LINK: Native Instruments | Price: $499/€489/£369 | Manual: PDF
We have been having a bunch of conversations for ever about what a DJ is and what real DJs use. Regardless of where you fall in that conversation, different DJs like using different kinds of gear. And whether you use turntables of controllers, modular or all-in-one, it is likely that the gear you are using doesn’t give you access to everything you need, at least in an easy-to-reach way, especially in today’s software driven world. Different manufacturers have been releasing modular controllers for years, and no one has tried to meet that need quite like Native Instruments. While the Traktor Kontrol S8 is a very complete tool, allowing users to connect whatever gear they want with it, many of us already have our favorite mixer and don’t need another one. With the Traktor Kontrol D2, NI has broken the deck portion off, allowing us access to the screens and transport controls.
A few months ago I posted a complete review of the S8, and almost all of that applies to the Kontrol D2. The controls feel exactly the same, the screen looks just as great, and the functionality is almost exactly the same. I don’t really think it does any of us any good for me to dig into it all over again since you can all read about it in depth. Most of my concerns with the S8 integration and functionality still apply to the D2s. Instead, let’s focus on the differences.
The Kontrol D2 is the same height and depth of the S8, so it sits next to it very well. It has four feet at the bottom so it can be raised to the height of a standard mixer. It’s made of almost the same material and feels like it is going to last. The screens of my S8 have stood the test of time, and it isn’t a fingerprint magnet like the Kontrol Z1, so I have the utmost faith the D2 will last just as well. The Kontrol D2 is mostly plastic, and not very heavy. It feels rather light, but with no interface in it that’s to be expected.
The biggest difference with the Kontrol D2 is the upper right hand corner of the controller now has four buttons, labelled A, B, C, and D. These are used to activate effects routing and select decks. For routing effects, each button routes an individual effect bank to the deck represented by the letter. This can get a little confusing, so bear with me. If your D2 is controlling Deck A, each of the four buttons will route Effect Bank 1 to one of the four decks. Press C and Deck C is routed to Effect Bank 1. This is similar functionality to how the Kontrol S4MK2 works when controlling four effects banks. This also means that you can, in fact, control all four decks from a single Kontrol D2. Pressing the deck button will swap between A/C or B/D, depending on which you have it controlling. If you hold the Deck button down, however, you can select any of the four decks.
I want to point out first and foremost, that each D2 is intended to control an individual side of the mixer. It is intended, as an example, to replace a single deck portion of the S8. So, the Deck button will swap between A and C, or D and B. When holding down the Deck button you can access all four decks, but it is not how the D2s are supposed to be used. Since I am not fond of rules, of course, I gave it a shot and tried to control all four decks with one D2, as well as use it for controlling decks A and B. It led to a lot of frustration, unfortunately, and I can’t really recommend it for the primary use. If you get one D2, it’s best to use it for either one single deck, or for controlling two decks, but only associated decks (e.g. A and C, or B and D). While you can see a second waveform on the screen, it can only be for the associated deck, regardless of how many decks are active in Traktor. Controlling Deck A? Well, you can only see the second waveform for Deck C, whether or not that deck is even available in the software. That’s just silly. The X1MK2s allow me to designate which decks I want to control, and I should be able to do that with the D2 as well. I want to hold down the Deck and Shift buttons and assign the two decks I want to look at. I want to do the same with the effects controls cause that just makes sense.
A few changes have been made with the most recent versions of Traktor that updates the functionality of the screens (and also applies to the S8). First, you can now see on the screen, over the album art, whether or not you’ve already played a track, as well as whether or not that track is in your Preparation list. These aren’t big changes, but they are very useful. There are still some issues with the playhead not lining up on the D2 screen even though it is still lined up on the software. While this is just inaccurate, NI assures me they are working on it.
Each Kontrol D2 has a two port USB hub and requires power. We were told they can be chained together and I was hoping that meant I just needed to connect one to the wall and the other into it via USB. That isn’t entirely the case. Instead, NI has provided a splitter power cable that is plugged into both D2s (if you have two) and then into the wall. It isn’t a big deal, but it’s just one more cable to keep track of and one that is very hard to replace, at that. While I understand the limitations of USB2, I really wish that I could just handle it all over one cable.
I tried a bunch of different layouts:
- one D2 and a Z1
- two D2s and a Z1
- two D2s and a Behringer MM-1
- one D2 and a Behringer MM-1
- one D2 with turntables and a mixer
- two D2s with turntables and a mixer
Connecting them was fine, using them was a breeze. Putting one on either side of a mixer spread me out a little less than the S8, but not by much. The controls were useful, and being able to see the actual waveform right next to the control vinyl surprisingly efficient, allowing me to avoid relying on my laptop for track position. There wasn’t any clear delay, but I hesitate to speak too much about that since I’m not exactly the most adept scratch guy. Hopefully Mark can throw in a brief two-bits about his experiences.
Figuring out the best use case, or even the group of ideal use cases, is hard. They are really good, complete effects controllers, but so are the X1MK2s. They have decent remix deck functionality, but it’s not as good as the F1 and is still hampered by the remix decks being, well, remix decks. It doesn’t make them better, or more elegant, or easier to use. In fact, I still think the F1 is the best integration for the remix decks NI has come out with. They are great for transport control, but if you require a jog wheel then you will be lacking. For me, putting two of these on either side of a Z1 was my second favorite (more on that later) best experience with them. Tied with two on either side of a real mixer with turntables. The screens still simplify things a lot, like the S8 does, but they do not remove the need for my laptop. I still need it for searching, more detailed deck information and more detailed browser information.
