Having been excited in the run up to the release of the Traktor Kontrol S8, I was giddy when Mark told me we’d be getting one in the studio to try out. I quickly smuggled it out to take to a friend’s for a night of bangin’ choons on a big sound system. Here are my impressions of Native Instruments’ flagship DJ controller. This is by no means a review, but a few notes based on my brief encounter. I have to say I’m going to get VERY nitpicky with the details.
Firstly, It’s worth repeating that my setup at home incorporates an analogue mixer and two Kontrol X1s, meaning I can DJ ‘Hawtin-style’, using sync and four channels. I’m used to having immediate access to all my controls and I’m very comfortable with Traktor, with a very refined playlist-based workflow. Quite often, I won’t have to look at the laptop for 20 minutes at a time. It’s also only relatively recently that I started trying out the remix decks with an F1: I often switch between using a fourth remix deck and a track deck in a set.
First, this thing is a tank! Built just like all the other Kontrol series, NI finally listened and dumped the silly glossy faceplates, going back to the brushed metal look of the X1 throughout most of it. The layout is familiar to most, bar the obvious addition of the remix section. The capacitive knobs are great, and use the screens really well, with effects popping up when you need them. I found it a bit weird that this thing is neither at the same height as the rest of the Kontrol series, nor the height of a mixer. It doesn’t fit in with existing external gear.
There were some issues with layout, though:
- The channel FX select buttons are way too small when you’re used to the chunky things on the X1s.
- The channel gain knobs are right at the top of the mixer section, rather than with the EQs, which feels a bit strange to me.
- For some reason, the channel filter switch buttons are small and square, rather than the bigger rectangle, making them less instinctive to use. I found myself missing the buttons and hesitating.
Knowing how my workflow happens, I was a bit reticent about how much I needed the screens on the unit. First, the way playlists work on the screens is quite hacky. What I mean is that they mirror what’s on the laptop interface. You can’t switch to separate playlists on each screen, for example. The system for loading a track takes some getting used to. I found myself wishing for a button on each channel to load the track, rather than depressing the browse knob. There’s also an option in Traktor to be able to use the capacitive knob to switch to playlist, but I couldn’t get it to work properly, so stuck with the default way.
There’s also no way to search for tunes on the S8’s screens: you have to switch back to the laptop to find tracks in your collection. I’d hope the MK2 would have some sort of touch screens, maybe with a T9-style keyboard to type in the first few letters of your missing track. I have no doubt that some of these issues are due to the fact Traktor Pro 2.7.X wasn’t built for the S8 and that Traktor Pro 3 will fix much of the disparity.
Using remix decks on the Kontrol S8 is pretty much as it is on the Kontrol F1, other than only having two rows of sample launch buttons. It’s worth noting that I did find myself using the remix decks more for storing loops grabbed from the track decks, which I guess is what NI hoped for. I still think there’s something missing from the remix decks workflow to really make it an essential part of a DJs repertoire. I’ve mentioned before that I’d like to see a tool from NI that scans your tracks and offers an easy way to slice them up into remix packs. This would help some of the steep learning curve for prepping remix decks.
I’ve come to realise I still hate and will always hate layered channels. There’s just too much risk in using them for anything other than a mess around. Simply the fact that you can’t see the waveforms for deck A if you’re on deck C is annoying, and kind of negates the point of having screens on the unit. I have to wonder if one of the reasons you don’t see more four-channel controllers being used by professionals in clubs is that added confusion of having to switch between channels.
Having come away from my play through and mulled it over, right now I’m fairly sure I still prefer my current setup. The S8 offers so much, and comes very close to replacing what I have. The screens are something I never realised I’d find useful (similar to the X1 MK2 digital readouts, just removing a little bit of “Serato Face”), and for the package, you get a very sturdy all-in-one that reliably replaces a mixer in an existing unit. People complaining about the price should understand that it’s easy to drop that sort of money on a club mixer from Pioneer, but you don’t get the great Traktor integration, the Scratch-readiness, the screens, and the degree of future-proofing as a Traktor user.
I’m sure, given time, I could get used to having my decks on different layers, making do with the limits it causes, but I don’t have to. In fact, I don’t want to! The biggest effect the S8 has had on me is a renewed confidence in the remix decks and the fun it brings to DJing Techno, Tech House and old school Electro. This whole experience makes me look forward to what Traktor Pro 3 will give us.