On the surface, the new Traktor Kontrol S2 DJ controller strips away a lot of the features of the company’s all-singing, all-dancing Kontrol S4, leaving a leaner and more conventional controller.
In part because of this, as well as because of its reduced price and size, the Kontrol S2 squares itself up for battle where most of the business happens in pro DJ controller land – the mainstream mid-market. It is therefore probably the most important DJ controller Native Instruments has launched to day. But will you end up wanting one? And is it really good value? Let’s find out…
Unboxing and setting up
We had a pre-release unit so it didn’t come in the retail packaging, but judging by the S4, you’ll get a printed, two-sided colour feature map to visually help you learn the unit’s controls, alongside a USB cord and a Traktor 2.1 CD. There will be a power supply too – it’s not essential although it is advisable to use this (not least because there was a high-pitched hum I couldn’t get rid of when using just USB power on the test unit provided to us, that disappeared as soon as I plugged the power unit in).
If you’ve never installed Traktor before, installation involves getting your drivers up and running (for Windows users), then installing the software and registering it by setting up an account at Native Instruments. From there, actually getting the unit working is really easy; Native Instruments has made sure that – at least when Traktor is used with its own controllers, such as here – everything “just works”.
It’s big and austere enough to look like the real deal, but small enough to be properly portable.
The only thing that wasn’t particularly intuitive was that the software told me I had chosen to use an “English keyboard”, when my keyboard is actually Spanish; I had never selected such an option, and clicking “back” gave me no option to change this. This may come back to bite me later down the line when keyboard shortcuts don’t do what they are meant to, but as the whole point of a controller is to avoid using the keyboard as much as possible, I’m not going to lose any sleep over this at the moment.
The unit itself is, on first impressions, a great little controller. It’s big and austere enough to look like the real deal, but small enough to be properly portable. It basicially looks good, while retaining what I have always seen as the main advantage of DJ controllers over modular or installation equipment: a small footprint.
Differences between the S4 and the S2
Unlike the borderline-portable Kontrol S4, then, this is easily small enough to tuck in a backpack or flight bag and move around. The high-tech plastic construction makes more sense at this size, and while it’s only a few inches narrower and shorter than the S4, those inches make all the difference. If you ever looked at the Kontrol S4 and frankly felt a bit scared by how complicated the thing looked, this may well appeal to you more.
While it ditches many of the controls of the S4 (at first glance: no default filters per channel, no loop recorder, no snap / quantise / master buttons, no loop-length readout) it actually adds a few new functions: Pitch reset and mic on/off may appear minor, but a booth out is a major improvement. The booth out works by letting you switch the RCA-outs to either booth or main (the 1/4″ TRS outputs always being main), and there’s a booth out volume on the back too. So no XLRs, but I’d say this is enough for a small DJ controller. Well done, Native.
Not so good, though, is the immediately obvious omission of any external inputs bar the microphone. While I
don’t really see the purpose of having a DJ controller that can also act a flightdeck for plugging in everything from decks and CD players to the washing machine and next door’s house alarm, I do think having an emergency-through is a good idea.
Systems can and do crash, and more than that, the flexibility of being able to have something else plugged in (iPod for emergencies, or the output from another DJ’s system, for example) is sometimes important when playing in the real world, ie outside of the bedroom. For the sake of a couple of extra RCAs (or even a stereo 1/8″ jack) this is to my mind a curious omission on a “serious” controller.
What of the sample decks, though? Well, before booting up and getting stuck in, it is clear that samples are still there (there are sample buttons, although now they share the same buttons as hot cues), but that they have their own channel – there’s a sample volume knob bang in the middle of the mixer section, with sample decks A and B activation buttons.
This is to my mind a curious omission on a ‘serious’ controller….
This is the hardware evidence of the “2 + 1″ feature described by Native Instruments in the marketing blurb – two channels plus an “extra” channel for samples. On first encounter, this seems like a sensible compromise. We’ll finds out how well it works later.
There are lots of other little differences – the tempo faders are shorter throw; some of the knobs are a little shallower; there are no Midi in/out or footswitch sockets round the back; there’s are no mode change buttons for view or effects modes; and the pitch offset buttons have been replaced with pitch reset buttons – but it’s minor and predictable stuff.
If you are coming to this review having used the Kontrol S4, there’s little to report about the feel of the hardware – it’s stripped down, but the same build quality is there. However, if you’re here afresh, you’ll want to know a bit more, so let’s talk through it. Those familar with the S4 may want to skim this section to quickly pick up on the differences.
Loading and playing tunes
Traktor does not make massively effective use of its screen real estate, so on a 1280 x 800 screen, you’ll want to use the useful library view function. By pressing the big, stepped browse button bang in the middle of the controller, you knock out most of the controls, leaving you a big browser section to search through your tunes.
Small A and B buttons let you load your chosen tune onto either of the decks, then you set the cue point using the jogwheel and cue button, with “play” doing exactly what you’d expect (play/pause), and “cue” jumping you back to your cue point when playing or setting a new temporary cue when paused. The transport controls have small strip LEDs in them, which is a stylish touch.
