With the just-released 2.5 version of its popular Traktor Pro software, Native Instruments has added something it hopes will prove to be revolutionary: “Remix Decks”. Expanding on the “Sample Decks” added last year, the Remix Decks boldly set out to popularise the use of samples in DJing.
Almost simultaneously, the company has also released the Kontrol F1 hardware, designed to offer full control over the new Remix Decks. Together, the new hardware and software bring to Traktor DJing a workflow concept which, while familiar to those who know about Serato / Ableton’s The Bridge, looks set to introduce a whole new group of DJs to advanced sample use.
For this review we’ll look at the software first (including some non-Remix Deck new features), then move on to the Kontrol F1, before summarising our feelings on where this is all going in the conclusion.
The Remix Decks boldly set out to popularise the use of samples in DJing.
For the accompanying video, we consider how you may use the unit with other NI and non-NI hardware, and what you might choose to actually do with it – ie, what types of samples and workflows you may adopt.
Because this is a big article (necessarily, there’s much to talk about), we’ve prioritised what we’ve included. If there are aspects of the hardware or software we’ve not covered in enough depth for you, please feel free to ask in the comments: We’ll do our best to clarify. Let’s go…
Part 1: Traktor Pro 2.5
The Remix Decks: Ableton “Lite”, right there in Traktor…
The Remix Decks are the talk of the town with this update, and so that’s where we’ll start. Serato might have The Bridge – a capable but complex beast linking Serato Scratch Live with Ableton Live, which requires both programs to be running simultaneously on the same laptop – but Native Instruments has grabbed the idea, simplified it and, in one obvious way, improved it.
Native has simplified it by narrowing the scope (Traktor Pro 2.5 only really taken the clip/scene idea from Ableton, and with only four-part polyphony per Remix Deck too; 16-track multi-tracking this ain’t).
This design limitation, though, has allowed NI’s engineers to bring all the audio slots in-house (no need to run and connect up a second piece of software), and crucially, to use colours to maintain some semblance of the immediacy of DJing. Just don’t expect to be able to use Traktor as a DAW with 2.5, as that’s not what it’s been designed as. This is still, primarily, DJ software.
One area where Traktor plus Remix Decks has improved on The Bridge is in allowing the DJ to scratch a whole sample project (or “Remix Set”). This intuitive feel of “playing” sample sets as complete tracks extends to saving and loading whole “Remix Sets”, significantly tidying up the concept.
The Remix Decks themselves look at first like the typical sample decks you might know from previous 2.x versions of Traktor. However, choose “Mixer” under the layout selector and you’ll see 16 sound banks in each sample slot, making for a total of 64 samples you can load into one deck. The samples can be either loop / sample files or sound clips imported in from other tunes you have playing. The rather restrictive length limitation has been removed too, so you can load full songs if you want to.
A Native Instruments video shows one possibility for using the decks with some guitar samples, but more likely they’re going to be used for loops to construct electronic music on-the-fly, to drop extra sounds over existing tunes and layer the elements live, or even for things like name drops or sets of vocal snippets that you particularly like to incorporate in your sets.
Perhaps you might want to put together your own wild edit intro to drop at a show, or kick back and sit at home making remixes of other tunes that you can then use in your sets.
Perhaps you might want to put together your own wild edit intro to drop at a show, or kick back and sit at home making remixes of other tunes that you can then use in your sets. With mashups and re-edits increasingly defining the sounds of DJs who – let’s face it – increasingly have access to the same raw materials, the remix decks could have arrived at the right time for DJing.
As I touched on earlier, the best part for me is that you can easily save your Remix Deck set-up the same way you’d save a song in your library, negating the need to keep setting up your samples over and over at a show. Make a personal remix or some live performance set, then save your set-up as a “tune” that you can just drag into the Remix Deck.
Traktor Pro 2.5 comes with 1.4GB of samples in pre-prepared Remix Deck sets to get you going, but you can also capture from the loop recorder for true on-the-fly remixing.
