New audio interfaces turn up so frequently these days that it´s hard to keep track of them all. What´s more, most of these devices look very similar and have comparable features. Given that the Audio Kontrol 1 comes from the renowned innovators at Native Instruments, however, you´d expect it to be a bit different. Happily, this is most definitely the case: the Audio Kontrol 1 is certainly an audio interface, but it´s far from a generic one. It will hold particular appeal for computer-based DJs -- you get a copy of Traktor 3 LE in the box -- but it´s also suitable for any mobile-minded musician who wants professional quality results.
The Audio Kontrol 1 is a 2-in/4-out interface that operates at 24-bit/192kHz and connects to your computer and is powered via USB 2.0. However, thanks to the inclusion of three illuminated buttons and a large jog dial, it´s also a highly programmable mini control surface. Now, you´re probably thinking you´re not going to be able to have much fun with just three buttons and a jog dial -- but you´d be wrong. What NI have cleverly done is enable you to use any of the three buttons as a modifier key for the other two buttons or the jog dial.
In practice, this means that you can actually perform six different functions with the three buttons (by holding one key down and then pressing either of the remaining two) and that the jog dial can be used for no less than four different purposes (it works on its own and also while you´re holding down any one of the three buttons). Clever stuff, and the audio specification is also impressive. The balanced outputs mean that the Audio Kontrol 1 is suitable for use with active monitors, and you have stereo line-in, phantom-powered mic and high-impedance instrument inputs.
One mic stand
On the downside, there´s only one microphone input. This being the case, the Audio Kontrol 1 isn´t suitable if you want to make stereo mic recordings. However, given that most solo musicians typically use only one mic input and one instrument input at a time, this is a forgivable omission. The four outputs will be appreciated by users who need to keep the main stereo outs going while they cue up another sound source. DJs spring immediately to mind, but the four outs are also useful if you want to send a separate stereo headphone mix to a performer while listening to a more conservatively-balanced mix in another room on main speakers.
For zero-latency monitoring, there´s a level knob and corresponding on/off and mono switches so you can blend the input signal with the main output. As far as software control goes, you can´t change anything other than the sample rate and buffer size, but this actuallt eases operation. In the main, the Audio Kontrol 1 performs extremely well. However, no matter what latency settings are used, playback momentarily drops out every couple of minutes or so. Clearly, this is a serious issue, but Native Instruments have a good reputation for resolving quirks such as these in software updates. As such, it would be very surprising if this turned out to be a problem in the long term.
Although Audio Kontrol 1 is one of the smallest audio interfaces around, it´s certainly very robust and could be expected to withstand a fair amount of abuse. However, as with other Native Instruments hardware products (Rig Kontrol and Kore, for example), the edges of the case are very sharp. Assuming you don´t want all the other kit in your bag to end up scratched, it's best to get a carry case for it. This is a surprisingly heavy device too. Put it in a rucksack with a laptop, a microphone and other accessories, and you could end up carrying a fair amount of weight on your back.
However, this is a minor issue when you consider all of the features that the Audio Kontrol 1 provides. This is a very impressive, very portable interface that´s been designed to meet the needs of the vast majority of mobile musicians. It´s not especially cheap, though the value for money score improves when you consider that, in addition to the copy of Traktor 3 LE that's included, full versions of Xpress Keyboards and Guitar Combos come in the box. Audio glitching problems aside, this is a first-rate choice for anyone who records on the go or performs live.