SHOWDOWN: Stems on laptop vs controller screens

Traktor Stems Screens

We started last week with news that Native Instruments managed to do something they said was impossible: working Stems file view within the Traktor Pro 2 software. I spent the best part of that week playing with this new version of Traktor to see how it works and whether it’s a decent alternative to the controller based screens that we’ve had for a while.

In case you’ve been living under a rock: until now, only those of you lucky enough to use the Kontrol S8, S5, and D2 could get a full view of all the Stems file waveforms while they’re playing. Sure, the F1 sort of gave you some video feedback by using the button matrix as a VU meter for the four streams, but it really couldn’t compare to seeing the music as it played. My only consternation being that the horizontal waveforms don’t translate on the screen to the four volume faders on the S8 and D2. Vertical waveforms might have been useful.

Firing up Traktor and slapping in some stem files, I had a look at how workflow and visual feedback differ between the controller screens and the software. Not just for Stems files, but as a general user experience. I’ve now been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to play with all the Traktor hardware with screens and some of the Serato stuff too. I’ve also reviewed the Kontrol S5 (the review is on its way! (yes it’s with NI now… Ed)), so I feel like I’ve got a handle on where they fit in. Have built-in screens become a vital part of the mixing workflow? Where do we go from here? What’s best for mixing Stems files?


It’s easy to see that a big advantage of the built-in screens is that they do keep your eyes off the main screen for quite a lot of your mixing. You find yourself able to see what’s going on in your music at a glance while still keeping your head down. It eliminates quite a bit of the ‘Serato Face‘ that inevitably gets caught on camera and keeps you focused on the job.


One annoying niggle about Stems files displaying on the screens though is that there’s no individual Stems name information unless you have activated the filter or effects using the capacitive knobs to pop up on screen. The Traktor window has the huge advantage of showing you all your information at one glance. This includes showing individual Stems all the time when the Stems file view is active. The controller screens also don’t show your Stems if you’ve got them set to display both layers’ waveforms, which leaves me feeling yet more like the screens are a half measure, requiring compromise you never have to worry about while looking at the software.


Beyond stem files, the controller screens further lose out compared to the software view with a couple of major points:

  1. There’s still very little customisation of what can be shown in your deck view. Within Traktor, you can choose from a big list of metadata to display on your decks, from the label, to album art, to BPM, to key, to comments, etc, etc. None of that is reflected in your controller screens, unfortunately. It’s a glaring omission.
  2. Unless your music is completely sorted with great playlists, you’re royally screwed when it comes to finding your tracks. I consider myself to have a really good system for my collection, but there’s still a LOT of scrolling going on. And if you’re wanting a random track that just popped into your head, you will have to use the laptop to search. Even with your playlist sorted by key, artist, or title, it’s still a nightmare. And I don’t even have a huge collection (sub-3,000 tracks)!

Now that Traktor Pro 2 has full stem view in the software, it is once again the best solution. The controller screens are still great for stripping down your need to stare at a laptop, but it always feels like a half way mark to the end of closing the laptop lid. I have no doubt that with some more thought, screens will become even more indispensable to mixing with software, but they’ll obviously really come into their own with standalone digital DJing hardware. I get the feeling that until we see hardware and software designed from the ground up to work without a laptop screen (or indeed, laptop at all), we will always be battling with this sort of blurry paradigm that just feels like a hack. Ever since I got my hands on the S8, I’ve always felt a bit like the concept of built-in screens and their interface was still in evolution.


So, what would I do to improve? The first thing is having some way to search your whole collection, as well as playlists, even if it was just for the first couple of letters. I also think that there definitely needs to be some permanent solution to be able to display some view of the waveforms for ALL your decks all the time. The split screen view is a big help, let down by the fact you can’t see your stem files while it’s set. Perhaps some sort of view that only shows the top/bottom half of the wave form? A condensed deck, maybe? Though they’re fine for what they are now, it also seems like higher resolution screens might help pack more information in to your eyeballs down the line. Finally, I think it’s important that the screens are able to reflect the information you’ve set to display in the Traktor decks, or at least have some flexibility in the hardware-specific preferences to do something similar.

It’s not all doom and gloom… I’m just being hyper critical, since that’s what I’m paid for. I do really feel that adding screens to controllers is not only the right step, but the logical step. We’re just still in a bit of flux while manufacturers and developers figure all this stuff out. I’m sure we’ll look back on the technology in a few years and realise just how much we take it for granted, and how useful and indispensable it will have become.