You’re going to have to get your head around the options available to you for handling your samples, of course – if you don’t already have a handle on quantisation, trigger types, sync, keylock and FX routing in Traktor, these are now more crucial than ever, and it’s time to start learning…
Now, the Remix Decks are meant to be used with the new Kontrol F1 hardware that’s also just released. At the moment, the Kontrol F1 is actually completely necessary for hardware control of the Remix Decks, because they can’t be officially mapped to external Midi hardware at all (although it hasn’t stopped some people from hacking it).
While there has been word from Native Instruments that there will be updates down the road that will open up mapping these features to third-party hardware, as well as an improved Controller Editor, the company has claimed it wanted to first make F1 integration perfect first.
Nonetheless, this lack of mapping ability is currently an issue for me, and I suspect for other users too, who don’t want to revert to mouse and keyboard to access these features but equally don’t want to fork out for a Kontrol F1 either. Looks like F1-less DJs will just have to take take NI’s word and be patient for a future update.
Improved BPM detection
Of the other changes, the first I’d like to talk about is the improved BPM detection algorithm. I’m particularly happy about this one.
The programmers apparently analysed thousands of tracks from various genres to get this one right, and so far I’m a believer.
I returned to Traktor recently (pre-2.5) after years DJing with Torq, and I did wonder how much I would have to work to get my flow back on track. From day one back on Traktor I had problems with BPM detection and beatmapping, and I found myself constantly tweaking and fixing my tunes.
In 2.5, the entire system has been rewritten for improved accuracy. The programmers apparently analysed thousands of tracks from various genres to get this one right, and so far I’m a believer. The programmers even added detection for tracks with variating tempo, so Traktor will detect the average BPM over the whole track. Not quite elastic beatgridding (Serato does it well, MixVibes and of course Ableton do it best), but getting there. Some good news for fans of classic disco and funk, then.
It seems to me that browsers in DJ software are destined to always be “works in progress”, and to be fair Native Instruments keeps on pushing to improve – which is just as well as historically I’ve always felt this to be a weaker area of the program.
One great thing that I already mentioned is how you can save whole Remix Deck setups as single tracks in the library, which kind of makes up for some traditional shortcomings (biggest? No editing of ID3 tags when playing from iTunes playlists.)
The programmers have also set up the browser now so it won’t “reset” back to the beginning when you restart Traktor. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a pretty basic shortcoming and it’s great to see it improved. It’s nice to be able to work on a project such as a mix or even just organising your new tunes for a gig, and not have to go digging into your browser setup to find your stuff every time you start up Traktor.
So overall for the browser? Still a work in progress, but getting there.
A few shortcomings…
As I mentioned earlier it would be good to map controllers other than the Kontrol F1 to the Remix Decks. I’ll wait in good faith for an update with a better Controller Editor.
I also wish they would make mapping quicker and easier. I again bring up Torq as an example. Love or hate it, I liked that I could easily right-click on an item, move a control item, and it’s mapped.
I know Traktor’s inner workings with Midi are more in-depth, but I think they could do wonders if they made some step in simpler, more easier mapping for those who just need to get things working.
The Remix Decks haven’t done anything for Traktor’s generally acknowledged busy, real-estate intensive layout. Yes, you have the choice to choose different modes to maximise space, but it’s still pretty impossible to see both a decent chunk of your library and enough controls for meaningful four-deck DJing on a typical (1280 x 800) laptop screen.
There have been rumblings about increased CPU usage and glitches, dropouts etc with this new version over its predecessor, and there’s an acknowledged lag when playing MP3s in the remix decks (I am sure the latter will be fixed soon enough).
All my settings in 2.0 were wiped when I installed 2.5. I’ll forewarn everyone to back up theirs…
For my own testing, though, I loaded two full-length songs into Track Decks A and B and multiple samples into each of the Remix Decks (C & D).
I turned them all on, played with effects, and moved faders and knobs, and did all I could to crash or grind down the software. I’m on a Windows 7 laptop, but one that’s a bit older now, and for me, it all performed beautifully.
Finally, and this is a small one, I will add that all my settings in 2.0 were wiped when I installed 2.5. I’ll forewarn everyone to back up their settings before installing the update. Maybe my bad, but I bet I wasn’t the only one.
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