by Hollin Jones

How KOMPLETE KONTROL is empowering visually impaired musicians

Talking to musicians Kevin Kern and Nate Barns, Native Instruments talks about
how changes to its keyboards are helping visually impaired artists produce.

The accessibility features of the KOMPLETE KONTROL software allow blind and visually impaired musicians and producers to achieve a previously impossible level of interaction with their software and hardware.

Thanks to the touch-sensitive rotary encoders, and auditory feedback provided by the buttons on the KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboard range, the software can detect when the user’s fingers are resting on them, then give auditory feedback – synthesised speech – of the current value, and do so continuously as it’s adjusted. This allows users to browse and tweak and design sounds with total precision. Fully supported by Native Instruments’ own tools and effects, the accessibility features can also be used by third-party products that implement NI’s NKS (Native Kontrol Standard), meaning any KONTAKT or REAKTOR Instrument or VST plugin has the potential to be part of the system.

Native Instruments spoke to two visually impaired artists who are not just using KOMPLETE KONTROL‘s accessibility features in everyday production and performance but have more recently been consulted by NI on the development of them. Both artists have found their approach to production and composition dramatically transformed.

Kevin Kern is a pianist and Steinway artist with a growing list of TV credits, including Oprah, The Late Show with David Letterman, Live with Regis and Kelly, and NBC’s 2000 Summer Olympics coverage.

Nate Barnes is a professional drummer, keyboardist, producer and sound designer. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, he has performed with such legends as George Clinton, Judy Collins, George Duke, and Joe Sample, and Grammy winners including Andraé Crouch, Bishop Hezekiah Walker, and The Winans.


So when the artists first tried the accessibility features in KOMPLETE KONTROL, it was, to put it mildly, revolutionary. “I don’t think anyone expected the breakthrough that KOMPLETE KONTROL would represent to visually impaired users,” says Kern. “To call it a ‘game changer’ simply doesn’t do it justice.”

Barnes found that whole new musical worlds opened up to him when introduced to the system. “I was floored due to the detailed [speech feedback] features and excited about the amount of control I had over the sounds without having to communicate to a sighted person to do it for me. My ‘eureka’ moment was when I realised I could tweak my own sounds. ADSR life — that’s a very big deal for me. In the past, it was often frustrating and discouraging to verbalise the specifics of the sound designs that go on in my head. Because of the accessibility features, I have a better understanding of the terminology involved in manipulating sounds, which also improves my ability to communicate when I’m not the one doing the tweaking.”

After hearing British keyboardist Andre Louis’ demonstration of KOMPLETE KONTROL’s accessibility features, Kern was eager to try out the system. He quickly found that he was able to achieve things he’d not thought possible. “Obviously, the [difference made by the accessible] preset browse function is like night and day. So, I’d say that’s the first and most important feature of the system for me. But plugin editing, with its ability to [provide audible feedback as you] adjust parameters of a given patch, really redefines what’s possible. Native Instruments is continuing to improve accessibility with things like the ‘pre-hear’ function, which allows the user to audition sounds much more quickly. This combined with the ability to save and search by favourites, products, types, subtypes and categories makes it possible to organise a truly massive and growing catalog of first-rate sounds to a degree that visually impaired users never had before. The creative possibilities can’t be overstated here.”

Barnes is a big fan of the browsing capabilities too. “I find that I hit the browser button a whole lot more,” he says.

Third-party support

The NKS format makes it possible for third-party developers to make their software instruments and effects compatible with KOMPLETE KONTROL’s accessibility features, making them just as easy for visually impaired users to interact with as NI’s own instruments. Kern explains what this means for him. “I have always been inspired by the best pianos I’ve known, but I yearned to hear the orchestra that lived in my head. When I search for ideas by playing my [KOMPLETE KONTROL] keyboard, I hear ideas that a piano — even the world’s very finest piano — couldn’t be expected to inspire.”

“These instruments literally put me in the headspace of all the instruments I can’t physically play but which I dearly love. As a blind man who lived most of his life having to accept a world where one piano and two hands would have to be enough, imagine the electric — even seismic — emotional impact that a breakthrough like this has on me each and every day.”

