Whether you’re a talented bedroom amateur who creates music for fun or a professional recording artist, Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32 could be just what the music doctor ordered. Every computer-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software package needs a piano-style MIDI keyboard to function at its best.
Yes, you can use a rubber trigger pad rig like the Roli Lightpad Block in some instances (mostly for percussion) and even use your DAW’s virtual keyboard or input individual notes using a series of longwinded mouse clicks. But to get the most out of the system, nothing beats a proper piano keyboard interface.
The market is littered with suitable USB-powered MIDI keyboard controllers in various sizes from the likes of Korg, M-Audio and Alesis, but for our money, the new Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol M32 is a no brainer because a) it’s a fast-track to instant digital recording (all you need is a PC or Mac); b) it’s small, portable and more practical than other models and c) it comes with Ableton recording software and a shedload of fantastic sounds from the highly respected Native Instruments stable. In other words, just £99 buys you everything you need to start making your own music. All you require is a laptop or desktop computer and your imagination.
- Roli Songmaker Kit – a somewhat more complex beat-creating tool
- Izotope Spire Studio - the best option for instant 8-track recording on the go
- Best over-ear headphones – like a pair of monitors but less anti-social
- Best wireless speakers – now listen back to your creations
Komplete Kontrol M32 review: design and features
The diminutive and lightweight M32 measures a shade under 19cm in length and just 6.5cm in depth, and comes with 32 touch-sensitive keys (two and a half octaves, from F to C) that are of a decent enough size to play without your fingers tripping over each other.
Like practically all keyboard controllers, the M32 is equipped with oscillation and pitch-bend controllers for musical expression although in this instance they’re in the form of two ribbons rather than the usual thumb wheels. Unlike some competitors, the M32 also comes with a very useful rear-mounted sustain pedal input – an essential asset when recording chordal keyboard parts.
However, what sets this system apart from most others is the inclusion of a physical interface that mirrors some of the most important features of popular DAWs like Logic Pro X, GarageBand and Ableton Live, enabling the user to make a myriad of on-screen adjustments without constantly reaching for the mouse. Integration for DAWs like Cubase and Nuendo is apparently due in a future update.
Before you even start to create any music, the very first thing you’ll be doing after unboxing the M32 is paying a visit to the Native Instruments website where a massive package of high-quality Komplete Kontrol virtual instruments, samples and loops awaits, along with a copy of Ableton Live 10 Lite. Once everything’s loaded into your Mac or PC, you’re ready to roll.
Komplete Kontrol M32 review: how it works
Whereas most keyboard controllers provide only the piano keys and a pair of thumb control wheels, the M32 also lets the user control most parameters of a recording directly from the keyboard. This is a major bonus if your mouse is a stretch away or you have the keyboard on your lap.
Look at the entire top half of the keyboard and you’ll see an assemblage of knobs and buttons that mirror the main controls of your DAW’s interface. These are your new friends and you’ll come to appreciate their presence. The top left cluster of buttons is devoted to transport parameters like playback and record, plus metronome, tempo, loop, arpeggiator and quantize selection. Instead of using a mouse to start and stop recording or change the tempo, you simply tap the respective buttons on the keyboard.
The big knob on the right is assigned to tasks like sound patch and plug-in browsing or scanning to a specific section of a song, while the row of eight rotary knobs positioned top centre of the keyboard are used to control parameters of your chosen Native Instruments sound sample. These knobs mirror those on the computer screen so you can effortlessly adjust effects like delay, reverb, oscillation and modulation directly from the keyboard; rather like a full-sized synthesizer.
However, this high level of out-of-the-box intuitive integration only applies to Native Instruments’ own package of Komplete Kontrol sounds and not those sound samples your DAW may have come shipped with. According to the manual, you should be able to assign the knobs to most elements of a third-party virtual instrument but the instructions are so confusing you may start frothing at the mouth.
On the plus side, when the main control knobs aren’t being used for changing the effect of a sound, they can also be used to raise and lower the volumes of individual tracks in your DAW so you could feasibly mix the volumes of an eight-track song directly from the keyboard.
Komplete Kontrol M32 review: Not just for pros
The M32 was also designed with beginners in mind, though it has to be said that a lot of the ‘deep stuff’ is almost too complex for its own good. Nevertheless, there is one handy function available for those who have no idea how to play a piano keyboard. It’s called ‘Scale’ and what it does is allocate a row of keys to all the notes in a specific scale.
Say you want to create a song in the key of A minor and wish to play a violin lick in that scale. With this keyboard it's easy – simply change the parameters on the screen (using your mouse) and hit the Scale key. Now, every note you hit will be in the correct key so there’s no chance of playing any bum notes. It’s a bit like the amazing iPhone and iPad app, Thumbjam, which, incidentally, you should download immediately if you haven’t already.
Komplete Kontrol M32 review: verdict
Being able to adjust the parameters of an individual sound without taking your hands off the keyboard is a major bonus, but the M32’s most useful facet is unquestionably the easy access it provides to the DAW’s transport keys (record, playback and stop). Indeed, this writer used the transport keys more than any other function.
I tested the M32 using Apple’s excellent ‘Logic Pro X’ recording software and was suitably impressed by how easy it was to use in its basic form. However, like most music-based software, getting your head around the finer intricacies of the product’s software takes a lot of manual swotting and plenty of trial and error.
Although the keyboard is too small for playing classical or jazz-style compositions, it’s the perfect size for creating modern electronic music, whether at home or on the road – simply plonk it on your lap and doodle away.
At just £99, this tuneful tyke is superb value for money, especially when you factor in the huge volume of high-end virtual instruments and effects it comes packaged with.