Native Instruments, the hardware company? Following software/hardware products with integrated audio features, including Guitar Rig and Kore, NI is now getting into the absurdly crowded audio interface field with the Audio Kontrol 1.

Fortunately, the inclusion of a dedicated, switchable headphone out, giant controller knob, and low-latency drivers are enough to escape my Audio Interface Inbox of Doom. That’s the place I put press releases on boring, me-too audio interfaces, like the three dozen useless audio interfaces introduced at NAMM. It’s also our last line of defense before we get sucked into a dystopic future where the only audio and music gear is USB audio interfaces and crappy 25-key USB keyboards “perfect for DJs.” Before you think this interface fits into that category, though, here’s a preview suggesting it should be on your “worth consideration” list. (Just looking at the slick exterior should suggest this could be worth picking up.)



The good: Low-latency USB 2.0 drivers for Windows and Mac with a promised 4 ms latency (impressive), a giant knob on the top you can assign to control whatever you like, bundled software (Guitar Combos, Xpress Keyboards, and Traktor 3 LE — a decent lineup), and high-quality converters from Cirrus Logic with high-res 192/24 support. Includes an assignable headphone output, perfect for cueing (with source switching onboard, which is especially nice). Contrary to reader comments, includes MIDI in and out.

The not-as-good: Only 4 audio outs, so you can’t do surround. The deal-killer for me: no digital I/O. (As noted in comments, competitively-priced interfaces from PreSonus and Focusrite include the same dedicated headphone out features, but add digital I/O and surround-capable outputs, all for the same price.)

First take: Yeah, that giant knob on the top looks a little silly, but I’m glad to have something useful to control on my interface rather than have it sit onstage/in-studio like a paperweight. Being able to easily switch the headphone output for cueing is also a major bonus, not only for NI’s Traktor but for software like Ableton Live. Native says this is “for DJs,” but for anyone who needs to be able to monitor a separate mix through headphones, for recording, cueing, live electronic music in Ableton, click tracks, etc., this is essential. That’s a substantially larger and more interesting group than DJs alone, and now that a handful of audio interfaces have this feature, I wouldn’t buy any audio interface that lacks it.

And at US$299, it’ll be a good buy for someone. Bonus points: unlike most of its competitors, it’s not ugly. In fact, I have to say, this is the first audio interface design I’ve seen that actually looks intelligent, attractive, and easy to use. Simplifying the physical layout isn’t just about making something aesthetically pleasing; it makes it easier to use the onboard controls. So, NI, well done, and I look forward to testing the shipping product.

It might be worth spending a little more, though, for something with digital I/O on it (if you need that) or interfaces like Focusrite’s Saffire with onboard DSP, particularly if you’re playing live and trying to conserve CPU resources. I’ve got a Saffire on its way for just that reason, and will post a review.

And as noted in comments, while the large knob is intriguing, a lot of users are likely to turn to a competitive interface like the Saffire LE (without the extra I/O and DSP of the full Saffire), or the PreSonus Firebox, which offer more features at the same price, albeit in a more homely case. It ultimately comes down to how much you care about the design of the case, and whether you need the additional I/O or not. (Also, given this is the “Kontrol 1″, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the additional I/O show up on a sequel — Kontrol 2, perhaps?)

Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1

  • http://www.proemland.com proem

    if only thier software gUI's were this attractive and clearly thought out…

  • http://jeroenr.typepad.com/the_garageband_studio/ JeroenR

    The bundled software is pretty appealing I think. This could be a great solution for guitarists with the included Guitar Combos.

  • http://www.alonewithaghost.com Mike

    I wanna see them make a piece of hardware that works with Reaktor as ridiculous as that may sound.

  • http://www.alonewithaghost.com Mike

    i mean…intuitively and specifically for Reaktor

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Mike, I'm totally with you. This looks like a decent interface, *but* … to me, NI is about doing something a little different from their competitors, particularly with something like Reaktor. It'd be terrific to see an OSC-compatible piece of hardware. It would double as something that could work with Adobe Flash, Max/MSP/Jitter, Pd, and other software that supports OSC, and could push other products in the market to add OSC compatibility. (And Traktor and Reaktor could both be supported out of the box.) I'm sure there's some sort of design that could do this in an interesting, tangible way, without costing as much as a Lemur. In fact, if NI hadn't missed the opportunity to build OSC compatibility into Kore, this could even be an optional controller for Kore.

    The big question is, what would it look like? Pads? Knobs? Faders? Something else? (Joysticks, perhaps?)

