NATIVE INSTRUMENTS KOMPLETE 11 ULTIMATE SAMPLE & SOFTWARE INSTRUMENT COLLECTION
What do you do when you’ve already made the kitchen sink? Throw more gold into it.
Review: Mark Davie
Native Instruments isn’t the only provider of software instruments, effects or samples, but it does the kitchen sink better than anyone. Native Instruments’ all-inclusive Komplete Ultimate collection includes every single one of its products: synths of almost any kind — even sample-based semi granular ones, drum samples and drum machines, orchestral samples and players, vintage-inspired effects, random performance tools… you name it, it’s got something that will fit the bill.
Every time Native Instruments goes up a digit — we’re up to 11 now — it herds the six to eight products it’s dreamed up since the last round number and corrals them into the new upgrade.
Interestingly, the new additions seem to show that Native Instruments really does have all its bases covered. With the exception of Tim Exile’s Flesh — a performance instrument that seems very fresh indeed — most of the included instruments expand on the categories already a part of Komplete. To coincide with the 11 release, NI redesigned its classic Reaktor modular environment with some better building blocks, as well as enhanced the core Kontakt sampling system. Kontakt has been redesigned so the size of instruments can now be 1000 by 750 pixels. Unfortunately, on my Retina Macbook Pro, that’s really not even close to enough. With so many libraries available for the platform, it’s no doubt difficult to keep every provider’s graphics up to date. I still find the adjusted design a little crammed, purely because of Kontakt’s wealth of options, but it’s not unusable by any means and all the newest instruments are well laid out.
Besides Flesh, you also get a sample-based synth: Form; a new piano: Una Corda; a new geographic destination to add to its Discovery Series: India; more orchestral samples: Symphony Essentials and Emotive Strings; a new delay effect: Replica XT, and something to add to the Session series: Session Guitarist – Strummed Acoustic.
Although you get a 500GB USB 3.0 portable hard drive in the box, it doesn’t come with any downloaded material installed. You want to make sure you have a good internet connection, as you’re going to be downloading… a lot. There’s also no pause button in NI’s Native Access download app, so I had to force quit it occasionally when an instrument download was taking longer than I had time for. Thankfully, the next time I booted up it resumed at its last point and never corrupted the download.
Let’s dig into the new bits.
Of all the non-keyboard instruments, strings have been the most likely to be played on the ivories. Most sampled string instruments have progressed from simply being mapped across the black and white keys. These days there’ll be as many keys used to switch modes from legato to pizzicato as there are keys left to play on.
Symphony Essentials occupies the middle ground, designed to make it as easy to bash out some string lines as it is on a Solina, but with loads of flexibility under the bonnet to refine where required. It’s professional, yet approachable. It’s not just strings either, there are woodwind and brass instruments too, with a variety of solo instruments and ensembles.
For how detailed Symphony Essentials instruments can be, NI has really nailed the graphic hierarchy. A central big knob dominates the interface, and screams, ‘start here’. It controls dynamics, which varies the intensity of the played note via the modulation wheel. As you tweak the control, the instrument adjusts the playback combination of samples, from lightly bowed or blown, to the extreme of a player’s ability. There’s still the standard keyboard velocity response too, but the dynamics control gives you the ability to play expressively while swelling on held notes.
Downwards from there, the other main four performance controls are attack and release, to simulate a player’s natural per-note dynamics, then another couple of parameters that change per class. For strings they are Expression (volume boost when playing with lightly bowed dynamics) and Brightness. For the woodwinds, it’s Tightness and Motion to add a bit of variability to the passage. Below that, there are all manner of articulations, with a handful mapped to the first keyboard octave, with the ability to add more, or switch them out for alternative articulations. If you have an NI Kontrol series keyboard, the keyswitches will light up in different hues for easy identification. Each articulation has its own additional parameters, whether its a Solo or Duet option for the flutes with a variable legato response, or staccato arpeggiators. All the staccato articulations have a cycling round-robin approach to sample playback, so you never get the same sample triggering twice in a row, which makes for a more natural sound.
Sonically, the sets are great, though it felt easier to get more usable sounds out of some than others. I struggled with saxophone, for instance, but instantly gelled with the solo flute. Modulating the dynamics is a must, and adjusting the attack and release times per instrument and articulation is a good starting point for more realistic results.
Overall, it’s an extremely useful set of symphonic tools for composition. It’s one of the easiest collections I’ve come across to not only get started with and play right off the bat, but delve deeper into developing highly playable articulations.