Where third-party instruments are not yet NKS-compatible, Kern is understandably a little impatient for them to be brought up to speed so he can use them as freely as others. In some cases, workarounds are possible, but in others they are not. “I was able to make [Synthogy] Ivory compatible by simply doing a batch resave within KONTAKT. But I do wish Ivory would become truly NKS-compatible because all my Ivory instruments simply appear in alphabetical order, not subdivided by piano. Also, while [Freelance Soundlabs,] a third-party developer in Australia, has done remarkable work with Spectrasonics’ products, it’s too bad that [Spectrasonics themselves] haven’t expressed willingness to join the NKS family. Finally, VSL, who I always thought were the gold standard for orchestral samples, are trying to play catch-up with Spitfire Audio and other [companies who produce] NKS-compatible instruments. But they’re completely missing out by not reworking their interface to be NKS-compatible and accessible, which is a shame.”

Future development

Development of the accessibility features in KOMPLETE KONTROL continues apace, spearheaded by a small team under Product Owner Tim Adnitt and Lead Developer Carl Bussey. While the system has already proven revolutionary, there is still much that can be done, and working with visually impaired artists to understand their specific needs is key to this process. Both Kern and Barnes are involved in this ongoing consultation.

Kern describes his involvement and how he hopes the system will evolve. “I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Adnitt when we were both on a panel brought together by Avid at the most recent Winter NAMM show. I had a chance to explain to him the dramatic difference that the combination of KOMPLETE KONTROL and Spitfire Audio products had made in my creative environment.”

“I’d like to encourage Native Instruments to build a control surface device that incorporates the Browse and Edit mode features of the KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards without the piano-style keyboard. A box with all the editing capabilities and maybe some sliders in addition to knobs, but without piano keys, would be really cool.”

Barnes has also been consulted on how the accessibility system might evolve. “I have had a few conversations with NI, and I’m looking forward to working with them some more. They have changed my workflow tremendously, and there seems to be nothing but upside with those folks right now — I especially like the capacitive [touch-sensitive] controls. Speaking for myself, [KOMPLETE KONTROL] is not a product that I imagined would be around at this moment. It is a game changer and a major improvement over much of what I am used to. As a drummer, it would please me greatly if I could use KOMPLETE KONTROL with my Roland V-Drums as well. You know, tight integration.”

Kern also has his own wish list. “I would love it if [Windows-compatible] DAWs like Reaper and Samplitude enjoyed the same integration [with KOMPLETE KONTROL] that Logic users have. Currently, we Windows guys have to use the Instance Selector to match up a given KOMPLETE KONTROL instance with a specific DAW track. It’s also something of a challenge to write KOMPLETE KONTROL automation to a particular track in a Windows DAW. Let me be clear: these are not complaints. KOMPLETE KONTROL has remade my life on a level that only a driverless car could approach. I find myself motivated to get up and create with a passion that only the finest Steinway concert grands could inspire before now.”

More recently the team updated the software in a way that will allow users to control NKS and VST effects through the KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards and software, bringing the same experience to FX, that NKS does to Instruments.


KOMPLETE KONTROL in use on future projects

Indeed, KOMPLETE KONTROL has brought a fresh sense of purpose to Kern’s music-making.  “Since KOMPLETE KONTROL arrived in the midst of a complete rebuild of my studio, including a new PC, brand-new DAW and notation software, and a raft of NKS instruments, I am only now settling down to the task of creating my next project, which I hope to complete this year and release in 2019.  But I know that my music will be imbued with a new passion for creativity. Making music is about to become spectacularly more fun.”

Barnes too has fully embraced the accessibility features and is working on a solo project in which KOMPLETE KONTROL has been instrumental in crafting many of the songs. In addition, he’s using the system to help produce other artists and has hosted workshops demonstrating it to the public.

As KOMPLETE KONTROL’s accessibility features continue to advance, they will no doubt prove increasingly invaluable to blind and visually impaired artists, enabling them to realise artistic concepts they once thought unattainable.

photo credits:
Nate Barnes: Danni Ai
Kevin Kern: Roy Son

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