We Who Are About To Play Several Instruments Salute You. This One's About NI's Kontrol-S Mark 3 Keyboards.

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Too Many Notes
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I play keys and guitar. In my line of work, you more or less have to.

I rely heavily on Native Instruments' Kontakt. With its very large number of third-party sound library developers who use the platform, flexibility and great sound quality, there's really no way of avoiding it, especially if you use orchestral instruments.

Kontakt 7 is great, but like all Kontakt iterations, while you can make the plugin vertically larger on the screen, the typeface and onscreen controls stay tiny and are kind of a PITA to tweak. Native Instruments has also made a host plugin called Komplete Kontrol for their other plugins, as well as third party NKS and now even VST plugins.

For quite a few years they've made keyboard controllers to make dealing with this steaming pile of audio a little easier. They got it pretty right with Kontrol S version 1, and even better with version two, but not quite enough to whet my appetite. I stuck with the trackpad and mouse. But Kontrol-S Version 3 (hereafter KS3) is different. I decided to buy one to use in front of my computer screen because what I saw in the NI video demos told me this one is a must-have.

I already have an 88 key Yamaha controller that has a great feel that I use mainly with piano, but it doesn't have aftertouch, and its mod and pitch wheels are on the top panel instead of next to the keyboard, making it less ergonomic than I'd like. However, for piano, my main instrument, it's a great key bed.

So I got the synth action 61 key KS3 model. For playing orchestral instruments like strings, I like a synth action. 49 keys isn't enough for orchestral work, 61 keys barely makes it (they should make a 73 key version), but it's livable.

So this whole NKS thing and the concept behind this controller isn't a gimmick. It's actually well thought out, and the keyboard itself feels very high quality. The aluminum knobs are touch-sensitive, not wobbly or cheap feeling, and the control wheels are also aluminum, have their own little lighted center marking, and feel like a million bucks compared to the wobbly junk on most controllers.

The screen itself is glass, not plastic that scratches easily. The materials of the casing feel high quality, NI says the chassis is anodized aluminum; maybe that's inside. I can't tell if the casing itself is aluminum or a nice plastic, but either way the synth feels solid and well made.

It has polyphonic aftertouch, meaning you can control one note's attributes and yet hold the rest of a chord at the same time and not modulate the other notes. This is cool and useful. The screen is huge, and interacts automatically with Kontakt and Komplete Kontrol.

Installing the software on my computer was easy, and when I pulled up Logic, the keyboard automatically set itself up as a control surface for Logic without me having to do a blessed thing. Yeah, it can control Logic's recording controls, it's mixing features, and all that interesting stuff all by its little self. Cool.

Open a Kontakt instrument and boom. Everything's controllable, and with the large screen right in front of your face on the keyboard, with the knobs and buttons automatically mapped to various parameters (they can also be reassigned to other parameters) - and it's different for each instrument - you are in business in short order. You can audition sounds because there's a list of sounds for all the banks of not only Kontakt, but all of your software instruments within Komplete Kontrol. And the buttons and knobs are mapped for that, too.

Press a button to control the plugins. Press another button and control your mix in Logic or other DAWs.

There's a row of lights right above the keyboard that isn't a gimmick. Lots of software libraries have different sounds on different keys. This keyboard knows which keys those are, and lights up each section in a different color. No guessing "Is the hand percussion starting on D3 or D4? Which keys are the tympani and which are the bass drum? The lights tell you. They show you other things too, but those things aren't things I do, so I don't remember what those functions are.

No squinting at tiny lettering on large computer screens to control Kontakt. The keyboard tells you which knob controls what parameter. Your patches are listed on the keyboard as well as the screen.

And more.

Oh yes, there's MIDI 2, for DAWs and instruments that can use it. MIDI two involves more than the 127 step limitation of any MIDI controller. You get much finer control - Over 4 million steps. Logic can be set for MIDI 2 already. Most third party plugins or hardware can't yet, but that day is coming fast. More on this in a later post.

The key action feels very good for synths. It's not cheap, flimsy or cheesy, the bed was made by Fatar, an Italian company with a ton of experience making key beds for other manufacturers as well as their own instrument line, Studiologic.

The drawback: This is one of the more expensive 61 key controllers. But the way it integrates your software with your hands makes getting this a no-brainer, especially if you use NI's Kontakt.

KS3 is also becoming popular among film composers, because so many sample libraries run on Kontakt. Today I even got the keyboard to control the parameters of EastWest's Opus, in the way it controls Kontakt. Pretty slick.
 
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I have enjoyed my S49 MkII for several years now. I don't have the experience you do to bass my view on, but I have been very happy with it's capabilities and feel as well as it's integration with the NI suite. Apparently the biggest difference between MkII and MkIII is the polyphonic touch, which I would like to have, but not enough to upgrade to the MkIII at this time.

Why did you not get the s88 with 88 keys?

Looking forward to any bits you discover that I may be able to utilize in my S series interaction and congrats on the new controller ;~))
 
Apparently the biggest difference between MkII and MkIII is the polyphonic touch, which I would like to have, but not enough to upgrade to the MkIII at this time.

The MkII is a sweet controller, I'd just keep using it if I had one, because the differences are mainly details. The new one has MIDI 2, which means the software isn't limited to 127 velocities or steps, it's much finer in gradation. Not all software can do MIDI 2, but the Mark 3 can, and Logic already supports it.

Why did you not get the s88 with 88 keys?

Simple!

I already have a great-feeling Yamaha 88 key controller with a key bed that feels very much like a piano. I haven't found anything that feels better, and even though I've had it for ten years, it's in perfect shape and it works perfectly with my piano libraries.

Pic of the Yamaha 88 key controller:

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But I've always had a synth keyboard to work with for most orchestral instruments because they have a completely different feel.

