What is a DJ? Everyone who considers him or herself one can probably give you a unique answer. Is everyone with a music collection and a sense for good timing a DJ, or does their music collection have to exceed a certain number of gigabytes or slabs of vinyl to be in the club (no pun intended)? Audio playback devices are certainly getting more plentiful and powerful on a large scale; anyone who's played with an iOS DJ app can tell you that. In the deeper end of the DJ pool, things aren't expanding at such a frantic pace. But every once in a while a new toy crops up that adds depth and breadth to the way music nerds play back music. Native Instruments' just-released Traktor Kontrol F1 is a blinking slab of rainbow-tinged hardware with an intense devotion to manipulating samples. While boxes from Roland and Akai have been defining genres for decades, this 16-pad add-on takes the sampling game to a new arena. Will DJ's want it? We feel it's safe to say they will. At $279, should they buy it? That question's a little more complicated.
The bottom half of the 5- by 11.5-inch F1 is home to a grid of 16 MPC-style sample cue pads, each around 3/4-inch square. Every translucent button houses an assignable 16-color LED. This eye candy will catch newcomers' eyes and, perhaps just as importantly, help the operator classify sample types according to his or her own preference. The pads also form a low-resolution display that elegantly aids in navigating tasks: scroll to another sample page, and a white bar "flips" the current page away kind of like an e-book. Four "stop" buttons bring sounds into or out of the mix.
Four pairs of filter knobs and volume sliders sit atop the box, offering individual control of each column. The function keys in the center are typical Native Instruments fare, offering precise control over each pad's settings as well as more general control of the columns and remix decks. The 14-segment LCD display and clickable rotary encoder will also be familiar to Traktor hardware users. Everything feels slightly more rigid than earlier hardware: sliders are more ratcheted, filter knobs offer more resistance than usual, and the pads themselves feel more spry than those on the drum-sequencing Maschine controller, another NI mainstay.
Like any good member of a commercial ecosystem, the F1 eventually tugs at your heartstrings to bring home a friend: although it's simple enough to switch between controlling left and right remix decks with one unit, we certainly couldn't help but wonder how much more we could get done with a companion to address both sides of the crossfader.
We're growing a little weary of NI's (very) standard design. The typefaces, coloring and weight will certainly match your other NI gear. But we'd prefer more diversity in the appearances of our setup, or at least the option to get something that looks slightly less...techno. Shift-functions of buttons have been drilled into gearheads' fingertips since Roland popularized them decades ago, but they are starting to feel antiqued in an era defined by multitouch interfaces. Until Colorware starts doing F1's, we'll make do with this: a hard-working black box that feels fine-tuned to the more performance-driven direction Traktor is marching in.
Along for the ride with the F1 is a key upgrade to Traktor Pro -- version 2.5 brings Remix Decks into the fold. They're a bit like Sample Decks, cubed from a meager four slots to a stately 64, and have gained more control over many of the tricks their elder siblings, Track Decks, have had forever: keylock, FX, individual monitoring, fine playback and level controls. The takeaway here is that you'll now be able to manipulate samples in ways that are more akin to how you're used to manipulating entire tracks.
Each sample slot reflects the user-defined color of the corresponding pad in hardware. Traktor Pro 2.5 comes with 1.4GB of samples, so even if your hard drive is a little bare in the kick, snare, and loop departments you'll be able to get a feel for the flow of synthesizing and re-constructing sets with the F1.
Capturing new sounds from existing tracks is one of the trickier tasks to master. Familiarity with the Loop Recorder feature in older versions is a pre-requisite -- routing, quantization, loop size, trigger types and synchronization are all thrust into the foreground with Remix Decks.
It's important to note that only one sample can be played back at a time per column, which essentially limits each Remix Deck to four-voice polyphony. We understand this limitation: it allows the hardware controller to remain simple enough that the operator can always grasp what's going on quickly without getting caught up in parameters. And considering that this is software for DJs, nimbleness should always take precedence over sonic detailing. With only four voices to work with, the F1 won't be winning any live MPC production contests soon. But precise customization will help users mold the F1 into the device they want it to be. We dumped all the one-shot samples from our trusty SP-404 into a Remix Deck and, within a half-hour of tweaking, found ourselves with a nice little 404 emulator enhanced by Traktor's synchronization capabilities.
Usage and the learning curve
Are there other ways to integrate samples cleanly and perfomatively into DJ sets? Any Ableton user will tell you they've been doing it for nearly a decade. We have been career-long devotees to Roland's SP line of sampling products, triggering completely independent of timecode, and experts can of course use non-synchronized sampling to monumental effect. With Traktor Pro 2.5 and the F1, the digital DJ becomes even further separated from the traditional vinyl-lugging jock, a trend that we expect will continue to evolve in interesting ways. Not that this is a bad thing.
If you already feel overwhelmed by your music collection, or by DJing in general, don't get the F1. You don't need it: spend time with your current setup and bounty, feel comfortable with it and push it to its limits. Remix Decks actually take a good deal of time and dedication to set up and program properly. And they require an intuitive familiarity with the Traktor's timing functions to perfect loop editing. Each time you create a workable remix deck, trying to integrate it into a set is a bit like learning a new instrument. Each pad takes on a distinct life of its own, with stacks of parameters requiring fine-tuning for every sample before it actually gets integrated in a live context.
If you're a producer with leanings towards the DJ universe, the F1 might be a good solo unit to get you familiar with Traktor. Remix decks are certainly easier to setup and handle if you're generating the samples yourself; in fact, we feel straight DJ's might become frustrated with the complexity of loading in samples on the fly for tracks that are not 4/4 electronic music. The F1, for all its multi-colored, popular appeal, relies on a system that certainly requires more than a straightforward DJ is usually familiar with.
If you're the tweaker type, always thirsting for more knobs to rock and more blinky bling in your setup, rest assured you'll be grinning when this thing powers on and struts its rainbow-colored stuff in your man (or woman) cave. If your cave-dwelling friends are anything like you with your hardware and iTunes Visualizer fixations, they'll share your grin with you. And sharing grins is what it's all about!
We get the feeling that hacker types will be having their way with the F1 in all sorts of unholy ways within a few weeks of its mass release today. NI has included a plastic overlay that casts the F1 as a standalone (and fairly limited) DJ controller, an obvious retooling to appeal to a larger group of folks. We can very easily see the F1 helping to bridge the gap between Maschine and Traktor much as The Bridge brought together Ableton's Live and Serato's Scratch. The colorful 4 x 4 grid holds huge creative potential and we can't wait to see how both Native Instruments and its devotees evolve the low-resolution display. It's the anti-Retina display, if you will.
We see the transitioned DJ--someone who learned on vinyl, then made the switch to digital--a bit like a pop producer who's been schooled extensively in classical composition and music history (hitmaker Scott Storch comes to mind): while most audiences can appreciate the outcome, those who know where the techniques come from can appreciate the production on a different level. Those who learn purely in the digital realm are less concerned with the architecture of what they're doing, and just want to make a cool sound. Kind of like a self-taught punk rock guitarist with a knack for what sounds good (a Kurt Cobain type). Both types of producers concentrate on different aspects of performance, and both are completely valid. While the Traktor and F1 may automate and further distance DJ's from previously-essential skills (like...beatmatching!) we don't think dedicated producers will squander the freed-up creative brainspace. They'll just use it for something...different.
James Trew contributed to this review.