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.
But let's take a step back: what, exactly, is the S4? Technically it can be used as a MIDI controller for anything you like, but really, it's a physical extension of the Traktor software that integrates four-deck control (two decks that can each be toggled) with a four-channel digital mixer and audio interface. Interestingly, it's also bundled with its own unique version of Traktor called Traktor Pro S4; it's designed specifically for the S4 hardware and can't be purchased separately (more on this in a bit). The package is designed to be a one-stop shop for a bedroom or traveling DJ, but it'll interface with other MIDI gear, mics, Kontrol X1s, and so on if you're accustomed to a bigger setup.
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.
The back of the S4 is pretty much what you'd expect: a couple of spare sets of RCA stereo inputs, a mic input, TRS and RCA outputs, a MIDI passthrough, and a footswitch jack if you're into that sort of thing. Toward the right, you've got the USB type B connector that runs to your laptop, the AC adapter jack, and the master power switch.
Yes, that's right, we said AC adapter jack: unlike the X1, the S4 can't be driven off bus power alone, unfortunately.
We're sure it's just not practical to try to drive a device this large off that little current, but still, that external power brick is just one more thing to carry (and lose) on the road. [Turns out you can run it without power in a pinch -- you just lose some lighting. -Ed.
] The front of the controller, meanwhile, has your headphone out along with knobs for headphone and mic volume and cue mix. We think we prefer headphone volume and cue mix knobs on the top of the controller, not the front, but we grew used to it pretty quickly. All of the knobs on the front and back can be stowed flush with the unit by pressing them in, which is a nice touch to prevent them from getting damaged in transit.
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.
The S4 also features a collection of lights on each deck that keeps you abreast of critical information: whether the deck is "on air" (meaning the raving crowd in front of you can hear it), what deck you're controlling, whether the current deck is configured as the sync master, and so on. You can also look here to see your currently-configured loop size, and this ties into one of the controller's most well-thought-out features: loop and beatjump control are absolutely fantastic. Unless you want to see your waveform, you won't even think of looking up at the computer. Besides the visual indication of the loop size, you've got independent knobs to control both size and position and buttons to manually set loop in and out points. Boom, doesn't get any easier than that.
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.
Clearly, there's no such thing as a $1,000 impulse purchase -- at least, not for most of us. As such, the S4 isn't going to enjoy the same kind of spur-of-the-moment "hey, this might be fun" sales that, say, Hercules
controllers get. But we came away from our time with this machine feeling like it could turn non-DJs into DJs, bad DJs into good DJs, and good DJs into great ones, and there aren't many products in the world -- regardless of industry or target audience -- that can span the entire gamut like that. If you're a Traktor user -- or even if you're not, but you think you might be willing to give it a whirl -- it goes without saying that the S4 is worth a hard look, especially since it could end up being the only piece of hardware you need.