Native Instruments' Kontrol S series MIDI keyboards are a favorite among producers and musicians for their solid build and tight integration with the company's instruments like Kontakt and Massive X. This year the controllers are getting a pretty significant upgrade that pushes the hardware to new heights and tightens the integration with the company's flagship software.
Physically there are few immediately obvious differences on the Kontrol S MK3. For one the stark matte black aesthetic has been toned down a bit. Don't get me wrong, it's still a mostly black affair, but there are some additional lights and colored labels have been added to some of the buttons. The touch strip has also been moved above the pitch and mod wheels which, might seem like a minor tweak, but greatly improves playability. It could often get in the way and it's something that a lot of Native Instruments' customers complained about, so it's good to see the company listening to feedback.
The other glaring difference is the screen. Where the MK2 had two small, but functional screens, the MK3 has one large hi-res screen. It's bright and crisp and easy to view from any angle. Many of the graphics and UI elements have been updated to take advantage of the new display, too. You can't do everything in your DAW on the keyboard, the way you might with say with an Ableton Push, but you can do almost anything inside of Komplete Kontrol. The screen allows you to browse through all your Native Instruments plugins and sound packs, and even many third party VSTs, like those from Arturia, complete with artwork. And then change parameters, complete with visual feedback, until you get the sound you're looking for.
If you'd rather not deal with the additional overhead of Komplete Kontrol, the keyboard can tap directly into Kontakt 7. Frankly I much preferred this. While being able to browse, load and tweak presets, regardless of instrument directly from the keyboard is nice, it can be a little overwhelming. And there is a touch more lag loading Kontakt soundbanks when you're going through the middleman of Komplete Kontrol. (And they open slow enough on my four-year-old Dell as is.)
The eight knobs under the screen give you quick access to a number of parameters based on what instrument you've loaded. And in Kontakt, there's additional flexibility because they can vary based on preset, which loads with a performance mode by default. These are the eight parameters deemed most important for live tweaking. But you can dive deeper by hitting a button above the screen to switch to edit mode where you can page through the complete set of options and get really detailed designing a patch. All of this is thanks to the new NKS 2.0 (Native Kontrol Standard) platform.
Two of the other major changes to the S Series are a little less obvious. For one there's a new unibody shell that, might not make any practical difference, but does give generation a slightly more solid feel. The capacitive encoders and pitch and mod wheels are all made from machined aluminum as well. This is a keyboard that feels worthy of a professional studio.
More exciting though, is the new keybed which was developed in coordination with Fatar and brings polyphonic aftertouch to the Kontrol series. While there aren't a lot of Native Instruments' plugins that take full advantage of this yet, it does add a bit of future proofing to the lineup. With MPE gaining in popularityThe company had to do something to keep pace with the time.
It feels great too. I tested the Kontrol S49 which, like its slightly bigger sibling the S61, has a semi-weighted keybed. The travel for aftertouch is short, but satisfying and in general it responds to playing naturally allowing you to get a lot of nuance from your playing. The S88 however will have a full hammer action keyboard that might appeal more to serious piano players.
Lastly, it's worth noting that there is plenty of connectivity on board as well. Obviously, there's MIDI over over USB-C, but there's also dedicated five-pin MIDI ins and outs, plus four pedal input jacks (one sustain, one expression and two assignable).
The Native Instruments Kontrol S Series MK3 keyboards are available for preorder today starting at $749 for the S49, $849 for the S61 and $1,299 for the S88. All three are expected to start shipping sometime in October.
Native Instruments Kontrol S49 Mk3 49-key Smart Keyboard Controller