    I would love to see the music tech industry grow to the point where manufacturers were able to take those kinds of risks. It's certainly a challenge. But couldn't one unique controller do as well without any competition as a product that has to face lots of similar competitors?

  • http://www.offnominal.com Logickal

    Like I said in the forum… I'm pretty much underwhelmed by this. Especially after the amount of "we're a small software company with scarce developer resources" whinging that NI's been famous for… So, we're still looking at a "Q3" release of Universal Binary applications while NI has been working on getting a 4×2 audio interface with a big knob on top.

  • http://nat.imeem.com NathanaÃ&fnof

    I have the Presonus Firebox which sells for 299$ and can't really see the advantage of using this interface… The Firebox has 2 mic preamps, 2 line inputs, 6 outputs, all of the I/O is balanced. It also has SPDIF inputs which is quite important and it's built like a tank. I find it a little expensive for the feature it offers..

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    To me, it's about combinatorics — there are so many interfaces out there, that you'll eventually hit the one that exactly hits your needs. Not everyone needs S/PDIF and surround-capable outs. But you're right — and I'm underwhelmed, too. I would just put this on my short list, which right now has the Presonus and (for a little more) the Focusrite Saffire, at least among affordable interfaces.

    I'm also disappointed that NI is giving the perception that they're not focused on their already-huge core line of products, namely Kontakt and the sampling line, Reaktor/Absynth and the synth line, and so on. These are products we live off of, and even things like Kore are not totally essential by contrast, because we're already deep into the other tools.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    One additional note: those are in fact balanced outs on the NI box. So that's good.

    I do like the design a lot. It's attractive, and it's intelligently laid out. It comes down to whether or not you want MIDI, digital ins and outs, and extra outputs on the same box. If you think you ever might, it's worth investing in a different choice now, or you'll wind up (as I have in the past) with the classic "creeping audio interface collection" phenomenon, which is a waste of time, money, and space!

    Since we're talking short list, anyone want to add to our current list, now including PreSonus' Firebox and Focusrite's Saffire LE? There are many other interfaces out there, but these have terrific mic pres and converters and a lot of features that are hard to beat. (NI talks about the converters here, but I know nothing about how the pres are yet, if that's important to you.)

  • http://skiplogic.livejournal.com kfo

    Balance I/O for cheap with some novel features. This might be my next sound card…

  • Mike-2

    That’s a substantially larger and more interesting group than DJs alone…

    While we're slinging insults around: With high production values, absence of advanced features and inflated price, this piece of hardware from NI will be flying off the shelves and into the home studios of Mac users around the world.

  • http://www.offnominal.com Logickal

    Hey, now… :)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    That's nothing against DJs; I just think that the importance of headphone outs is largely misunderstood. The world would be pretty uninteresting with nothing but DJs. It'd probably be pretty boring with nothing but clarinetists, too.

    As for price, with a $300 *list*, street could be closer to $200, so it's not that out of line.

    But are you suggesting Mac users pay extra for aesthetics?

    I think that's utterly — oooh, look. A MacBook in *black*. ;)

  • http://melodiefabriek.nl Marco Raaphorst

    Yes, no-midi is not so good. And also: no good metering system using onboard DSP. This is the reason I have not found anything better than my current RME Hammerfall. Metering and Mixer including loopback recording is just fantastic on RME cards. Yes, sure: higher pricetag but still…

  • FailedSitcom

    I think the MIDI is just round the back Marco:

    http://www.native-instruments.de/uploads/pics/key

  • http://www.rolandreinke.com roland

    That's a very good point with development capacities taken away from, say, UB versions. Hadn't thought of that before, but it's very annoying for those switching to Intel.

    I agree that a dedicated controller for Reaktor (with touch-sensitive fields a la Kaoss Pad) would be something. But, obviously, not…

  • Chris_B

    this ones on the very bottom of my list just for the big knob on top. That means it either takes up alot of table space with the cables going in and out the front and back or must live on top of a stack of other things.

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  • Damon

    I admit it, i like exciting looking gear, and find myself spending more time with gear that pushes my eyeball buttons, and have been dissuaded from using other gear cause it just looked like laundry appliance (ees).

    I would rather be a purist about such things, but I do seem to have more fun with gear that says "we is having sexy fun now." Sometimes the appearance will get you past the drudgery of learning to use something, not unlike romantic relationships. Shallow, but true.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I think aesthetics are an important part of product design, Damon, so I'm with you. And you can never entirely separate aesthetics from practicality; a clean, uncluttered design is also easier to use. So I wish more manufacturers would put thought into this.

