On Learning Kontakt
Kontakt is an extraordinarily deep instrument and has a commensurately intimidating learning curve. Find out how to master it and become an ace.
by David Baer, Nov. 2014
Kontakt is one of the deepest and most complex musical software instruments you’re ever likely to encounter. Yes, it’s certainly one of the most powerful, but that power is brought to us courtesy of a complex engine that can intimidate even veteran sound designers upon first encounter. But with a little dedicated effort, it can be mastered. Read on for some suggestions as to how.
Before we start, a reasonable question that a lot of people might ask is “why would we need to learn Kontakt preset programming?”. There are numerous libraries both from NI and independent third-party developers which sport easy-to-use UIs with all the controls you need to do simple sound tweaking. You could easily argue that the developers of current Kontakt libraries have already done the hard work for you. You can just sit back, do a few minor tweaks using the supplied custom user-interfaces and enjoy the ride.
If that’s not enough, Hollow Sun last year presented us with the inexpensive GUI Shell, with which you can take any Kontakt sound, and use its ready-made ADSR envelopes, filters and effects to rapidly roll your own custom instrument. I reviewed the GUI shell in an earlier installment of this column:
Yes, all this is true. Current library offerings really do make life easy for the sound tweaker and allow us to avoid confronting all that scary complexity you see when you click the wrench icon to the left of the preset name on any Kontakt screen.
But you are potentially missing so very much by not clicking the wrench icon. True, even those who like to limit themselves to a little modest preset tweaking will want to stay at the top interface level whenever possible. But there are goodies under the covers that are great to understand and be able to control when the situation warrants.
One of many examples would be envelopes. A lot of libraries give you ADSR controls on the main panel. But Kontakt’s envelopes are AHDSR. If you ever want to utilize the Hold segment, you’re out of luck – unless, of course you know how to do it at the lower engine level. Once you learn where to go, it’s quite easy. But finding where to go requires a solid knowledge of the Kontakt architecture.
Even with the aforementioned Hollow Sun GUI Shell, it’s extremely useful to know how to dip into other libraries and copy sample mappings from other libraries to use within GUI Shell. Kontakt organizes sound structures in a very logical way, but one that is far from intuitive when working with the Kontakt edit UI.
And how about filters? If you buy a library comprised of synth sounds, your interface will probably offer you the option of using the Kontakt ladder-filter effects to further mold your sound. But are you familiar with the Kontakt filter lifted from NI’s (sadly discontinued) the Pro53 software synth? If so, you’d almost certainly want to have it at your disposal – it has a unique and fabulous sound. It’s nice to know how to substitute it for the preset-supplied filter.
There are countless reasons why Kontakt sound design/manipulation skill is an asset. If I’ve managed to convince of this, then you’ll want to read on.
The obvious place most people would think to start their quest would be the documentation supplied by Native Instruments. To be blunt, this is not a good idea. The documentation is thorough, accurate and detailed. It’s an excellent reference. But as a learning vehicle, it’s not so hot. It simply is not organized to be that.
There are three manuals (supplied as PDF files) that come with the instrument: most of the information is contained in the Application Reference. This is a lengthy manual (325 or so pages) that takes you through all of Kontakt’s features one by one. In these pages is all the information needed to program a sound from soup to nuts. But it doesn’t list the steps in soup to nuts order. To use this manual effectively, you’ll need a more student-oriented tutorial learning experience.
Then there’s the Factory Library manual which documents all the factory supplied scripts. This one is invaluable to fully take advantage of some of the NI-supplied scripts that allow you to do things like add portamento to a sound (not such an easy thing when you realize the sound might be based, for example, on multi-samples that change every third note of the keyboard). But here’s the thing. You’ll easily find the script that allows you to do this int e Factory Library manual. However, nowhere in this manual will you find instructions on just how to actually include the script in a sound – those directions are in the Application Reference. By the way, I showed just how to do this in the GUI Shell article for which I provided the link above.
As to scripting (KSP or Kontakt Script Programming), now we’re getting into hard-core territory. This is not something most otherwise-accomplished Kontakt users will need to claim as a skill. But if you want to legitimately claim the title “Ace”, KSP mastery is a requirement. KSP has its own manual. Veteran software professionals will probably be able to make sense of it, but non-programmers will mostly find it more than a little challenging. We’ll talk more about how best to learn scripting later.
