Creating a more expressive instrument in Kontakt
Many times I am looking for an instrument to be more expressive by using the least amount of keyswitches, knobs, faders, or what have you. Even though I have multi-sampled strings I still feel like there is too much programming involved in getting a more convincing and dynamic performance. There are keyswitches to be programmed, expression, mod-wheel, and other midi CC controllers to deal with. While this might create a better mock up in the end, sometimes I want to just “play” strings with my controller and not have to have a programming degree or ten arms to do it in real time.
I start with a basic legato patch. Now what I am looking for is an instrument that responds to how fast/hard I play, and has more realistic swells as played with my expression pedal. The legato patch is fine, but when I play soft, I would like it to swell more slowly into the sound, and when I play hard, I would like there to be more “bite” to the attack. There are two things which can help create this effect. First, we need to make the velocity modify the attack time, so it will be longer the lighter the notes are played. Secondly, we need to stack a marcato sound on top of the legato sound, but only have it play when the velocity is above a certain value.
Edit your Kontakt instrument, and make sure that you have your “Edit all groups” button enabled in the Group Editor Tab. Now page down to the bottom, and edit the volume envelope under the Modulation Tab. On the bottom left corner of the volume envelope area you need to press the Mod box/button so that you can assign velocity to the attack time. From the pull-down list, choose velocity and it defaults to modulate the attack. You need to press the Invert <> button so that the lower velocity=longer attack. Now start playing and adjust your attack time to somewhere around 150ms. You may want more or less. I sometimes like to assign the velocity to the release as well, but often only set it to modify the release time by 10% or so. You need to also put this into the Invert<> mode.
Now to import a marcato group into this instrument. Open a marcato sound and go to the Group Editor Tab. Select your marcato group/groups and within the Group Editor Tab click the Edit drop-down menu, and within it the “Export Group” option. This will let you save the group for import into the Legato instrument. Save the group file. Close the Marcato instrument and go back to editing the Legato instrument. Open the Group Editor Tab and the Edit drop-down menu and then the “Import Group” option. Choose the group in the finder. Now you have layered the Legato and Marcato instruments, but you don’t want them playing together all the time. In your Group Editor Tab, disable the Edit All Groups option so you can edit just the Marcato group. Under the Amplifier section, look at your modulators by clicking the Mod button/box. Velocity should already be assigned to volume, but if it is not, add it. Here you need to pop open the velocity drawing table which is the button to the left of the Invert<> button. I like to use the Line type instead of the Table to assign the velocity>volume to stay 0 until about 2/3 up, then start to fade in. Look at the picture below. This makes the instrument only sound when velocity is above 80 or so.
To make my strings more realistic, I often map “Expression” a.k.a. midi CC #11 to volume. This allows me to create volume swells with my foot pedal. You can also see that this is done in the Amplifier Mod section in the picture below.
I also like to add a little filter cutoff to the instrument. Even though the instrument may be multi-sampled at different velocities (in this case, 3) that isn’t enough gradation of tone for me. Make sure your Edit All Groups button is enabled, then insert a LP1 into a Group insert FX slot. Click the Mod box/button and assign the velocity to modify cutoff frequency 100% and assign midi CC#11 to also modify cutoff frequency 100%. When adding the midi CC assignments, there are two boxes which allow numerical input. The left box is for the Midi CC# and the right hand box is for the default value when the instrument opens. Set the default to 127, or maximum in the midi world. Now set the filter frequency to the lowest it can go. This filter will now close as the velocity gets lower and as the Expression swells get lower.
Finally, I have found that when playing repeated quick notes the dreaded “machine gun effect” happens. There are some cool Kontakt scripts out there to help rectify this. For this instrument, I use a script from “Big Bob” called Ultra TKT which basically chooses another random sample near the one note you are playing and pitch corrects it in order to make a “Round-Robin” style instrument. This means that every time you play the same note, it chooses a different sample to play so that the sound is not so robotic.
I find that this makes a nicer live instrument to play and I can often get some very expressive sounds out of it without more than velocity and expression. Hopefully this helps you with some insight into Kontakt’s ability to make sounds more expressive. The example below is a quick passage I programmed in without any expression to show how just dynamics can make the instrument come to life. The first passage is the standard legato instrument, and the repeat uses the enhanced legato instrument explained in this tutorial. There is also a .NKI instrument (without samples) of the cello sound I used for the example for you to download and look at.
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Here is a demo of it. Same midi performance, first with standard legato cello and then repeated with the enhanced legato instrument.