Native Instruments' latest super bundle Komplete is back with its eighth iteration and among the instruments getting a major-point upgrade is Kontakt, which jumps to version 5. This soft-sampler powerhouse has been an industry standard for nearly a decade, but some interesting competition has been cropping up lately. With alternatives like MOTU's latest version of MachFive re-emerging from the shadows and raising some eyebrows with its overhauled UI and new features, there is some pressure growing for Native Instruments to innovate. So what's new with Kontakt 5? Are the changes worthy of the full point upgrade?
Visually you would have a hard time distinguishing Kontakt 4 and Kontakt 5 in a side-by-side comparison, as there were no major changes to the interface this time around. It's only when you dig into the various editor panels that you start to notice some of the upgrades. The first change you're likely to see is the new set of options in the Sampler mode dropdown. There you'll find a smart new time-stretching mode called Time Machine Pro, as well as two vintage sampler modes that are reported to be modeled after the Akai S1200 and MPC60 samplers that were responsible for oh so many hip-hop anthems. In a trend that will become evident in the course of this review, Native Instruments "sampled" from their other products for many of Kontakt 5's enhancements—in this case those vintage sampler algorithms are borrowed straight from Maschine.
One of the few truly new features that Kontakt 5 brings to the table is the aforementioned Time Machine Pro sampling mode, which was reportedly developed for NI by the time-stretching specialists at zPlane. This algorithm is pretty convincing for most audio material, allowing you to stretch a sample by as much as 600% or shrink by 50%. There are some examples on NI's Kontakt page that show off the possibilities here. One downside to the Time Machine Pro mode is that automation of pitch either doesn't work, or has been disabled intentionally.
Moving on from there, when you get past the amplifier panel you'll see an entirely new section called the Instrument Bus. This is a powerful new way of applying effect chains to more than one group at once without needing to duplicate the chain of effect modules on each group—saving both time and more importantly, CPU. A good example of when you might want to use the instrument bus is a drum kit instrument, in which you might want to have the same set of effects to process the closed hi-hat, open hi-hat and ride cymbal samples, even if they are in separate zones.
Each of the 16 instrument buses can be renamed to more easily reference the effects chain contained therein, and as a nice touch there are even level meters that show the volume level of each bus after the effects have done their thing to the signal. This new option, in combination with the existing insert and aux effect channels, allows for pretty much any effect routing combination that one could dream up. The chosen destination of a given group can even be changed from one instrument bus to another via KSP scripting if you feel like getting really geeky.
When choosing from the list of possible effects to use in those new channels, you'll notice the last of the major upgrades—a horde of new effect types. All told, there are 37 new filter types, a new EQ, a new compressor, a transient shaper and a saturator. The EQ and compressor are "sampled" from pre-existing Guitar Rig counterparts that were recently made available for purchase individually (or as part of the Solid Mix bundle). These are quality recreations of revered analog gear and having them added to the Kontakt arsenal is a big bonus.
The new filter types are reportedly designed by the same person responsible for Massive, and here again you'll notice familiarities in some of the filter types that were borrowed from Massive and Pro 53. The true breakthrough in the new filter types are the Adaptive Resonance (AR) filters, which are designed to control wild resonance peaks automatically. (If you're not familiar with resonance peaks think about a really squeal-y 303 acid line.) This might be a nice effect on a single channel, but when processing drums or a full mix it can be helpful to tame the volume of those filter peaks, and that's exactly what the AR filters do.
The last of the upgrades in Kontakt 5 is reserved mostly for the instrument makers out there, as it affects the KSP scripting language built into Kontakt. In addition to a bunch of other script functions and controls belonging to the new effects, Native Instruments also built in the ability to read in a MIDI file, which can then be used to trigger the instrument or to define groove templates, for example. This is used heavily in the Studio Drummer groove library to build beats and fills from scratch, but it could be put into practice for pretty much any MIDI phrase preset you could want within a library. From the early documentation it appears that, while still useful, this functionality is still pretty new and there are definite limitations on what you can do. For example, from all indications it seems you can't really capture MIDI input and then store it for future playback (the MIDI files have to be pre-generated). However, a glance at the changelog of the KSP engine from version 4 to version 5 shows just how much changed in the internals of Kontakt.
Certainly this is a nice upgrade in functionality to the current champ in the sampling world. The new filter types and effects, in combination with the sophisticated time-stretching algorithm, are enough of a bump up to make the upgrade price worth the money to existing Kontakt users. Instrument makers will also probably enjoy the new KSP options and use them to enhance the already amazing Kontakt sample library market out there.
However, when you look back at the amount of functionality "sampling" Kontakt does from the other Native Instruments products out there it sort of feels a little like cheating. It's admittedly a logical move when you've got a good code base and have the ability to reuse it from one project to another. With all of the other upgrades baked in, especially the instrument bus, we have to admit that Kontakt is still the king of software samplers. At the same time, the gap between it and the competition seems to be closing, and the audio production community will be watching to see what the future brings. For the moment, though, Kontakt is still hard to beat.