Also, no freaking way am I loading a heavy 88 key controller from the stand it sits on into a rolling case and dragging it up the stairs, then lifting it into my car if I work at another studio, and then reversing the process when I get back home.

You think moving amps around is hard if you're over the age of 30? Try moving an 88 key controller with weighted keys when you're WAY over 30. Not only heavy, but extremely unwieldy weight due to the length. Been there, done that, got the hat, the T-shirt, and obligatory ruptured disk!
 
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Shot of the controller's screen when it's automatically mapped to Kontakt. The controls are pre-mapped, and much larger and more legible than the plugin's GUI. I have the brightness on the controller dimmed, it can get much brighter.

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The controller automatically sets the lights above the keys to match the key control layouts in Kontakt. Here's the controller an octave down, showing the red key switches to change the patch, as well as the blue lights showing where the samples are mapped to the keyboard. There are no samples above the blue ones. No guesswork!


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Without pulling up Kontakt, as soon as I boot the orchestral template in Logic, the controller automatically sets up MIDI control for Logic's tracks. As soon as I pull up Kontakt, it automatically switches to the Kontakt screen for whatever sample library is loaded. I did nothing to set this up, it is absolutely automatic.

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This shot shows the size and overall layout of the keyboard. It's light weight and the size is manageable. Plenty of room to take notes, put other gear on the desk, etc. It's got a clean look I like, though I'll admit the design's simplicity isn't all that "ooh, look".

There are controller keyboards with little faders. I've had a few and never used them. Most of those faders are cheap, lousy feeling and what are you supposed to do, rest your wrists on the keys while using them? Pffft. Give me rotary encoders any day.

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I wanted to talk a little more about MIDI 2.0.

The resolution of 4.2+ million steps of data instead of 127 steps of data means that how a synth or sampler responds to your playing allows (obviously) for much more detail in the performance. For example, if your piano synth or sample uses MIDI 1.0, that was a breakthrough in 1982 when MIDI was first implemented. It meant that a piece of hardware or software could respond to hard and soft keystrokes with a good amount of detail.

4 million-plus steps makes for very, very fine response to the slightest nuance. It's a game-changer. As mentioned, Logic already implements it.

Why doesn't a sampled piano respond exactly like a real piano? One reason (among several) is that there is infinite nuance to touch playing a real piano. A real piano isn't limited to 127 steps of response to the velocity of your fingers..

Another great thing about MIDI 2.0: It allows bidirectional messages between each piece of gear. The reason I don't have to do ANY setups to get Logic and the S61 Mk3 to work automatically is because MIDI 2.0 was implemented on both the keyboard and Logic.

So the keyboard immediately knows how Logic is set up: tracks, track names, which plugins, which hardware, etc. So what's on one screen is on the other, automatically. I remember tediously typing in every patch name to allow Digital Performer and Performer Before Digital to call up all the patches on each piece of hardware. It took about a week to do that when I had five racks of gear. It was mind-numbing work.

Every time something new came into the studio, I had to open up the editor/librarian program and type all that in. For years now, hardware could communicate that type of data to other gear, but only if that gear was designed to accept the protocols of the hardware. With MIDI 2.0 that's built into the protocols of ALL the gear.

For recording and mixing, the ability of the computer to respond to finer control means that faders, knobs, etc., can respond more like analog faders than 127-step digital faders. That's a big deal for nuance, fades, and so on.

It's cool stuff. Everyone will benefit from it.

MIDI 2 is also fully backwards-compatible with MIDI 1.0 gear. All your old MIDI gear works fine with it, the old gear simply won't have the ability to communicate or receive as much nuance.

When sample libraries start to be built for MIDI 2.0 I'll retire the Yamaha 88 note controller and get one that can do what this NI controller does. If it's any time soon, it'll probably be the 88 key version of this NI model.
 
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The more I use this thing, the more I like it. The software has a learning curve, but it's off-the-hook powerful. The included instruments sound really nice, the whole thing is a cool package. So I'm spending a decent amount of time learning how to use it, and the more I pick up, the better I like what it can do.

Initially I wasn't sure if the body of the instrument was the nicest plastic I've ever seen, or metal. Well, it's machined aluminum, anodized and I think bead-blasted. No wonder there isn't a molding seam to be seen!

I'm all in on a metal chassis for a keyboard, because I've had to take keyboards to other studios, and it's nice if the one I have to carry doesn't fall apart.

Also, anodized aluminum is a durable finish.
 
I'm thinking I should get an 88 key version of this keyboard to replace my 88 key Yamaha. It's so much more advanced. The only thing stopping me is that the Yamaha really has a piano-like feel.

However, if NI's 88 key controller can come close, I'm definitely going to replace the Yamaha. I just haven't found one to try out.

I think it makes sense to have both controllers be able to run the software equally well.
 
Great advance from 1.0, not only the fine gradations but being bidirectional sound like a huge time saver at very least.

Thanks for the summary.
As more and more instruments and software makers implement it, I think it'll be a big deal.

I would imagine it would offer much greater nuance for hardware and software instrument control, though it'll take some extra sampling and work by the various manufacturers and software makers to take full advantage of it.
 
You're entirely welcome, and I hope you do! If you have any questions about what to get, or look for, maybe I can be of service and answer them!
I Certainly Will Be Reaching Out When The TIme Is Right.
 
I'm resurrecting this thread to mention that after a month with this keyboard I wonder how I got along without it all these years!

It's really nice to work with, feels great, the polyphonic aftertouch is actually useful, and I like the simple 'slab o' aluminum' bodywork.

It's funny how a little thing like simply moving to a different keyboard can feel like a significant change to the workflow.
 
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