Field Test: Native Instruments Kore 2 Plug-In HostHARDWARE CONTROL SURFACE, PLUG-IN EDITING, SOUND LIBRARY 6/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern
The first incarnation of Native Instruments Kore was an insightful step forward in hardware/software integration, but it suffered from some design problems. (See my review in the September 2006 issue.) Kore 2 is a major overhaul, in which those issues have been decisively addressed. If you use a lot of software synths and need to manage a complex sound library, Kore 2 may be your solution.
Kore 2 combines a neat little USB-connected desktop controller box with a software-hosting environment. The hardware has eight good-feeling, endlessly rotating knobs; eight buttons; pairs of pedal and footswitch inputs, and more. The software is a mixer/router that lets you layer instruments, apply effects and build a library of complex setups (which can include third-party plug-ins).
The software can run in stand-alone mode or as a VST/DX/RTAS plug-in. Except for a couple of isolated and unrepeatable crashes, I found Kore 2.02 stable and trouble-free.
The original Kore controller (which can be used with the new software) was both an audio and a MIDI interface. Audio has been dropped from the Kore 2 controller, which makes sense: It lowers the cost, and most of the target market for this high-end device will already have multichannel computer audio I/O.
The original Kore controller had to be present in the system for the software to work — in effect, a giant dongle. In Kore 2, as in the previous versions from 1.1 on, the controller has to be present during installation but can then be set aside. This is ideal if you need to compose on your laptop while traveling. The knobs don't transmit conventional MIDI data, so they can be used only with Kore. They can control any software that can be inserted into Kore, but can't address your DAW's mixer.
Navigation buttons and an orange backlit LCD provide access to many Kore functions without touching a mouse. The panel also has start/stop/record transport buttons. The start and stop buttons work with Kore as stand-alone but don't function in plug-in mode. The record button currently does nothing.
Kore 2 — referred to from here on simply as “Kore” — leverages Native Instruments' powerful suite of software instruments. It ships with the engines (no front panels) of Reaktor, Massive, Absynth, FM8 and other synths, and a large and varied library of presets for these. Also included is a rack of effects processors.
Using nothing but these resources, I created some rich layered sounds, but I was frustrated by the limited editing of the instruments. Each preset exposes a set of eight parameters to the Kore knobs, usually attack and release time, filter cut-off and resonance, effects wet/dry mix and a few other things. But in searching through the Lead Synth category in Kore's capable browser, I found only one or two presets in which vibrato depth was mapped to the MIDI mod wheel. I also spotted some sounds based on physical modeling that weren't tuned to concert pitch, and the tuning was not one of the editable parameters.
If you already have a couple of good soft synths, the included preset library will be a welcome addition. But it's not the kind of resource that will keep you smiling for months; it's more of a teaser for the NI product line. When I installed NI Komplete 5, I breathed a sigh of relief: All of the front panels of the installed Kore library were now available for editing. In addition, the preset libraries in the Komplete package have been updated to work well with Kore. More affordable than Komplete are the eight Kore SoundPack expansion libraries, which you can buy on the NI Website and download.
The 31 built-in effects are what you'd expect: delays, chorus, reverb, EQ, dynamics control, rotary speaker simulator, frequency shifter, various distortions, etc. Also included are a MIDI file player, a MIDI arpeggiator, a MIDI transformer (useful for velocity and key splits) and a monophonic 32-step sequencer. I had no problems dragging and dropping MIDI clips from Spectrasonics' Stylus RMX into the MIDI file player.
The three main areas of the Kore window are the controller panel, the rack of inserts and channels, and the browser. Each can be hidden to save screen space. Unfortunately, the rack area is too narrow vertically and can't be expanded. With all but the most basic setups, constant scrolling is required.
The original Kore implementation made a hard distinction between top-level multi setups and lower-level single setups. Thankfully, that distinction has disappeared. After creating a Performance with several channels of instruments and effects, I could save it and insert it into a single channel in another Performance.
Channels are of three types: source, input and group. A Source channel contains MIDI devices, a synth and effects; MIDI devices and effects are optional. An input channel accepts audio input from the host and effects can be used as inserts. A group channel can serve as a submixer or an aux send bus. The number of channels and sends you can use depends mainly on your CPU.
When you select a device in the rack, its knob assignments become active on the controller panel. Thus, the eight physical knobs can perform numerous functions. It is easy to step from one device to another using the hardware box: After setting up a complex Performance, you can operate it strictly from the hardware. You can set up several pages of knobs for each insert and navigate among the pages using the hardware; multiple parameters can be assigned to a single knob.
In the browser, I could search a database with thousands of sounds. You can search by type, subtype, bank or name. Sounds can be given ratings or tagged to particular projects.
The manual is thorough, dense and poorly illustrated. Terminology is tossed around without being defined. Often, the manual tells you something can be done without telling you how to do it or referring to the page where the method is explained. Fortunately, the software is very well-designed, so reading the entire manual isn't required.
I installed Kore in my MusicXPC laptop and used it in Steinberg Cubase 4.1, Image-Line FL Studio 8 and Ableton Live 7. I had good experiences with the first two hosts, but the compatibility of Kore 2.02 with Live 7.03 is somewhat shaky due to limitations in Live.
It's not possible to record the hardware knobs into Live's MIDI clips in Session view. The parameters “published” to the host by Kore appeared as choices in Live's little X/Y control pad, which can be used to record automation envelopes, but the abbreviations given to the parameters were quite cryptic.
Initially, Live wouldn't pass QWERTY keystrokes to Kore so certain Kore browser functions, such as searching in the browser, didn't work. NI e-mailed me a workaround, which involves creating a small text file and putting it in Live's Preferences folder.
Recording Kore's knobs into Live in Arrange view worked the first time, but when I inserted a second synth into Kore and overdubbed a few more knob moves, Live failed to record the overdub and stopped playing back the first set of knob moves. Native Instruments has published solutions to these problems in its online knowledge base. Currently, Live supports only 128 automatable controllers per plug-in (a limitation not shared by other hosts). This is not nearly enough to handle the multiple devices that may be embedded within Kore, but Kore lets you rearrange its controller list. By moving the items you need to the top of the list, you can make them available in Live.
The good news is you can use Kore live with Live as the sounds will respond to the knobs. Compatibility issues arise only when you try to record knob moves.
At $559.99, Kore is an ideal solution for producers who use a lot of plug-ins. You can transfer complex layered sounds from one project to another and record multilayered automation moves quickly. I wish I had an intern to organize my sound library and assign the knobs to parameters in thousands of presets. The hardware/software integration makes Kore ideal for live use, as well.
Native Instruments, 323/467-5260, www.native-instruments.com.
Jim Aikin is a regular contributor to Mix and EM.
Listen to a sketch recorded in Steinberg Cubase 4