Thursday, August 24, 2006

Audio Kontrol 1 Pre-Release Evaluation

Want to get into DJing from your computer? Interested in a simply USB audio interface with some innovative features? If so, take a look at the Audio Kontrol 1, just announced by Native Instruments.

Available in October at prices starting at € 279, this hardware interface looks like it might hit a sweet spot. It's got two inputs, one switchable for line level or instruments, the other for line or microphone. There's standard 48V phantom power, so you can use professional condenser mics.

The conversion goes up to 192 KHz at 24 bits, though I imagine most users should stick to 44.1 KHz to keep the file size down.

The outputs are on 4 balanced quarter-inch connections. This gives you enough for two stereo feeds: house monitor and cue. You can send these out to an external mixer but there's no real need. Instead, use the headphone jack (with level control) on the front panel. A pushbutton selects between outputs 1/2 or 3/4 so you can switch between house and cue mixes. Or, keep is set to one position and use your software to do the monitor selection. This provides a lot of flexibility.

Do note, however, that the stereo headphone feed is not in addition to the four outputs, instead it selects between them.

While inferior to the throughput and lower contention of FireWire, the USB connection has the advantage of being bus-powered (no separate power supply needed). Plus, it's usually easier to find USB ports on your computer. The ASIO drivers supposedly deliver latency down to 4ms. If that's not fast enough there's direct monitoring with a mono switch and mix control, right on the front of the unit.

Additionally there's integrated MIDI I/O and activity LEDs for all functions on top of the unit, so it's easy to see what the device is doing.

But cooler yet is a big controller knob with 3 buttons. You can assign the knob to different functions based on which button is held down. For example, without buttons it could be your master volume, left button could be deck one volume, right button could be deck two volume, and middle button... pitch shift? Monitor level? Lots of possibilities here, and everything will look pretty cool with the red on black colour scheme.

The software bundle includes three packages that are also available from NI individually. I list their usual retail price parenthetically. Note that some are currently on sale from NI. For example, Traktor DJ Studio 3 is only €99, an enormous savings.

Xpress Keyboards (€99) is a package of three virtual instruments, the B4 (B3 drawbar organ emulation), PRO-53 (Prophet 5), and FM7 (Yamaha DX-7). In their full versions these have rightly received rave reviews. These "xpress" versions have limited presets and sound manipulation possibilities. A review at Traxmusic goes into great detail.

Guitar Combos is a set of three amp emulations taken from the full Guitar Rig package. This is over-priced at €179.

Traktor 3 LE is a two-deck version of the full Traktor DJ Studio 3 (€249). It has everything you would need to DJ from the computer, resembling the previous version of the full software.

So, how does Audio Kontrol 1 compare in a crowded market? If you want to record a band it is a poor choice. No multi-track software comes with the bundle and you have only two inputs. Despite this the software provides soft synths and amp sims useful only for music production. There is poor synergy between software and hardware.

But for DJing the combination of Traktor, two stereo outputs, a good complement of actual knobs and switches, good visual feedback, and the killer controller knob adds up to a very capable package. Had they made room for a cross-fade controller it would be perfectly suited to this task.

Next version perhaps?


1 comment:

robin said...

A couple notes:

I did not make clear that this is a USB 2.0 interface, so all the ins and outs are actually usable as stated. USB 1.0 interfaces must limit the number of usable I/Os.

Street price is around €245.

Eight months later this is still the number one USB choice for me, but as I have a Fireface 400 I don't think I'm in the market!

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