Review: Traktor Pro 2.5 & Traktor Kontrol F1
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. 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. 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. 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).
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.
Part 2: The Traktor Kontrol F1
Just like when the Kontrol S4 was released with the Sample Decks and Loop Recorder, the big new feature of Traktor Pro 2.5 - the Remix Decks - really make sense when combined with their intended hardware controller, the Kontrol F1.
The hardware is a similar size and shape as the Kontrol X1, and has simply one USB socket as its sole I/O. It’s designed to sit alongside your existing set-up solely to unlock the Remix Decks (although there is an overlay and user-editable mode that turns it into a controller for “normal” or “Track” decks).
It’s all standard NI in look, feel and construction quality. Plugged in, the red two-digit LED will feel familiar, the 16 multi-colour LED pads being bright enough (with two brightness settings) to induce an immediate “wow” factor when plugged in.
The first thing to note is that one Kontrol F1 controls one Remix Deck. Let’s remember how you’ll have Traktor set up: You’ll probably be DJing with two “Track Decks” and two “Remix Decks”. Each “Remix Deck” has four slots (like the sample decks of old) corresponding to the four faders and filters at the top of the F1.
The pads, meanwhile, control the 16 individual samples in each slot. (You can scroll down through four “pages” per channel, with a deft white line that moves horizontally up or down to indicate scrolling. I liked this.)
Now, while it is easy to switch your F1 between two (or indeed four) remix decks, it is not possible to control your Remix Decks simultaneously with one unit. A bit like controlling two deck layers with one set of transport controls, you’ll have to deftly swap layers to achieve something close to this.
Of course, you could just buy a second F1, and I suspect that is what power users will do. If you were a total power user, and beatgridded EDM was the name of your game, a powered USB hub with two X1s and four F1s would give you transport and sample control over four remix decks for a complete sample-based performance. The mind boggles...
More likely, though, your transport will be handled by your existing Midi controller for all your decks, Track or Remix, as befits the paradigm of the F1 unlocking the internal elements of a “Remix Deck” that is treated as a single, complete track by your main DJ controller.
As such there are no dedicated transport controls on the F1 - but it does have individual mute/stop buttons for each of the four lines, which are right at the bottom of the unit. Having said that, the aforementioned controller or "User Map" mode is accessible by a simple two-key action and does lets you control the track decks, making this mode similar to the control set you’d get on an X1.
As this switching can be done “on the fly”, I can see the F1 appealing to minimalists or indeed to digital vinyl users, for roughly the same reason: one single slimline unit could control all of your Remix Decks as well as offer rudimentary transport controls.
Maybe NI was right to not open mapping up just yet...
Once you dig deeper into the features, you can sympathise with NI’s assertion that the hardware/software mapping of the F1 is too intricate to open up to everyone via the mapping configuration panel quite yet. For instance, you can map individual samples to colours on the F1, and these colours are reflected in the sample slots on screen. (Having colour sets for percussion, vocal, bass and stabs, for instance, would help you to keep everything visually organised.) You can also adjust individual sample pitch (speed), key, volumes (absolute and relative), quantising, type (one-shot, loop, single play) and a handful of other characteristics.
I guess NI decided that opening the ability to program all of this up to the masses was a step too far at launch, and even if you don't agree, you can sympathise with such a position, especially when you consider the improvements needs in Traktor mapping in general.
More than ever, I do imagine this new update will fire up much angst in the “anti-sync” crowd. The Remix Decks really do point to Traktor Pro 2.5 as being more “performance DAW lite” than “purist DVS”. It’s pointing to a future where DJs are performing more in samples and pieces, using Traktor more in the way we see performers using Ableton Live.
Despite the beguiling colour coding and simplified workflow of the Remix Decks (at least, compared to Serato/Ableton Live’s The Bridge), using them is still going to require dedication from the DJ - constructing a useful Remix Set of your own is going to take time and effort. And what’s more, I feel that using favourite samples prepared beforehand in this way is itself probably going to prove easier than trying to remix on the fly - you’d be a braver man than me to try that in a live situation without a lot of practice.
This is still recognisably DJ software, though. For all the intricacies of the sample decks, what you do with them is instantaneous - it’s not recorded as a set of instructions for playback later, so there will be no going to a “sample performance editor” to perfect your amazing live performance for release or use down the line. (You could record your output, but that’d be just a single stereo recording, of course). What you do with these decks is played and "gone forever". It's a performance. It's DJing.
I like how Traktor remains versatile. It can be used with two turntables and a mixer, or with one or several Midi controllers, or even just alone on a laptop. Two decks, four decks, Remix Decks - it’s all open to each and every DJ to make it their own. Having said that, Traktor has always appealed primarily to electronic music fans, and I can’t see either 2.5 or the F1 shifting that bias. This stuff makes most sense for loop-based, fixed tempo music. Electronic fare.
The F1, meanwhile, can be used as your only controller for both the Track Decks and the Remix Decks, with a useful overlay for the former workflow, and there’s even a Midi mode for mapping to other software entirely. Just like the X1 took on a life of its own after launch, with DJs putting it to all kinds of uses that nobody could have envisaged, I suspect the F1 will again grow into itself, with certain workflows becoming dominant and other ideas maybe ending up being non-starters. The beauty for NI is that it can now build on the platform with software and even firmware upgrades to suit how people end up using it.
As a product bridge between between NI’s own Maschine and the world of Traktor, Traktor Pro 2.5 and the Kontrol F1 fits the bill nicely. Let’s be honest, many DJs use Maschine as a glorified sample trigger device. This is going to appeal squarely to such people.
Taken together, Traktor Pro 2.5 with the Kontrol F1 represent a bold move for Native Instruments, shifting the company’s DJ solution into a new space. This is definitely something to be commended.
How much DJs choose to take the whole new set of possibilities offered to them to their hearts, and where they decide to run with it, are two things that remain to be seen. How DJs might slot the F1 into their set-ups, and what they might use them for, are what we discuss in the accompanying video.
More than ever, I do imagine this new update will fire up much angst in the “anti-sync” crowd. The Remix Decks really do point to Traktor Pro 2.5 as being more “performance DAW lite” than “purist DVS”. It’s pointing to a future where DJs are performing more in samples and pieces. This is still recognisably DJ software, though. For all the intricacies of the sample decks, what you do with them is instantaneous - it’s not recorded as a set of instructions for playback later. The F1, meanwhile, can be used as your only controller for both the Track Decks and the Remix Decks, with a useful overlay for the former workflow, and there’s even a Midi mode for mapping to other software entirely. Taken together, Traktor Pro 2.5 with the Kontrol F1 represent a bold move for Native Instruments, shifting the company’s DJ solution into a new space. This is definitely something to be commended.
- Traktor Pro 2.5 & Traktor Kontrol F1
- From: Native Instruments
- Price: $199 (Price for F1 & Traktor Pro 2.5), $89 (Software only for non-Traktor users)
- Reviewed by:
Instead of a demo of the F1 (regular readers will know we don't generally demo gear; take your pick from the dozens of Traktor Kontrol F1 demos that are already on YouTube), or a feature talk-through (more our style, but we can't better the excellent DubSpot Traktor Kontrol F1 talkthrough by Endo), we instead have chosen to use our video to talk about how you might practically include an F1 in your set-up with.
If you're not sure how an F1 might fit into your set-up, or what you'd do with it, this may help you:
Brave new direction, or just doesn’t appeal to you? Are you going to be happy buying the hardware to unlock the software, or would you prefer to have the choice to use other hardware? If you’ve already upgraded, how does it perform on your system? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.