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View Full Version : OFFICIAL KLH Monster review of Native Instrumentsí Traktor Kontrol S4



KLH
04-07-2012, 12:03 PM
[Although the original post disappeared with DJFv1, I've been able to relocate the content. Here's the original posting. I'll add an updated section on TPv2 at the end.]

This is the official KLH monster review of Native Instruments’ (NI) Traktor Kontrol S4 and Traktor Pro S4. As they are co-dependent, the hardware (S4) and software (TPS4) are intended to raise the bar in the DJ controller and DJ app landscapes respectively. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, but let’s not get too excited just yet.

First, the disclaimers. I’m not writing this to say that you should or shouldn’t buy S4/TPS4. I am writing this as a commentary of if the S4/TPS4 has achieved what I perceive to be its goal. Hopefully, you’ll read my ranting and make up your own mind on whether this product is for you.

Here’s another disclaimer. I am volunteering my opinion on the S4 and TPS4. While there may be facts throughout, this writing reflects my opinion. I’m not being paid a dime for this by anyone. I have no agenda other than trying to help fellow DJs.

Now that the “why” is out of the way, let’s talk about the “who.” The intended audiences are DJs (bedroom, mobile, club) and prospective DJs. If you don’t know what BPM, EDM, and looping means, then please learn the vernacular of DJing prior to reading this article.

Where to begin? Well, there’s so much to say, so I’ll provide a little organization first. I will cover the following topics:

I’m BACK
Expectations
Support
Unboxing/Installation
Initial Impressions
Operational Use
Digging beneath the covers…
Conclusion
You have a question? Well, write ‘em down and post them at the end of this article and I’ll answer them for you.

This article focuses on the S4 and TPS4 version 1.0.1 – which are the latest software available as of December 16, 2010.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:03 PM
I’M BACK

I’ve always loved music and listen to EDM in particular. I have an amateur musician/producer/sound-designer/sound-technician background because, prior to being a DJ, I created electronic dance and chill-out music.

Anyway, I discovered a passion for DJing about 3 years ago when I downloaded Virtual DJ. After playing with that, I decided to purchase the M-Audio Xponent. With Torq, my love for mixing and remixing was borne! I quickly went nuts and purchased a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer, the M-Audio Conectiv, and two CDJ-800s. Life was good… but I couldn’t get into scratching. The sticker-drift on Torq prevented anything but baby and transformer scratches. I wanted to get into advanced scratching and juggling, but realized that it wasn’t going to happen with Torq.

Then around September of 2008, I discovered Skratchworx and posts about the NS7… I suppose the rest is history. As my background is in MIDI, I am more comfortable with MIDI controllers than with turntables. In my humble opinion, while turntables may be the ultimate scratching tool, the flexibility of MIDI (even semi-proprietary MIDI) is more valuable to me… I can make it do what it do, baby.

And I came into my own on the NS7FX with ITCH. I became a mobile DJ at schools and at house-parties. NS7FX and ITCH because my two best friends… but having tasted Torq’s sampler, I always felt that a sampler was missing. When Native Instruments launched the S4, I thought “Meh.” When I read about four-decks, VCI-300-like platter performance, a SAMPLER, Traktor Pro, AND priced under $1,000, I felt the pull… so I sold the NS7FX (sniff, sniff) and took a chance on the S4/TPS4.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:04 PM
EXPECTATIONS

For the past 18 months, I’ve been using the NS7FX as a high-performance two-deck DJing system… and it delivered in spades. I was able to do scratching, juggling, EQs, and effects for hours without a single problem - in Windows to boot! My sets were tight and rocked MANY dance floors.

Unfortunately, I wanted all that and more. The Xone:DX had just been released and I wanted a to play around with four-decks. More importantly, I wanted to use a sampler. While using Torq, I had several cheesy DJ-drops that I just loved, and I couldn’t use them in ITCH because there are only two decks.

