by Craig Anderton
Question: How do you review a product with 50 instruments and effects, 240GB of sounds, sells for almost a grand (street price), and which has so much data the company just gave up on DVD-ROMs and ships the whole thing on a hard drive (which, by the way, is remarkably convenient)?
Answer: You don’t, because by the time you finished reviewing everything that’s in there, Komplete 9 would be out—and the review would be obsolete.
Then again, I’m not sure all of this needs to be reviewed, because unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, you know about Native Instruments. Kontakt has established itself as pretty much the standard in samplers (and many sound library companies use its junior version, Kontakt Player, as a host—with the advantage that these can be opened in the full version of Kontakt for additional features). Reaktor was one of the programs that started the whole virtual instruments movement, and Battery was the virtual percussion instrument that crossbred synthesis with drum modules. If you’re a guitar player you already know about Guitar Rig, either through the pro program or one of its LE derivatives bundled with other programs; and any FM synth fan will sing the praises of FM8. Komplete also includes Massive, a virtual analog synth whose name defines its sound, and then there's Absynth, a sound designer's dream that doubles as a legal psychedelic. So what’s new? For starters, updates . . .
Kontakt 5 allows for user-friendly instrument GUIs (upper image), but click on the edit button, and you can get down to the modular level (lower image).
Guitar Rig 5 is moving away from being a guitar-only product (I figured that out a long time ago, it’s often been my “secret weapon” for drums) to a more general-purpose signal processing rack that continues to emphasize guitar, but is also suitable as a general-purpose virtual rack processor.
Guitar Rig has the same rack paradigm, but check out the list of dynamics components toward the left, which now includes a roster of studio-oriented effects—like the three vintage compressors, Solid Mix processors, and Transient Master.
Kontakt 5 has been tweaked with additional effects, more than 30 new filters, a new time-stretching algorithm, vintage sample algorithms (taken from Maschine), and some goodies for instrument designers, like a MIDI file player being included in Kontakt's scripting engine. There are also new instruments, like Retro Machines MK2 (vintage keyboards and synthesizers—you get an email with a link to download this after you register), Razor (a rich, "instant classic," highly animated additive synth hosted within Reaktor), and three of particular interest to those doing film scoring: Evolve Mutations, Evolve Mutations 2, and Session Strings Pro.
Razor is an additive synthesizer that’s hosted within Reaktor.
You’ll also find Alicia’s Keys (sampled Yamaha C3 Neo) and George Duke Soul Treasures (yes, the George Duke, and played by him as well), which is an instrument filled with funk phrases. Oh, and those who never quite got over Steinberg’s Virtual Guitarist going away will find some consolation with the more limited, but still fun, Scarbee Funk Guitarist. And speaking of Scarbee, they've contributed some great vintage keyboards.
With Scarbee Funk Guitarist, you can choose different articulations and grooves to create funk, blues, disco, and related rhythm guitar parts.
But another important aspect of “newness” is content. Although Native Instruments is known for its, well, native instruments, over the years they’ve developed a massive library of content that seems to increase exponentially. This wouldn’t be a big deal—it’s easy to find content, right?—except the standards for everything they do is extremely high, whether you’re spotlighting bass samples or West African percussion. Sure, you may have some other favorites, like a particular Synthogy Ivory piano or Arturia vintage synth (who doesn’t like their Moog Modular?) that aren’t represented in this collection, but there aren’t a whole lot of sounds left out of Komplete. “Complete” isn't just marketing-speak; it’s a description.