A Groovy Alternative
The best learning vehicle I’ve had the pleasure of taking advantage of is from Groove 3, the company that has an extensive catalog of on-line and downloadable tutorial content on all manner of musical topics (most, but not all, of them computer-sound related):
There are two Kontakt offerings, but I particularly recommend the first, Kontakt Explained. It is comprised of over 3.5 hours of well-paced, informative instruction by Eli Krantzberg, who is probably Groove 3’s most prolific and admired video instructor. The video was made for Kontakt 4, not 5. But that should not deter anyone. Virtually everything in it is relevant to Kontakt 5, so don’t think for a moment that it’s too dated to be of value. I could not recommend any instruction video more highly than I do this one.
You can see the course outline from the Groove 3 web page to the right. Groove 3 has several options to access the course. You can purchase it outright as a download for $30 USD (with a special price of $25 in effect as of the date I’m writing this). Many people prefer Groove 3’s all access pass option. They have occasional sales on these that are great bargains, including a $99 all-access one year pass that has been offered annually for the last few years around the time this article is first published. Monthly passes are also an option, occasionally at excellent discount prices.
Whichever way you get to the Kontakt course, plan to view it twice. There’s no way the average person is going to be able to absorb all this information in one pass.
Groove 3 also has Kontakt 5 Update explained. I’d certainly recommend this one to anyone holding an all-access pass. But as far as learning Kontakt goes, it isn’t essential and of far less value if you must purchase it outright. It covers things like new filter types and effects in Kontakt 5, but has little essential information for the student who wants to understand the Kontakt architecture. All the essential material is in the earlier course.
Like everything else that has passionate enthusiasts, there is no shortage of Kontakt tutorials to be freely viewed on YouTube. But in the time it would take you to separate the wheat from the chaff (and this being YouTube we’re talking about, you can be certain that there’s going to be ton of chaff), you can go with a known quality, Groove 3, for just a few bucks and waste no time. For a serious student of Kontakt, I’m confident you’ll find an investment in the first Groove 3 course some of the best money you’ve ever spent.
KSP (Kontakt Script Programming)
OK, now we’re getting hard-core. If you want to call yourself a Kontakt power-person, you really need to know how scripting works. This will be much easier if you have a background in computer programming. Picking up KSP will still be a bit of a challenge for the experienced software type, but much less so than for someone unfamiliar with such concepts as loops, arrays and callbacks.
Once again, the NI supplied documentation, the KSP Reference Manual, is thorough, but it is just that: a reference manual only, not a teaching guide. Veteran programmers willing to expend a bit of study time should find it sufficient. The script language itself is reasonably compact and the approach to programming Kontakt is nicely consistent. But an actual tutorial is always a better way to go for first-timers.
There is one book available: KSP Scripting 1 by Mike Novy, $42.90 USD (amazon.com price). The book inexplicably uses the image of a scantily clad young woman with an elegant laptop on the cover. It’s rather shameful how the publishers thought they could attract gullible geeks by using an image of a sexy computer!
How good is the book? Well, it’s unquestionably the best one available, but that’s because it’s the only one available. The book was published in 2010, which means it only covers things up to Kontakt 4. That isn’t all the bad, however, since the scripting capabilities did not grow all the much with the advent of Kontakt 5.
For what is there, the coverage is pretty good. However, about 200 of the 360 (or so) pages contain a rehash of the reference material to be found in the NI documentation. Only a little fewer than 100 pages are devoted to actually explaining how to write KSP code. Furthermore, the coverage of the rather important topic of setting up and interacting with a custom user panel is a bit sketchy in my mind – it could well have been expanded to include more discussion and examples to great benefit. But nevertheless, this book has value. We might be inclined to grouse about the price for only a hundred pages of actual tutorial content. But then, there cannot possibly be a big customer base for this sort of thing. How many students of Kontakt scripting actually are there? I don’t expect the author sold a lot of copies, so, we should be grateful that a tutorial exists in the first place. And even a veteran software developer will save a few hours of learning time by reading the book, so you judge how much your time is worth and see if the 43 bucks isn’t a good investment after all. It was for me.
Before buying it, though, I’d recommend a no-cost option to try first. Mark Wherry wrote a brief but enlightening four-part series on Kontakt script writing in Sound on Sound magazine in 2010. You can view the articles here:
… And When All Else Fails
NI has a user forum with a Kontakt sub-forum here:
There is a main forum for general Kontakt questions and a specialty sub-forum for scripting issues. It gets enough traffic that well-formulated questions get reasonably fast responses, and there are a few real experts who are routinely around to generously supply them. You need to register to post questions, but that’s easy and free.
And there you have it. Proceed now with confidence. Kontakt Ace status can be achieved with less effort than you might think – go out and earn those stripes!