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Ingo Kniest As Native Instruments celebrate their 10th anniversary we go behind the scenes at the company, remember the highlights, and look forward to the next decade in software instrument design. It’s the early ’90s, and hardware engineer Stephan Schmitt is taking a vacation from his job developing mixing consoles. At the house where he is staying, the only reading matter is a copy of the German computer technology magazine c’t.
10 Years Of Native Instruments
Ingo Kniest As Native Instruments celebrate their 10th anniversary we go behind the scenes at the company, remember the highlights, and look forward to the next decade in software instrument design. It’s the early ’90s, and hardware engineer Stephan Schmitt is taking a vacation from his job developing mixing consoles.
At the house where he is staying, the only reading matter is a copy of the German computer technology magazine c’t. Stephan also has his Yamaha DX7-II with him — a synthesizer with a notoriously difficult user interface. I wanted to bring the stuff that was established only in the academic field to everybody, or people like me. Stephan teamed up with self-taught programmer Volker Hinz, and they drew up the plans for a modular synth environment.
Generator allowed the user to construct instruments from low-level modules — oscillators, filters and so on — connected together in a graphical interface.
It was, in other words, the embryo of Reaktor. The pair, calling themselves Native Instruments, caused a storm at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt when they showed the results of their efforts. Generator attracted a tide of talent hoping to be involved in this new direction for musical instruments, despite the fact that there was initially no money to pay salaries.
Bernd encouraged Daniel to bring his business acumen and drive to the group, which until then consisted entirely of engineers. With Daniel aboard, the enterprise gained strong organisational and procedural foundations, worldwide distribution partnerships, and a charismatic advocate. Daniel explains: I had no clue about software synthesis, I wasn’t an engineer, and I’m rarely a musician, so I could not add much to the technology side of things, but I think I’m quite a good businessman, and I’m passionate about what I do.
Stephan did not have the capabilities of a businessman, but was a visionary, an engineer, and musician. I could completely agree to his vision, and that’s what brought us together. Bernd was kind of a mediator because he was my best friend so I trusted him, and Stephan trusted in Bernd as an engineer and then also as a person, so Bernd allowed us to put some trust in each other.
That is exactly what mostly doesn’t happen; engineers tend not to trust in businessmen, and the other way around, when it comes to the big picture. Massive is a brand-new synth designed by Mike Daliot, who created the classic Reaktor instruments Carbon and Vierring, as well the inspired Metaphysical Function and Photone from the Electronic Instruments II collection.
His concept was to create a stand-alone synth that was straightforward to use, but had the same kind of intensity and depth as his instruments in Reaktor. The result is a semi-modular subtractive synth, with three wavetable oscillators, and multiple envelope and step sequence modulation options. Everything is presented in one screen, with a clever drag-and-drop assignment system for modulation and control, and a routing page with click boxes for changing the signal flow.
The synth features very high sample-rate processing throughout, high-frequency modulation sources and multiple internal saturation stages. NI see Massive as performing a similar role to synths like the Nord Lead or Access Virus, as it’s capable of some really rich, clear and analoguesque sounds.
Massive Product Manager Frank Elting. Ingo Kniest One of the goals of the synth was to take advantage of newer, faster CPUs to push the boundaries of how good the sound could be, and how close to analogue they could get.
If possible we wanted to get the Reaktor pure sound, without too many thoughts of CPU consumption. The result is an amazing depth and clarity, and a huge range over which sounds can be swept and modulated without digital artifacts. As well as checking out the synth, which we’ll be reviewing in full soon, I was interested to find out how a product like Massive is developed.
It’s possible to make these with others of our synths, but we wanted to have one dedicated for this, with extraordinary sound quality, on top of the technology level which is there right now, as computers are getting faster and you can use more processor power.
Then we had to think ‘Can we do it with our resources? Then Mike came up with the concept — originally it was very different — and again many opinions and iteration stages came in and together formed this product. Then, in the development process the product still changes. Parts of the engine were prototyped in Reaktor. Throughout the development process, the design was still open to change based on new ideas, feature requests, and how the sound and usability turn out.
Graphic designers also got involved at an early stage, reflecting NI’s increasing focus on usability. A core application programmer developed the main shell, and other sections were coded separately. It’s not until the beta version that a synth becomes a plug-in and not just a stand-alone application.
This framework took years to build and to optimise. Beta-testing must be co-ordinated, and bug fixes prioritised. Marketing and web material must be prepared, which starts with the packaging design. Eventually, the product can be let out into the wild, and the team can see how their efforts are received by the public.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All Generator continued to grow more advanced, sample-based modules were developed and the technology was split across several products such as Transformator. Eventually, though, everything converged to a single Reaktor package, which remains at the heart of the NI line-up and is now at version 5. Reaktor can be moulded for almost any purpose: Not only that, the building blocks are at a low component level, so you can actually build devices from the ground up.