New content and samples include Balinese gamelan, multiple new Scarbee basses, three new Abbey Road drum sets (70s Drums, 80s Drums, and Modern Drums) to complement the existing 60s Drums, Studio Drummer (with three acoustic kits, effects, and 3,500 beats and fills), new patches and sounds (750 for Massive, 400 for Absynth, and 200 for FM8), and a bunch of new effects—the Vintage Compressors and Solid Mix packages for Guitar Rig, Traktor’s 12 effects (okay, that was in Komplete 7, but they’re worth mentioning if you missed them), two totally original effects from Tim Exile, and . . . and . . . you get the idea. Complete. The only sounds that didn't totally thrill me at first were in Retro Machines MK2; I hit a couple synth sounds with questionable loops, I didn't like the RMI harpsichord, and the DX7 electric piano had only two velocity levels (not that it really matters, what with FM8 included). But then I dug deeper, and the more I looked, the more really useful sounds I found. Coupled with the Scarbee vintage keyboards, Komplete 8 Ultimate has everything I need in the keys department. I even like the pianos...
If you had only Kontakt 5, you'd have a lot. But the synthesizers are huge too, so you have sampling, synthesis, and processing covered. And there’s a bonus: If you have Maschine, the entire library integrates with the Maschine browser (which itself borrows liberally from the late, great Kore), to make it somewhat easier to find these particular needles in the Komplete haystack.
You’ll need around 200GB of drive space to install everything. I didn’t have that much space on my dedicated hard drive for sound libraries, but realized that with Komplete, I didn’t need a lot of what was already installed. I had no problem blitzing enough libraries to make room for Komplete; besides, I could always re-install them if needed. But I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.
Shipping Komplete 8 Ultimate on a hard drive makes installation painless; the process takes about two hours, not including downloading any additional updates.
In addition to hard drive space, you need time (don't start installation just before going to bed). I didn’t set my stopwatch to see how long it takes to install (I should have, sorry) but it was a long time. And I mean, a long time. As in, start the process, then go catch a movie. And just when you think you’re done, you’re not: after going to the NI Service Center to authorize everything, it helpfully informs you that, oh by the way, would you like to download a bunch of updates? Of course you do, and in my case, it was about 1GB of program updates and new content.
But you're still not done because about a day later, you get four emails from Native Instruments: One with a link for the Solid Mix Series processors, one for Retro Machines MK2—another 3.7GB (apparently these weren't finished before the hard drives were duplicated), four links to upgrades for the four Abbey Road drum libraries (about 24GB total), and finally, a $30 voucher for the NI online shop. Yes, what you have is complete, but they keep adding things . . . you could use the voucher to defray part of the cost of, for example, the Damage virtual instrument, which was introduced after Komplete 8.
Those are the basics, but let’s look at the implications. This is more than just a bunch of stuff thrown together into a package, and there’s a certain significance that might not be obvious until you start using Komplete 8 Ultimate.
Lately, I’ve been making a serious attempt to simplify my setup. Part of this is to improve workflow; part of this is due to calling up projects from several years ago where I can’t restore them to the way they were. Sometimes that’s because I’m now running a 64-bit system, and the older files pointed to a 32-bit plug-in that was never upgraded. Or the plug-in isn’t installed any more, or whatever. While having a variety of plug-ins from multiple companies provides diversity, over time it can also provide landmines in the minefield of “progress marches on.” There’s something very tempting about a suite of plug-ins and instruments that’s all from the same vendor (especially one that has a history of staying on top of changes in operating systems).
Then let’s consider the cost. $1,000 seems like a lot at first, but think about it. Most of today’s DAWs come with decent virtual instruments, effects, and even content—certainly enough to make some fine music. But at some point, you run into limitations. Maybe there aren’t good strings, or good pianos, or good dance-oriented material. Maybe you’d like some more aggressive drums, or can’t find any ethnic percussion that fits your needs.
The beauty of Komplete is that if you pair this with a DAW (and remember, Komplete does AU, VST, and RTAS), you’re basically done. You now have a studio with what’s needed for at least 90\\\% of what you’re going to need to do...maybe even 99\\\%.
