Review: Traktor Kontrol Z2 Mixer
So Traktor Pro DJ software now has its own DJ mixer, the Traktor Kontrol Z2, which hits stores today. But aren’t mixers for the old way of DJing? You know, with records and stuff? Surely digital DJing is all about controllers?
Well, yes and no. In this Traktor Kontrol Z2 review, we’ll first look at the unit itself and explain what it does – how to set it up, and what it’s like to use and so on. Then we’ll sum up what we think of it, but also we’ll look at why you might want such a device at all for Traktor, other than just going for a DJ controller like the Traktor Kontrol S4, or some other solution. Finally, we’ve got a talkthrough video.
About the Traktor Kontrol Z2
First, it functions as an analogue mixer. That is, you can plug CD players or record decks (plus a microphone) into it, output into an amp and some speakers, and DJ away, just like it’s always been done. The Z2 has nice one-knob filters built in as well as the normal volume and EQ settings to give you a good analogue DJing experience.
Next, it’s an audio interface. That means it can be used by a computer as a DJ sound card. Nearly all DJ controllers nowadays have an audio interface built in – it’s what makes the sound come out of the headphones socket and the main outputs round the back of the controller, and allows the equipment to dictate sound quality rather than relying on the built-in sound device in the host computer.
Furthermore, the Kontrol Z2′s audio interface is also Traktor Scratch compatible. That means that the mixer can be used with special control vinyl or CDs that contain “timecode” – a digitally understood signal for Traktor to use – in order to control digital files using traditional DJ gear and Traktor Scratch software. The next key feature is that the Traktor Kontrol Z2 is a Midi controller. Just like the more traditional controllers for DJ software, it can directly control lots of features of Traktor, including some innovative features new to the latest version of the software (Traktor Pro 2.6, that’s been launched to coincide with the release of this mixer).
Finally, it has a small but I think pretty important extra addition: a powered USB hub. That means that you can plug other equipment in (up to two pieces), without having to find free USB sockets on your computer. As users of this may typically also want to plug in extra Native Instruments hardware (such as the Traktor Kontrol X1 – especially useful if you’re using turntables with it – or the Traktor Kontrol F1 for Remix Decks), a USB hub removes one of the fiddly bits about setting up a modular digital DJ system: namely, messing around with powered USB hubs and multiple leads going from laptop to equipment.
So basically, on paper it’s a thoroughly modern DJ mixer, that plays exceedingly nicely with Traktor software. Time to unbox it and see whether it lives up to the billing…
It’s heavy! Unlike all other Native Instruments gear that always seems lighter than you think it will be when you pick it up, this thing is heavier than you might imagine. It has a solid metal chassis, and is clearly constructed to a high standard.
Having said that, it definitely has the Native Instruments “feel” about it. The knobs have that slightly dampened quality that Native prefers for its controls; the back of the mixer’s underside has the slight upwards slope that owners of Native’s other DJ gear will instantly recognise; and there’s the same mix of high gloss and brushed metal on the faceplate. Overall, it fits in well with items like the Traktor Kontrol X1 and F1, both of which you’re possibly going to want to use alongside it. Overall, its appearance is of a thoroughly 21st century two-channel scratch battle mixer.
As well as the unit itself, in the box you get two pieces of Traktor control vinyl, two Traktor control CDs, a mains electricity lead (there were actually two in mind, UK and Europe), a USB, some stickers, a safety flyer, and the all-important card with your serial numbers on and instructions for where to go online to begin the set-up process.
Front and back
The front of the unit simply has two headphones sockets (1/8″ and 1/4″), an indented crossfader curve knob and a crossfader reverse switch.
Round the back are two line-ins and two phono-ins (the latter with earth poles), an aux-in plus a TRS microphone socket, and booth (balanced TRS) & main (balanced XLR & unbalanced RCA) outputs. There are also two USB hub sockets, the main computer USB socket, the mains socket and a rocker on/off switch.
