Review: Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MK 2
Native Instruments has supplemented its hugely useful Light Guide with two screens. Now you’ll never have to look away from Komplete Kontrol to make music again.
The battle to find a free-flowing compositional experience can shift right under your feet; new software, new gear, new instruments, integrating anything new can break your flow in an instant. It was a relief to discover that rather than lobbing a grenade into my setup, Native Instruments was fighting the battle on my behalf. Having played with the Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk 2 for a few months now, I can say these are the most intuitive, unobtrusive, inspirational MIDI keyboards I’ve ever reviewed.
The first round of Komplete Kontrol keyboards were an all-round hit as Native Instruments delivered a physical interface for its NKS paradigm. The most noticeable feature was the Light Guide. The key illumination feature could have looked poxy, something a beginner might need to find Middle C. However, in use it was a revelation. Breaking up instruments categorically across the keyboard — e.g. a drum machine’s individual sample notes appear in a different colour to loops. It can also light up a scale of your choosing if you forget how to play piano.
The new Mk 2 models have doubled up the visual feedback with the addition of two full-colour, high resolution screens. The row of buttons above and eight touch-sensitive encoders underneath help you navigate on-screen parameters swiftly, but more on that later.
FEELING OF KONTROL
Everyone who tried the S49 comments on its build quality. It feels solid and has reassuring weight. Matte black suits it well and the backlit rubber buttons ensure visibility on a dim stage. The Mute/Solo and Select buttons above the screens even have multiple backlight colours. Also, the pitch/mod controls are wheels rather than sliders, while a single touch-sensitive slider underneath gives an extra expressive option.
The keybed itself is by Fatar and I love it. There’s a certain thickness about how the keys feel — a delicate balance between springy and weighty, with satisfying travel. They beg to be played. The full-size S88 keyboard comes with weighted keys.
The S49 Mk 2 runs perfectly fine off USB bus power but there’s still an on/off button at the back — no yanking the USB cable to turn it off. It powers up really fast, too. Another thing that impressed me was how quickly it settled into a DAW session, when turned on mid-session. No complaints, no ‘please restart session’ requests, and no software dialogue boxes asking you to select your controller.
NEED TO KNOW
Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S49 MK 2
NO LOOK PASS
The best thing about the S keyboards is how ridiculously simple it is to build a track using nothing but the hardware. Firstly, the keyboard doubles as a DAW control surface, letting you commandeer the transport, track levels, solos, mutes, and more. With that taken care of your attention can turn to finding sounds, and with the built-in screens you don’t have to turn to your computer monitor to do it. Ableton Live and the KK S49 get along like a house on fire once you’ve walked through the DAW integration process on NI’s website.
To get the full benefit of S49 Mk 2’s hardware control, your NKS-supported instruments have to run within the Komplete Kontrol plug-in. Within DAWs that support multiple plug-in formats (like Ableton Live), make sure all your instances of Komplete Kontrol are the same (either VST or AU) or it’ll screw things up. To make it easy, I loaded up a row of MIDI tracks in Ableton and inserted Komplete Kontrol as a VST on the lot. That was my keyboard/mouse duties completed for the day.
The S49 Mk 2’s Mixer view (there’s a button for it above the big knob) lays out the tracks in your DAW session across the two screens. Select a track using the button directly above it, then press Plugin to dive into Komplete Kontrol world. Now, the left screen is a rolling list of your NKS-supported instruments. Spin the touch sensitive encoders underneath to find what you’re looking for, or use an adjacent encoder to narrow down by category. Here’s the real turbo boost — when the selector box sits on any instrument on the left screen, the categories and presets for that instrument are instantly listed on the right screen, ready to be scrolled or selected using the encoders and Load button. It’s incredibly intuitive and a million times better than clicking through an instrument library with a mouse. Did I mention it’s in full-colour with graphics of each instrument displayed onscreen as you scroll. Whether it was NI’s own instruments or NKS-compatible VIs like Arturia’s V Collection, Output’s classy sonic manglers, or Spitfire Audio sample packs, it all displayed like it was a native device.
Once you’ve loaded up an instrument and preset, S49 will sprawl its relevant parameters across the encoders underneath the screens so you can get hands-on with the sounds right away. Buttons on the right hand side let you record takes, undo/redo them, flick the metronome on/off, quantise your performance, change the tempo, activate the arpeggiator and more. It took me all of 30 seconds to lose myself in the fun of it all. You find yourself with an urge to make music every spare hour you get.
NOT ALL DAWS OPEN
If I had to peel my gaze away and level some criticism at the Komplete Kontrol Mk2 it would be the limited DAW support (see box item) and the lack of pads. The ability to trigger clips, play samples or sequence a beat with pads would take the experience to another level, particularly for live performance. Perhaps NI sees that as trespassing into Maschine territory and has held off.
Of course, you don’t need to be heavily invested in the Native Instruments paradigm to benefit from the Komplete Kontrol S49 Mk2. It functions just fine as a ‘regular’ MIDI controller with any of your virtual instruments. All MIDI parameters can be mapped to corresponding controls on the keyboard using the Komplete Kontrol software and you can save multiple configurations. But the real fun begins when you dive head first into the world of NKS-supported instruments and Komplete Kontrol integration. Making music with a Komplete Kontrol keyboard is as close to a utopian creative process as I’ve experienced.