The Traktor Kontrol S4 is the most popular DJ controller with Digital DJ Tips readers as voted for in your 2011 Reader’s Survey, but until now we’ve not carried a full review of the unit.
However, the initial months since its launch have given us the chance to really get to grips with it, and with the recent arrival of the Traktor Pro 2 software, we felt it was high time publish a full assessment. So here it is: the full Digital DJ Tips Traktor Kontrol S4 review.
One thing that’s always held digital DJing back is the lack of seamless integration between hardware and software. While many manufacturers have over the past five or so years waded in with digital DJ controllers (which after all, are just Midi control units, not too different to any Midi controller), later adding sound cards as they realised most DJs don’t want to carry around a separate sound interface, most of the time these units have relied on other people’s software to make them work.
Things can seem over-complicated for people considering digital DJing who just wanted to plug and play.
So we’ve seen controllers for Traktor (mainly) but also for Virtual DJ, MixVibes, Deckadance and so on. All of these programs are good, but none of them were made specifically for the controllers that made use of to use them. Thus mapping files were provided (either by the software manufacturers to make their software more attractive, or by the hardware manufacturers to make their software more compatible) in order to define how the myriad different controllers and the software communicated with each other.
Midi mapping is actually one of the new skills of DJing brought about by controllerism, but the flip-side of all the configurability that creative, geeky controllerists take full advantage of is that things can seem over-complicated for people considering digital DJing who just wanted to plug and play.
What’s more, almost invariably until recently, the software provided was always “LE” or “light edition” – cut-down, get-past-go versions of the full packages that needed to be upgraded to get the full functionality, at extra cost to the consumer of course. (see out Bundled DJ Controller Software: Facts & Myths article for more on this). This was done in order to keep headline prices low, but didn’t provide an ideal situation for those wanting to just pay their cash and get DJing, with a minimum of fuss and extra expense.
Various companies had a go at providing a full solution. Serato with ITCH achieved “it just works” functionality by licensing DJ controllers made by third parties (such as the Vestax VCI-300) that its software simply recognised when plugged in. Indeed, Serato ITCH only works with such products. No re-mappings, no need to tweak anything. The Torq Xponent DJ controller does the same thing with Torq software, although that software has recently been opened for control by other devices. And Mixvibes has the same thing with its U-Mix Control DJ controller and Cross DJ software, although again the architecture is open.
Indeed, Traktor has itself always featured in the guise of “Traktor ready” and “Traktor certified” badges on third party products; but it was clear with the launch of the Kontrol X1 that Native Instruments was eyeing a closer integration of hardware and software, more akin to that of some of the above; the X1 (Native’s first DJ controller) had its own configuration page in the Traktor software, which when accessed via an easy wizard, took care of all the settings for you.
It was clear with the launch of the Kontrol X1 that Native Instruments was eyeing a closer integration of hardware and software…
And so, with the launch of the Kontrol S4, the company’s first full-strength DJ controller, Native Instruments took this thinking to the point where it finally provided its own tightly integrated DJ controller, made in the image of its software.
Now, the company had a DJ controller that with one simple click upon set-up in the software, recognised and configured everything accordingly, without the need for any further set-up by the digital DJ. Plug in and start playing. What’s more, the software (Traktor Pro S4) contained features that had specially been designed for the S4 to take advantage of.
So, you see why the Kontrol S4 was such a significant product not just for Native Instruments, but for digital DJing as a whole. Now, with Traktor Pro 2 (a free upgrade for existing users too), it is potentially even better. The question is, has it reached the point where it is throwing other DJ set-ups behind it as it marches forward? Let’s find out…
Unboxing and first impressions
The trendy, full-colour box has lots of hooks for the digital DJ: A flight deck-style picture of the controller on the front, with a top-down view on the back highlighting its main features and describing the software, which as it points out is a full version – none of this buy-now-and-pay-to-upgrade-later stuff. There’s a free Beatport gift card inside, and the box also shows a picture of the unit in the dedicated Traktor Kontrol S4 hard flight case. It all paints a very high-end and professional picture.