The top panel
It’s described as a “2+2″ mixer, which means it has two main channels plus two extras – more on this later. For now, suffice to say it looks like a two channel mixer, with two upfaders set below big filter knobs, three-band EQ and gains, plus at the very top of each line, a rocker switch for selection line/phono, and a button for switching the channel to Traktor mode (again, more later).
Very top left are volume, tone and on/off controls for the microphone/aux, and very top right are the master and booth volume controls. Apart from that, the far left and right panels are almost identical, with a small FX control section, a volume knob for the extra two channels that these sections control, an infinity encoder primarily for loop control, some deck select buttons, and a panel of four backlit rubber buttons, rounded off with a “Flux” button for one of the new modes in Traktor 2.6.
Right down the middle of the mixer are library and track load controls, the headphones volume, mix and cue select controls, and a few Traktor control buttons. Just above the line faders are two LED readouts, between which there’s a “Shift” button. Between the two upfaders are four seven-bar LED meters (a cue meter per channel plus master outs), and finally in lots of space at the very bottom – as befits any decent battle mixer – is the crossfader.
The faders are made by Innofader, and feels great, the crossfader being loose without being in any way rattly, and the upfaders slightly less loose. All faders stop at their furthest reach without any kind of metal-on-metal noise, rather hitting home in a pleasingly dampened way, a bit like an Audi door thudding shut. I liked them.
Setting up is more convoluted than it could be, but that’s always been my view of setting up Traktor. Native Instruments has a “Service Center” where you have to register yourself and your software, and it’s used to authenticate you as well as provide upgrades and so on, but it adds a layer of complication and I think it could be simpler than it is. For instance, there’s a dialogue at one point that says “Please launch Service Center now”, while the only button on the window says “Restart”. Which is it to be? Stuff like this causes anxiety for users who aren’t sure if they’re doing the right thing.
As it happened, I already have Traktor 2.6, so I only wanted the Z2 driver, but that wasn’t where the website said it would be, so I ended up downloading Traktor all over again, in order to try and get the setup wizard that recognises the Z2 to run as the Z2 to show in the configuration panel. Finally, I manually configured Traktor to recognise the Z2 (maybe I could have done that all along…), but there were few pointers along the way that I was on the right track. Don’t get me wrong – everything does work, but even if some of my issues were due to having a pre-release review model (I don’t actually think they were), more beginners than necessary will struggle with some of this.
The standalone mixer
OK, so having got to the point where we’re all working, something simple to start with: The standalone mixer.
Basically, plug a couple of turntables or CD players into it, plug your amp and speakers in too, power up and start playing – it works just as any standalone mixer would. Kills are 100%, gain is also full kill (unusually), and filter sounds great. Crossfader and upfaders feel the business, too.
Overall it’s a pretty much perfect standalone mixer experience, and it has a couple of nice tricks. For instance, if you hold Shift and return a filter to the centre position, nothing happens (ie the filter remains engaged). Until, that is, you take your hand off the Shift buttons, at which point the track “jumps” back to the unfiltered state.
Secondly, if you push “Shift” while selecting the “Traktor” button, it turns traktor in to Live Deck mode, which still lets you hear your vinyl or CDs, but makes all of Traktor’s effects available to use on them too, and also makes your analogue inputs recordable by the software – cool!
Using it with Traktor and analogue at the same time
Of course, nobody is going to buy this to use it simply as a standalone mixer, and the first good thing to say here is that the integration between standalone mixer use and Traktor is absolutely seamless.
Say you’re DJing away on vinyl and you want to start playing from Traktor. Plug your laptop in and launch Traktor and the music carries on playing without pause, but now Traktor launches and shows you that the decks are in “Thru mode”. Press the little “Traktor” button at the top of the line fader you’re not DJing with, throw a piece of control vinyl on that deck (or a control CD), and load a track using the Z2′s built-in browser controls, and you can mix that track in as if it were vinyl. You can play this way, mixing vinyl and Traktor, to your heart’s content. Unplug your laptop and again, the transition back to “standalone” is equally seamless.
