In a world of me-too controllers, a world where almost every controller on the market looks identical, manufacturers need to dig deep to set themselves apart. Native Instruments has an inherent advantage in their hardware design: they also design the software. Their controllers, all-in-one solutions like the Kontrol S2 MK2 and modular products like the Kontrol Z1, always boast extremely tight integration and super high quality hardware.
While the S2 MK2 is just an update of their solid Kontrol S2, it does provide a few extra tweaks to the design and featureset. This direction, embraced by many hardware manufacturers lately, puts consumers in a very difficult position. Should they upgrade their already solid controller to the new version; or, if they don’t own it already, should they even spend their money on the new version when they can now get the original for less.
A note about the S2 and S4 reviews — these are going to be more than update announcements. We are still going to put these controllers through their paces and cover more than just the additions.
Out of the Box
The Kontrol S2 MK2 is exactly what you would expect from a Native Instruments controller. The box includes a license for Traktor Pro 2 and hardware registration, a wall wart with various international adapters, a USB 2.0 cable and a USB to 30-pin iPad connector. Unfortunately, I had to purchase a 30-pin to Lightning connector, since it would not work with the USB to Lightning plug I already owned.
The controller feels exactly as I expected, what with being surrounded by various Native Instruments gear. The transport and mixer buttons are the same style as the Maschine and Kontrol X1 MK2 buttons, and the effects and pitch buttons are almost identical to the buttons on the original S2. One of the big changes Native Instruments boasts with this line of updated controllers is the metal plates on the jog wheels. They feel a lighter than the original S2 jogs but I was disappointed they weren’t capacitive, like my old VCI-100. There is still a pressing mechanism and, while it doesn’t require a lot of pressure, I always prefer the feel of capacitive sensors over mechanical ones.
The knobs all feel consistent, none of them are too loose or tight. The endless encoders are all click encoders and, while I understand why manufacturers use these, I always wish the gain and filter knobs were smooth; it feels so much more natural. The small round buttons in the effect and mixer section feel fine, but I feel like they are too small for my fingers. I need to focus a lot harder on hitting the target than on larger buttons, and it is easy to miss. They aren’t performance style controls, and aren’t going to be hit on a regular basis in a rhythmic fashion, I’d just really like them to be a bit bigger.
Plugging it in gives the expected light show, and damn these LEDs look stunning. NI has implemented their HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) protocol as opposed to RGB, which almost every other manufacturer uses, and they really provide stunning colors; the pads light up just like the F1 and X1 MK2 buttons do. The larger transport and cue point buttons resemble X1 MK2 buttons, but I was really hoping they’d feel closer to the F1 performance buttons. It seems, however, that NI are moving away from those sturdier feeling buttons for the more noticeably click-y buttons on the X1 and Maschine. While the F1 utilizes the standard click buttons well for mode switching, the performance buttons are some of the best that don’t include velocity sensitivity.
The Kontrol S2 MK2 has some heft to it but it isn’t overwhelmingly heavy; carrying it in a bag with your laptop shouldn’t be that bad. In addition to the onboard controls, there is an audio interface boasting ¼” main outs, RCA booth or main switchable outs, a rear mic in and a front headphone output. The front panel also has the cue volume and mix controls, as well as a Mic Engage button. Everything is as solid as expected on first touch, so let’s put it through its paces.
I ran into some issues using the Kontrol S2 MK2 without the included USB 2.0 cable. While it is great that Native Instruments provides me with a recommended USB 2.0 cable, their hardware stands alone in almost requiring me to use their cables. Just frustrating is all. Native Instruments pointed me at this link explaining the best practices for using cables, and which cables they recommend.
As mentioned before, Native Instruments always leverage their hardware with their tight software integration. The amount of times we see people requesting hardware integration for their various controllers within Traktor only speaks to the success of the software. The S2 MK2 has just as tight integration as we’ve come to expect, but since it is a smaller format controller (when compared to the S4) there are sacrifices that are made. You only have control over two effects banks, and there’s no way to use shift layers to get more without heavily remapping the controller. You only have 4 cue points, and there’s no way to shift to 8. Even the X1 MK2 has options in the controller manager which the S2 does not.
The addition of the Flux button is effectively the only major change on the faceplate from the original S2. While I appreciate the addition to the face since I enjoy using flux mode, there are so many other things I would have wanted to be added to the controller.
While I initially felt like the platters required too heavy a hand to press the plate down, as I was using them I understood why. The platters are a little looser than I expected, and pressing harder on the plate gave me the control I needed to use them accurately. The jog wheel integration is as solid as you’d expect for a Native Instruments controller in Traktor, that is to say it is extremely solid. Granted, that is our minimum expectation since they make the only controllers that have any direct integration.
Stacking the Gain and Filter knobs is a pretty good idea for combining controls, but I do wish I could toggle it to control the Filter instead of requiring to hold Shift. Or, alternatively, swapping the primary control since I use the Filter more than Gain.
In comparison to the original S2, the buttons feel a lot better now. The jog wheel is a little tighter on backspins, and the metal plate feels better than the plastic one. If you already own an S2 then it might not be worth making the upgrade if you aren’t hoping to use the buttons for heavy performance/rhythmic triggering, but I could see these buttons lasting a lot longer and they do feel a whole lot better.
As a note, since it’s something that surprised me, the Master Output knob on the S2 MK2 is divorced from the virtual knob in Traktor, giving you an extra volume stage. This was a pleasant surprise for me, since more control (especially over volume), is almost universally better.
