Points of Kontakt – Una Corda from Native Instruments

 

 

Native Instruments captures what is probably the world’s most subtle and delicate piano in the Una Corda library for Kontakt.

 

By David Baer, Nov. 2016

 

David Klavins (pictured right) is a German-Latvian builder of pianos and he’s responsible for creating, on one hand, the world’s largest piano, and more recently what can arguably be called the world’s most delicate piano.  Native Instruments, in collaboration with Galaxy Instruments, has captured both of these instruments and packaged them as Kontakt libraries.  We look here at the delicate one, the Una Corda.  The other unconventional piano, The Giant, is a thoroughly fascinating instrument in its own right, but that story will have to wait until another time.

The name Una Corda comes from the Italian and means “one string”.  This instrument is so-named because it has one string per note, something not found in conventional pianos.  As a side note: what we usually call the leftmost piano pedal is the “soft pedal”, because it shifts the hammers such that they miss all but one of the strings.  The formal name for this pedal is … as you might have guessed it … the “una chorda pedal”.

Both the Giant and Una Corda are included in NI’s latest Komplete Bundle, Komplete 11 (both the standard and Ultimate versions).  The Giant first appeared in Komplete 10.  If you find Una Corda appealing, then owners of a previous version of Komplete will have increased incentive to invest in an upgrade.  Those who haven’t upgraded in several versions will have even more incentive since The Giant will also be something new.  Otherwise, Una Corda is available as an individual purchase for $149 USD and does not require the full version of Kontakt but can be used with the free Kontakt Player.

 

The Physical Instrument

A prototype for The Una Corda was custom built by hand in 2014.  It had a reduced range of 64 keys but aptly showed its special qualities.  Specifically, there was but one string for each key, thus the frame could be much lighter than that of a normal piano due to reduced tension.  Furthermore, the instrument was not enclosed in any kind of case, and the soundboard was half the thickness of a conventional grand piano.  As a result, a most refined and delicate sound was possible: decidedly piano-like and yet the timbre was not quite like that of any piano heard before.

A year later, Native Instruments commissioned Mr. Klavins to build a second instrument, this time with a full piano keyboard range of 88 keys.   That instrument is pictured to the right.  It’s immediately obvious that the design embodies a considerable departure from conventional piano construction, even if the reduced number of strings isn’t the first thing one would notice.

Another important element of this piano’s sound is the optional use of fabrics between the hammers and the strings.  In this library production, the strings were sampled naked, with a felt preparation and with a cotton preparation.  The results of the preparations take the resultant sound still further from that of a normal piano (I will point you to some excellent online demo sources at the end of this review).

The sampling effort was about as thorough as one could imagine.  The rig used in this process is shown below.  But not only were the usual sounds captured (key down, key release, resonance sounds), but all manner of mechanical and fabric noises were separately captured for optional inclusion.  Whether all these extra sounds were worth what must have been a considerable effort will be in the ears of the beholder – but more on that later.

 

The Kontakt Implementation

The detailed approach did not stop with the sampling effort.  The work that went into producing the user interface clearly left no room for shortcuts.  This is all thoroughly explained in the excellent manual, which I recommend users first read.  Yes, you will be able to intuit many of the functions through a bit of experimentation, but things will come together far more quickly if you invest a few minutes in study.

There are three nki instruments: Una Corda Pure, Una Corda Felt and Una Corda Cotton.  But these are just starting points.  There is a wealth of tweaks that can be used to affect the sound.  I think we can divide these tweaks into two categories: noises and what I’ll call (for lack of a better term) timbre adjustments.

 

Let’s talk about the noises first (controlled in the right part of the UI seen right).  Frankly, I have little use for any of these, but no doubt some will find them charming or a least valid for lending authenticity.  We must give NI/Galaxy credit for their meticulousness in individually capturing these various types of noise individually and discreetly.  Specifically, we have noise of:

  • Fabric (basically fabric “rustle” not directly affecting hammer-on-string impact sound)
  • Ambience (more on this shortly)
  • The pianist
  • Mechanical note on
  • Mechanical note off
  • Pedal rumble
  • Damper movement
  • String reaction to damper movement

The only noise not directly related to the piano or player is the ambience category.  For it, we have a selection of various types of room noises (hiss, rain, etc.) supplied as auxiliary sampled content.  Actually, a dedicated collection of these kinds of sounds might be useful for more general use in many situations.

