Burns Easily in the Sun
A Lack of Kontrol
Let me preface this review by stating I have no vendetta against NI. On the contrary, I own just about all of their products from Komplete 9 Ultimate and Traktor to S4 Mk1/Mk2 and Maschine Mk2. I'm a fan of their products and, prior to the S49, thought they could do no wrong. I will not demand a revolution, boycott or other fruitless call to action because I have no intention of ceasing my purchasing of NI products.
I'll be reviewing the S49 keyboard here, though each keyboard in the S Series contains the same physical traits, sans number of keys.
There's no denying that the Kontrol Series of Native Instruments (NI) controllers are beautiful. Colored keys, bright LCD reading, a pair of customizable touch strips...there's truly a lot to love about this beast of a MIDI keyboard controller. Sadly, there are many things to dislike about it as well.
Let's start with the good. For those of you familiar with Komplete/Komplete Ult 9 or 10 (or earlier), you know there's no shortage of content. From virtual synths to rich sampled instruments and brilliantly modeled FX, there is virtually an unlimited amount of potential within the collection. These various tools offer many settings that are tweakable to taste, however, with endless features comes numerous clicks & drags. This is where the S Series comes in. Every instruments' parameters are mapped to the endless encoder knobs. Browsing the parameters is a breeze and thanks to the clean output of each LCD screen above each respective knob, it's easy to see what parameters are being edited. I was floored by but just how deep NI assigned the many parameters of its instruments to its knobs. Response was always instant and each knob offered just the right amount of tension. So far so good.
The Pitch and Mod Touchstrips are great. Gone are wheels in favor of two tactile strips that react in different ways. For example, using the gravity setting allows the user to "swipe" a strip and based upon the strength of swipe, the modulation will be intense and gradually descend–think of it like dropping a ball and watching the moment slowly decrease. This opens up creative options for studio or live performance use. The LCD dots next to each strip let you know the "location" of your swipe. It sounds a bit confusing and drab, but in practice it works wonderfully.
The Light Guide is a welcomed addition. For the uninitiated, many of Komplete's instruments, Action Strings for example, use key modifiers to cause the instrument to perform in a different manner. For example, by pressing the F1, F#1 or G1 key, strings change articulation on the fly to say staccato, sustained or tremolo. Different instruments have modifiers mapped to different keys. Rather than having to constantly look at a mapping to determine the modifiers, the Lights alert the user as to what keys are the modifiers! Hurray for visual aids! The lights also differ during Performance Mode, where they illuminate at different intensities to let the user know the relationship of different chords & scales.
Komplete Kontrol. This is the hub that allows the S hardware and Komplete software to communicate. Komplete Kontrol (KK) is essentially an uber-browser for everything that is Komplete. You can view instruments, patches, banks, etc. Whether used in Standalone or as a plug-in, KK is required to get the most out of your S49.
The Komplete Kontrol Software. The biggest issue is that in order to take advantage of the mapping of the controllers knobs, the performance modes, etc. you need to use KK software. If the software was the epitome of stability, this would not be a problem. Sadly, it's not. While some of you may be quick to say "Maybe it's your computer bro," I assure you it's not. I'm currently working on a fully loaded 2013 Retina MacBook Pro with the highest spec'd i7, g-card and ssd (500GB) with all of my Komplete samples loaded on a dedicated external drive that is connected to my CPU via Thunderbolt. So no, it's not a machine issue.
When multiple instances of KK are open within a project, it chugs...considerably. I experienced system hangs up to 30 seconds in both Logic X and Ableton 9. These hangs occur when simply trying to open the plugin dialog box or when loading a different instrument or preset. I'm currently still awaiting a proper response.
When KK is on a couple tracks, it works quite well. Otherwise, it's a shit show. My hope is that a future update will allow an individual plugin instance to make use of the S Series rather than having to use the KK browser. Did I mention that NI didn't mention this little fact (that only the KK software can be used to achieve the full potential of the S keyboard) apparent to their consumers?
Extreme Performance Mode Limitations. I was really pumped about Performance Mode (PM). Though I'm quite good at playing the keys (guitar is my real instrument of choice) sometimes I just want to mindlessly bang on chords and scales to see what fits. I had been using the iPad's sweet Logic Remote app to do this, but I really looked forward to using the tactile knobs and keys to get my ideas flowing. I was ready to use PM to the fullest for all of my instruments, not just NI. I looked forward to recording the MIDI output so I could go back and manually adjust scales, arps, chords, etc. and perhaps use it as a learning guide as well.
Except there's a couple problems. The first (which was "mysteriously" not mentioned by NI until days after the release of the S Series and KK software) is that there is no MIDI output of the notes when using performance mode. For example, in Chord Mode, each key plays a chord. One would think that when recording a performance, one would have the option to record the chord/scale/arp data instead of the single key presses generating the said chord/scale/arp data.
No. There is no option for that. Thus, there is nothing to be learned, gained or creatively edited in terms of generated notes. Fuck. Me.
Furthermore, said Performance Mode for all three options (Arp, Scale, Chord) is limited to the KK software only(!). Yes, all of that magic chord, scale, arp generation doesn't even take place within the S midi keyboard hardware, it's all in the software...which means no Performance Mode for any third party instruments. I'm sure glad NI mentioned this upfront before I dropped a shit load of money on this controller...oh wait, that's right they did not. In fact, they boasted said Performance Mode quite a bit when shilling the new S-Series keyboards via videos and website info...even though no actual processing occurs in the keyboard. Only their shitty software. So if you were looking forward to using such a potentially powerful tool for your non-NI instruments, prepare for disappointment.
Instruments Only. Once my rage subsided, I looked at the bright said of the S49. After all, I do use Komplete quite a bit, so at least I can still adjust parameters using the lovely knobs and display. My next step was to see how the knobs and interface worked with the many great plugins found in Komplete...except one problem...you can't. That's right, you cannot use the S-Series knobs to control any of the NI plugins (EQs, Reverbs, etc.). Are you kidding me?
The Conlusion and Hope for the Future
The bottom line is that the keys feel great and there's a lot of innovation happening within the S Series. If you're a Komplete-Only user and can bypass the lack of MIDI Output from Performance Mode input and the inexplicable sluggish performance from opening multiple KK instances, this is a no-brainer. For the other 97% of us, avoid until if/when a solid update occurs. Remember, you have to have Komplete 9 or 10 to use the S Series to its fullest potential.
I'm a pro-active consumer and I (thought) I researched everything about the S Series prior to purchase. Yet, I managed to quickly drop over $500 on a bit of kit that is really just a MIDI keyboard with stagnant functionality, pretty touch strips and brightly colored lights without hesitation. Nice job NI, you got me. Moreso, the keyboard requires activation of the Komplete Kontrol software (software, which is free to all Komplete 9/10 owners and those who purchase an S Keyboard) it's a product that retail shops will not accept a return on. So once you've activated the software and discovered the truth, you're, for lack of a better word, fucked.
My hope at this point is to keep the faith that the Komplete Kontrol software and keyboard is still in its infancy and many amazing enhancements will be introduced sooner than later, including the many lacking features so many of is thought were a "gimme" with the purchase of the hardware. In the event said miracle update happens, I will surely update this review. For their sake, and my own extreme case of buyers' remorse and sheer disappointment, I hope it happens sooner than later.
2/5 Stars. I would rather masturbate using sandpaper on my palm then tell anyone to purchase this product.