When we provided our massive amount of coverage on the F1 and Remix Decks in general, I was rather nonplussed. I enjoyed a lot of things about the remix decks, but I failed to really find myself excited by them. The integration included in the S2 MK2 doesn’t really make them any more exciting. Granted, having the extra control in a single unit, as opposed to needing a separate controller like the F1, is great, it’s extremely limited control since you can only fit so much into a unit this size. I’m still not sure if that makes it good or useful, but if you use Remix Decks on a very minimal level akin to the sample decks of old you will have enough control to take advantage of them.
iOS and Traktor DJ
The other important feature change of the S2 MK2, and where I think its importance as a controller really comes alive, is integration into Traktor DJ. We have spoken at length about Traktor DJ specifically, and mobile DJ platforms generally, and while the touch control and advanced workflows available in Traktor DJ are spectacular, having a physical controller hooked up to my iPad makes it far more useful. While the Z1 is a great solution, it is a minimal control surface and without a dedicated hub to connect something like an F1 or an X1 MK2 it can only do so much.
Hooking up the S2, though, allows me to take control of almost all the Traktor DJ features without needing to touch my iPad, and when I do need to touch my iPad I can have easily access to Freeze and their “slice” mode. It would be great to be able to control 8 cue points, but while using Traktor DJ it’s a sacrifice I am much more willing to make. The audio interface is clean and the S2 keeps my iPad charged, making any length of a gig meaningless. I do wish that the S2 had a hub built in, though, since I’m sure future iterations of Traktor DJ will have more features and I wouldn’t want to have to buy another full priced controller when I should be able to just add an X1 or F1.
If you are looking at using Traktor DJ as a full-time DJ solution, or even an alternate tool for a CD or laptop rig, I really can’t recommend the S2 MK2 enough. If you are going to use your iPad at all to DJ live, then the S2 gives you all the control you’d need for a reliable, powerful performance allowing your iPad to become nothing more than a hard drive and browser but still retain all the cool touch controls and effects.
If you already own the original S2, then you are probably best off sticking with it. My guess is that in the next year we are going to see huge updates from Native Instruments on both their mobile and desktop versions of Traktor, and with that will come more hardware to integrate tighter into them. Hopefully, if nothing else, the original S2 and S2 MK2 will provide a solid baseline to continue on. This is all speculation, obviously, but incremental updates like this for hardware always make me nervous about the future, especially coming from Native Instruments.
If you do not own an S2 already, and you want a truly integrated solution into Traktor DJ and Traktor Pro then this is really a great solution. While I did just say in the last paragraph that new things are probably coming (as a further note, we at DJWORX have no insider information, this is all guesswork) this controller is very good and you will definitely use it for what it’s worth, especially if you are also a mobile DJ. The real strength, as far as I see it, with this controller is it plays double duty as both a desktop/laptop controller and a mobile controller for the iPad.
The integration is solid, though I wish there were more customizable options (as I always do with Native Instrument controllers). The controller manager allows you to move things off of the stock mapping, but it requires you to use the controller manager, something I can never, in my right mind, recommend. When there are integration options through a simple menu selection like all the NI controllers offer, then more options should be available to cover most of the different workflows DJs use these days.
But for the plug-and-play crowd, and any loyal user of Traktor Pro, this is a great solution. At $500 USD, it may read a little steep compared to some of the competition, but when you realize that includes Traktor Pro 2, if you don’t already own it, and direct integration into the iPad app, and a really solid audio interface, it becomes a lot more attractive. While I am hard pressed to tell you to rush to the shelves for it because I have a hard time believing something new isn’t coming in the next year, it could be a good solution to hold you over until then without completely breaking the bank.
The real feature that has always set Traktor apart from its competition is the veritable breadth of MIDI control. I could spend hours ranting about the controller manager, but this is obviously not the place for it. Instead I want to talk about the integration of the S2 into Traktor. Connecting any Native Instrument controller to our computer gives you a separate entry allowing alternative controls to what is provided by NI. My biggest disappointment with the S2 MK2 was the options I was allowed to select.
As far as the baseline mapping goes, the Kontrol S2 MK2 is as minimal as you can get with a 2 channel controller. Since Native Instruments prides themselves on their direct integration and seamless interaction, but they provide few methods of alternating how that interaction customizable. My needs will be very different from another DJ. I don’t think I should have to go into the Controller Manager’s deep and frustrating device control menus to do what should be simple shift functions. I can change how the buttons interact on the Kontrol X1 MK2, but not this and that annoys me.
For example, I can’t add a shift layer to control hotcues 5-8 and I don’t understand why. There are two manual loop buttons but I can’t change how they interact if I never use manual loops from simple drop downs. You can also only control FX Banks 1 and 2. There’s no shift functionality available to swap them to 3 and 4. Hook it up with an X1 MK2 and you get that control, but really I can’t see why I shouldn’t be able to easily add that functionality. While I appreciate that there aren’t any Deck C/D shift buttons, it makes it hard to adequately control the Remix decks if I want to control the mixer, but that’s just the way it goes.
My frustrations with this are very niche, obviously. My concerns about this controller are not what the majority of the market would care about, as they just want plug and play, and that’s where the S2 really does shine. It gives you as much control as it can, with as few layers as possible, and also taking as much advantage of the powerful featureset included in Traktor Pro. I am not 100% sure if adding Remix Deck control actually makes the unit more enticing, since I’m not really sure how many people actually use remix decks at all, and if they do I would think they would just use an F1 as it’s better suited to control them.