One more thing – Serato keeps ITCH closed to other enabling technologies. There are no MIDI mapping capabilities, VSTs, ReWire capabilities, or MIDI clock sending. It’s like an Apple iPod – you get what you bought, no more and no less. While I had hoped that the NSFX or VFX-1 would pave the way to more expansion hardware/software – like a SAMPLER – that was not to pass… with one exception.
The Serato Bridge promised (ReWire-like) integration with Ableton Live… provided you PURCHASED the FULL version of Ableton Live. As Live is ~$800, I knew that I was NOT going to buy this just to use a sampler. Knowing how ITCH demands a decent amount of CPU usage, I can’t imagine running BOTH ITCH and Ableton Live at the same time.

Anyways, NI announced the S4 and it included almost everything that I wanted. I say almost because the S4 doesn’t have rotating platters. Even so, I rationalized that in order to get a backpack-portable setup, I’d have to give up rotating platters. Excluding the rotating platters, the S4 seems to be a love child from the VCI-300 and Xone:DX AND offers the best of BOTH worlds.

On the software side, Traktor is unparalleled in terms of flexibility: you can map anything to do anything AND it has a SAMPLER! If you don’t want to use the sampler, use four decks! If you have TTs or CDJs, hook ‘em up to the S4 as deck 3 and 4! NI even committed to having the next version of Traktor allow the TTs or CDJs to use timecode to control decks 3 and 4! That last point is a Serato killer, because ITCH and SSL are separate products – and supposedly due to Rane licensing - will NEVER be interoperable.

The more that I read about the S4, the more that I wanted one… and then I bought one.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:04 PM
SUPPORT

As a purchaser of expensive gear, I want to know that any software bugs or hardware malfunctions will also be addressed. I’ve had a decent experience with M-Audio and great experiences with Numark and Serato.

Serato Research enjoys an enviable reputation for quality. Only fans of Apple and certain religious sects have more loyal followings. Serato Research hosts the ITCH forum and maintains an active presence. They ask and offer feedback to users. Serato Research’s reputation has been earned and is well deserved.

My expectations are for NI to be at least as responsive and open as Serato. NI has a forum where devs can participate – so that’s the same. One key difference is that NI seems more paranoid than Serato. For example, Serato keeps all of their software and manuals available for the public to download at will. NI does not. In order to access NI software and manuals, you need to buy a product and register it online with NI. After that, an application (called the Service Centre) will make software, manuals, and updates available.

So far, I’ve not heard or read anything that would make me think that NI would not support the S4 or TPS4, so I don’t expect any problems.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:05 PM
UNBOXING/INSTALLATIONThere are many videos on what is included in the S4 box. If you want to know, go see them. I will focus on what took me by surprise: like my NS7 experience before, the unboxing was an event in itself. Everything is neatly packed, labeled, and protected. Thanks for making it special, NI.

Once unboxed, there are two manuals (setup guide and keyboard shortcuts), a quick hardware reference poster, a CD (which has the REAL manual), and the hardware (S4, power adapters, and USB cable). Knowing that there was an upgrade, my first priority was to get the upgrade and then play. After registering the hardware, the Service Centre app downloaded the updates and installed them smoothly enough. I plugged in the S4 and opened up TPS4.

In short, I was overwhelmed. There’s so much stuff on the screen that I didn’t know where to begin. Remember, I had just come from the simplest software in the world (ITCH), so going to TPS4 couldn’t be more extreme. Needless to say, the manual has a get “getting you started” section that I really needed to read. After that, I started getting comfortable with how TPS4 works and where things are.

Of course, after playing around for about 5 minutes, it’s VERY apparent that this is NOT ITCH. This is seriously flexible software that can do just about anything – but that flexibility comes with the price of complexity. There is a steep learning curve – and it’s worth learning. After all, going from Windows to MacOS also has a learning curve…

I give NI a serious high-five for including samples to play with. There’s a LOT of content that NI gives you and the tutorials use it to show you what TPS4 is capable of. It’s impressive – to say the least.

After playing around with TPS4, I wanted to learn about the details of some of the effects and intricacies of the app itself. Unfortunately, the manuals DO NOT cover TPS4 in any depth – they refer to a “Traktor Application Guide” manual that currently does NOT exist. NI says that it’s coming soon, but in the meantime, there’s a workaround. Pulling down the demo version of Traktor Pro includes a manual. As most of the concepts are the same, this might do for most folks.