Let that sink in. The DAW software will cost you, let’s say on average, $500. Add Komplete, and you’re at $1,500—the price I paid for my first 4-track tape recorder, sans mixer, tape, processors, or anything else (and if you’re upgrading instead of buying Komplete 8 Ultimate new, the total price goes down even further). That is serious bang for the buck. If you purchased all these elements separately, spread over a few manufacturers . . . well, it would be a whole lot more. (And if you have Komplete 2, being able to upgrade to Komplete 8 Ultimate for $499 street is a steal.)
Let’s suppose that with a few select exceptions Komplete 8 Ultimate’s all I really need, and I base pretty much everything I do around it. Will that come back to haunt me five years from now when I try to open projects?
Well, nothing is permanent—just ask people who built an act around Kore. But there are a few interesting aspects to Native Instruments. First, they’ve been around for over 15 years, so they’ve already proven their staying power. Second, they’re diversified. They’re not just about software, but hardware (a helpful hedge against software theft) and DJing (Traktor is huge in Europe; it dominates the market there). NI also has a track record of updating their programs, usually free except when moving to a new version number, and when they make mistakes—don’t we all—they tend to admit them, fix them, and keep moving forward.
For example, the initial incarnation of their online Service Center to handle software registrations was a disaster. Their customers hated it (yes, I was one of those people who wrote some nasty emails), and the NI forums were awash with complaints. So a new version came out, then a newer version, then more improvements, and now I have to say that the Service Center is one of the high points of how NI takes care of their customers. It stores all my registrations and codes so I don’t have to flip out if I lose the little slip of paper with the activation code, advises me of updates that are available, and gives an overview of installed programs.
Another example is Kore. When NI decided to discontinue Kore and essentially replace it with Maschine, Kore users—a pretty vocal bunch—were disappointed and angry. NI responded by offering a fair crossgrade price for Maschine, some free vouchers for Kore soundpacks, and 64-bit drivers after the product was discontinued. While that wasn’t the same as continuing to develop Kore, it showed that the company was sincere about not wanting to just abandon a base of loyal users.
I remember running into Daniel Haver of Native Instruments at the Frankfurt Musik Messe several years ago. I asked whether they were doing okay, because I basically hadn’t seen any new products in a year. He explained that they spent the entire year cleaning up code, fixing bugs, and optimizing compatibility with new computer operating systems. It caused a financial hit for the company to keep re-visiting and tweaking the past instead of creating new products to generate revenue and attract new customers, but as he said, “It’s something we had to do.” Amen.
Finally, not to get too “insider” here, but Native Instruments bought back control of the company from its investors a while ago. As a result if they’d rather invest their profits into a trip to Kuala Lumpur to sample weirdass instruments instead of give a dividend to shareholders, they can choose to do so. At the risk of getting too political, I feel that privately-held companies are where the action is—I’ve seen too many companies that weren’t able to invest in the future because they were too busy paying dividends in the present to shareholders. Native Instruments is in a position where they can do whatever they please, and it seems they have some pretty interesting ideas of what they want to do.
Yes, I know this is kind of an unusual review because I haven’t gone into too many details about particular products. But gimme a break—there’s just too much to cover, and besides, if you want to know what people think about Kontakt or Reaktor or Battery or whatever, well, that’s why search engines were invented. I will say that if you check the forums and customer reviews at online retailers, most of their comments about Komplete 8 Ultimate make any enthusiasm I have seem like a model of restraint. What's more, Komplete just doesn't stop. Each instrument is its own world, and there's a lot to explore. While you can find cool sounds really easily, there are always new and interesting sounds just beyond the next mouse click.
The bottom line is this: Komplete 8 Ultimate is complete. No matter what kind of music you do, if you need a sound, you’ll probably be able to find it. Komplete reminds me of those Caran D’Ache colored pencil sets I used to lust after as a kid when I was growing up in Europe. You could buy the individual pencils, or the collection of 10 pencils, or the set with 30 pencils, and they were cool. But then there was the set, the ne plus ultra, the one with 80 pencils—which had colors you didn’t even know existed.
That’s Komplete 8 Ultimate in a nutshell.
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.