Kong, the underappreciated ma(s)chine?


With the release of Reason 5 Propellerhead software introduced the Kong; an instrument totally focussed on creating percussion sounds. While many describe the Kong as being a drum machine or computer I think that doesn’t quite fit the product, simply because the Kong goes both deeper yet also more shallow than your average drum machine. Where a drum machine has an on board sequencer the Kong obviously relies on Reason for that. And while a drum machine usually has a specific (sampled) sound to it the Kong isn’t merely sample-based but can also generate and process its own sound(s).

I don’t think Propellerhead software described Kong as a drum designer just to make it sound cool. In fact, while playing with the Kong I think it comes very close to rivalling one of the more popular drum designers out there: The Maschine itself.

Design against the Machine

Now, I’m not trying to be overly critical here but in my opinion there is a very big difference between a drum machine (or computer) and a designer such as the Kong. Stating the obvious here: Reason knows 2 instruments which were made for percussion. First we have the Kong, obviously, but did we already forget about the Redrum ?

It gets better; while Kong is said to be a drum designer, Redrum has always been known to be a drum computer. There really are huge differences to be considered here, the most obvious one being that Redrum fully relies on its programmable step sequencer whereas Kong relies on input in making or designing a good beat.

Redrum step sequencer section.
Redrum step sequencer

Another obvious difference is that Redrum fully relies on external sound sources to control. These sources can consist of individual samples which Redrum can load and play, but also external instruments which sounds you can trigger through use of Redrum’s CV output.

Speaking of which… If you want to design and program your percussion you can always hookup the Redrum channel CV outputs to Kong’s individual pad CV inputs. Just program Redrum and let it trigger Kong’s own sounds.

But now I’m getting way ahead of myself…

Beyond the pads

16 Pads...The first thing people notice when they see the Kong is the pad section. And I think its this section which makes people approach this instrument with the idea that its “just” a drum machine. Even though these people most likely realize how extensive the Reason environment itself can go.

But honestly; there is so much more to Kong than that. In fact, I think that Kong easily matches the extensiveness which the Thor polyphonic synthesizer has to offer us. Sure; when it comes to signal routing then Thor’s routing section totally beats the competition. But that doesn’t mean other instruments can’t match its extensiveness…

Covering all bases

Thor provides us with several oscillators; from analog to wavetable right down to combinations (multi osc. or FM osc. for example). It tries to cover the whole spectrum of polyphony (at least a huge part of it). In other words: providing several different sound sources which can be used together.

A 7 piece drumkit, as shown on Wikipedia.
A 7 piece drumkit.

Kong on the other hand is fully based on percussion. When you look at an average drum set you’ll notice that it uses bass drums, snare drums, a hi-hat stand with cymbals and several tom-tom drums. While there exist plenty of variation the basis always consists of these 4 elements.

So as could be expected the Kong provides us with drum modellers which can be used to generate all these types of drum effects. Physical and analog bass, snare and tom generators whereas the cymbals (“Hi-hat”) are always analog based.

So just like Thor the Kong also tries to cover the entire basis of what it was designed to do.

And where Thor provides us with a collection of 4 different filter types, Kong actually has 9 of them. However, just like the filters on Thor are aimed at sound synthesis (formant filter, band-pass filter, etc.) the ones with Kong are focussed on percussion (echo, ring modulator, reverb, etc.).

And finally, just like with Thor you can also use all of the filters which Kong provides for any of your other patches. And you don’t even have to setup any routing schemes in order to do so.

So as you can see Kong provides all the tools you might need to design your own percussion sounds.

Hardware vs. software ?

In the beginning of this post I mentioned that in my opinion Kong easily rivals Maschine. Of course its not quite possible nor fair to try and compare software with an hardware controller. Even though the Maschine controller is fully steered by software. But that’s also not my intention here.

One of the key strengths of Maschine is that you can build your own rack right from behind the controller itself. The main advantage this gives you is that you can try out the several sounds to see how well they match and work together, right from where you’ll be using them.

Ableton drumrack with a 707 kit loaded.
Ableton Live drumrack

The advantage here should be obvious. In other DAW’s, such as Ableton Live for example, you can also easily build your own drum kits. For example see the drumrack above with the kit-707 preset.

Yet here comes the first problem; after you drag a sound into one of the drumracks pads you can easily trigger it by hitting play. But this will always play the sound at full strength since there is no such thing as velocity sensitivity when you click your mouse on the screen. But for percussion its vital to know what the different situations will sound like!

Hitting a cymbal full force will produce quite some different sounds then when you hit it very mildly. Important nuances which will only show when you’re sitting behind your drum controller.

…or behind the Kong.

A functional design

As mentioned above the first thing people notice when looking at the Kong are the rather big pads, which usually lead up to calling the Kong a drum machine. But don’t tell me that you really think the only reason why these pads are so obviously present is merely to make the device look good ?

You couldn’t be more mistaken…

Kong uses different velocity.You see, it heavily depends on where you actually click on the pad, as can be seen here. If you click near the bottom then the pad will generate a low velocity value whereas clicking near the top triggers a high velocity. And as you know; more velocity means more volume but usually also a different sound.

So as you can see this isn’t merely about the looks, this setup really allows you to build and test a drumkit right from behind the screen.

While I wholeheartedly agree that this only approaches the things you can expect when you sit behind the real drum controller, one has to admit that this is getting pretty close to the real thing. If you’re a little handy with using the mouse then I bet you can make quite some variations.

Slicing and dicing?

Sure; if you heavily rely on samples then I can well imagine that the option to slice your samples right from behind the controller and by merely using two knobs is very hard to beat, if possible at all.

But even so; Kong’s NN-Nano still has your back.

Kong's sample editor.
Sample editor.

If you have a sample loaded in the NN-Nano drum module then simply clicking on the ‘edit’ button is enough to bring up the sample editor. From here you can not only slice your sound; you can crop, normalize, reverse and even setup loops if you want to.

All that while you can always play the sound at any given moment to hear what it sounds like.

Summing up

Since this is my first post about Kong I wanted to keep things a little easy for now, however I still hope that you now realize why I think you shouldn’t be calling Kong a ‘mere’ drum machine but better refer to it as a drum designer. It may look ‘simple’ but it easily rivals the extensiveness of Thor.

If you want to know a little more about Kong then you can visit its official product page or look it up in the instrument section on my Reason tribute page.

And I’ll be looking a bit deeper into Kong in a future post.