Native Instruments has been a leader in software-based musical instruments almost since personal computers became fast enough to play live. (The word "native" reflects the software's ability to run on the computer itself rather than expensive DSP cards.) Over the past dozen years, NI has created an impressive lineup of soft synths and effects, including:

Each of these is deep, powerful, and priced from $229 to $449. But with Kore 2, NI has taken the sonic engines from each and integrated them into a single "greatest hits" instrument with a streamlined, accessible user interface. Here, your $229 gets you 500 of the best sounds from these six monoliths, and $449 buys that plus an elegant hardware control surface. Kore 2 provides the full, high-end sound of the component instruments, but without full editing capabilities.

Native Instruments Kore 2
Kore 2 combines six of Native Instruments' high-end products into a single, streamlined software synthesizer, and then piles on an elegant hardware control surface. (Click to enlarge.)

Want even more sounds? NI offers expansion packs starting at $59. There's even a free version, the Kore Player, that lets you try out the sounds and then expand as desired.

You can also expand laterally, bringing third-party AU or VST plugins into the Kore environment. You can warp them in complex ways, spruce up the resulting sound with the 32 built-in effects modules, and store your creations as new, self-contained sound patches. Kore 2 can, in turn, run as a plugin (VST, AU, or RTAS) itself, or as a standalone application.

In a way, Kore 2 is like Apple Logic's Environment: a simple general principle, but so flexible that it's not easy to grasp. Tagged "the Next-Generation Workstation," Kore 2 aspires to be the central sound-creating, shaping, and organizing hub of your studio, as well as a go-to instrument on stage. Does it achieve that lofty goal? I've been exploring Kore 2 for months; here's what I've found.

Installing Kore 2

Kore 2 uses a standard installer. When it asks where to store the sample content, I suggest you choose Library/Application Support/Kore 2 (or the equivalent "all users" directory for Windows), so that the samples can be accessed from any user account on the machine. Note that the installer's progress bar is a bit misleading: even when the bar has reached the end, the installer is still busy writing samples to the hard drive.

When you install Kore Soundpacks, you're again prompted to select a folder, but this is just for documentation. The installer writes the actual sample content to the folder you defined previously.

Copy protection is handled via an application called Service Center. This controls licensing for all Native Instruments software on your computer: just enter a serial number, register the software, and never worry about copy protection again. Service Center is also where you manage software updates. With the exception of a hardware driver update, which Service Center never detected as installed, this update process worked flawlessly during my testing.

Now that the software is installed, it's time to play, manage, and perform with Kore 2.

Playing Kore 2: The Browser

Running the software as a sample player is Kore 2's most basic mode of operation: find a sound via the Kore Browser and load it, tweak (some of) the sound's key parameters, and jam away.

The Kore Browser exposes an extensive set of metadata that Kore 2 stores for every sound in its library. This metadata includes sound attributes like type, genre, and timbre, as well as the sound's name and author. You can freely configure the columns in the Kore Browser to display whatever criteria you find useful when searching for a sound. (This also works for effects and MIDI plugins.)

As soon as you make selections from the Browser's criterion columns, the list of sounds is instantly filtered to show only those that match your selection. Additionally, there's a search box where you can type in your own terms to filter the list further. (See Figure 1.)

Fig. 1: The Kore Browser
Fig. 1: The Kore Browser: The yellow highlights indicate criteria the user has selected, whereas the check marks indicate which attributes have been assigned by the author to the sound currently selected in the list on the right.

While this kind of sound browser has become common in audio software, the Kore Browser has a useful feature that I have not seen in competing applications: once you select a sound, all of that sound's attributes are shown in the Browser. You get an instant idea of the overall character of a sound without having to load and test-play it first. Excellent!

However, I wish there were a way to explicitly enter a "not" selection. For example, while looking for a bright synth lead sound, I noticed that some of the sounds Kore 2 found were arpeggiated, which was not what I wanted. What if holding the Option or Alt key while clicking a criterion highlighted the criterion in red instead of yellow, and excluded matching sounds from the final list? Just an idea, dear NI developers.

By the way, if you aren't happy with the characterization of a sound, that's not a problem, because most of the metadata is freely editable.

