by Reuben Cornell

How we made the KOMPLETE KONTROL A-Series

Our very own Matthias Büse, Timothy Adnitt, and Adil Ghanty tell the story behind Native's most accessible keyboard to date.

Native instruments recently announced its most extensive launch of new hardware and software. Along with new products within the MASCHINE, TRAKTOR and KOMPLETE range, and updates to The Loop Loft, Metapop, and platforms, NI also announced the new, upcoming collection of A-Series KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards. We sat down with the Native Instruments team to get the full story; Senior Product Manager Matthias Büse, KOMPLETE KONTROL Software Product Owner Adil Ghanty and Director of Products for Music Production Software Timothy Adnitt.

The A-Series keyboards have been built with brand new keybeds in the familiar sizes of 25, 49 and 61 keys, with the useful features from the S-Series having been retained and many functions been given an overhaul. A sleek redesign of the hardware, and controls for a more creative workflow and logical KOMPLETE and NKS integration are just the start. The team has managed to distil the ideas behind previous generations into a range that is NI’s most accessible keyboard to date.

“Our whole concept is simplicity. People want to be able to sit at their keyboards, work with their instruments in a tactile way, come up with ideas and get them into a DAW,” explains Tim. “It’s the idea of having every Komplete and NKS instrument and effect at your fingertips.”

“That’s really the key to the whole new keyboard hardware lineup, getting ideas down quickly and easily with minimum fuss,” Matthias states. “And I think we’ve achieved that goal.”

With a focus on those who want to just pick up and play, the A-Series will empower many different types of musician to develop their ideas. Adil explains who might be looking at the new A-Series for inspiration, “Electronic musicians who are looking to add a keyboard to their production setup. Singer-songwriters who have been writing music for a while but haven’t taken the plunge into recording and producing their own music. DJs who’d like to transition into producing their own tunes. In a nutshell, anyone who wants to capture their ideas from a keyboard controller in a way that’s easy to learn and quick to use.” Tim adds, “The goal is to reach a lot more people with both the design and the workflow with keyboards aimed at those who are perhaps at an earlier stage of their musical journey.”

The research process behind the A-Series was extensive and musicians were brutally frank with their feedback. “We asked every person we interviewed to give their input on lots of different aspects of their own music-making process. Asking how they find out about products, what they’re already using and what gear is on their wish lists,” Tim laughs and adds, “It’s always revealing to hear about their frustrations and really get into the detail of how we can solve the problems.”

At first glance there’s a clear difference in design between the S-Series with their larger screens and the A-Series with the new OLED display. There was a great deal of discussion amongst the design team about how to communicate via the compact screen in the most concise way. Essentially, browsing NKS instruments and effects is the same easy workflow as with previous hardware. Software Product Owner, Adil walks through the new screen layout, “This is a good example of how we learn from test-users, as we showed them several prototypes to determine the right level of information to be displayed on the screen.” Matthias adds, “It’s a stripped back graphic display, but the high resolution means that we can display some very detailed information in a small space.”

Many of the controls and functions from the S-Series have been retained, but have been refined with a simpler control layout. “The eight knobs are touch sensitive, all the way back to the first S-Series keyboards but people don’t even think about that in their day-to-day use. The knobs just work as you expect them to,” says Tim. “That functionality has been a really useful addition to the A-Series as although there’s no big screens for the labelling, all you have to do is touch the top of a knob and the parameter is displayed on the compact OLED screen.”

When it comes to the user experience, the KOMPLETE KONTROL software architecture is really providing the ‘brain’ between the hardware and software. Building in NKS integration means that the A-Series is far more than just basic hardware controllers. Tim is first to point out, “NKS has developed incredibly quickly and is supported by hundreds of instrument and effects plug-ins, so there’s a constant flow of new content coming from many different developers.” He adds, “We’re always updating the software to integrate new features.”