Inside, as well as the aforementioned gift card, are a perfect-bound colour set-up guide, a mains adaptor with regional attachments, a USB cable, the installation disc, a box-sized crib sheet with every control outlined on it, some Traktor and Native Instruments stickers, and a fold-out keyboard shortcuts reference sheet for German and US keyboards. (Unlike, say, Serato ITCH, it is perfectly possible to DJ using just the Traktor software and your laptop – although I doubt many S4 owners will be doing that for quite a while having purchasing an advanced hardware controller!)
It is perfectly possible to DJ using just the Traktor software and your laptop – although I doubt many S4 owners will be doing that…
The unit itself has two polystyrene end-pieces holding it in place. Many people use their product boxes at least at first to carry DJ controllers around while they’re considering their options as far as a trolley, shoulder bag or hard case goes; the best product boxes I’ve seen for carrying controllers to and from gigs have fixed plastic innards so you can slot the unit in and out quickly (I’m thinking of the Vestax VCI-300 and Xone:DX packaging), and while the S4′s isn’t as convenient as that, it’ll certainly be OK as a temporary measure, especially as the box has a secure plastic carry handle.
Native Instruments has recently announced a trolley bag for the unit made in collaboration with pro bag maker UDG (although it is too big for hand luggage on some budget airlines); there is already a traditional-style hard case available (definitely don’t try that one in hand luggage!); and various third-party manufacturers including Mono, Magma, DJ Tech Tools and Novation have bags that are either specifically designed for it or that it will happily fit into.
So, once you’re unboxed with your Kontrol S4 sat in front of you, the first impressions of the unit are that it is serious-looking, large and light in weight. Serious-looking because it is covered in buttons, knobs, faders and wheels, and comes in sober, we-mean-business black with a big TRAKTOR logo on the front and motifs on the jogwheels; large, because apart from the new Pioneer DJ controllers it’s the widest of its type on the market (and only the Xone:DX is deeper); and light, just because it looks like it should weigh more.
The latter point isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it is clearly well made, and is rigid enough, which indicates a quality chassis, especially tasking into account its size; everything on first touch feels high quality and turns, moves and spins well. It is simply made with lightweight materials – mainly plastic with rubber feet and some brushed metal on the fascia.
Plugging in and setting up
The first thing you’ll do is install the software. The unit we had came with the S4 version of Traktor Pro; we’ve since upgraded to Traktor Pro 2, but new versions will obviously have Traktor Pro 2 in the box from the off. You pop the disc in your computer, click “Traktor Kontrol S4″ in a list of install options, and let the computer install it as normal.
You next need to register with Native Instruments. It takes a bit of time, but it’s not hard – you need to access the activation area in order to enter the serial number provided against the product online, and provide an email address. At this point updates can be downloaded and clicked on to install. The end result will be an activated, fully up-to-date version of the software.
This will be music to the ears of mere mortal DJs who’ve ever tried to set up a digital DJ system…
Next you’ll plug the unit itself in to mains power (it can work with bus power, but the lights are much dimmer). The plug comes with four regional adaptors, so you’ll fit the correct one first. Then it’s just a case of attaching the USB cable, and turning the Kontrol S4 on by pushing the on/off button on its rear. If you’re on a Windows system, the computer will then complete the device driver installation.
With the unit powered up and connected to your PC, you plug your headphones in, attach your powered speakers or amp/speaker set-up, and start the software – and that’s it.
This will be music to the ears of mere mortal DJs who’ve ever tried to set up a digital DJ system, especially one with a DJ controller, third-party software and a separate sound interface – because at this point, you variously may need to import mapping files, set up your audio device and inputs/outputs, select your controller, and troubleshoot.
But with the Kontrol S4, it is all simply working, there and then. It’s how all digital DJ systems should work; indeed, since the Kontrol S4, Pioneer has launched a Traktor controller with much the same functionality, working alongside Native Instruments to improve the user experience, and expect more in the future as the industry matures and moves past insanely complicated configurations just to get some sound coming out of the speakers.
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