Come to think of it, if you are ready to buy the S4, you’ll want to pull down the TP demo so that you can start analyzing your tracks – it takes a while. When you get the S4, simply uninstall the demo. That way, you can start playing IMMEDIATELY with analyzed tracks! You can thank me later for that tip.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:05 PM
OPERATIONAL USE

There are many videos on DJs scratching and praising the S4. There are even outstanding DJs juggling! Here are my thoughts on using the S4. By the way, I’m currently running Windows XP SP3 on a Dell D630 laptop with a 2GHz Core2Duo with 2GB RAM and a 7200 RPM SATA notebook drive.

Platters
The platters have a CDJ feel to them – similar to but smaller than the VCI-300. There is no sticker-drift that I could find. High-five for that, NI.

The three things that I miss from the NS7 are rotating platters, dedicated brake start/stop, and a dedicated censorship button (meaning a “reverse” feature for removing swear words). Obviously, I have to deal with the lack of rotating platters – I knew that going in – but I still needed to say it. Brake start/stop AND censorship is handled by an awkward effect called Turntable FX. It IS functional, but my complaint is that Turntable FX uses a WHOLE EFFECTS ENGINE, so now you’re down to only ONE effects engine. The counter-argument is that EDM – which Traktor is known for – doesn’t usually do either of these effects. Whatever; I used these more on the NS7FX than I expected AND still had two different effects engines that could be used.

Crossfader and Faders
The S4’s crossfader is fine, but seems like a step down from the NS7 and other “skratchy” mixers. It’s customizable within TPS4, but is NOT replaceable. That being said, the crossfader isn’t a deal-breaker by any stretch. It’s very usable. I just don’t think that anyone will love it – the physical crossfader. Again, it’s fine enough and gets the job done.

The channel faders feel small at first, but are fine within five minutes of use. Same thing with the pitch fader.

EQs
The EQ knobs feel good and are customizable in TPS4. Curiously, there isn’t an option for having a four-way EQ, like the “regular” Traktor Pro.

Filter Knob
The dedicated filter knob is GREAT and now I wonder why ALL other mixers and controllers don’t have this. This gets a SERIOUS high-five, NI. The filter knob is the bottom-most knob on the channel-strip right before the faders. It uses a Low-Pass filter when twisted to the left and a High-Pass filter when twisted to the right. Pure Genius.

Main/Booth Outputs
For the main outputs, the S4 uses RCAs and TRS (balanced) 1/4” phono plugs. For the booth outputs, well… there aren’t any. There are many ways to make a booth output, but suffice it to say that it will always be coupled to the main output (in this version of TPS4).

Effects
There are two powerful effect engines that each channel can be routed to in parallel. I say powerful because NI’s effects are top-notch. Coming from the production world prior to the DJ world, NI’s Waves was and still is a standard in top-notch effects. While the effects in TPS4 aren’t in the same league as Waves, they are similar and powerful in different ways. In TPS4, an effect engine can have either one effect with eight parameters OR three effects with two parameters (and an engine-wide wet/dry and on/off switch).

Loops, Cues, and Samples
The S4 handles loops slightly differently than most controllers or CDJs. There are two knobs and two buttons. The knobs and buttons work in tandem respectively. The first knob activates/deactivates a loop when pressed down and moves a loop when twisted. The second knob sets an auto-loop when pressed and changes the size of the auto-loop (in beats) when twisted. The buttons are the traditional loop-start, loop-end buttons.

Cues work as expected – basically set-and-forget… or erase-and-reset. Basically, there are no surprises there.

Samples are a game-changer for Traktor. You can use Deck 3 and/or 4 each as a 4-slot sample playback engine, a deck, or as an input for an external device to play INTO Traktor (so effects can be applied), or as an external device direct-to-output pass-though. The S4/TPS4 is the first controller/software combo to offer this level of flexibility.

