Saturday, November 6, 2010

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 review


Time to exhale; the Traktor Kontrol S4 four-deck controller for Traktor Pro is here, and we have a full review. Native Instruments’ first all-in-one, 4-channel controller/soundcard for Traktor Pro comes with the specialized Traktor Pro S4 software, as well as some lofty expectations. Let’s find out where the S4 lives up to the hype, and where it may fall a bit short.

Reviewed: Native Instruments Kontrol S4 Price: $999 (MSRP), $899 (common retail price) Communication: MIDI over USB (requires power supply)  /  (Mac and Windows).
Available: Now in the web Store Ships with: Traktor Pro S4, loop collection, international power adapter, USB 2.0 cable Weight: 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg) Dimensions: 19.7 x 12.7 x 2 inches (50 x 32.2 x 5.2 cm) Minimum System Specs: Windows XP (latest Service Pack, 32-bit) or Vista/7 (32-bit or 64-bit), Core2 or AMD X2, 2 GB RAM / Mac OS X 10.5 or higher, Intel Core Duo 1.66 GHz, 2 GB RAM

Recommended System Specs: Windows 7 (latest Service Pack, 32-bit or 64-bit), Core2 Duo / AMD X2 2.00 GHz or Core i5, 4 GB RAM / Mac OS X 10.6, Intel Core2 Duo 2.00 GHz or Core i5, 4 GB RAM

THE GOOD: All-in-one 4-deck software/controller/audio interface system based on tried and true Native Instruments technology. Comes with Traktor Pro S4 with new Sample Decks and Loop Recorder. MIDI compatibility for other gear and software, but much higher resolution control between the hardware and Traktor Pro S4. Two analog inputs and excellent Audio 4 DJ-like sound quality.

THE BAD: No price break yet for licensed Traktor Pro users. Operating on USB bus power alone is not recommended due to dim LEDs. Big-time cue point juggler and button mashing controllerists will probably still want a supplemental “grid” controller. No group saving of sample sets. Not compatible with DVS systems yet (NI says this is coming soon).

THE BOTTOM LINE: Native Instruments has delivered on its promise to create an all-in-one 4-deck Traktor Pro system with admirable software/hardware integration, a nod to the burgeoning controllerist community, and a soundcard that’s actually worth using. By not trying to be all things to all DJs, they’ve designed a system that may not be exactly what you want, but is closer to it than anything else this year.

HARDWARE/SOFTWARE INTEGRATION: What made the Kontrol S4 so exciting is that it’s the first 4-deck controller built by Native Instruments for its popular Traktor Pro platform. In addition, the German company designed a new program built on the Traktor Pro engine called Traktor Pro S4, which specifically integrates with the Kontrol S4 for tight, smooth operation. Pro S4’s revamped GUI includes a greyscale aesthetic for improved visibility and a simplified master clock section. But the big news for the Pro S4 software are the two sample/loop decks that can stand in for the 3rd and 4th track decks, and the loop recorder that includes layered recording for live improvisation. Both of those key additions have corresponding control sections on the Kontrol S4. Even though the Kontrol S4 can be a MIDI controller for other software, it uses NI’s NHL protocol to talk to the Pro S4 software, which allows 30 times more data transfer than MIDI. That translates to very responsive and smooth control that you’ll notice when operating faders or doing filter sweeps and effects tweaks.