But I really can’t stress how much fun DJing on two Kontrol D2s and an S8 is. It’s pretty much my favorite way to spin on Traktor: four full decks, screens, and all the controls right in front of me. It’s a huge setup, obviously, but if it’s just me on a desk or in a booth then I can make it work. And man, is it fun. Having the screens for quick view makes mixing a lot easier, but I do wish I could customize the browser or deck views and see the information that’s important to me. The laptop screen is still there to be used, obviously, but the more time I can spend looking at my gear the better. As a note, Native Instruments does not recommend this set up. You can connect them all to your laptop, but they would need to have two different internal USB hubs which most laptops don’t have. Fortunately for me, the massive Windows laptop I had built a few years ago has exactly that.
ARE THEY WORTH IT?
I know I’m in the minority with our readers when I talk about the S8, or the D2s. To avoid repeating myself too much from the S8 review, we’ll cover the core points:
- I don’t need a pitch fader when I have an endless encoder. The knob is just as useful as a fader for me.
- Two D2s and a Z1 is a pretty solid setup for two deck mixing, and leaves a lot of room for growth if you decide to build your setup with a four channel mixer. But them on either side of a four channel mixer and you have just about as much control as an S8.
- The lack of an audio interface is obvious, but I wouldn’t consider it a clear omission. If you just have a Kontrol D2 you can’t do any mixing at all, and the interface wouldn’t help very much. While giving it a simple stereo out to use as a full turntable replacement would be great, it would require device aggregation of some sort, and far more complication than I think Native Instruments would ever want to get involved in, and it would be even more expensive, when you already probably own an audio interface.
As far as integration goes, my core thoughts:
- I generally want more from my controllers. Whether it’s NI, Serato or anything else I’ve had on my desk, once you leave the introductory price point I expect more.
- The integration, as with most NI controllers, is top notch on the basic level. But now that we are working with far more advanced functionality, especially screens, I want more options.
- The real strength of something like the Kontrol D2 is the ability to integrate it into any setup. Two turntables and a mixer? Use one. Or two, it doesn’t matter. But once you start dealing with something at this price, I really need more capability to justify the expense.
- Being able to control what my opposing decks are would be a start, but also being able to select which effects banks my unit controls. What if I already have a primary effect set up on my mixer and I just want the D2 to control effects banks 3 and 4? Can’t. Or if I want to only use it to control decks A and B, and want my Deck button to swap those two decks? Can’t. This kind of stuff needs to be improved upon.
Using one Kontrol D2 is useful if you already have a full mixer and turntable setup and want something to control all the extra stuff (effects banks, loops, etc) across all of your decks. If you want a full modular setup, buying two is great, but it’s gonna set you back $1000, and that’s not a number to scoff at. It’s hard for me to say whether or not you need these. Personally, if I’m going to spend $1000 on NI gear to use with Traktor, I’d rather have the S8. But if you already have a full setup and you want to add an extra piece, these are useful. You get:
- A two port powered hub
- Beautiful screens for Traktor
- Control over four decks, four effects banks and remix decks
If you already have the S8 and you want to augment it with a Kontrol D2, well, that brings us to a core issue: it’s not recommended to use two D2s with the S8 since SO much data is getting sent over the USB bus. I’d love to be able to connect these to my USB3 port on my laptop and have more bandwidth but that’s just not an option right now. While no one else in the industry has moved in that direction yet, NI has finally started releasing gear that touches on the limits of the protocol so… I guess it’s time for them to start upping their game. 64-bit support is great for Traktor, now give us USB3 for these kinds of devices (which I’m assuming most of them will be in the future).
The D2s are great, but I’m not sure they are worth the cost. They have the same integration as the S8 (which I’m a fan of) beautiful screens (best I’ve seen on the market) and solid controls. They are also expensive and don’t really improve upon modular controllers NI has already released. Adding a hub is great, and something I’ve been demanding for a long time from the industry, but with the kinds of data we are dealing with now they need to be upgraded to a more advanced USB protocol to keep up.
A NOTE ON STEMS
We were all extremely excited to see Stems in action during Native Instruments’ live feed of their new D2 controllers. Unfortunately, we haven’t been given any example files to begin playing with a review. Rest assured, our contacts at NI have told us we’ll have them soon, and once we do we will go through a full review of the process and setup and let you know our detailed thoughts, as you’ve come to expect. I have a feeling, personally, that the D2s and the S8 will be a much bigger deal with Stems included, and once we can get you that information we will.
A NOTE ON TRAKTOR 2.8.1
So I wrote a long followup in the S8 review about Traktor pretty much finally becoming unstable for me. I am very happy to say that since the beta for 2.7.5, Traktor has become more stable and solid than I have ever seen it. 64-bit support is fantastic, the ability to analyze songs across multiple cores speeds up a frustrating process, and I don’t think I have ever been more secure in using Traktor in a live environment. Versions 2.8 and 2.8.1 have just improved on it for me. Granted, since we all have different machines, your mileage may vary, but if you are still sitting on version 2.6.8, arguably the last stable version before everything got screwy, check out 2.8.1. If you are using Pioneer gear then I don’t know what to say regarding 64-bit, except to get on the horn with them and start demanding 64-bit drivers.