By Craig Anderton
Face it, groove stuff can be addictive. Even if you're a guitarist and not a synth geek, a cool groove program can be an inspiring songwriter partner, and taken on its own, you can make some pretty slammin' rhythm tracks—and even complete tunes—without spending hours obsessing over recording and editing. What's more, it's fun.
Propellerheads' Reason is probably the best-known groove software, but there's also Arturia Storm, FL Studio, and a bunch of others, including Cakewalk's Kinetic 2. I never really took to the original Kinetic until I was on a plane, stranded on a runway in Atlanta, waiting for a storm to end. The airline was too cheap to provide free drinks, so I pulled out the laptop. By the time the plane took off, some pretty decent trance music was coming through my headphones. But Reason remained my laptop program of choice, and I didn't think too much more about Cakewalk's offering until Kinetic 2 came along. What a difference a rev makes...
Kinetic 2 (K2 for short) is basically a sequencer that comes packaged with a bunch of instruments and effects. But the big deal here is the workflow, which makes working with K2 pretty painless. The big bonus is that you can deal with K2 on two levels: Simplest possible, where you just toss loops together and go, or a deeper level where you can edit, create your own files, use third-party instruments, and more.
The basic unit of Kineticism is the "part." This could be like a bass part, drum loop, synth pad—basically some repetitive loop. Then you can combine 16 of these parts into a "groove." The groove contains a mixer with 16 channels, two aux buses, and a master section; each channel hosts one part. A song can contain up to 64 grooves, which you choose by clicking on a bank (A, B, C, or D) and a number from 1-16.
Once you have your grooves, you can pick them in real time; the next groove you choose can start playing instantly, at the end of a measure, or after the current groove has finished doing its thing. Or, you can create a song by specifying the order in which the various grooves will play. This is a painless process—you just pick and groove, and "paint" in how long you want it to last.
The groove mixer is at the top; to its left is the "keypad" for picking grooves. Below that is part of the browser, while below that, a MIDI file is shown in an edit view. The strip at the bottom is the song arranger.
So what makes up a part? Two choices: Digital audio loops, or software synthesizers driven by MIDI. In both cases, K2 makes things easy for you. If you use "acidized" audio loops (as are most of the files provided with K2's content), K2 will stretch them automatically so that they work with a wide range of tempos. If you're into MIDI, the interface for creating and editing parts in MIDI is simple enough that even a talk radio show host could understand it. Three software instruments come with K2: Psyn II (sophisticated, highly editable virtual analog synth), Roland GrooveSynth (lots of different sounds with decent editability), and the DropZone drag-and-drop sampler, which accepts REX files and also SFZ format files. K2 can also host third-party VSTi and DXi instruments, which is pretty darn cool.
What's more, you can create "device chains" with a synthesizer followed by effects. So if your fave sound involves adding chorus, delay, and reverb, you can save the whole thing and recall it as one entity. What about effects? K2 comes with the Alias Factor lo-fi processor, PowerStrip (where two effects parameters are brought out to an X-Y controller pad), High Frequency Exciter, ModFilter (wa-wa/envelope filter/LFO), Chorus/Flanger, Para Q (EQ), Classic Phaser, Compressor/Gate, Tempo Delay, and Reverb. As with instruments, K2 can host third-party effects.
The key to K2's ease of use is the Browser. It has two panes, one for choosing Patterns (audio or MIDI), and in the case of MIDI instruments, another pane for choosing the instrument Sound.
The browser lets you pick audio files or MIDI sequences in various styles, which upon selection are transferred immediately into the groove mixer.
For Patterns, you start with the type of Pattern (e.g., audio loops, bass instruments, drum instruments, etc.), then choose a musical style, then a pattern in that style. If applicable, you then choose the instrument, style (acoustic, electric, synth, etc.), and finally, a suitable device chain. As soon as you click on the play button, the part starts playing, and you can use its associated mixer controls to adjust level, panning, aux sends, and the like.
You build up parts, one channel at a time, until your groove is complete. Finally, you can either play your grooves in real time and improvise, or create a song.
Yeah, that's what I thought at first, too. But you can dig deeper. For example, the mixer parameters are all automatable, and you can build automation into the song arranging process too, adding such things as crescendos, panning, and more, on a per-groove basis. You can trim parts as well, or create "stuttering" effects by creating a series of, say, 8th notes from different grooves. What's more, you can build automation into the individual MIDI parts. Speaking of which, you can edit patterns using a "piano roll" type interface, or something that looks more like a conventional step sequencer; furthermore, "performance maps" let you play complex chords and scales with a single key—great when working out chord progressions.
And when your masterpiece is done, you can export the song in MP3/WMA/WAV formats. Having a slot in the master effects section is very handy, as you can include a processor like compression to slam the tune's dynamic range if you're so inclined.
One of my favorite applications is to rewire K2 into a host program like Sonar, at which point K2becomes a groovemaker/very hip metronome/source of inspiration over which I can overdub additional parts in Sonar itself. (K2 can be a rewire client, but not a host.) In this application, K2 seems almost more like a sample library (it includes a lot of content) with a sequencer attached.
The Grid interface is a wonderful addition for laptop jockeys, as you can play notes from your QWERTY keyboard.
Another great feature is a "Grid" interface, which can trigger notes, drums, etc. My favorite aspect is that you can tie the buttons to keys on your laptop, which means that next time I'm stuck on a plane, I can create patterns without needing a separate MIDI keyboard.
While we're talking about advanced stuff, it's also worth noting most controls have a "MIDI learn" mode so you can use control surfaces, like those from M-Audio, Kenton, and others, to get physical with the program by twisting knobs and pushing buttons. The only downer: The mixer Solo buttons won't respond to external MIDI control.
Overall, K2 is tremendous value for $99 list. I came to it thinking it would be a fun toy, but now I'm using it for everything from portable music to (thanks to ReWire) a songwriter partner for host programs. Very cool...and the "fun factor" is way up there, too.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.