Kore Audio

As mentioned, Kore 2 ships with some 500 sounds, which are all of impeccable quality, as you would expect from Native Instruments. I also had a chance to try a number of optional Soundpacks, with names like FM8 Transient Attacks, Deep Transformations, Synthetic Drums Reloaded, and many more. The synth-oriented Soundpacks contain 200 sounds each, and being priced from $59–$119, offer extremely high instant gratification — especially because you can buy them as online downloads.

Here I'm playing three of Kore 2's Deep Synth Pad sounds in a row to demonstrate the quality of the sound library and the built-in effects. (Just listen to the richness of the phaser and the creamy reverb at the end of the last example.) The sounds are Mirphak from the Kore 2 factory library, Come Upstairs from the Massive Expansion Vol. 1 Soundpack, and Return to Dust (also from the factory library):

Once you've loaded a sound, you can adjust key parameters with eight onscreen knobs and buttons, which can be controlled with the Kore 2 hardware controller (Figure 2). You also can use the hardware knobs as generic MIDI controllers, but they become much more valuable when used with the Kore 2 software, because their resolution is much higher than the 128 steps supported by the MIDI protocol, making for much finer sound editing compared to standard MIDI controllers. [Ed. Note: Well-designed MIDI software interpolates between incoming controller values to smooth out the jumps, so in practice you shouldn't hear "stairstepping" when using standard controllers, but higher resolution in an integrated system like Kore does have advantages.]

Kore 2 Control Surface
Fig. 2: Kore 2's high-resolution hardware controller has a very nice feel. It lets you control the entire Kore 2 software more efficiently and expressively than with a mouse.

Obviously, this won't compare to having full access to all the parameters of each synth engine, but for the vast majority of sounds in Kore 2 (including the Soundpacks), the selection of parameters makes a lot of musical sense and allows for some drastic sound modifications. For many sounds, more than eight parameters are assigned to the control knobs, so you have to flip through a number of pages of parameters. Fortunately, you can flip through the pages from the hardware controller.

As a cool extra, you can store up to eight variations of a sound in a 4x2 matrix and either jump to one of them or smoothly morph between them. Here's an example of sound morphing, using the arpeggiated Abendstern (evening star) sound from the Massive Expansion Vol. 1 Soundpack. I created the performance by holding a Maj7/9 chord and morphing between the eight sound variations with the eight controller knobs. This is more of a technical demonstration than a marketable piece of music, but should give you an idea.

This next example is the Arp Tweaker sound from the factory library triggered with a simplistic bass arpeggio while I change parameters.

Managing from the Kore

Playing Kore 2 with the preset sounds can already take you a long way. But the real fun begins when you start building your own.

In Kore 2, sounds are constructed in the Sound Matrix. This Matrix is made up of rows of channels containing channel inserts. There are three types of channels:

  1. Input channels that accept audio input(s) from an external source or another sound matrix level;
  2. Source channels without inputs (used, erg., for audio generators like soft synths or samplers); and
  3. Group channels, which provide busing functionality for the Sound Matrix row in which they're used.

Each of a channel's inserts can accept a component: a Kore sound; an effect or MIDI plugin built into Kore 2; but also a third-party plugin in AU, VST, or RTAS format. Let's have a closer look.

Figure 3 shows one Input channel at the topmost matrix level (which is the root level, as the Matrix is oriented from top to bottom) containing the Blue Medicine sound as its sole component. This sound, in turn, is made up of five components that are displayed in the Source channel in the bottom Matrix level.

Fig. 3: Five-Component Sound
Fig. 3: A sound with five components in a source channel. Note the red corners that indicate the selected component (Room), and that component's editing panel at the bottom of the window. Usually, the selection corners are yellow; they're red here because learning mode was enabled — I was about to assign a parameter to one of the control knobs.

To expand this sound by adding more sounds or effects, all you have to do is add a Kore sound, or internal or external plugin, to an empty channel insert. To keep things organized, you can freely create empty channels of any of the three types mentioned above.

Sticking with the previous example, I created a new Source channel in my performance and added the Low Smash bass sound in one of its channel inserts. After switching to Kore 2's Sound Manager to bring up a hierarchical view of this setup, I set a split-point between the two sounds in the Channel Mapping panel by simply dragging the left and right edges of the layers as needed. (See Figure 4.)

