professional mix engineers have made expert use of it. During that time, it has been showered with high praise and deservedly so.
That being said, you might be wondering why (years after its initial release) a Kontakt review needs to exist, aside from the fact that Bedroom Producers Blog hasn’t reviewed it yet, even though we publish news of free and also commercial Kontakt libraries on a semi-regular basis (Don’t believe us? Well, here’s your proof!).
I used to view Kontakt as nothing more than a great big environment for multi-sampled instruments; it fulfills that purpose in more ways than I care to mention, but there’s more to Kontakt than you might think. In this review, we’ll be going deeper into the sample engine to really explore the sonic possibilities that will open up to you with a marginal amount of research and a much advised spirit of adventure.
Under the hood, within the “Source Module” at the very beginning of the signal chain, there are six “playback modes” that process audio differently, the first being a traditional “Sampler” mode that plays back audio from memory, though “DFD” (direct from disk) mode is a far more practical way of streaming audio from disk in real-time without the computational expenditure of loading all sample data into RAM.
My personal favorite definitely has to be the Time Machine mode, available in three different flavors, including Time Machine 2 and Time Machine Pro modes, all of which allow you to change the pitch of a sample without affecting the playback speed. This “real-time stretching” algorithm lets you play rhythmic content up and down the keyboard while preserving the dynamic of the original, even though results may become harsh and “grainy” the further you travel away from the root pitch as a result of the sample being quite literally stretched apart, producing gaps in between each individual sample that become more and more noticeable. In a granular context, this is what sound designers often refer to as a “grain stream”.
This is where Kontakt really goes above and beyond typical sample playback. In Time Machine Mode, you can slow down or speed up the sample (independent of the pitch) with the “Speed” knob. With this control at a very small value or even turned all the way down, the sample engine cycles through the grain stream repeatedly. You can determine the size of the grain stream with the “Grain” knob in milliseconds, or adjust the “Smooth” knob in order to reduce artifacts by crossfading grains into each other.
Although Time Machine is more ideal for granular applications, Time Machine 2 and Time Machine Pro focus more on preserving the quality of playback with improved time/pitch-stretching algorithms offering controls for more accurate transient detection, which of course will be significantly more CPU intensive.
In Tone Machine mode, you can also change the pitch of a sample without affecting the playback speed, but this mode is especially grainy, so I don’t suggest Tone Machine for use with anything containing sharp transients, unless you want to completely alter the sound of a drum loop by stretching the living daylights out of it, which is kind of the whole point. You can also shift the formant frequencies with the “Formant” control, and prevent pops and clicks with the “DC Filter”, which eliminates undesirable DC offset.
Beat Machine is similar to the Time Machine Pro mode, being that you can change the pitch of a sample independent of the playback speed while preserving the overall quality of the original, but you might notice that transient detection functions poorly with unsliced samples at high speeds. If you select the “Use Beat Machine” button within the “Sync/Slice” tab in the Wave Editor, you can trigger slices in accordance with Beat Machine’s sophisticated tempo-synchronized playback engine.
These playback modes allow you to create all new sounds that you could never achieve with traditional sampling methods, and this is just the beginning of the signal chain! There are lots more goodies in store within the Group & Instrument Effects slots, not to mention the cool things you can do in the Wave Editor.
Upon first glance, the Wave Editor might appear to be just another editing window with common controls for looping and determining the starting and ending points of a sample, but upon further investigation, you will uncover an extraordinary amount of flexibility in various sections of the Wave Editor that enable you to roll up your sleeves and go to work on the waveform level in ways you might never have thought possible.
Let’s not forget that the basic building block of any Kontakt instrument is a sample, and though there are many ways to manipulate a sample with the playback modes I’ve already explained, you can do things in the Wave Editor in tandem with those modes that will open up endless sound design possibilities, such as slicing up a drum loop in the “Sync/Slice” tab and dragging those slices into the Mapping Editor in order to map them to a specific key range and then trigger those slices — or in this case “zones” — individually from within Kontakt or with external MIDI equipment.
These zones each have their own dedicated envelope editor in the “Zone Envelopes” section, wherein you can generate envelopes for the preassigned Volume and Pan targets and also for specific controls in the Group Insert Effects slots in the Source Module. Within each of these envelope editors, you can draw multiple envelope points, each with their own tension curves, and also cut/copy and paste envelope points or even loop envelope points independent of the playback speed.
But that’s enough superfluous detail. I won’t bore you with a tedious catalog of every module squeezed into Kontakt’s architecture. Instead, I prefer to shine a light on some of the most powerful and useful tools among Kontakt’s several modulation sources, a vast assortment of filters and effects, and a good number of factory scripts, some of which are so inspiring, they might encourage you to learn Kontakt’s integrated programming language and develop your own scripts in the foreseeable future. If that’s something you might be interested in, there is a KSP (Kontakt Script Processor) Reference Manual included in the documentation providing everything you need to know about KSP.