THE HARDWARE STORY: Much has been made about the Kontrol S4’s size, which at almost 20 inches wide and 13 inches deep, is significantly larger than the Vestax VCI-100, and is even bigger than the bulky M-Audio Xponent. Large DJ bags we have that accommodate those two controllers couldn’t fit the Kontrol S4, but Native Instruments does have a flight case/performance stand available for $189 MSRP, and you can bet that compatible bags and cases will be popping up (one DJTT reader suggests the Camelbak Motherlode). Despite the unit’s size, it’s weight, at only 7.5 pounds, is good news for weary backs and shoulders. Hauling it around is an easy task, but that brings up questions of durability. If you’re familiar with NI’s Maschine, the Kontrol S4 brings a very similar build quality, with aluminum plating over the two decks and a plastic case. By no means does it feel flimsy, but neither is it built to absorb relentless poundings for decades on end like Technics 1200 turntables. The bottom line is that you’ll want to protect this investment well if you’re taking it to gigs. Two decks on either side of the unit showcase identical control sets. An effects section sits above the jogwheel, and a highly responsive pitch fader flanks the loop/sample/cue/transport section. The four-channel mixer section features 3-band EQ and a filter for each channel. Beautiful blue-and-orange LED meters show the pre-fader level for each channel. If you get clipping on the meter, adjust the level down using the channel’s Gain encoder, and at any time you can push the encoder to return to the original gain level. The filters and EQ sound warm and creamy, and the high-resolution action on them is great. However, I’m dismayed at the absence of EQ kill controls for each of the three bands. Kontrol S4’s rubberized knobs and push-button endless rotary encoders feel solid and sturdy with a satisfying action, as do to 60 mm pitch and channel faders. Six rubber feet on the bottom secure the unit to a tabletop.

JOG WHEELS: Many people want to know how the Kontrol S4 jog wheels are for scratching. The short answer is that they are excellent for scratching… for controller jog wheels. Their tops plates are touch-sensitive and switch-activated (like the CDJ jog wheels), so scratching with them gives you an accurate sense of timing for releasing the “record.” Also, they are high-resolution wheels, with 1,000 points per revolution, and as a result, their responsiveness is excellent. Personally, I prefer larger wheels or scratching, and even without that caveat, these aren’t going to the be the vinyl-killing jog wheels for turntablists. While on the subject of scratching, I’ll mention that the Kontrol S4’s crossfader is one of the nicest I’ve felt on any non-Vestax DJ controller. However, it does not live up to high-end crossfaders on scratch mixers, and it is not officially replaceable. The jog wheels’ rubberized, outer rims provide a nice grip for tempo bending, and their magnetic resistance aids in giving you very sensitive and precise tempo bending. You can also press Shift and use a jog wheel to quickly scroll forward and backward on a deck’s track. It’s the fastest way to skip to a certain part of a track on the S4.

BROWSING TRACKS: Searching for and loading tracks requires only the Kontrol S4 — no mouse or keyboard. Pressing the Browse button set the software to Browse mode, then use the Loop Move encoders to scroll through the folders and playlists on the left or the Loop Size encoders to scroll through the favorite playlists at the top. Push the encoders to open folders. Once in the folder you want, use the jog wheels or the Browse encoder in the middle to scroll through tracks. Then hit the Load button for the deck you want to load to. To preview a track in the headphone cue, browse to it and push the Browse encoder. That start the preview player, and you can use the Browse encoder to skip through the track as you listen. It’s also possible to copy any track, sample, or recorded loop from one deck for effect slot to another. The browsing and loading process is simple and efficient — everything a digital DJ should want out of a hardware controller. I do however wish that Shift + Loop Move would scroll through folders at a higher speed, as my iTunes library has hundreds of folders in it.

FOUR DECKS & FX: Traktor Pro S4’s decks A and B are always set as Track Decks, whereas decks C and D can be each configured as a Track Deck, Sample Deck or Live Input to play audio from the two analog inputs. You can for instance have three Track Decks and one Sample Deck, or two Track Decks and two Live Inputs, etc.  Each of the four decks can be routed to FX1, FX2 or both, by activating the FX buttons under the Gain knobs on each mixer channel. The Mode button on each FX Unit toggles between Group mode (three effects at once) and Single effect mode (one effect with three editable parameters). In Single mode, Shift + FX On scrolls through the list of 28 effects to choose from, and in Group mode, Shift + FX buttons 1-3 selects from the list. Another wishlist item here: make effect selection faster by using Shift + the FX Units knobs. If you activate four FX Units in Preferences, FX Units 1-4 will be assigned to decks A-D respectively, and that cannot be changed. Other than that, using four deck can be fun, but there is seemingly a quirk in the software where a sample Deck C or D that was pulled from Deck A or B will still be assigned to the FX for Deck A and B rather than their own FX Unit. For those unfamiliar with Traktor, I’ll just say briefly that the effects on offer draw from NI’s extensive effects expertise. They all sound great and many of them are remarkably expressive, especially when you dig into them in Single mode. From basic delay and reverb to live remixing effects like Beat Slicer and Beat Masher or the beautifully mutating Flanger Pulse and Reverse Grain, there’s enough here to keep you engrossed for hours of practice. With two FX Units in Group mode, you can have up to six tempo-synced effects on a single source… if you dare.