Form is a Reaktor-based synth that uses samples rather than an oscillator as its starting point. Either drag ’n’ drop your own, or pick one from the bundled presets. You can do everything from simple formant shifting to give samples a little more juice, to mangling them into oblivion and playing a top line. After you’ve picked a sample, you can set the speed of playback and cycling (in Hz, BPM, or relative to the original sample speed). Once you’ve altered the speed of the sample, you can use that speed to adjust your motion. Motion is dictated by a curve, or a series of curves, you can add, edit and loop at will. Imagine drawing an envelope over a sample where linear angles make it ramp with a percussive attack, while exponential curves ramp up in a gentler fashion. You can also change the frequency and phase, so a simple smooth tone can instantly be changed into a percussive chatter. Add curves and loop them to create motion patterns that move with the sustain of the note.
You can then alter the formant oscillator, and the additive oscillator, manipulate the oscillators further with modifiers like FM, stereo spread and multipliers. From there, you can control modulation envelopes, and filter cutoff and resonance, and add a whole range of effects. It’s a unique way of looking at sample synthesis, and you can get useful results regardless of how unfamiliar the controls seem at first.
Una Corda is another name for the soft pedal on a piano, which shifts the whole action to the right so the hammers only strike two strings instead of three. Piano builder, David Klavins, went even further to the right with his piano called Una Corda; it only has one string per note. It’s the second Klavins piano NI has sampled, the other being The Giant — a huge upright installed into a wall with a soundboard roughly double the length of a nine-foot concert grand. Klavins’ pianos don’t get out very much, so NI releasing it in sampled form is great for performers everywhere.
NI’s Una Corda adds even more controllable dimension than any piano it’s previously released. Not only can you ‘prepare’ the piano by stuffing different material between the hammers and strings, you can adjust the overtones, mechanical noise, harmonics, pianist’s variability, resonant tone, and more. There’s also a really great modulation and effects engine that lets you do everything from subtle tape effects, to all-out glistening crackly textures. There’s a huge scope here for sound design, or just getting a slightly different piano sound. As a pure instrument, it’s a little more boxy and direct than your average piano, but it sounds beautiful. In the same way that Alicia’s Keys became a favourite for pop producers, this is an incredibly versatile piano that will have sound designers weeping.
SESSION GUITARIST: STRUMMED ACOUSTIC
At first, I couldn’t really get my head around Session Guitarist: Strummed Acoustic. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s funny as a right-handed guitarist having to play chords with my right hand and strum with my left.
Technically, you don’t really strum, NI does it for you. The low-end octave lets you slot in a selected strumming pattern which you can alternate during a performance. There are a total of 101 x 32-strum patterns in 4/4, 3/4 and triplet divisions. They have varying accents and mutes and cover a range of styles. The search facility lets you browse by mutedness of the strumming hand, dynamic, and bar division, as well as plotting in your own pattern to see which ones match. You can’t technically put in your own pattern, but you can offset and shorten any selected pattern to give you a lot more variety than the 101 already installed. You also don’t have to hold the strumming hand down as it can latch to the pattern you choose.
Above that keyboard section you can play a selection of endings: from palm mutes, to body slaps and slides. Then beginning from the next E, you can play in chords with your right hand, or both hands. Session Guitarist intelligently picks out what chord you’re most likely trying to play, without necessarily relying on your root note. If, for instance, you hammer out a Dsus4 with a sixth, it’ll interpret it as a G major chord and shift the root up, rather than playing a low inversion. Sometimes it feels a little unpredictable. It felt like I could force voicings up higher, but it didn’t always work when I was trying to maintain a low note at the bottom. The unpredictability based on what keys you’re pressing is somewhat due to the voicing slider, which sets a general preference for lower or higher up the neck.
There are also options for guitar sounds (all based on a standard dreadnought), doubling, and fret noise, as well as some external processing. The auto chord feature lets you use only a couple of fingers to select chords in a given key, with the ability to hold down a note to add seconds, fourths, sevenths and ninths. I typically preferred this mode. It’s a great sounding guitar plug-in, though I suspect you’d have to be a non-guitar player wanting to quickly fire out rhythm guitar tracks to get a lot of use out of it.
Emotive Strings is another pre-phrased instrument, this time with orchestral strings. Not having the voicing randomness makes it instantly more comfortable. You can browse within four types of phrase. There are single pitch phrases, and melodic phrases that automatically shift between major and minor depending on the velocity. Emotives give you even more control over melodic phrasing, with the ability to hold richer chords than just major or minor with your left hand, which then automatically limits the notes your right hand can use to trigger phrases. There’s also a selection of arpeggio phrases.
Emotive Strings automatically splits the string section based on how many notes you’re holding down. So if you hold an ostinato and add in a note, some of your players will jump onto that note rather than a whole new string section setting up shop.
It’s a very usable instrument, as you can play single notes in-between phrases, and Emotive Strings will kick off the phrase again once you hold a note down. There’s a huge variety of phrases on offer, and it sounds great. You can also set it to a single note and simply play your heart out.
DISCOVERY SERIES: INDIA
The Discovery Series is a real highlight in the Komplete collection. A lot of effort goes into presenting a country’s unique musical diversity in one plug-in. So far, the series has encompassed Balinese Gamelan, West Africa and Cuba. Now it attempts to cover the whole Indian subcontinent.