Kontakt’s envelopes and LFOs are relatively simple. I thought it was odd that only the attack stage of the ADHSR envelope is affected by the “Curve” parameter. Of course, if you prefer a “curvier” envelope, you can use the “Flexible” envelope, which has a tension curve for each assignable envelope point. The LFOs each have basic controls for LFO speed, a “Fade In” knob either scaled in milliseconds or tempo-synced values (similar to the “Freq” knob) and waveform mixer controls in the “Multi” waveform mode that allow you to combine waveforms in order to create more exotic waveforms of your own. However, I do wish there was a random glide waveform (much like a sample & hold waveform with smoothed edges) or maybe some kind of smoothing control in order to program more natural modulations with organic, arbitrary fluctuations ideal for ambient pads and otherworldly sound effects.
I was floored by Kontakt’s selection of filters, split up into six separate types of bandforms, the first three (low-pass, high-pass and band-pass) available in State Variable, Ladder, Adaptive Resonance, and a few Legacy and Daft topologies adapted from Native Instruments synthesizer Massive. I couldn’t help but notice the legendary Pro 53 modeled after the 4-pole resonant low-pass filter in Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and also provided as a primary filter module in Native Instruments Reaktor.
Add to the list a small handful of Peak/Notch filters, “Multi” filter combinations in parallel and serial routing configurations, and also Formant, Vowel and Phaser filters in the “Effect” section; this is, without a doubt, the most diverse array of filters I’ve encountered within a single plugin.
The AET filter (only within the Group Effects slots) implements “Authentic Expression Technology”, which enables you to seamlessly morph between the timbral characteristic of multiple samples by using an FFT (fast fourier transform) filter to create a “spectral imprint” of the frequency response of any sound loaded up into the Morphing Map as a Morphing Layer in one of two varieties: an “articulation morph”, which will morph between two or more musically related samples (such as slightly different articulations of the same instrument or a combination of vowel sounds) and a “velocity morph”, which will morph between velocity layers instead of switching between them in accordance with MIDI note velocity. This is one of the most innovative tools among Kontakt’s effects, although samples recorded at a sample rate any higher than 44,100 Hz often produce undesirable artifacts, so I personally feel a much needed update is in order.
I could go on for pages indexing Kontakt’s selection of dynamics processors, surround panning and Doppler effects, saturation, distortion and vintage amplifier cabinet simulations, stereo chorus, flanger, phaser, algorithmic reverb, and a powerful convolution processor including a built-in library of impulse responses spanning a wide variety of categories…but I’m afraid the list is far too long for me to cover everything within the context of this review.
Regardless of your level of experience or programming knowledge, your sample processing needs are most definitely covered, especially given the power available to you with custom scripting, which allows you to create your own sound engines and process samples in ways that aren’t presently possible with the controls available in the factory user interface, even though you can create your own GUI elements with a few simple scripting commands… and perhaps a bit of graphic design.
However, I do think Kontakt should implement some kind of Visual Programming Language (VPL) not unlike the primary level architecture in Native Instruments Reaktor – if only for GUI elements alone! Just having a small library of factory knobs, switches, buttons and faders available in a context menu within a VPL editor in the Performance View would be enormously helpful for people (like myself) with absolutely no scripting knowledge whatsoever, even though I have every intention of learning KSP.
That said, you don’t have to know any scripting commands in order to enjoy Kontakt for what it already is on the surface. I’ve had an extraordinary amount of fun, not just with the wonderful instruments available in the factory library, but also having created my own instruments in lots of different ways.
I love how you can work within the Group Editor with any combination of samples and process each group independently within a single instrument to produce enormously complex sounds that would be nearly impossible to program within synthesizers. Speaking of which, you could also use Kontakt as a means to cut back on your CPU load by consolidating highly CPU intensive patches into multi-sampled instruments. Of course, you can do that with any recorded instrument within Kontakt, but it’s especially useful in that regard, especially since I have a good number of presets that absolutely murder my CPU.
There are undoubtedly several aspects of Kontakt that I haven’t even scratched the surface of, which is bound to happen with a software instrument this immersive. I was a little overwhelmed by Kontakt when I first tried it out years ago, but now that I’ve managed to sit down and learn the ropes, I can very safely say, with absolute certainty, that you will not be disappointed in what’s in store if you decide to invest in what is rightly called “The Industry-Standard Sampler.”
More info: Native Instruments Kontakt ($399)
NI Kontakt Review
We can very safely say, with absolute certainty, that you will not be disappointed if you decide to invest in what is rightly called “The Industry-Standard Sampler.”