As if that weren’t enough, TPS4 also has a LOOP-RECORDER which can record the master out and loop it – which frees up the decks, samplers, or external devices for more tracks. The creativity that this can unleash is amazing, and I look forward to “tapping that” power.

I feel the need to say that Torq has this awesome feature beat in that it has 16 samplers that can do the same thing – even record – but I digress. I also feel the need to say that the TPS4 sampler is what persuaded me to leave the incredible vinyl-feel and silky-smooth rotating platters of the NS7… and yes, I miss those platters.

Mic/External Source Inputs
TPS4 supports four decks. The third and fourth deck can be “turned” off to be a sampler or pass through external sound source (i.e. a mic, TTs, CDJs, or any mono/stereo audio device). NI has even committed to bringing timecode support to external devices with upgrades of Traktor (which I believe will be Traktor SCRATCH Pro).


[I]Headphone Mode
This works as you’d expect. There’s a mix/cue knob in the front of the S4. If twisted left, the cue sources are heard, and if twisted right, the main mix is heard. It’s basic and effective.

Traktor Pro S4

[This will be updated (http://www.djforums.com/forums/showthread.php?5272-OFFICIAL-KLH-Monster-review-of-Native-Instruments%92-Traktor-Kontrol-S4&p=59678&viewfull=1#post59678)at the end as there's been a significant software upgrades]

This is obviously a big topic, but let me keep it simple for the purposes of this review. Simply said, TPS4 as Traktor Pro with sampling, but doing so is an over-simplification. Much like how Windows 2000 came out right before Windows XP – which went on to take over the desktop world by storm, TPS4 is an initial release of the forthcoming TP releases that shows how NI plans to conquer the DJ world by establishing the universal software platform for ALL controllers. By comparison, Serato is pulling an Apple by keeping their platform closed and tightly controlled. Who will win? DJs!

So how is TPS4 when you actually use it? It’s OVERWHELMING for the first couple of sessions. There is so much information on the screen, there are MULTIPLE VIEWS! Actually using the “essential” view helped me acclimate to the onslaught of information. Having now experienced TPS4, I see the genius behind the simplicity of ITCH. Yes, the grass is always greener and I didn’t miss the irony.

The key enablers to Traktor’s power are its BPM detection and Beat Grid. With those two things, the controversial sync functions can be used which allows Traktor to keep everything in sync. While I haven’t played extensively with them, I can certainly understand the allure… especially if mixing more than two decks. There’s sync (which matches 4/4 measures between tracks), keylock, snap (which moves to the closest beat), and quantize (which maintains phrasing – meaning jumping from the third-beat in a measure jumps to the third beat after a cue-point is pressed).

The browser TPS4 is nice, but more complicated than it needs to be. While it is always available, it’s usually small on the display. To make it bigger, you press the browser button on the S4 – which does make it bigger. It’s great that you can do what you need to without touching the computer or using a mouse, but it’s not simple. There are many organizational tools and buttons and knobs that help you to organize your library. If you’re bold enough, you can even use the platters to search for that perfect track.

TPS4 has its master library – which it calls the Track Collection – where TPS4 keeps its information (like BPM). There’s a separate Playlist area (that leverages the track info in the Track Collection). There’s a manual “explorer” section, a recorded sessions sections, and a history section.

The most controversial is the iTunes section – because it simply lists what iTunes has – without any additional DJ-needed info (like BPM). If you want that, you’ll have to import the library into the Track Collection and view it there. Likewise, if you have iTunes playlists, you’ll have to import them into the TPS4 Playlist section. This is counter-intuitive. DJs expect to see all BPMs in the iTunes section and not HAVE to import. I call this a TPS4 quirk.

Bottom line: TPS4 is a beast – a big one – that takes skill and patience to be tamed.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:06 PM
DIGGING BENEATH THE COVERS…

I started off by trying to use S4/TPS4 as I used the NS7FX/ITCH. I beat-matched, mixed, applied effects, and even scratched a bit using two decks. Both the S4 and TPS4 yawned as if to say “That’s all you have? Son, you’d better ask somebody!”

