Hands-On Review:Native Instruments KORE Universal Sound Platform
The perfect marriage of music and machine
By Oscar Sommers
Humans are analog. Computers are digital. This presents an inherent challenge when the two get together to try to make music. They don’t speak the same language and until somebody gets going with those Matrix brain-jack things (Hello? IBM, are you listening?), getting in perfect sync with a computer will remain a challenge for musicians. However, until the day a full brain-jack setup is available from Musician’s Friend, Native Instruments has a solution that’s nearly as seamless and doesn’t involve sticking anything sharp into your brain stem. The KORE Universal Sound Platform from Native Instruments makes using your virtual instruments and effects easier than ever before, simplifying the way you use your plug-ins to create music.
KORE goes far beyond existing hardware MIDI controllers or music software by bringing all of your plug-ins together under one combined software/hardware architecture. It doesn’t control just one instrument or even one set of related instruments, but gives you an interface that allows you to play many different instruments in different formats at once. Having one overarching system makes using your plug-ins for sequencing easier and also makes performing with multiple plug-ins—standalone or not—a much friendlier process as well. KORE gives you a simple software interface that loads your plug-ins and a hardware controller that corresponds to the software interface and plug-in parameters.
On top of that, KORE looks and feels really cool. The case for the controller is crafted from nice, thick brushed aluminum and all the knobs and buttons feel really solid and smooth. All the lights and the LCD glow with a deep, dark red backlight that imparts the message that KORE means business. The overall design makes the controller look like it belongs on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, not your mixing desk. The software interface is easy to use, offers customizable features, and incorporates a cool database browser system that you can search and organize by sounds or instruments.
Twice as nice
KORE can be used in two different ways: standalone or as a plug-in with your sequencer. In standalone mode KORE acts as an interface for all your VST and AU plug-ins and allows you to operate your plug-ins in a similar manner with one common software interface. As a plug-in, KORE acts as a layer between your plug-ins and your sequencer and gives you the same intuitive control as it does in standalone mode. In plug-in mode though, KORE extends its control to include standalone, RTAS, DXi, AU, and VST plug-ins. KORE not only makes using a wide assortment of plug-ins simpler, its integrated mixing capabilities let you combine lots of plug-ins in previously impossible ways. You can also use the mixer to set up multiple instances of the same plug-in to create new and unique sounds.
KORE also makes it a cinch to find the sounds you want with the KoreSound database—KORE’s giant storage facility for plug-in sounds—with its integrated sound browser and search engine. What makes the KoreSound database so cool is it’s organized around the sounds produced by plug-in presets, not the instruments and effects themselves. You just type in a description of the sound you’re looking for—a fat bass drum pad, for example—and the database gives you a selection of plug-ins to choose from capable of producing the sound you want. When you determine the one you want to use, just click on the plug-in and KORE will load it and the settings needed to give you the sound you want.
Since the KoreSound database is organized around sounds and not just the plug-ins, there is also a browser system you can use to sift through the database according to sounds. The browser system lets you choose from five lists of sound attributes. Every time you select an attribute from one of the columns the system narrows down the list of available plug-ins. Eventually you’re left with a selection of plug-in presets that can supply the sound you’re looking for. It’s an intuitive and unique way to find what you want. The sound attributes are categorized by Instrument (piano/keys, synth, bowed strings, bass, drums, etc.), Source (acoustic, electric, analog, sample-based, FM, granular, etc.), Timbre (high, low, distorted, clean, bright, fat, hard, etc.), Articulation (slow attack, decaying, percussive, echoing, pad, lead, etc.), and Genre (avant-garde, orchestral/classical, house, dance/trance, rock, Latin, etc.). Choose from one category or multiple categories to find the sounds you need.
Komplete 3 Software Package
Native Instruments designed the KoreSound database to sync up perfectly with all the Native Instruments plug-ins, with pre-programmed KoreSounds. If you’re using NI instruments, and especially if you’re using the KOMPLETE 3 collection of 13 NI software products, you’ll find it extremely easy to find the sounds you want. KORE also has KoreSounds pre-programmed for a lot of major plug-in companies. Obviously NI couldn’t track down every plug-in available and categorize its presets, so some aren’t built into the database. If you’ve got a plug-in you want to use with KORE, NI has made it convenient to get presets from third-party plug-ins built into the KoreSound database. All you have to do is load the plug-in, call up the preset, then save it as a KoreSound so it’s in the database permanently. Of course, if you simply want to see a list of available plug-ins to pick the one you want, you can view the database that way, too.
