Traditionally, both Serato and Native Instruments have mostly left the hardware side of the equation -- digital mixers, controllers, and the like -- to other companies. In fact, Native Instruments even certifies a long list of equipment as being "Traktor Ready." But even in the best-case scenario, a third-party DJ controller connected to Traktor is just a glorified MIDI controller with a DJ-friendly layout. It doesn't integrate as tightly as it could, and no matter how fantastic the device might be, you're always making sacrifices -- it's nearly impossible with one of these third-party products to get your setup to the point where you never need to touch the computer.
And behold, that's where the Traktor Kontrol S4 comes in. Perhaps as a calculated response to Serato's Itch partnerships with Numark, Vestax, Denon, and Allen & Heath, Native Instruments finally decided to get its hands dirty and put together its own idea of what an all-in-one DJ controller should be. Does it deliver? Let's take a look.
Traktor Kontrol S4
- Great build quality
- Shallow learning curve for Traktor users
- Sampling capability is awesome
- Sensitive jog wheels can accidentally stop tracks
- Expensive, no discount for Traktor owners
- Tempo faders look absolute but often aren't
Of course, the S4 isn't the company's first foray into DJ hardware. Native Instruments has been making DJ-friendly audio interfaces for quite some time -- and more recently, it took an early stab at the controller market with the Kontrol X1. You might recall from our impressions that though we generally liked the X1, we felt a little hamstrung by the features it lacked (a fader, namely) and we were left unsure how the company intended it to fit into an average DJ's rig. Well, after having played with the S4 for a while, it seems clear that the X1 was kind of a test run for these guys -- a warm-up that allowed them to test their chops at making a controller without going all-in, without costing customers an arm and a leg for a beta product, and without betting the farm. We're thinking they took what they learned from the X1 -- both from a design and from an engineering perspective -- and applied it all to this sucker. That's a good thing.
The hardware is really attractive in an industrial, all-business way; dare we say it looks very German (Native Instruments is, after all, a German company). The construction is a combination of brushed metal and what appears to be thick, high-grade plastic similar to that used on the X1; we wouldn't worry about it breaking with the normal wear and tear that comes with traveling, but by the same token, we wouldn't carelessly throw it around. One area of concern is the mixer section, which is offset from the deck sections with a glossy plastic background -- though we didn't dare test it, we wouldn't be surprised to see this area get scratched up over time. Overall, we'd surmise the S4 isn't built to the same tank-like standards as an Allen & Heath Xone:4D -- but then again, this isn't close to $3,000 the way a Xone:4D is, and it's still a heck of a lot beefier than the entry-level gear you find at electronics shops for $100 to $300. Notably, Native Instruments is making a $200 custom case for the S4 that we imagine should alleviate any lingering concerns you've got about durability in real-world gigging situations -- and it's got a built-in collapsible laptop riser to boot.
Every control on the S4 feels very deliberately constructed; that is to say, it feels like everything was designed to a tight tolerance. Nothing wiggles, nothing feels like it's in danger of breaking off, and all of the materials seem to be there for a reason: the tops of the jog wheels are grooved to feel like vinyl, for instance, and knobs, faders, and buttons are all coated in non-slip rubber or plastic. Speaking of the jog wheel, the action is great -- not as heavy as a real deck, but still well-weighted. We would've liked a little more pressure required to stop the track when touching the top of the wheel (we found ourselves accidentally stopping tracks we were merely trying to beatmatch on a couple occasions), but otherwise, it's great... and we eventually learned that we could avoid the drama by keeping our hands to the outer edge as Native Instruments intended.
The tempo, deck, and crossfaders are also built with different levels of resistance depending on their function (the crossfader has the lightest touch, as you'd probably guess). You're presented with a mixture of absolute and relative knobs across the surface -- smoothed action on the absolute, notched on the relative. Like the X1 before it, the S4 uses absolute knobs for its FX sections, which we don't really like; the software fortunately knows to keep the FX controls in the same positions as you switch between them (from Gater to Delay, for instance), but that also means you can't keep different presets at the ready for different effects. We definitely prefer the Stanton SCS.1's solution here: use relative knobs surrounded by rings of LEDs so that you can keep track of their positions at all times. Problem solved. You've got a similar situation with the tempo fader, which uses "offset" lights above the fader itself to indicate whether its position is above, below, or matched to the track's actual tempo at the software level; if you let Traktor sync your tracks, you'll have a mismatch more often than not. The SCS.1 solves this with a servo-controlled fader, which seems like a lot of effort to go to just to keep it matched -- but hey, it works.
Now, onto the fun part. We mentioned earlier that the S4 is bundled with its own unique version of Traktor Pro -- and the big difference with this version is a bit of a game-changer. The app adds four distinct "sample decks" per track deck which can be used to pull samples from your track in real time while you're playing them. The hardware includes a section dedicated to recording, playing, and changing the size of these samples; once you're happy with them, you can move them to any of the four slots, at which point they can be enabled and disabled with a push of the corresponding sample button. When a sample is active, it occupies its own deck in the mixer -- complete with FX toggles and full EQ -- which gives you a pretty amazing amount of creative freedom that you didn't have (and still don't have) with Traktor Pro alone. Native Instruments has committed to adding this stuff to Pro at some point in the future... but for now, it's an S4 exclusive.
Speaking of moving samples around, you can transfer any track or sample to any other deck with a couple quick button presses: hold the Browse button, press the Play button of the source track, and again for the destination. Browsing tracks to call up from your library is straightforward and will be very familiar to current Traktor users; there's just a single knob in the center of the S4 that scrolls through your track list. Pressing the knob will preview the track in your headphones, while pressing the Load button on either of the decks will move it over. We would've liked a way to move faster through the library -- maybe Page Up / Page Down buttons next to the scrolling knob -- but if you do a good job managing your library into track sets, you should be okay.
We put this quick mix together just to test some of the S4's features (including the real-time sampling) after having played with it for maybe 15 minutes, tops -- granted, we were already familiar with Traktor, but the point is that Traktor users should be able to pick up this controller and make magic happen in very little time.