The Audio Kontrol 1 ($299) is a compact USB 2.0 audio and MIDI interface with an integrated control surface. Weighing less than a pound, measuring 5.9 by 2 by 4.8 inches, and supporting 16- and 24-bit audio at 44.1, 48, 96, and 192 kHz sampling rates, the bus-powered Audio Kontrol is ideal for portable operation. The control surface, which occupies the top of the unit, consists of a large, continuous-rotary knob and three buttons that can function as modifiers or be configured to send commands. That flexibility makes the control surface quite useful despite its limited number of controls.
The Audio Kontrol 1's front and rear panels house all input and output jacks and trim pots. The top houses the control surface.
Installing the Audio Kontrol 1 is extremely easy. You load the software, which includes the USB 2.0 drivers and a mapping application for setting up and interfacing the control surface with other software on your computer. The mapping software must be running in order for you to use the control surface, but the audio and MIDI interfaces will work without it. Once the software is installed, you restart your computer and plug in the Audio Kontrol 1, and you're good to go.
I installed the interface on my dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5, and the audio quality was excellent at all bit and sampling rates. I used it with sequencing hosts Ableton Live 6, Apple Logic 7, Steinberg Cubase 4, and Propellerhead Reason 3 as well as with a variety of Native Instruments standalone virtual instruments, and I encountered no problems.
Ins and Outs
The Audio Kontrol 1''s audio inputs, headphones output, level controls, and mode buttons are arranged conveniently on the front panel for easy access. I found the knobs a bit hard to use because they're small and close together, but that's unavoidable given the number of controls Native Instruments has packed into a tight space.
For inputs, you get a combo jack (XLR and ¼-inch TRS) for a balanced, mono mic or line input, and a second ¼-inch TRS jack for balanced, mono low-impedance line or high-impedance instrument input. For each jack, buttons switch input types and separate knobs control the mic and line input levels. The one drawback is that if the combo jack is used for line input, it shares the level control with the other input.
Four additional front-panel knobs control the four main outputs (in stereo pairs) on the rear panel, the headphones output level, and the monitoring level when direct monitoring is activated. Direct monitoring mixes the input signals directly with one of the stereo outputs, bypassing the A/D and D/A converters. The Mono button mixes the inputs to mono for monitoring, which is handy when only one input is in use. The stereo output used for monitoring is determined by the driver settings, which are accessed from the mapping application and cannot be changed directly on the hardware. A front-panel button toggles the output sent to the headphones jack.
The rear panel houses four balanced ¼-inch TRS mono output jacks, MIDI In and Out jacks, the USB 2.0 port, and a 48V phantom power switch for the XLR mic input. In addition to the aforementioned control surface, the top panel hosts status LEDs for phantom power, signals at each of the audio and MIDI inputs and outputs, USB power, and monitoring status.
The control-surface mapping application's control panel has two modes: Display, to indicate what each control does, and Assign, for setting up the controls. In a very nice touch, controls can send either single-keystroke computer-keyboard messages or MIDI messages. In the latter case, you can configure the controls to send short strings for multiple-command MIDI sequences and SysEx messages. Keystrokes are typed in, whereas MIDI messages may be typed in or learned from incoming MIDI.
When a button is configured as a modifier, pressing it changes the messages sent by the rotary control as well as the other buttons (unless they're also configured as modifiers). Unfortunately, only one modifier applies at a time. When not used as modifiers, buttons can either trigger or toggle messages. In both cases (press-release or press-press), the button is assigned two independent messages. For example, you could configure a button to increase MIDI Volume by ten each time it is pressed, or to send a Note On when pressed and a Note Off when released. Messages can be assigned a specific MIDI channel, or each button press can send 16 messages, one for each channel. Although the knob rotates continuously, you can set it up to function as a standard MIDI controller (with a value range of 0 to 127) or as a rotary encoder (clockwise to increment, counterclockwise to decrement).
The Audio Kontrol 1 is an excellent portable USB audio interface. Despite its compact size, all the necessary controls and jacks are conveniently located. It comes bundled with Steinberg Cubase LE and Native Instruments Traktor 3 LE, Guitar Combos, and Keyboard Collection. That, along with the control surface, sets this unit apart from its peers.
Value (1 through 5): 4