Everyone I know prefers using a good MIDI controller setup over a mouse to control their music software. Having mouse-only control over a plug-in—especially a synth or effect with lots of knobs to tweak—is tedious at best and a huge pain in the wrist at worst. The KORE controller makes all your musical mousing a thing of the past. Unlike a standard MIDI controller, you don’t have to spend hours going through a complicated setup process to develop an individual profile for each instrument or effect. The knobs and buttons on the KORE controller match up with the KORE software interface to give you instant control of crucial plug-in parameters, as well as giving you the ability to scroll through menus and select functions of the KORE software. It also operates as a USB 2.0 audio and MIDI interface, making it an excellent candidate for use with a laptop as a portable production station.
The KORE controller is laid out really well and its buttons, knobs, and LCD screen present you with a lot of functional options. It gives you eight touch-sensitive, endless-rotary knobs with 500-step resolution for a very smooth feel and precise adjustment of the plug-in parameters. A grid on the LCD shows you which parameter is controlled by which of the eight knobs and eight buttons on the controller. Touch-sensitivity lets you know the knob is active by lighting up a ring around the control when you touch it. As you adjust the level, the LCD screen on the controller displays a close-up view of the parameter you’re adjusting which is mirrored on the KORE software interface.
If you’re already an NI plug-in user, KORE makes it practically effortless by giving all their instruments and effects pre-assigned, easy-access templates that instantly activate when you load the plug-in. The templates align the virtual controls of the plug-in perfectly with the knobs and buttons on the KORE hardware controller. The functions and controls are also organized in identical ways for each NI plug-in, so you can start playing immediately. KORE even includes controller templates for some third-party plug-ins, but—once again—it would be practically impossible for NI to track down every plug-in available and create a template for it. So they make assigning controls to third-party plug-ins as simple as it possibly can be: you simply select the parameter you want to control, then touch the knob on the KORE controller you want to assign it to and you’re done.
The controller LCD also displays the menu system for KORE, which you navigate with the Control Wheel, a large rotary knob. The Control Wheel is surrounded by specialized KORE-function buttons that give you instant access to things like the controller menu system and parameter control mode or allow you to switch between different view modes. There’s also an Enter button for confirming a menu selection and an Escape button for returning to a higher level of the menu system.
The options listed in the main controller Menu give you command over just about every aspect of KORE. For example, you can adjust levels of the controller I/O, select KoreSounds, load plug-ins and select their presets (as long as it’s a KoreSound), and adjust parameters of the controller knobs and buttons. You can also do things like browse saved performances and MIDI files in the KORE system. The four direction buttons below the display combine with the Control Wheel to give you more navigational capabilities in the Menu system and some control over the KORE software interface, letting you select sounds and channels in the mixer without using your mouse.
Constructing a system as complete as KORE with standard MIDI controllers and software would take thousands of dollars and lots of time. Native Instruments has made it possible to skip all of that with KORE. If you’re into plug-ins, you should be into KORE.
Features & Specs:
- Universal sound platform and performance environment for plug-ins
- Integrated software and hardware system
- Unites all AU and VST plug-ins
- Hardware control of KORE and plug-ins
- Sound Browser searches for sounds by musical attributes
- KoreSound format stores settings information
- Integrated mixer with send, insert, group channels, and 14 high-end effects
- Seamless transitions between setups
- Pre-configured for use with KOMPLETE 3 and KOMPLETE Sound 2
- Pre-configured controller assignments for many 3rd party plug-ins
- Universal compatibility allows KoreSounds to be used on almost any system
- KORE as a host loads VST and Audio Units
- KORE as an instrument runs standalone, VST, Audio Units, RTAS, and DXi
- 24-bit/96kHz USB 2.0 Core Audio/ASIO audio interface
- 2 channels of I/O
- Headphone output
- Touch-sensitive, incremental knobs with 500 steps per revolution
- 64 x 128 pixel, context-specific display
- Dedicated inputs for 2 footswitches and 1 expression pedal
- Coaxial S/PDIF out
- MIDI I/O
- USB 2.0 port