So I started to push the envelope by experimenting with four-deck mixing – which only the Xone: DX can do on ITCH. It’s AWESOME! There’s so much more going on and higher amount of energy given any BPM that I’m not sure if I can go back to two-deck mixing! With four-deck mixing, you start to see the power that Traktor holds at your fingertips… just itching for you to use.
I’m still riding a high just from four-deck mixing. I haven’t even used the sampler… or incorporated effects… or applied the dedicated filter… or incorporated external sources… yet.

I will be busy learning Traktor for some time to come. I can see why Traktor has such a loyal following now… and increasingly, I’m becoming one.

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:06 PM
CONCLUSION

Is the S4 responsive? YES – LIKE A CDJ OR THE VCI-300!
Does it work well? HECK YES!
Am I happy I bought it? *(@$ YES!
Will it allow me to grow as a DJ? WITHOUT A DOUBT.
Is it the DJ equivalent of the Messiah? No, but Jesus would love to use this.
Will it save puppies from burning buildings. No.
Will it make the hotties love you more? Maybe – There are a LOT of lights, buttons, and knobs – and you WILL look competent… but if you’re looking for help in that department, why are you reading this?
S4/TPS4 is unquestionably the NEXT LEVEL in controllers. If this were poker, the S4 raises the Xone: DX’s and TPS4 raises ITCH. The pricing of S4/TPS4 sends a very clear message to the competition: NI wants to WIN. If you are a controller user looking to upgrade, I highly recommend trying it out at your nearest music retailer. As I’ve said before, it’s not for everyone, but then again, neither is being a good DJ…

I don't always beat-match, but when I do - I prefer EDM. Stay funky, DJs.

-KLH

KLH
04-07-2012, 12:07 PM
UPDATE

Since that original, NI has released Traktor Pro v2.0 which added these features:


- New "TruWave" high-res, continuously zoomable, colored waveforms - New deck flavor "Sample Deck" for loops and one-shot samples
with 4 synchronized sample slots each
- New live "Loop Recorder", recording any internal channel, master
out or live input, including overdub
- SoftSync for synchronizing timecode decks without affecting
scratching and pitch bends
- 4 New effects: Auto Bouncer, Bouncer, Tape Delay, and Ramp Delay
Effects
- Refined, darkened user interface with additional deck sizes

In short, this upgrade has been what S4 users had been waiting for. Traktor Pro v2 is great. The colored waveforms are great and the sampler is fantastic - especially the synchronized sample playback "slots."

For me, Traktor has always been stable. I've gigged with it countless times and haven't had any issues. My computer is the same as the review above - which is impressive in itself.

There are only TWO real shortcomings in Traktor, IMHO:

Waveforms are not stackable
All other competing DJ apps (DAWs like Ableton Live are excepted) have track's waveforms stacked on top of each other either horizontally or vertically. Having such stacked waveforms allows DJs to visually line up beats and phrases easily. While Traktor has a "phrase meter" that visually indicates the differences between measures, it isn't nearly as useful to DJs as having a stacked waveform would be. The "phrase meter" is better than nothing, I suppose.

No support for flexible beat-grids
Traktor relies on an accurate beat-grid as almost everything in Traktor is based on it - from the "phrase meter" to tempo-based effects. The beat-grid is the building block upon which Traktor makes its magic work. Unfortunately, beat-grids will only work if the track being used has a constant BPM.

If the track being played does not have a constant BPM, then you're drawing outside of the lines, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Rule Breaker. Doing so means that you have to (*shudder*) use your ear to mix; ALL of Traktor's helpful magic will disappear. In short, you're on your own. If you had stacked waveforms, there'd be a visual cue to assist those who need help...

If Traktor had a way of adjusting the track's BPM based on changes in tempo, then the magic would stay intact. The mechanism for this is called flexible beat-grids. Competitors have them - specifically ITCH, Torq, and Ableton Live - so where are they in Traktor???

Having flexible beat-grids would enable any track to be used in Traktor regardless of BPM. I sincerely hope that Traktor will get flexible beat-grids soon...

-KLH

contra
04-07-2012, 12:11 PM
Nice review! Seeing as I just bought traktor I might have to find a used S2/S4