Alongside the hardware launch, the team have developed a new micro-site which acts like an online quick-start guide, including animations and walkthroughs. Adil explains how it can help, “It’s an animated guide to using the keyboard for the first time, covering the basics like browsing for your first sound, all the way through to more advanced concepts like setting up scales.” The guide covers how to play chord progressions and arpeggios with single keys, or map any scale to white keys only. He adds, “Those are the kind of concepts that might not be obvious to first-time users but with the new micro-site we are trying to make them simple to understand from the get go.”

These new tutorials will also explain how to use the multifunction 4D push encoder for navigation, which will be a new kind of controller for some users. Matthias did the research on this, “We actually sat people in front of the controller and initially they had no idea how to use it, but as soon as they were shown how to operate it, they quickly became comfortable and found the navigation very intuitive.” Adil points out a happy coincidence, “We’ve also had great feedback about the 4D encoder from people with more limited motion, although we didn’t especially design it for that.”

Looking more closely at the A-Series’ hardware aesthetic reveals that the keybed has been completely overhauled. After researching keybeds from other manufacturers, Matthias was determined that these new keyboards should be the best in their class, “Even though the A-Series are entry level controllers we didn’t want to surrender to that plasticky feel.  So we blind-tested many different keybeds with both users who were new to NI and others who had used the S-Series in the past.” He continues, “It’s a proper semi-weighted keybed with a bespoke design using a weight and spring mechanism, built in the same way as keyboard models that are usually in much higher price brackets.”

The physical Pitch and Mod wheels have been carried over from the second generation of the S-Series. Matthias explains the reason why, “There are no ribbon controllers this time around. Producers loved all of the creative things that you can do such as bouncing modes to control LFOs. They were very intuitive and we’d managed to build a great technology, but they were also divisive.” He expands, “In the end, many people wanted the physical controls back and that ties in with our design philosophy, keeping things hands-on and familiar.”

The simultaneous development of so many different types of hardware controller gave Native Instruments a rare opportunity to cross-pollinate concept, design and function. This is demonstrated on the Native Instruments site which shows many ways of linking different instrument configurations. Cementing this relationship, the A-Series ships with MASCHINE Essentials; the full MASCHINE software with a 2GB sound library. “There are lots of musicians who use both Maschine and the keyboards so we want them to work together and apart,” Tim says. “We increasingly focus on designing in holistic ways, and on developing technologies such as NKS to tie everything in the ecosystem together.” The browsing buttons and a new dedicated ‘Ideas’ button can be used to navigate through MASCHINE scenes, patterns and has lots more flexibility. Matthias sums up the concept, “With the sharp edges, distinctive profiles and similar controls, the line between Maschine hardware and the Komplete keyboards is becoming more blurred. Essentially it’s all about giving users the right navigation tools across the whole NI hardware range. Familiarity is key.”

Native Instruments’ growing relationship with visually impaired users has also informed some of the form and layout decisions with the A-Series and other hardware in the new range. In addition to the auditory feedback which speaks the control parameters aloud, the concepts learnt here have trickled down into design decisions that sighted users can also benefit from. Adil explains, “The whole browsing approach of the A-Series is completely informed by the end-user. We’ve learnt that users develop a mental map of their particular device, and with this in mind we use the different lighting states of the buttons as feedback.” He continues, “Some users like to browse with their ears rather then their eyes, so as well as specifying the vendor, type or characteristic of the sound they’d like, users hear audio previews of all Komplete and NKS instrument presets.”

Even though the A-Series models are more streamlined version of their bigger brothers, much of the workflow is identical. This includes DAW functionality so you can perform the most essential DAW functions for sketching out ideas, without ever leaving your keyboard: record, playback, loop, undo / redo, quantize, apply automation and set levels.

A suite of KOMPLETE instruments is also packaged with every model, including the classic upright piano THE GENTLEMAN, iconic mono synth MONARKSCARBEE MARK 1 electric piano and polyphonic synth REAKTOR PRISM.

Portability is key with the A-Series, especially the 25 key variation. Every model is USB 2.0 BUS powered, with a single connection straight to a computer and no messy external power leads. Matthias explains the importance, “With the A-Series we want people to be able to put it down, plug in the USB cable and get started.”

You can pre-order your A-Series KOMPLETE KONTROL here.

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