OK. I’ll admit it. I’m not a keyboard player. In fact, I’m not that good a guitarist, if truth be told. But I can get by and getting better by creating music with Apple’s Garageband on my iMac. And I’m discovering how my music sounds so much better, more complete, with other instruments around me. But playing along to backing tracks or even with Garageband’s well constructed samples is – well – a bit like karaoke.
What I want to do is be able to add those other orchestral voices myself. Add a little piano, maybe a Hammond, drums, bass, strings, synth. perhaps even some vocal samples. But here’s the thing. There’s no way I could play all that stuff – even assuming I could get those intruments into my little studio. What I could easily accomodate is the A49 Komplete Kontrol MIDI keyboard from Native Instruments.
This is a professional-standard keyboard that features 49 semi-weighted, touch responsive, high quality keys and two rotary expression wheels. It has no internal intelligence itself; you have to load software on your PC, MacBook or iMac and plug in a USB cable to drive it all. What you then get is more than your wildest musical dreams. You literally have a complete orchestra at your fingertips.
If you’re already a keyboard player, you’ll feel right at home instantly. The plugins are sampled from real instruments in proper studio sessions and are astonishingly convincing. They’re the company’s emerging NKS standard offerings. True HD and completely realistic. I spent a lot of time as a roadie with a band that featured a Hammond and the Vintage Organs Hammond presets just blew me away. It even has a Leslie and great samples of valve amps and effects!
OK, but as I said, I’m no Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman or even Elton John. But this is where Native Instruments have nailed it. You can map the keyboard to play chords in whatever key you set. If you still need help, it will actually map all the black or white keys so you can’t play an out-of-key note at all.
So what you have is an instrument any competent keyboard player can live with right away. For someone like me, the idea that you can spend an hour or so trying stuff then lay down a convincing track onto Garageband or a similar DAW is very appealing. If you’re feeling really lazy you can just go full bluff mode and map the can’t-play- it-wrong setting. Well, maybe not.
Given that even the most basic cheap and cheerful useful synth will set you back £400, with this, you get something a concert-hall-away better for £149. NI even throw in some presets – a lot of plugins – and then offer you a whacking discount on more for a huge discount on NI’s already insanely competitive prices.
The keyboard “dashboard” features a range of switches which become active depending on the preset you have selected. Selection is managed by a multi-action joystick-style control knob and there is a tiny, yet really useful display onboard to show what you selected.
The keyboard can control the record, stop, play and other functions of your computer’s DAW – I use Garageband but any Pro-Tools, Live or other DAW app will work just fine.
Apart from the USB lead, which powers the keyboard, you get a TRS-type expression/sustain pedal socket and a Kensington-type security point. As I said, its pretty well complete – or rather Komplete.
To give you an idea, just check out the video…
what about the quality?
I bet you’re thinking this is some Chinese start-up that you’ll never hear of again in a couple of years. And that’s where you’d be so wrong. Native Instruments is a professional German company. They design all the hardware there, write the software and record all the samples. That must cost a lot of money. Of course, like the vast majority of manufacturers, they have the hardware built in China. But even that’s pure class.
The A49 site midway between the smaller A21 and the concert size A61. Each differ only in the number of keys, all the other features and controls are on each version.
I love this keyboard. It takes me to places I never dreamt I would go. I’m learning as well as making music. Try one. It will blow your mind.
Way back when in the 80’s Japan was one of those bands that transcended genres. Not rock, punk or progessive. Certainly not pop. But there just wasn’t a category for thoughtful, complex, internationally influenced music. Who can forget Sylvian’s collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto on Forbidden Colours?
Japan, the band are long gone, but the individual members were talented enough to all stand on their own merits and offer their own style and value. David Sylvian has been the most prolific; I won’t bore you with his long discography – you can google that if you like, but this time I’m talking about Japan’s ex-drummer, Steve Jansen.
Jansen has released a couple of albums under his own name, but this is a new collaboration with a group of internationally renowned musicians in a new band called Exit North. While everyone contributes deeply to this fine piece of music, the notable player has to be Thomas Feiner. He has the most astonishingly expressive and powerful voice that I have ever heard.
Feiner first featured on Steve Jansen’s seminal triple album Slope. His contribution on that was so powerful, his songs almost stood apart worthy of an album in themselves; even given the magnificent Playground Martyrs featuring former bandmate David Sylvian on vocals, which was a truly beautiful if dissapointingly short track.