Fig. 4: Sound Manager
Fig. 4: Managing layers and splits by dragging and dropping keyboard zones for individual components in the Sound Manager.
Fig. 5: Output Channel Setup
Fig. 5: Kore 2's output channel setups (shown in Apple Logic).

Kore 2 allows for multitimbral use, too: each component has its own MIDI configuration, so that you can freely assign MIDI channels to individual sounds and, thus, to their own track in your MIDI sequencer. What works for the input side also works for the output. Kore 2 offers several output channel configurations for use as a plug-in: configure the audio routing as desired, record onto different audio tracks, and post-process those audio tracks as needed. Very useful! (See Figure 5.)

The only limitation is the power of your computer, so you can build truly complex multi-layered soundscapes and split-sounds this way. Again, you can save these complex creations as a Kore sound: the whole structure, including all plugins, their respective settings, and MIDI and audio routings are encapsulated in a single component in the Kore 2 sound library, and will take up just a single channel insert when used.

Figure 6 shows what the Blue Medicine/Low Smash performance looks like as a single component:

Fig. 6: Sound from Performance
Fig. 6: The multisound consisting of Blue Medicine and Low Smash encapsulated as a single component, using up just one channel insert (Blue Smash Med).

A big part of the appeal of this software is using the controller to tweak sounds in real time. Assigning a plugin's parameter to one of the controllers is as easy as activating learn mode, clicking on the desired onscreen controller knob or button, "touching" that parameter in the plugin's UI, and deactivating the learn mode.

That procedure works for all of the effects and MIDI plugins that ship with Kore 2, but not with the Kore sounds — unless you own a license to the respective Native Instruments software package, e.g., Absynth or FM8. In that case, you have full access to edit any of the sounds in Kore 2: double-clicking a channel insert brings up that plugin's own user interface. The same is true for third-party plugins.

For testing, I used Arturia's Jupiter-V. The controller assignments went perfectly smoothly, although there was one minor issue: the names of the parameters given out by the Jupiter-V plugin were rather cryptic. The NI developers have obviously seen this coming, so they made the labels next to the controllers editable. (See Figure 7.)

Fig. 7: Controller Plugin Assignment
Fig. 7: Assigning a third-party plugin's parameters to a Kore 2 controller knob. Note that the names of the knobs are editable.

Kore 2 does not have any presets stored for third-party plugins. For some plugins, Kore 2 can import their presets and add them to its library automatically. Unfortunately, the Arturia plugin apparently was not among those supported by this feature.

Plugin parameters are not just available for tweaking directly inside Kore 2: the program also supports full automation by making its key controllers available to host software. When using your sequencer's learn mode, recording and fine-tuning parameter sweeps and morphs is a snap. There is just a minor hiccup in this feature, as a seemingly endless list of page/controller pairs appears in Logic's automation menu. (See Figure 8.) That causes a noticeable delay in opening that menu in Logic, which is a bit of a nuisance.

Fig. 8: Automation Menu
Fig. 8: Assigning parameters to automation tracks via Learn mode works fine, but due to the long list of generically available parameters, there is a noticeable delay before the main automation menu opens.

I also ran into another annoyance with Logic: its soft-synths — like Sculpture and ES2 — are off-limits for Kore 2. In fact, they are off-limits for any software other than Logic itself, because Apple built them right into the Logic application instead of implementing them as standalone AU plugins. Of course, this is not Native Instruments' fault, but you should be aware of this limitation if you use these Logic plugins a lot.

Performing Live with Kore 2

With all your sounds and plugins inventoried in Kore 2, wouldn't it be grand if you could take this library with you on stage and access all that sonic goodness via the now-familiar interface? Thanks to the stand-alone version of Kore 2, you can do that without having to use any other piece of software.

A key feature to support the use on stage — or in any other live environment, for that matter — are Kore 2's Performance Presets. A Performance is essentially a multisound plus a few additional settings like time and tempo for the built-in MIDI player (for syncing effects, etc.).

While the structure of a Performance is saved in a file with the Save Performance command, a Performance Preset stores the settings of the components in that structure. In other words, you can't exchange any components via Performance Presets, but you can change almost everything else, like the settings in the user or channel pages of the components, the mixer settings, and the audio routings. (See Figure 9.)