To navigate through a tune, the “move” knob quickly moves through the track by the amount the current loop length is set to (more on loops in a second), allowing you to scrub easily and on the beat. Of course, the jogs allow you to scratch through a tune too, using the microswitched top-plate, the edge of the jogwheels being for nudging. Because the jogs are big and chunky, it’s no problem that “scratch” is always “on” – you’ll not hit this part by mistake as you would with fiddlier, smaller jogwheels.
Note that there is no hardware access to decks C and D, which are intended to be used as sample decks with the Kontrol S2 – you can still use Traktor in four-deck mode if you like, but you’ll have to use those decks via the keyboard (or get mapping), and you’ll lose sample deck functionality – it’s an either/or.
Hot cueing and looping
Cue points are simple to set by pressing one of the four “cue” buttons – they light up to show they’re assigned. “Shift” and a cue button deletes that cue point. If the track is paused, the cue buttons are momentary, if it’s playing, they trigger and leave the track running. Pressing play while holding the cue button turns a momentary cue into continuous play mode. Note there are only four cues, not eight; this is to my mind going to be enough for most DJs.
There are only four cues, not eight; this is to my mind going to be enough for most DJs
You can set a manual loop by using the “in” and “out” buttons, but the loops you’ll use the most are of course beat-and-measure-matched loops. You set such a loop’s size by turning the size/set knob to choose loop length, and activate it by pressing this knob. You can alter the length of the loop on-the-fly by then turning the knob, and you can move the loop by its own length forward or back by turning the loop move knob (or move it by a beat by holding “shift” and turning this knob). Finally, the “move” button activates the currently set loop but doesn’t jump to it.
While more advanced loop functions are of course available in the software, this is the extent to which you can manipulate loops from the hardware.
Sync and tempo
Sync works with Traktor’s master sync logic, that makes sense across multiple decks but I find a little complex for just two – but not overly so. (Of course tunes need to be analysed first on addition to your library, as with all DJ software.)
Basically you can assign a deck as the “master” and sync to that deck. Shift and “sync” does this for you, or you can just let Traktor’s sync logic sort it out for you (we carried a video recently that goes into this in more detail).
The tempo controls, while shorter throw than on the Kontrol S4, are still accurate – it is pretty simple to make 1/100th of a BPM changes to track tempo, which is plenty good enough for convincing and accurate manual beatmatching.
The mixer section
The mixer is simplicity itself – two lines with gain/hi/mid/lo and a crossfader. Crossfader curve can only be adjusted in software, and there are no filters per channel like with the S4, which is no big deal because you can assign one of the effects as a filter anyway if you wish, or use a tweak in the preferences that makes the gain controls function as such.
The master level is top middle, but the booth level is tucked round the back, along with the microphone levels. A small “mic engage” button on the front turns the mic on and off, and a small microphone light in the middle of the mixer indicates how this is set.
The only other controls on the mixer section are for the sample decks, comprising a volume knob that turns decks C and D (ie the sample decks) up and down together, and A and B buttons for activating either or both sets of four sample decks.
The sample decks
If you’ve not come across sample decks before, they’re an innovative feature of the new version of Traktor, that first appeared on a hardware product with the Kontrol S4. While you can load samples (up to 45 seconds) into each sample deck, the best thing for me about them really is that you can grab one-shots or loops from currently playing tunes, and reconstruct music on the fly using them.
Software-wise, you can now have keylocking on sample decks, meaning you can preserve the keylocked state of a sample when lifted from a tune that was itself off-pitch and keylocked, and you can also headphone monitor your samples, which is new (for more new features of Traktor 2.1 which comes with the S2, see below).
You can grab one-shots or loops from currently playing tunes, and reconstruct music on the fly using them
However, hardware-wise, you’re tied to more basic controls – you’ll be resorting to the keyboard shortcuts or your mouse to control the deeper intricacies of the sample decks. We discussed sample decks more in the Kontrol S4 review. The only real detail missing is the lack of loop recorder, which in the Kontrol S4 lets you sample your own voice (for instance) and then drop it into a sample shot if you wish.
Virtual DJ has had sample decks for eons, although it just calls them “samples”, which have much of the same functionality, and Serato ITCH 2.0 now has a sample player too. The difference is that this controller (alongside the Kontrol S4) gives you access to the samples via hardware. No ITCH controller can do that, and only the odd Virtual DJ one can (I’m thinking of the CNTRL-7 from Gemini, but we’ve not yet reviewed that so can’t currently report back on how well samples are integrated into the hardware there).
Traktor has awesomely complex effects, but on the Kontrol S2, sensibly they’re by default set up to be nice and simple to use out of the box.
Effects are as usual assigned to a channel by pressing the appropriate button on the mixer section, and can be assigned to the sample decks on an individual basis too. There’s more about how Traktor handles effects in the aforementioned Kontrol S4 review and our Traktor Pro 2 review – suffice to say the majority of what you’ll need is directly accessible via the hardware.
Default effects can be assigned in the Traktor Kontrol S2 preferences page – see below for more info on this.
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