Native Instruments Kontrol X1 impressions

We don't typically do a lot of coverage of music gear here at Engadget because, by and large, it's an entire world unto itself -- a universe of specialty products that require unique knowledge (and often, talent) to use, let alone review -- and ultimately, we're only writing for a limited subset of our readership. There are, of course, countless exceptions to the rule; mixing gear in particular has really come into its own, technologically, over the past several years as a whole new generation of would-be DJ superstars come into the fold. A skill once dominated by turntables is... well, still dominated by turntables, but everything surrounding the spinning vinyl is changing: nowadays, you've got a PC that can serve as a virtually bottomless pit of tracks, state-of-the-art software for synchronizing and manipulating those tracks, and dedicated external controllers to help you control the software. Once an art form, modern DJing is now half art, half science. It's exciting, it's cool, and even if you don't know the difference between a crossfader and a high-pass filter, it's a lot of fun to see how this stuff works.

To that end, today we're taking a quick look at Native Instrument's Kontrol X1 -- the first official, dedicated controller for its Traktor series of apps, one of the world's most widely-used DJ suites.

Handling the X1, you'll notice that this might not be up to the same level of over-engineering as your average club mixer, but it probably doesn't have to be -- it's an incredibly simple device with a bunch of lit buttons and knobs, that's it. That said, it's still solidly-constructed plastic that's neither too heavy nor too light, and we'd be comfortable throwing it around a bit without fearing that we're going to pull it out of our bag in three pieces. And really, the X1 is still over-engineered where it has to be: both the buttons and knobs have a great, positive feel to them without a hint of wiggle or flimsiness. The absolute knobs in the FX sections glide smoothly, and the relative knobs down below have firm, solid detents that ensure you're not going to change a track or loop position unless you absolutely mean to.

Talking about functionality, the X1 is pretty much a perfect physical extension of Traktor's most important, commonly-used functions -- Native Instruments has said that its goal was to prevent DJs from ever having to touch their computers during a performance, and for many performers, the X1 could probably meet that goal. Using it couldn't be simpler: when they say it's plug-and-play, they mean it. It's powered off its sole USB connection, so you don't need to worry about any pesky AC adapters -- goodness knows you have enough of those in your bag already. The latest versions of Traktor automatically recognize and map the X1, and since it's not an audio interface, it won't muck with your existing audio routing.

In our case, we used the X1 paired with a full Stanton SCS.1 rig, consisting of an SCS.1m mixer and SCS.1d digital turntable. Even though this is a pretty unusual setup and probably not one of the use cases NI considered, we found that it shined here -- the device takes several critical functions that would require two or three hand movements on the SCS.1 (changing loop size, for instance) and puts them right in your face. Mission accomplished: we never had to touch the machine once over the course of an hour mix, whereas we probably would've messed with the machine several times rather than going through the motions on the Stanton gear. It's not that there's anything wrong with the SCS.1, it just wasn't designed specifically with Traktor in mind -- it's a generic MIDI controller. NI's willingness to create a device specifically for user with Traktor makes it a winner here (it can be used as a generic controller too, coincidentally, but you probably wouldn't want to). And if you're a four-deck kind of guy, Traktor will happy accept two X1s plugged in side-by-side.

The X1 has two-way feedback, meaning it'll indicate the status of key functions by lighting and blinking buttons; Cue Play blinks with the tempo of the track, for instance, and the beat jumping keys will light if a track starts to drift out of sync -- more likely to grab your attention than an indicator in the software itself, giving you a few extra precious moments to avoid the dreaded trainwreck.

It's good, and we certainly found it helpful, but the X1's not perfect. The FX knobs are absolute, for instance, so you can't change effects in real time without running into some drama. We would've preferred that the text be painted on with luminescent ink (though it may glow with club blacklighting), and even though it's not designed to replace your mixer, we would've liked at least one assignable fader -- slapping even a single one on there would've made it way easier to DJ in a pinch with the X1 alone. Finally, the case -- which doubles as a stand to raise the X1 to the same height as standard mixers -- is a $40 accessory, and frankly, it's important enough so that it should've been included. That said, for the $200 NI's charging, this could very well be a must-have accessory for the average Traktor musician running live performances.