CUE POINTS AND LOOPS: Setting cue points in Traktor Pro S4 is as easy as hitting the Kontrol S4 1-4 Hotcue buttons as a track plays. If you have the Snap button engaged on the hardware, Pro S4 will automatically set the cue point at the nearest beat marker. Shift + Hotcue buttons will delete cue points. Many of us can’t or don’t want to live with a measly four cue point triggers, so you have the option in Preferences to set the Samples buttons to be Hotcues 5-8. However, what would be even better is to be able to cycle through the function of the Samples buttons on the fly somehow, without have to open Preferences. The small display and first row of controls beneath the jog wheel control your loops. The Loop size encoder sets the length of a loop (1/32, 1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 or 32 beats). Pushing Loop Size then sets a loop of that length automatically. Use the encoder to lengthen or shorten the loop on the fly, and then exit the loop by pushing Loop Move. You can set loops manually with the Loop In and Out buttons and fine tune the in/out points if needed by holding down the Loop In/Out buttons and using the jog wheel. Once a loop is set, the Loop Move encoder moves it forward or backward in the track according to the displayed loop length. You can store an active loop to an empty Hotcue slot by pressing a Hotcue button. Loop Hotcue light up green, while cue point Hotcues light up blue.

SAMPLE DECKS AND LOOP RECORDER:  Traktor Pro S4’s Sample Decks have four sample slots each for holding one-shots or loops of up to 32 beats long. Sample Decks C and D recording from and sync to the tempo of Track Decks A and B respectively. You can fill the sample slots by either loading them from your Track Collection, creating a loop and assigning it to a Sample button, or creating a sample based on the current loop length by hitting an empty Sample button, either while the Track Deck is playing or stopped. Once you have samples in slots, press the Sample buttons once to trigger playback and again to stop. For more control over the samples, switch to Deck C or D. Then the Hotcue buttons become re-trigger buttons for each sample, and the jog wheel applies to them for sample scratching or tempo bending. Also, the Loop Move encoder becomes a sample volume knob, while Loop Size become a sample filter. All the while, you still have full mixer channel control over the Sample Deck and FX options as well. The Loop Recorder can record from either the Main Output of Traktor Pro S4, the output of any deck with the Cue button activated, or from the Aux input, which is likely to be a microphone plugged into Channel D of the Kontrol S4. In the S4’s Loop Recorder section, press the Size button to scroll through recorded loop sizes of 4, 8, 16, or 32 beats (synced to the master tempo). Press Rec and record your loop. When finished, your recording will play back, and you can adjust the Dry/Wet knob to mix the loop with the rest of the audio. At this point, you can hit Undo to scrap the recording, record again to overdub a layer, or bounce the recording to an empty sample slot. If all the sample slots are full, you can clear them out by pressing Shift + Sample button. Don’t worry, all your samples are saved automatically to your collection in the All Samples favorite folder. One area NI could improve on in a software update is to make it possible to save and then reload groups of 2-8 samples with group names, so a DJ could really exploit the ability of the Sample Decks to be the foundation of a completely original set.