It might seem, then, that Reaktor is the ideal platform upon which to build and sell other instruments. This idea can be seen in the releases of the Electronic Instruments I and II packages, which consist of professionally developed Reaktor instruments and effects; and Reaktor is also used to prototype other NI products see boxes.
However, NI soon found that the one-size-fits-all approach didn’t meet everyone’s needs. Stephan Schmitt: We tried to make everybody happy with this one product.
Then we learned that, OK, we have to think more in traditional schemes, and bring say the vintage stuff, or the well-known instruments to people. The first fruits of this new growth spurt were ‘s B4 and Pro 5: NI’s intuition had been correct, and the familiar interfaces and sounds of these instruments proved hugely popular in a much larger circle of music makers than the Reaktor ‘tweakheads’. The graphic design and production team at NI’s Berlin headquarters.
Ingo Kniest Critical Mass NI’s growth and product release schedule has continued at a gallop for the last five years. FM7 proved the point of soft synths by recreating the DX7 synths with a much friendlier interface. Absynth explored new synthesis possibilities, combining various approaches including granular synthesis with flexible multi-stage envelopes and modulators to make a unique and beautiful instrument. Unsurprisingly, given its heritage, Kontakt has a semi-modular interface, and has lent some of its interface ideas to Guitar Rig, and then Kore.
NI became convinced that the same revolution in synthesis could be applied to other areas of music creation and performance. The first step into a new territory was the DJ tool Traktor. The idea was to make it possible to perform a DJ set from a laptop, using audio files instead of records and CDs. This was not the only collaboration with third parties in the DJ world. A special version of the software Traktor FS became the front-end software for the ingenious Stanton Final Scratch system, which uses real turntables and timecode-imprinted records to control playback in software.
NI also formed a partnership with the Beatport on-line dance music store, and added an integrated portal in the software so that tracks on Beatport can be previewed and downloaded even while you’re playing back a mix. The third area that NI have branched into is multi-effects systems aimed predominately at guitar players.
Guitar Rig was a departure in two respects. Not only did it break away from NI’s traditional association with electronic music, but it was also their first serious move into hardware development with the Rig Kontrol. True to NI’s philosophy of using the ever-increasing native power of standard PCs for sound creation and effects, Rig Kontrol and later Rig Kontrol 2 and Kore has no DSP or other capabilities that could limit future developments.
It makes no sense to split the intelligence. Stephan Schmitt has the idea of making a software synth that can run on cheap off-the-shelf PCs. System split into Generator synthesis and Transformator sampling.
A combined solution is christened Reaktor. Riding the wave of the late ’90s tech boom, NI use venture-capital money to grow and develop new instruments.
B4 and Pro 5, Reaktor 2, Pro 52 released. FM7, Absynth, Reaktor 3, Traktor released. US division and offices open. Kontakt, Electronic Instruments, Battery released. Company restructures into three divisions: Instruments, DJ and Guitar. The Future Is Kore By , NI had a diverse range of products on the market, and some kind of integration was becoming necessary. The first Komplete bundle provided a discounted way to get into the instrument suite, and the Komplete Care subscription scheme ensured users were automatically sent all updates for an annual discounted fee.
However, the problem wasn’t just updates: Kore, which itself can run as a plug-in, acts as an intermediary between you and your software instruments. The hardware and host shell give you a uniform control interface, while the Kore Sound browser means that you can search for sound sources by the type of sound, rather than the specific plug-in that produces it.
Kore is at the heart of Native Instruments’ strategy for the future. It seems the initial release of Kore is just the start of the project. Everyone at NI seems to be itching to take it to the next level, which will see more and more integration between software and hardware. The problem with controllers up till now has been that the hardware is made for existing software, and the results are nearly always disappointing.
Now that NI have both sides of the equation, they can concentrate on designing software interfaces that dovetail intuitively into the hardware and host side. This is evident in both the new synth Massive see box on first page of this article which has eight macro controls right on the front panel ready for Kore control, and also in all the new updates that have just been announced.
The Kore-style sound browser is present in each, with the ability to search by sound types and categories. The NI libraries are becoming unified into a single Kore Sound library, so saving a patch in Absynth 4, for example, will result in a file that can be read both by Kore, and the stand-alone application.
With Kore in place, NI believe they have the foundation for the next 10 years. Considering future developments, Stephan Schmitt states “I think there will not be so much innovation in the field of how sound is created.
The interesting thing is now the user interface: Potential also lies in the steady rise of computing power. With Massive, for example, NI have chosen to build a synth that’s unshackled from previous compromises and optimisations that limit sound quality. So, do NI plan to further explore the hosting business, with more sequencing, recording, or mixing functionality?
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VIDEO: Native Instruments – Wikipedia
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