Native Instruments S61

The Hardware

The Native Instruments S61 has been out for quite some time and indeed there is now a Mk2 version that should be in the stores soon however I had personally never used one of these controllers so I thought it would be interesting to give it a try and perhaps compare with the Akai Advance 49 which I also had here for a while.

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I want to start this short review with a quick thanks to Chris (Parametric) because it is entirely due to his connections at Native Instruments that I was able to get hold of a review version of the S61. Also a big shout out to Hattie at Native Instruments who was so incredibly efficient at arranging everything.

I’m going to run through this in two parts which may seem an odd choice at first because the keyboard and the KOMPLETE software are so closely intertwined however I wanted to focus particularly on the hardware because some people have questioned the cost in comparison to other controllers out there.

At the time of writing, if you were to purchase the S61 in the UK it would come in at around £539/$695/€609 which is a fair chunk of change for a midi controller keyboard until you take into account that it also comes with Native Instruments KOMPLETE 11 SELECT software worth £159.00/€179/$205. So taking the cost of the software out of the equation you are left with a pretty nice 61 key controller for £380. It’s still not cheap but in my opinion the quality of the hardware justifies the price, in fact you can pick up a used S61 for less than that AND it will most likely come with KOMPLETE 11 SELECT which is quite a bargain in my book.

The hardware itself feels like quality the moment you take it out of the box. It’s not heavy but has a reassuringly solid feel to it and it looks the part with a mixture of glossy plastic and brushed metal. It feels like a pro level instrument and that feeling is enhanced as soon as you put your fingers on the keys. Most controllers leave a lot to be desired in the key action area but not the S61. It exudes quality and is just so playable I didn’t really want to stop. It also supports aftertouch of course which is a feature sorely lacking on most sub £1500 synths these days…even though this isn’t a synth but you get what I mean.

For a controller keyboard there is, at first glance a distinct lack of “controls”. Whereas most midi controller keyboards have a plethora of knobs, sliders and buttons the Native Instruments S series goes for the minimalist approach with just eight main rotaries, one main selector knob and two button clusters. However, looks can be very deceiving. Turn the unit on and everything comes to life in a wash of animated colour. It should be noted here that the S series are not bus powered so you do need to plug in the power supply provided.

So what are all these colours and flashing lights all about? Probably the most notable feature is the strip of LED position indicators above the keys. These are not just “pretty lights” but change colour depending on which mode/function you are using. At their simplest they act as a scale guide indicating which notes to press in sequence which of course helps if keyboard is not your main instrument or you are just getting started. The light guide is also used for mapping instrument splits on the keyboard. For example drums make use of colour to indicate types of sounds so kick drums are red and hats are blue which means you always know where you are without needing to look at a computer screen.

It is always worth mentioning that the S series are a fantastic way to help learn how to play keyboards. Not only do you have the scale guide function which automatically rounds notes to the next key but there is also an ‘Easy Key Mode’. In this mode a scale is instantly mapped to just the white keys so playing a scale couldn’t be easier!

There are also a number of ‘chord’ modes. In Harmonic Chord mode you can play chords based on any root note played in your chosen scale. A rotary knob controls the type of chord, so effectively you can perform chord progressions by just hitting single keys and at the same time turning a knob. The Light Guide shows which keys you would have needed to play to for each chord if you were able to play the full chords yourself.

Then there is ‘Chord Set’ mode which generates several predefined chord variations by octave based on the scale you have chosen. Eight major and minor variations are provided which you can change using the rotary encoder. All of this is fantastic for someone like me who loves keyboards but who’s main instrument is guitar. I “almost” sound like I can really play keys too 🙂

There are no standard pitch and mod wheels on the S Series, instead they have touch strips with LED position indicators.

You will have noticed there is no large display on the S series keyboards, unlike the Akai Advance which does sport a large display meaning you never need to look at the computer to browse through instruments etc. However the S series does have individual displays under each rotary encoder which change depending what mode your in so actually there is a lot of information here and combined with the light guide it sort of replaces a standard lcd panel.

The Software

The S series come with Native Instruments KOMPLETE 11 Select and it’s a pretty fine software package. There is something here for everyone and if you never bought another plugins you could pretty much do all you might need with Select. It includes the following:

MASSIVE – Heavyweight synthesizer combining analog architecture with wavetable synthesis. Perfect for heavy basses and piercing leads.

REAKTOR PRISM – Unique and responsive polyphonic modal synthesizer with fascinating sound-shaping capabilities.

SCARBEE MARK 1 – The sound of an iconic electric piano, beautifully sampled and perfectly preserved in all its brilliance.

SOLID BUS COMP – Inspired by a legendary bus compressor from a famous British console. Delivers power and punch without sacrificing clarity.

DRUMLAB – First-of-its-kind drum laboratory, combining pristine acoustic samples with a punchy electronic edge – all in one intuitive interface.

THE GENTLEMAN – Classic piano that delivers balanced tone, a wide dynamic range, and a beautiful, lush sound. Your new standard vintage upright.

VINTAGE ORGANS – Access the sounds of the golden age. Based on high-quality recordings of classic organs, VINTAGE ORGANS is full of charm and character.

MONARK – Uncompromising software version of the holy grail of analog monosynths. Every nuance has been meticulously studied to recreate the spirit of this legend in definitive detail.

RETRO MACHINES MK2 – 16 legendary vintage instruments from the 70s and 80s, lovingly sampled and refined. Retro analog sound with all the benefits of modern software technology.

WEST AFRICA – Vibrant percussion and enchanting melodic instruments plus an intuitive pattern sequencer. Play instruments solo or as polyrhythmic ensembles.

REPLIKA – Two studio-quality delays and a powerful diffusion algorithm in a sleek interface.

KONTAKT 5 PLAYER and Factory Selection
REAKTOR 6 PLAYER and Factory Selection

Native Instruments KOMPLETE KONTROL S61

Even at the retail price of £159 that is pretty fine value for money! The fact that it comes WITH your chosen S Series controller just sweetens the deal.

I must admit I am mostly and acoustic piano sort of guy so I was naturally drawn to ‘THE GENTLEMAN’ vintage upright and it definitely does not disappoint. I have a number of ‘virtual’ pianos to compare with and this one stands head and shoulders above the rest…some very well known names in there too!

Everything else of course is top class and I would have no hesitation in recommending KOMPLETE SELECT to anyone.

The software of course integrates superbly with the hardware and as soon as your turn on the controller and fire up the KOMPLETE KONTROL software everything gels and the displays reflect all aspects of each instrument.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned at the start of this admittedly short review, the S Series boards have been out for some time so I come pretty late to this party, so late in fact that the new MK2 version S Series should be hitting the stores about now. From what I have seen they take what was already a great controller/software package and raise the bar by quite some measure. Certainly the Akai Advance no longer has everything it’s own way. The Mk2 S Series now sports not one but two LCD panels which makes browsing and controlling your VST’s a breeze. Hopefully I will get my hands on one soon and do a review long before they get the MK3 out the door 😉

What I can definitively say about the Native Instruments KOMPLETE KONTROL S Series is right now there is nothing out there to touch them. The build quality is superb, the keys are a delight and the features are second to none. Would I buy one? absolutely!