AUDIO INTERFACE: A built-in 2-in, 2-out audio interface within the Kontrol S4 makes use of the same components and technology as the well-regarded NI Audio 4 DJ interface. You get the same or at least practically identical audio quality in the S4 as in the Audio 4 DJ all the way up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution. Connections include two main outputs: balanced 1/4-inch (that can route to XLR inputs with the right cables) and unbalanced RCA. There is no booth output with a separate volume knob, but both main outputs can be used simultaneously and routed to separate speakers. Two audio input sections on the back panel both include stereo RCA inputs with a line/phono switch and grounding. The second input, Channel D, also includes a 1/4-inch microphone input for condenser mics (no phantom power available) with a gain knob for setting mic level on the back and a Mic Vol knob on the front to set the mic level to the master output. Channel D also has a USB/Thru switch for its audio input. When set to USB, the Channel input gets routed through Pro S4’s internal mixer, but when the switch is set to Thru, the Channel D audio input goes straight to the Kontrol S4 master output. That can helpful if your software or computer crashes, and you have an analog deck, iPod or second mixer set up on the Thru channel for quick back-up. SOUND QUALITY I A/B tested the Kontrol S4 against a TC Electronic StudioKonnekt 48 FireWire interface playing the same songs out of the same speakers. Most people, including myself, would consider the StudioKonnekt to be a higher-end interface than NI’s line, but the difference in audio quality was negligible. I felt that the StudioKonnekt pumped out a slightly more defined, warm and round sound, but one could hardly tell the difference. Overall, I’m very pleased with the sound quality of the Kontrol S4. Its soundcard sends plenty of signal as well. There’s nothing to worry about as far as having a loud enough sound from the S4, either from the main outs or the headphone cue. If you’re using the S4 with only USB bus power, the headphone level dips slightly, but even then it shouldn’t be a problem.

USB BUS POWER VS. POWER ADAPTER: Kontrol S4's LEDs with power supply connected.   You can run the Kontrol S4 on USB bus power (from a fully powered USB 2.0 bus) with some limitations. In addition to small dip in headphone level, the bigger problem with USB bus power is that the LEDs become extremely dim — so much so that I don’t recommend doing it in daylight or bright light. Even in near darkness the LEDs look very dim when using USB bus power. Kontrol S4's LEDs on USB bus power. The difference is even more stark in person. I prefer running the Kontrol S4 with a power adapter, but when I pulled the power adapter plug out to see what happened during a session, the audio cut out entirely for a second or two before the USB bus power kicked in and the set resumed. Hotplugging the power cord back in did nothing to disrupt the music.

SUMMARY: What I appreciate the most about the Kontrol S4 is that it may be the best example yet from a major DJ gear company of embracing what controllerism is really about: creative freedom, improvisation and using the capabilities of modern technology not just to mimic the older paradigm of DJing, but also to continue to redefine what a DJ does or can do.  The quick-and-easy looping capabilities, Sample Decks, loop recorder and the interconnectedness that keeps it all in sync and flowing really open up a world of creative possibilities that many DJs still have yet to experience. It makes a lot of sense given that Ean Golden designed the hardware and several of the new software features. It isn’t perfect of course. Traktor Pro S4 is at version 1.0.1 at the time of this review. I’ve pointed out some things I’d like to see, and I’m sure every early S4 user will have his or her own wishlist as well. One other big hole is a complete solution for creating custom user mappings. Right now there is some customization available, but only on top of the default Kontrol S4 mapping. While the Kontrol S4 certainly feels more like a musical instrument than the average DJ controller, I still recommend a good supplemental controller for all the enthusiastic cue point jugglers and hardcore button mashers. The button grids at the bottom of the Kontrol S4 decks work really well for basic dj transport needs and cue point jumps but the switches are too stiff to be comfortably played in a very rigorous manner. For that style of djing your still going to want a supplemental performance controller like the midi-fighter that has direct FX presets and high performance buttons. All told, I’m very impressed with Kontrol S4 and hope NI gets going on implemented some user suggestions soon. At around $900 street price, I could see it as a value for someone who’s absolutely sure they will get their money’s worth out of it, but that also doesn’t already own Traktor Pro. Unfortunately, there’s no price break for licensed Traktor Pro users, even though a large chunk of the value of the purchase has to be the Pro S4 software. For beginners, the Kontrol S4 + a laptop might seem like a steep investment, considering the system requirements call for a recent, robust machine. Then again, many people already have nice laptops to begin with, and there’s plenty of DJ gear out there breaking the 4-digit barrier. The comprehensive manual does attempt to cater to beginners as well, trying to make Traktor Pro less intimidating to the newbies. The Kontrol S4 has something to offer digital DJs of all experience levels. The tight integration between hardware and software, super-responsive controls, excellent audio quality and innovative performance and live remixing features in a single package take some of the mystery and hassle out of setting up a DJ system and replace it with a helluva lot of fun.

Buy Traktor Kontrol S4 on Amazon






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