As to the rest, in my opinion, you are welcome to them, especially the annoying bench creaking when turning up the noise of the pianist.  But as I mentioned earlier, you may find charm or validity in the use of noise, so have at it.  The nice thing is that each of the noise types may be enabled/disabled at your discretion.

All the other options, those for timbre control, are far more interesting in my estimation – these controls are on the left side of the panel shown above.  To begin with, we can control the level of the main sound, that being the strings responding to hammer strikes, or turn the main sound off altogether if going after a special effect kind of sound.

The level of harmonics is the next big item.  This is not to be confused with overtones/resonance, which is a separate thing altogether and closer to natural behavior of the real instrument.  Harmonics is something difficult to describe but when you hear it, you’ll know if it’s something you’d like to embrace or avoid.

Also on the unrealistic front, reversed samples can be dialed in, with timing optionally synced to host tempo.

Tonal depth is the last option – just set according to taste.

Most of the controls on the Response tab are self-explanatory.   You can dial in a slow attack, should you want to turn Una Corda into a pad machine (try it, you may quite like it!).  Low Keys controls the relative loudness of notes below middle C.

The one thing that requires a bit of explanation is Overtones vs Resonance.  On any piano, when the sustain pedal is depressed, the disengaged damper allows strings to freely move in sympathy with lower vibrating strings sharing a common overtone.  The Resonance control governs how much of this will happen when the sustain pedal is down.  The Overtones control is similar, but these sounds only are introduced with the sustain pedal is up.  So, Resonance is across-the-board (all notes) while Overtones only applies to notes whose keys are depressed.

Two pedaling options are provided: half-pedal and re-pedal.  In real life, these are both strictly in the domain of the virtuoso.  The half-pedal requires a CC 64 controller with continuous 0 to 127 values.  Few MIDI keyboard pedals work this way.  With half-pedaling enabled on real pianos, the dampers are neither fully up nor fully down and note decay is prolonged compared to the dampers being fully lowered.  In Una Corda, CC 64 values near the middle will slightly lengthen release times.  It is subtle but it does make a difference.

Re-pedaling on real pianos involves striking and releasing a note with no pedal applied and pressing the pedal almost very shortly after the release.  For notes with a lot of energy in the strings (especially lower notes) the damper won’t have an immediate effect and the strings keep vibrating for a short time after the damper comes down.  Re-pedaling causes a sustain, but at a lower level than regular pedaling.  In Un Corda, you must be pretty damn fast to depress the pedal after note release for this to have an effect, but at least it does not require an unusual CC 64 foot pedal controller with continuous values.

 

I won’t go into great detail about the effects section.  Here we have an EQ for which the only unusual thing to note is that the noises can be routed through the EQ or can bypass it.  We then have a simple transient controller and compressor.  Stereo width can be controlled (wide stereo being that of the players perspective, whereas a listener at a distance would not so perceive things that way).  A finishing effect can add a tape quality, low-fi or other sorts of treatment.

Lastly we have the space finishing in the form of reverb, delay or reverse, only one of which may be selected.  There is a most generous number of reverb impulse options supplied.

 

Is Una Corda for You?

Una Corda is definitely more than a one-trick pony.  It would be right at home in many genres when used as a conventional instrument.   Classical, jazz, new-age, folk and more all come to mind as great opportunities to benefit from its unique sound.  But it also has abilities to become something unworldly and is therefore of potential further interest to soundscape, new-age and soundtrack producers.

Yet at $149, that might be a little high for a single instrument.  But be patient and a sale will come along at some point – they always have in the past.

For owners of Komplete 10 or earlier, an upgrade to Komplete 11 (non-Ultimate) will only run you $199 USD.  If you own a Komplete earlier than 10, you will also get The Giant as part of the bargain as well – now things are really starting to look appealing if you are a piano lover.  And again, at some point even the Komplete upgrade will be available at a reduced price (although you will probably have to wait until summer of 2017 for that to happen).

One way or the other, though, this one is a beauty – a highly expressive, sweet-sounding and versatile instrument.  To learn more, and especially to hear some excellent demo tracks and view some fascinating videos about Una Corda, go here:

https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/keys/una-corda/

Una Corda can be purchased at the above web site but is also available from numerous other retailers.

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