When you select the entire ensemble, it pulls up a mix of everything from the well-known sitar and tabla, to the ghatam and dohlak, all laid out on a Persian rug. You can either keyswitch on patterns in the lower octaves or play a selection of each instrument’s articulation range over the rest of the keys. If you choose to play a singular instrument, melodic or percussive, you get a few more controls like tuning, as well as more articulations to play with.
Recently, a friend of mine who’s been living in India and studying tabla under a guru explained to me the rich tradition of the instrument. He’d regularly go to his ‘two-hour’ lesson with his guru, and end up there for an entire day. He conveyed how tabla rhythms are built on stories, and conveyed orally, each hit having a distinct verbalisation. All that’s to say, I have no right messing around on a tabla, or any other instrument from this culture. But it’s not going to stop me, the sounds are so engaging, and every guitarist who’s ever listened to The Beatles fancies themselves as a sitar player. However out of my depth I may be, NI has put some helpful guard rails in place, like being able to select specific Indian scales, or rely on pre-built patterns. It’s a great way to explore the sounds of India without feeling completely out of your depth.
Tim Exile is a weird cat. Flesh is billed as a performance instrument Exile developed to fit into his routine. It’s not going to be for everyone, especially if you’re uneasy embracing randomness as a part of your music creation toolkit. The gist of it is, like Form, you start with a sample, but rather than playing it across the keys, you use it to craft an entire song with multiple parts.
It does this by taking the rhythmic elements of the sample and converting them to melodic and harmonic information that’s spread across multiple synth engines. From left to right, the five main circles represent the sub synth, mono synth, sampler player, poly synth, and FX engine. Each dial can be inflated or shrunk to change its level contribution, and then be fully adjusted behind the scenes to change synth engine (16 engines for each of the mono, sampler and poly parts) and adjust the sound. You then use three octaves on the keyboard to play back your track. On the far left, you can ‘play’ the harmony content, which is linked to a specific chord progression you can choose based on major, minor or chromatic scales. Next along is the sample selector, where you can switch between 12 different samples on the fly. Lastly, the sound control gives you 12 global macro keys which you can program to have different synth levels and characteristics. For instance, one note might represent a ‘sub only’ configuration, the next note might highlight the sample with some heavy effects, and the note after that could drop everything back in again. With those three octaves, there’s more options than you’ll need in a typical song.
It’s definitely an instrument you’ll have to embrace for its randomness. So far I’ve found it useful for developing textures from existing beats and songs that I could try and incorporate underneath, as a middle section, or re-sample. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a song out of it as time goes on.
Native Instruments has had Softube build up a hefty collection of processing clones to fill out its compression, EQ and reverb stocks. Surprisingly, it hasn’t included a dedicated delay until now. Replica XT is a multi-mode delay, and it’s much more than a simple clone.
There are five main delay types — modern, analogue bucket brigade, tape, vintage digital and diffusion. Each type has specific controls — like ‘wow & flutter’ appearing only on the tape delay mode — but the remainder of the controls remain constant regardless of the mode selected. The bifurcation of the modes from the rest of the controls feels like a good move, because you change the overall tonality but keep global parameters the same for things like high and low pass filters, repeat divisions, feedback, and mix. If you delve a little deeper, you can also adjust the shuffle and feel of the repeats, and set ducking and panning controls. The central graphic display lets you see what you’re tweaking by showing the spacing and intensity of the repeats.
You can extend feedback past 100% and get some ominous, dreamy train sounds with the single Modern engine. It doesn’t take off in a bad way, it just adds some deep unstable chorusing that modulates as its own instrument.
I love those little glitches that delays make as you’re switching parameters mid-flight. Sometimes they’re ugly, but Replika XT always added something pleasingly musical. Setting a Moog onto a simple arpeggiated pattern, I dove right into flicking as many dials and switches as I could, revelling in the mini chords and off-kilter bleeps that popped up.
There’s also an extra effects engine, dedicated purely to the repeats. You can alter them with a phaser, flanger, chorus, frequency shifter, filter, pitch shifter and micro shifter. Again, the results were all incredibly musical. It’s hard to see myself needing another delay.
Native Instruments Komplete 11 Ultimate is a sure bet for anyone wanting to max out their creative palette in one fell swoop. NI could really only add to its already impressively filled out categories. For those wondering whether to upgrade, the Symphony Essentials bundle is worth the price of admission, it’s hard to ignore the potent contribution of Indian music and the chance to get your hands on some the subscontinent’s virtual instruments, Una Corda is a very useful tool, Form is instantly inspiring, and Replica XT could very well be your new favourite delay. It’s more than just another sample set, every instrument is thoughtfully put together to give you the best chance of making music with it.