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Software Tech: The NKS 2.0 Spec—Controller Salvation?

By Craig Anderton. Whether NKS has value depends on how you plan to use it, and what updates may be forthcoming.

One of the limitations surrounding electronic music instruments has been the lack of tactile control—a situation that reached the height of user-hostility when, during the “race to the bottom” synth phase, you had to do everything through a calculator-style keypad—with results showing on a two-line LCD. Ouch.

The Native Kontrol System (NKS), introduced in 2015, was originally all about Native Instruments’ virtual instruments. Now with version 2.0, effects are part of the spec, along with significant third-party effects support. The premise is that with NI’s Komplete Kontrol keyboards (or Maschine hardware), you can insert a companion Komplete Kontrol plug-in in your DAW to browse a database of sounds, audition them with audio previews, and call up presets in virtual instruments and effects. Then you can take advantage of the keyboard’s control elements (8 rotaries, 8 buttons, wheels, ribbon controller and navigation) to tweak the sounds. The goal is faster, more hands-on virtual instrument control.

If you’re getting déjà vu, that’s because the above sounds like NI’s Kore, which was discontinued in 2011 (but not without subsequent updates for 64-bit compatibility, for which NI received well-deserved kudos). However, there are significant differences. Kore lacked the kind of display that could make tweaking more friendly. It was also an audio interface, and user requirements for audio interfaces are too diverse to be accommodated in a single desktop box. Furthermore, Native Instruments has become a music software powerhouse, with far more resources than were available for Kore. Finally, heavy hitters like Waves, Softube and Eventide have signed up, with some effects already updated for NKS compatibility. Including virtual instruments, around 75 manufacturers have tweaked their products for NKS.

Whether NKS has value depends on how you plan to use it, and what updates may be forthcoming. The Komplete keyboards are excellent MIDI controllers, so that’s a given. Concerning NKS, the ideal application for now is when you want to dial up different instrument sounds quickly in the studio (or live), add effects and do some tweaks. You’re not constantly loading and unloading instrument and effects plug-ins, just scrolling through them, and calling up presets. The ability to preview sounds is also helpful. Note that the plug-in developer chooses which parameters are editable; it could be a handful for an effect, or over a hundred for a virtual instrument. The instrument UI opens up within the Komplete Kontrol plug-in for more detailed editing.

Software Tech: Can Pro Audio Software Sustain? by Craig Anderton, May 24, 2018

However, effects are available only in the context of inserting post-instrument—you can’t load Komplete Kontrol into an audio track’s insert and call up only effects, but you can move effects around in a series chain, and bypass individual effects. Parallel effects aren’t possible, but then again, they aren’t possible in most DAWs. Another limitation: you can record automation for virtual instruments but not for effects. NI is looking into this for a future update.

And speaking of updates, at present, the deepest integration (e.g., transport, track navigation, mixer controls, enable/disable functionality, etc.) is with Cubase, Nuendo, Maschine, GarageBand, Logic and Live (which requires a somewhat more complex setup compared to the others). Sorry, no Pro Tools or Studio One.

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So what about the future? NKS has been available for virtual instruments since 2015, starting with Komplete Kontrol 1.5. There’s no word yet whether NKS will be opened up to other controller companies, but opening it to competing plug-in manufacturers is significant. Regardless, if you follow the arc of progress since then for both NKS and the Komplete keyboards, it’s clear that NI is committed to the concept. Now it’s doubling down on NKS and I expect updates will continue.

In closing, though, here’s a cautionary tale that’s not about NI. Cakewalk by BandLab had worked perfectly with Komplete Kontrol until a Windows update—then the keyboard functionality still worked, but nothing appeared in the display. Users were upset NI and BandLab didn’t have a solution, and vented on forums. But they couldn’t come up with a fix: The problem was the Windows update (which itself was later updated, fixing the problem).

I’ve commented how pro audio and video people serve at the pleasure of Microsoft and Apple. Granted, Microsoft fixed what it broke. And yes, Apple came up with a software fix for its overheating MacBook Pros. But the handwriting is on the wall: We can’t afford downtime. Invoke System Restore (Windows) and Time Machine (Mac) before making any major changes to your computer setup, and test the system thoroughly before the opportunity to roll back disappears. Your gig may depend on it.

Native Instruments NKS •