Fig. 9: Performance Presets
Fig. 9: The Performance Presets panel. There are 16 banks of 8 storage slots each for a total of 128 presets for the given Performance. To store a preset, select any slot and press Store. The Append button selects the next empty slot and stores the current setup as a new preset. Neat!

A preset is loaded as soon as its slot is clicked, so there is no explicit load button. If you're using presets while synchronizing with a sequencer, Kore 2 lets you decide when the change becomes effective: as soon as you select a preset, or on the next beat or bar.

For remotely switching presets, Kore 2 supports standard MIDI Program Change events. As you'd expect, you can also change presets on the Kore 2 controller by pressing a button.

To prepare Kore 2 for use in a live setting, here's what you do: compile all sounds that you will need for a set into one or two Performances. Adjust the sounds' settings and routings, store these as Performance Presets, and step through them while playing.

Here's the key feature that makes this approach possible even when the processor load would be way beyond your computer's capabilities: you can deactivate each channel, and even each component, of a Performance. This is not the same as muting a module, because deactivated modules do not require any CPU cycles.

In other words, you can throw as many modules at a Performance as you wish, as long as you make sure that your computer is capable of running those modules that are activated at any given time, or rather: in any given Performance Preset. In Figure 9, the orange x in the fourth module indicates that it is deactivated, so that only the four others are using CPU power.

In the lower right corner of the Performance Presets panel, Kore 2 displays the previous and next non-empty preset slots, so that you can see which preset will be recalled when you hit the forward or back program-change buttons. There's also room for comments, so you can add notes to inform yourself about what will come out of the speakers before pressing any key.

Don't forget that you can also use the eight sound variations. By modifying your sounds' settings via the controller knobs and storing these settings as sound variations, you effectively have eight times as many preset slots available. Those 1,024 "presets" should let you tackle even longer sets!

The current implementation works quite well, but I don't understand why NI followed the "presets in banks" metaphor and put in this rigid 16x8 matrix. I would have preferred a more flexible approach of folders holding arbitrary numbers of presets, which would hopefully do away with the limit of 128 total presets, as well.

Regardless of the way they are organized, the Performance Presets turn Kore 2 into a great live tool that makes for a seamless link between studio and live usage of your entire sound library. And when using the hardware controller, you can even stash your laptop away and use Kore 2 as a unified interface for summoning all the sounds you'll need for a given session, as well as for live-tweaking them to your heart's content.

Buying Kore 2

Native Instruments offers three Kore 2 packages: Kore 2 contains the Kore 2 software plus the Kore 2 hardware controller for a list price of $559. Kore 2 Software Edition omits the controller and drops the price to $229. Both come with a selection of high-quality sounds and effects from a wide range of genres. You can add sounds with the Kore Soundpacks ($59 and up).

A Kore Electronic Experience bundle is also available for $229, but only includes the Kore Player, which does not have the Sound Matrix UI, so you cannot edit the sounds (beyond live tweaking via the controller knobs and buttons, of course).

Speaking of the Kore Player, a free version — complete with 300MB worth of sounds — is offered via download, and this version, too, can be expanded with Kore Soundpacks, so it makes for a great entry-point to the world of Kore 2.

For more, visit the Kore product page.

Kore Conclusion

Kore 2 is an extremely capable music production tool, so you will probably need to play around with it for a while until you see just how versatile and powerful it is. That doesn't mean the software is complex — rather that it's almost infinitely flexible.

Which brings me to my main complaint: the "operation manual" could have been more helpful. It is written in a monotone style and follows a purely reference-oriented structure. Fortunately, NI has since addressed those of us who learn better by doing with a series of excellent video tutorials that you can download for free through the Service Center utility.

As for the actual Kore 2 product, I have never before seen a sound-search tool that is as useful, convenient, and fast as the Kore Browser. Better, by supporting standard third-party audio plugins, that browser can serve as a studio's central sound librarian. The Kore 2 hardware controller won't replace a full-blown hardware synth anytime soon, but in combination with the right soft synths and a reasonably powerful laptop, it makes a very capable alternative to that hardware synth, especially for live gigs, when reliability and transportability are more important than having direct access to esoteric sound parameters.