Review: Komplete Kontrol S-Series Keyboards

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For a company that’s been churning out software synthesizers and emulations of acoustic instruments for nearly 20 years, it's somewhat remarkable that Native Instruments has never released its own keyboard MIDI controller. Apparently five years in the making, the Komplete Kontrol S-Series is just that: they are controllers built to integrate seamlessly with the Komplete suite of VST instruments and effects using NI;s Komplete Browser and "Native Map" technology. Along with a high-quality keybed, "Light Guide" play modes, a great arpeggiator, and some smart, physics-enabled touch sliders, the S-Series keyboard is a very impressive piece of kit.

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How It Looks
When powered down, the keyboards are rather unassuming. They're slick and black— as Native Instruments is wont to make things—with various buttons that comprise a browse section, transport controls, and navigation keys, along with eight rotary knobs. (We tested the 49-key S49; the S25 and S61 have all of the same physical controls). Turn one on, however, and the device springs to life, with small screens beneath each knob and multi-colored LEDs revealing themselves above each note, indicating one of the S-Series' most innovative features: Light Guide.

Beyond mere aesthetic diversion, Light Guide helps bridge the gap between hardware and software. Onscreen, for instance, a typical Kontakt instrument's keyboard is color-coded to represent zones, splits, key switches and other features specific to the instrument. The S-Series' physical LEDs mirror this concept, in effect allowing users to keep their eyes on the keyboard rather than the screen. The Light Guide will illuminate drum cells, phrases, chords, and more in the color of the user's choice, or even an entire arpeggiator pattern thats been created (using the fantastic onboard arp). Furthermore, the Scale mode will dim "wrong" notes for any given scale, while the Easy mode takes things even further, deactivating "wrong" notes entirely (in other words, hitting a note that's not part of the selected scale does nothing). In addition, the Chord mode displays specific chords using lit LEDs.

How It Works
It is important to note that you must own a copy of Komplete 9 or 10 to get the full benefits of these keyboards. You can, however, switch to MIDI mode to make the keyboard a more generic controller, and can also create specific settings for each of the hardware's controls to save as templates and use in order to control third-party instruments. Really though, the S-Series is built with Komplete integration in mind.

With Komplete, however, the controller makes for pretty smooth sailing. Using the Komplete Kontrol software, one can jump through the various instruments and presets, with knobs automatically assigned to the eight most important parameters in each one. From there users can easily scroll through all of a given instrument's parameters, which are displayed in sharp detail on the beautiful white-on-black screens beneath each encoder. This kind of auto-mapping has been attempted before, certainly, but rarely with the sophistication and ease found here.

Still, there is plenty more to ogle: the touch-sensitive pitch and mod strips, for instance, provide light-based feedback as well. The pitch strip has modifiable spring strength, while the mod strip’s ball mode lets users fling it with adjustable friction and gravity, allowing one to easily modulate a parameter up and down, and gradually slow it down. This feels like something out of Teenage Engineering’s playbook, and is great fun to play with.

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The Bottom Line
All of the S-Series keyboards require an external power source, and they are certainly pricey—particularly if you don’t yet have Komplete, which will set you back another $500. There are minor nits to pick here too: the devices do integrate well with one's DAW of choice, but Maschine integration isn't quite there yet (NI has indicated it will address this in a November software update). Also, while the aforementioned arpeggiator is fantastically fun to play with, it only works with NI devices and does not send MIDI notes. Still, these quirks should be ironed out over time, and NI likely has another hugely popular controller on its hands. Like Maschine, the S-Series keyboards combine a handful of whiz-bang features with smart, intuitive software integration and workflow enhancements that make them a perfect compliment for Komplete users.

Pricing: $499 (25), $599 (49), $699 (61)