If I Were President (of NI)
So here's a little bit of armchair quarterbacking.
Native Instruments is a company with incredible potential. They sell a library of top-quality hardware and software products. They've built an accessible ecosystem with NKS. They have best-in-class integration between hardware & software. They've got the fresh benefits of partnering with iZotope and Plugin Alliance. And undoubtedly they have an incredible team of people.
But from the outside, they've been floundering. Since the mass layoffs some years ago, there has been almost no visible innovation coming from what has historically been one of the most innovative companies. The pace and quality of groundbreaking product releases pre & post layoffs is stark. As someone who uses and admires NI's many products, it's been heartbreaking to watch the potential wither as time passes. Many have moved on, and new users are frequently disappointed when they realize we've been waiting years for bug-fixes and features that never come.
It feels like NI is limping along, bleeding on the floor. They've stemmed the bleeding just enough to make it through the VST3 and Apple Silicon transitions, but it's a temporary reprieve. On every side, rivals are besting their once-dominant products with new ideas and innovations.
NI needs a fresh vision that's connected to its roots: great quality musical products based on first-class DSP, re-imagined for the modern musician. They need to pivot quickly in order to survive, which means making maximum use of some of the incredible tools already in their library.
I'm guessing (hoping?) that a soul-searching process like this has already taken place internally, but as a thought experiment, here's what I would do if I was the Head of Product at Native Instruments:
First, I would establish a handful of priorities:
1. A common codebase and format for all NI products going forward
2. Ease-of-build: make it easy to have products based on NI DSP on every popular platform (including those which haven't emerged yet)
3. Envision the NKS ecosystem as the first and best choice for musicians at the centre of an ever-expanding world of tools for their live & studio workflows.
This is what I'd do internally to make it happen:
1. Establish Reaktor as the internal codebase for all products:
- Write an API so Reaktor elements (DSP, snapshots, metadata, controllers, GUI elements etc.) can be built programmatically and integrated into other products
- Introduce a new scripting engine based on the Reaktor API for realtime control of Reaktor-built objects
- Prioritize ARM as a first-class platform
- Expand sampler tooling & functionality
- Integrate best-in-class DSP from other products (Traktor, Plugin Alliance, iZotope)
- Introduce AI for ease-of-use and quality of life upgrades (e.g. painless importing of multisamples, automated GUI layout, sample editing, basic scripting etc.)
- Write (and re-write) with future platform portability in mind
2. Establish a "Kontakt Lite" product (based on Reaktor) with the goal of a common, modern sampler instrument and file format that works across all NI platforms:
- Common preset, multisample, automation, modulation & file format
- Common DSP engine
- New scripting engine (to replace KSP; based on Reaktor API)
- Prioritize ease-of-use for building instruments (EG use AI to detect root keys, tuning, round-robin, automated sample-editing etc.)
- Build feature by feature until it reaches maturity and can replace Kontakt as a first-class product
3. Rework the user-facing side of all file formats. Replace the confusing cornucopia of file formats with a simple, logical, user-friendly conceptual design and implementation. To that end:
4. Create a universal, open-source NKS plugin, preset and tag format across all NI products (based on Reaktor, potentially using CLAP):
- Update Reaktor Blocks to work as individual plugins or components on Maschine, KK and Traktor (with an eye towards future expansion to VST3, CLAP, AU / AUv3, M4L, Bitwig etc.)
- Create an end-user Block Building Kit (LEGO for musicians)
- Establish a cross-plugin "Control Voltage" modulation & automation format (with the intention of releasing it as an open standard in the near future). Allow plugins (including 3rd party) to interact with each other through CV to create new musical possibilities
- Investigate CLAP (or other options) for a single ground-truth plugin format that all other plugin formats can be derived from
- Create an open metadata format that's easy to manipulate and translate to different environments with the goal of a tagged plugin & preset format that's accessible from every type of browser (KK, Maschine & Traktor at first; VST3, Bitwig, Logic and other new platforms in the future)
- Once established, create a cloud platform for syncing user-built plugins, presets, tags and settings across all NI platforms; and for purchasing new plugins and presets
5. Make NI hardware the premier centrepiece of your music-creation environment:
- Re-think future hardware products as the center of a larger ecosystem (i.e. not just NI products)
- Optimize the sample organization, tagging and transfer process. Software should do most of the work for users; any work (tagging, favourites etc.) should only have to be done once
- Elevate Controller Editor to first-class product and integrate with the Reaktor API & scripting engine. Build it out to support first-class controller scripts for 3rd-party software
- Open-source parts of the system that can allow tinkerers and 3rd parties to build on the already-great NI hardware:
- Maschine+ and mk3 display protocol
- Maschine+ OS
- NKS plugin, metadata and file format (possibly integrating with CLAP or another open-source initiative)
Externally, I'd focus on a few things:
1. Rework the Komplete bundles. Subdivide packages based on curation. Allow purchase or subscription, with fair prices for either. Re-think product search and purchase flow more closely aligned with current needs.
2. Prioritize a few quick-wins. Dedicate a process to implement a handful of most-requested features and bugs, and engage with our best users during the process.
3. Double down on recent successes with community transparency efforts
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate (same as #3 but hey)
And what would I stop doing?
- Move all future hardware product development to ARM-based platforms
- Sunset products, code, processes and people that are holding NI back
- Stop further development of the current Kontakt codebase
That last one is bound to be controversial, but to mix metaphors it seems like the Kontakt codebase is the sacred golden egg-laying cow handcuffed around NI's neck. It continues to produce (presumably profitable) products but the writing's on the wall. It's been abandoned en-mass by formerly strong 3rd-party supporters. KSP is a scripting language from the past. It's not a tool anyone I know *wants* to build for; they build for it because they have to. I would continue to release products based on Kontakt's strengths while spending all of NI's resources on a pivot to a single DSP platform.
Who knows what NI will actually do? I hope there are grand plans in the works, something masterful far beyond this little bit of armchair speculative fiction. I'll be interested to find out!
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