    I don't think audio interfaces are going to be an area where we see a lot of revolutionary design, nor do I think a single interface will fit everyone's needs. I'm glad we have a lot of good choices at the consumer level, and that they're getting attention. It used to be, the average customer would go out and default to Mbox — thus pushing them toward Pro Tools. That might be the right decision for some people, but I'm glad that consumers are seeing that they have other options, as well.

  • Mike-2

    @Damon:

    I don't (completely) disagree with that. My point is that mac users who are frequently taken to task for their interest in shiny toys and websites specializing in same are in a poor position to be joking about the frivolousness and artistic unseriousness of djing. It's also ironic to me how eager some people are to resurrect old "high culture vs. low culture" arguments when they find themselves on the "high" side.

    To your point though, I am the same way, but I wonder if, at least with me, there's a connection between being easily distracted by things and not having the creative discipline to overcome challenges. In other words, I think sometimes my mind gets bored and wanders off when faced with creative challenges — rather than staying with the challenge and chipping away at it, I lose focus. Purposely choosing attractive gear seems to only encourage this bad habit of mine.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, I'm not sure at whom you're directing this, but in the interest of full disclosure:

    * I definitely come from a "high culture" training.

    * I like shiny things.

    * I'm a Mac user. (I'm also a PC user.)

    * I'm not a DJ.

    I don't like the high culture vs. low culture argument precisely because someone always loses. And it's not just snobs making fun of DJing. It's also having to battle the perception that, say, only the DJ and guitar markets are important because they're larger and have more popular appeal, which is silly. I think everybody is passionate about what they're doing. We regularly cover DJ items here on CDM because I know it's important to people.

    Anyway, there's no need to be hard on your loving of shiny gear; that's as old as music itself. I think great design can encourage you to work at the hard parts, at the creative challenges. Or, at least, that's what I keep telling my credit card. Whatever we do, though, we should keep working at the music we care about.

  • http://www.audiomidi.com Brent Hoover

    I think this is the only NI product that came out and I didn't immediately think "I want that" (not counting things like repackages like Express Keyboard). But as far as R&D I doubt it took much as they have developed USB interfaces for their Kore and Guitar Rig plug-ins already. So we got silver box/big knog from the Kore and is just taller and squarer. So while I am not letting NI off the hook for lack of UB support, I doubt the Kontrol 1 was the cause. I mean, the marketing department probably didn't even spend much time on it. Kontrol with a K, whod've thunk.

  • beatsjunkie

    I like this piece of hardware except for one thing – the one big knob. There should be 2 big knobs, because I've got 2 hands and would like to control more than one thing at a time. Nice work on the simple layout though.

  • http://melodiefabriek.nl Marco Raaphorst

    aha, including MIDI. nice.

  • http://melodiefabriek.nl Marco Raaphorst

    but this thing might be killer too, totally different though:
    http://line6.com/toneport/kb37.html

    looks sexy and I like Line6. am using Guitarport and it's so easy to use because of plug-and-play (USB). I like that.

  • galloween

    not multi client?

    As far as I can tell Audio Kontrol 1 is not multi client compatible?

    That is, only one application can use it for audio output?

    There is no virtual mixer.

    Can someone confirm this?

    I'm looking for a new soundcard to replace my RME RPM, and I'm 1 click away from getting Audio Kontrol 1, but it just occurred to me it might not work for me…

    I'm using Ableton and Traktor at the same time. The RME card allowed me to use up to 6 applications simultaneously outputting to the same physical audio outputs.

    I will not be able to do that with the Audio Kontrol 1, will I?

    can someone please confirm?

  • Rafael Pantoja

    My MAJOR concern is about the sound quality. Anyone tested this thing? I really don't need no more features, I/Os, digital or not… What would be the most inexpensive way to achieve pro sound quality recording and playback??

    Thank you.

  • rayansaz

    Soundwise, one of the warmest sounding gears

    my old sblive! platinum and audigy2 zs (with Kx drivers)are toys compared to this thing.

    fabulous bass (perhaps molded for dj kind of music)

    detailed and full sound, sounds analog!

    lacks digital i/o

    only stereo

    due to latency is not suitable for live and realtime softsynthy performances

  • http://www.martinjovanovic.com Martin

    rayansaz, please type more of your experience with the realtime sw synth latency… how big is it? can it be reduced? is this piece totally unusable if i, say, want to spend and evening playing some sw piano?

    thanx

    martin

  • Maestro AL

    Ha, myself, I own E-MU 1820m, Tascam US-122, Steinberg Mi4 (system|4), Creative Audigy, and have personally installed and configured for my friends the Digidesign Mbox, Presonus FireBox, Tascam US-1641.

