Kontakt instruments: Nearly every sample developer sells them! Nearly every Christian Henson gives them out for free! Native Instruments offers a free “Player” version of their Kontakt software, but half the instruments on the web claim to be incompatible with it anyway. When you see a Kontakt instrument on one of those freeware VST lists, how do you know whether you can use it in your audio workflow?
Let’s talk about the difference between free Kontakt libraries and free Kontakt instruments, and how they each work in the free Kontakt Player.
Any Kontakt instrument may come with a variety of proprietary file formats. Some of the most common ones you’ll see are:
- Kontakt waveform, a compressed proprietary sample format. These can be converted back into.WAVs by resaving the instrument in Kontakts with the “Compress Samples” option box unchecked.
- Kontakt library. (I don’t know what “CNT” stands for — “content,” maybe?) This file only exists in licensed Kontakt libraries (more on those below). You don’t load it directly into Kontakt, but rather use it to register the library with Native Access, which allows you to select the library’s instruments from the Libraries tab in Kontakt. This file does not by itself contain instrument data — it’s an XML file for library metadata.
- Kontakt instrument. Load this into Kontakt to access sample mappings, parameter values, and scripts.
- Kontakt multi. Loading this into Kontakt will load several instruments together. You can use these either to create “presets” by layering various sounds or to combine several instruments with limited ranges, so you have samples spanning the whole keyboard.
- Kontakt resources. Developers sometimes use these to bundle resources used by the instrument, such as GUI images, scripts, and IR samples. The instrument can usually load and play sounds without it, but it’ll look ugly and probably won’t work properly.
- Native [Instruments] Komplete… uh, let’s say Salad. Native [Instruments] Komplete Salad. This file contains info on the presets and parameters from your plug-in or Kontakt library for compatibility with NI Komplete Kontrol, an instrument preset browser/host designed for use with their MIDI keyboard line and Maschine hardware. You’ll find these in licensed Kontakt libraries.
So, other than the existence of the NICNT file, what’s the difference between a “library” and an “instrument?”
Licensed Kontakt libraries (NICNT)
The term “Kontakt library” is often thrown around to mean any old Kontakt-compatible instrument, but they are actually different! A true Kontakt library comes with a .nicnt file and has been licensed by Native Instruments. They have little banners that show up in the Library tab and are way more pleasant to navigate than an icky old file browser ( ´ ▽ ` )b. Here’s the Library tab in action:
Using a Kontakt library, even a free one, requires a serial key, which you can register in Native Access, NI’s proprietary download manager. First-party NI libraries can be downloaded from Native Access directly. For third-party libraries, you must download the files from the third-party website and then point Native Access to the parent folder.
Licensed libraries get the royal treatment from NI, so they usually have integration with Komplete Kontrol (.nks) and are unlikely to throw the usual sample or script errors, as Native Instruments handles QA. They are also fully accessible to users without the full version of Kontakt.
In the free Kontakt player:
- You can save snapshots (Kontakt’s version of presets) for library instruments.
- You can save over library instrument patches (.NKI) and re-open them without issue.
- You can save multis (.NKM) made out of library instruments and re-open them without issue.
- …And most importantly, you can use libraries without a demo time limit.
Unfortunately, all these fancy features don’t come cheap. An official NI-licensed library will cost the developer back $2500 per 25000 license keys. That’s why there are so few free libraries on the market, and why most libraries belong to large companies and not solo developers.
The instrument can go out of stock if the developer runs out of license keys, further contributing to their rarity. For this reason, free libraries may either be limited-time freebies — such as Native Instrument’s Christmas-exclusive Yangqin or In Session Audio’s Fruit Shake, which seems to pop up every November like an Animal Crossing holiday before disappearing again — or stuck in out-of-stock limbo, like many of Soniccouture’s freebies.
Keys are also usually limited to one per user and require you to register an account on the developer’s website. However, paid libraries are more likely to be resale- or license transfer-friendly due to the included DRM.
How can you tell whether the virtual instrument you’re looking at online is a Kontakt library? Libraries generally have NKS integrations and use the verbiage “Made for Kontakt Player,” sometimes with a graphic saying the same. Ctrl + F “player” on the page and you’ll likely find some screaming about Kontakt Player in one direction or another. If it does not work in Kontakt Player, it is not a library.
Non-Player instruments (NKI)
So what’s the alternative to a licensed Kontakt library? That would be a non-Player instrument. A non-Player Kontakt instrument is one that is independently developed and released by a third-party developer without any input from Native Instruments. It has no Native Access serial number. This makes it simple to install and uninstall. Just put the instrument in your preferred folder, and trash it when you no longer need it. You can load it from Kontakt’s Files tab.
The free Kontakt Player does not like unlicensed instruments. When you load a non-Player instrument — even one you paid for — Kontakt Player will usually display hideous red DEMO text alongside the instrument name.
This means a few restrictions are in effect. In the free Kontakt Player:
- You can use, but cannot save your own snapshots for regular instruments.
- If you save or save over an NKI or NKM file, you will only be able to load it in the full version of Kontakt. Do not save over functional NKIs or NKMs in the free Kontakt Player unless they are part of a registered library. (Kontakt will give you a warning before you do this.)
- After you’ve either used the program for 15 minutes or tried to load an NKI/NKM file that was last saved in Kontakt Player, your running Kontakt Player instance will time out and become unusable until you reload it.
For these reasons, the product page for an online Kontakt instrument (free or paid) will usually include the warning that it doesn’t work in the free Kontakt Player. This is to preemptively address users who assume the demo restrictions were implemented by the developer (and not Native Instruments).
In the case of paid instruments, this disclosure is standard CYA, as Kontakt-illiterate customer queries may escalate to big angery refund requests. Some developers even include an “acknowledgment this is a non-Player instrument” checkbox on the checkout page alongside the usual EULA.
For the record, most non-Player instruments1 actually do work in Kontakt Player — they just time out after 15 minutes. You can defeat this all-mighty defense mechanism by simply deleting and re-adding the Kontakt Player plug-in to your DAW and then reloading a working instrument. This is a perfectly viable stopgap measure.
The good things about non-Player instruments:
- If the EULA allows it, free Kontakt instruments can be redistributed without issue since they don’t rely on a limited number of product keys.
- They’re more likely to have alternative versions (SFZ, EXS, dspreset) than their library counterparts.
- Paid instruments are often cheaper than libraries since they don’t have to recoup the licensing cost.
How do I know which version of Kontakt I’m using?
If you have to ask, it’s probably the free version, but consult this handy flowchart just in case.
- It’s possible, if extremely unlikely, for a non-Player instrument you find on the internet to actually not work in the free Kontakt Player. If you load the instrument and immediately see the timeout screen, try resetting Kontakt Player and loading it again, just to make sure the plug-in hasn’t already timed out on its own. If you’re still seeing this issue, congratulations! You’ve found a developer who’s either a genius or an idiot. Either they somehow managed to develop an instrument all in one sitting using Kontakt Player, or they purposefully did a final save using Kontakt Player just to keep the Player plebeians out of their territory.