Native Instruments’ latest performance controllers do beats on a budget

Newbie DJs and producers have plenty to get excited about.

If you're into digital DJing or music production, you'll be very familiar with Native Instruments. For disc jockeys, Traktor (software) in combination with the Kontrol S series of hardware is about as comprehensive as it gets. For tunesmiths, it's Maschine (production/performance) and Komplete (studio) -- both also a watertight combination of hardware and software, for whatever your preferred style of songwriting is.

Today, then, is a big day, whichever way you like to make sound -- as Native Instruments is unleashing new hardware and software in all three of its main product categories (Traktor/Maschine/Komplete). In fact, this is the biggest simultaneous product revision we've seen from the company, possibly ever (even the press kit was 2GB!).

Kontrol S2/S4

For DJs, the good news is three-fold. Newbie and casual performers will enjoy the new $299 Kontrol S2 (MK3). For more serious spinners there's an all-new S4 ($899). Both come with a revised layout and feature set designed to work with the third new DJ product: Traktor 3.

At first glance, both the new S2 and S4 look familiar, but the devil is in the detail. Many of the changes are common to both: 16 pads (RGB) for hot-cues, samples and loops. The deck layout has also changed to a more conventional club format (pitch controls are on the right side for both decks, not opposite sides as before). There are also minor changes to the effects section in the mixer and bigger, CDJ-like cue/play buttons.

The new S4 comes with a few extra goodies. As usual, there's a four-channel mixing section (instead of the S2's dual channel), which makes multi-deck performance or sample layering a lot easier (even though the S2 can also play four tracks simultaneously). The effects section on the S4 is also configurable (unlike on the S2). The biggest difference with the S4 MK3, though, is that the jog wheels are motorized, with what the company is calling "Haptic Drive" (a nod to belt- and direct-drive turntables).

We've seen something similar on Denon DJ decks, for example, but Native Instruments has taken it up a level with haptic feedback. This means you can set a cue point and "feel" it as you roll the wheel back and forth -- something those who like to mix the old-fashioned way (me included) will appreciate. The motorized jog wheels are configurable, so you can tweak the torque and start/stop speed to your liking. Hopefully, this means backspins/rewinds and even gentle nudges (to tighten up your mix) will feel more intuitive and natural.

The other major difference with the S4 is the addition of displays for each deck -- similar to those found on the S8, just smaller -- for more immediate visual feedback (track title, waveform etc), so you don't need to look at your laptop as much. Both models come with Traktor Pro 3, which boasts better stability, a more streamlined look and enhanced audio. The S4 launches on November 1, with the S2 slated for "fall."

Maschine Mikro

Someone once told me that Maschine was Native Instrument's big success story. And three iterations of the full-size version later and it's as popular as ever. Today, fans of the (unsurprisingly, smaller) Mikro version get the third edition they've been waiting for. New, bigger pads will help terrible finger-drummers (like me) mash out rhythms in real time, and a new "Smart Strip" throws in a new way to manipulate sounds (effects, pitch etc) in real time.

Other minor updates include new black function buttons (the previous version's white ones were more visible, but a little more mushy to press). There is a small trade-off this time around: The display is considerably smaller, but that frees up space for a few more dedicated control buttons for browsing your library and adding swing and volume/velocity.

The best news here is that Maschine Mikro MK3 will cost $249 at launch (September 18th) -- $50 cheaper than the older version it replaces.

Everything else

To go through everything that Native Instruments is announcing today would take a while, but the highlights include a revised line of the Kontrol A-series (MIDI keyboards that integrate tightly with the company's "Komplete" software suite). These are available in 25-, 49- and 61-key versions ($149/$199 and $249 respectively) when they land in October.

On the software/synth side of things, Native Instrument's flagship instrument package, Komplete 12, will also launch in October starting at $200 (and up to $1,199 for the Ultimate edition). There's also Massive X, a follow-up to the original Massive (which was the software synth of choice for Dubstep producers across the land). There's no pricing yet for the new edition, but it is part of the Komplete 12 bundle, if you're splurging on that anyway.

It's clearly been a busy few months for the Berlin-based company, but the new line-up has a little something for everyone. In particular, those looking to get started on the DJ or music-making side of things. The new Kontrol S2 and Maschine Mikro, in particular, are refreshing, given that both cost less than the hardware they are replacing. So now is probably a good time to start clearing some desk space for all the new gear you didn't know you wanted.