    I am now ditching (selling off) all my stuff in favor of one RME unit, which will be either the FireFace 800, or their equivalent PCI unit, depending on where I will get lower latency and better flexibility (still researching).

    I'm done screwing around with half-a$$ed gear, which "allows" you to record "up to 96k or 192k/24bit" – yeah, maybe a track or two @ that format, but it's farting and bursting at the seams while doing that – cause that's the most it can do.

    My BOTTOM LINE is – i'm sick of consumer oriented hardware – they're just toys with "high specs", but nevertheless toys. They will entertain you and allow you to feel like you're creating music "professionally". But that's not quite the case. (Although ironically, a "professional" is simply one who gets paid for what he does – thus making it his "profession". This speaks little of the actual quality of his work.)

  • Maestro AL

    i'm not done yet:

    Nevertheless we grew accustomed to using the word "professional" in a sense synonymous with "elite" and "top notch", implying in the back of our minds the multimillion studios of Hollywood, Nashville, New York, and England, such as Gower or Abbey Road. Yes, they have the best fascilities, the best gear, and most of all knowledge and talent.

    But even if you have their knowledge and talent, isn't it absurd, or at least childish to expect to get the same results/quality with an "all-in-one" box? Especially when the price of that box would hardly buy you a dozen patchcords at those same studios (mogami, monster, etc). Like mama always said, you'll get what you pay for. Preamps, converters, interfaces, mixers – at those studios these are usually separate dedicated units, each well into the thousands $range, which can be configured with any other gear to have a specific setup which will allow the creation of any signature "type of sound", or to create a new one – where here we have all those things reduced into one little brick for about the price of a decent stereo. Yeah, it will do "well", and will probably sound clean and all – but it's something you're stuck with – and you'll sound like every other owner of the same brick.

    People think that since it's digital, it allows the little box to do the same things as the bigger boxes, which fits perfectly well with their (consumer) logic and experience of things getting smaller – cell pnones, mp3 players, flat tv's, etc.

    A true audio pro knows that the only way to get a "good" preamp is to up the voltage. The higher the voltage, the better the preamp, as it gives you a much higher representational scale, naturally allowing a cleaner amplifying or "zooming in" of the microscopic mic voltages, while at the same time having the tendency (natural phenomenon of analog gear) to excite (introduce artifacts by overdriving)the frequencies that please our brains most. These are the artifacts that people don't complain about, and actually seek – the "warmth"! A whole industry has been "re-born", catering to seekers of this "warm" sound, but again, more often then not with artificial or half-there means (down to the absurd "tube" software plugins)! Yeah, you can digitally 'control' an analog circuit, but you can NOT digitally 'recreate' one.

    Anyways, not to ramble off topic too much, BEWARE USB INTERFACES THAT DON"T HAVE A SEPARATE POWER SUPPLY!!!!!!!!! These marketing claims for USB powered interfaces having "pristine preamps" are a bunch of horse maneur! Or when they say something like "uses same A/D/A converter chips as…" some high-end piece/brand – again beware. Just think about it – does having one great big iron link in a chain otherwise made of crappy pot-metal give you any more strength? Of course not. In fact just ONE crappy link would reduce the tensile strenght of the whole chain! And you know that that's exactly what any studio is – a signal CHAIN! Everything that the sound will go THRU – MUST be high-grade, if you want that sound. I'm sorry, but I just don't see any USB devices doing that.

    That's why any pro-studio will use FireWire or better connections, such as MADI, Optical, D-sub, etc – NOT USB. And as a general rule of thumb, those pieces will have an external power supply, unless it's not a part of any signal chain.

  • http://www.sinisterjazz.com Alfred Unroe

    I can't believe all the comments about asthetics and the big knob. IMO, this box is aimed at DJs who are also producers. That big knob and the 3 buttons seem great for DJing (you need big simple controls in dark,cramped DJ booths). This box has everything I want and will probably buy it. But of course, it won't have the right combination of features for everyone. For someone like me who produces/records, and DJs only vinyl, this box will help me get into digital DJing. I have no need for digital outs or surround sound.

    In regard to power supplies, the post above makes good points. However, external power supplies can be ANNOYING. Especially if you lug this box around (as a DJ would).

  • http://twitter.com/bichuelo Bicho Vargas

    well for me this is the best all-in-one producing kit I've ever put my hands on.

    I've managed to use the jog wheel to move up to 8 parameters at once in Traktor Pro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXODK_Be-ho

    actually, by using one extra key from either the keyboard or another MIDI control as a modifier, you can roll up to 8 pages, giving you the possibility to control every single parameter from this unit!