This could be extremely useful in situations where more than one DJ is playing. A mix of CD, vinyl and Traktor DJs could easily play together, plugging in and unplugging at will. It’s all rock solid, nothing’s going to crash, no music will be harmed in the production of this multi-DJ show!
(By the way, the microphone channel’s Aux RCA inputs can also be used as a backup, so you can have an MP3 player plugged in there, for instance, again to take over should you have any software issues.)
Pressing the infinity knob toggles the library view model, and you turn it to browse your collection. (You can browse folders by holding Shift while you turn it.) Pressing the A or B load buttons loads the track, or holding Shift and pressing the opposite button to the one currently playing is an “instant double”, duplicating the track to the other deck playing exactly where it is on the first deck.
The four numbered vertical buttons left and right can be used to control cues points.
Hit an unassigned (ie unlit) button, and it lights up blue and a cue point will be stored there at the point in the track where you hit the button. Hit Shift then a button, and its cue will be removed.
Using the Loop encoder and the Shift button, you can easily set loops – turning the encoder decides the loop length, pushing it down turns the loop on or off. The currently selected length is shown on the LED readout.
Holding Shift before pressing the encoder means that when you turn the encoder, the track jumps that length of beats or bars, basically making this a good way to jump forward or back in a track while remaining bang on the beat – good for editing boring intros or extending outros, doubling the length of breaks and so on.
Again, as cues, loops can easily be saved; when a loop is active, you press an empty button among the four vertical buttons left and right on the controller to assign it to that button. The button lights green and the loop is stored. To delete it, you hold Shift and press the button again.
When the new “Flux” mode is turned on, which is controlled by the buttons far bottom left and bottom right of the mixer, both cueing and looping take on an entirely new dimension. If you’ve ever used “Slip” mode on a Pioneer CDJ or “Dump” on a Denon DJ CD player, you’ll know “Flux”. Turn this on, and the track remains playing in the background whatever you do to it, and when you’re finished, it carries on as if you hadn’t messed with it at all.
Let’s look at this behaviour with looping. Switch on Flux mode and the loop controls behave as above, but you have to keep your hand pushed down on the button for it to work (ie it’s not a toggle, but a “push to play”). You can do some loop-type effects, and when you remove your hand from the knob, the track carries on perfectly, and should it have been synced to other decks, they’ll still be in sync.
Now let’s look at it with cueing. Pressing a cue button (ie one of the four vertical buttons that’s lit blue to indicate a stored cue) jumps to that cue and plays from there as long as any such button is held down. Remove your hands from the buttons, though, and the track carries on playing again from where it would otherwise have been. Unlike Slip mode on the new Pioneer DDJ-SX for Serato DJ software, though, and on Denon/Pioneer CDJs, this doesn’t work for scratching and other deck tricks.
Of course, a big thing about Traktor 2.x is Sample Decks and now Remix Decks – extra decks that can be used not for playing a third and fourth track as decks A and B are (although they can be used for just that if you want), but rather to control banks of looped, one-shot or single play snippets, acappella portions, stabs, drums, sweeps – whatever.
With the Z2, decks C and D are mixed in via the two rotary volume knobs above the loop encoders, and can you can switch the four vertical buttons to deck C (left) or deck D (right) by pressing the layer buttons marked “C” and “D”. Note this doesn’t hand control of the deck to the main two lines, with filters, EQ, etc – it just gives you control over them via the four cue/loop buttons on each side.
These buttons trigger the top four samples in the remix deck slots, so effectively they’re acting like the sample buttons on a Traktor Kontrol S2 or S4 but with colour coded feedback. As such, while better than simple non-lit buttons, they’re not really tapping into the power of the Remix Decks – something the Traktor Kontrol F1 is the only controller officially capable of doing. The only extra job of these buttons past triggering is to play and mute the respective sample slots.
While the Z2′s two two knob/one button FX sections give you rudimentary control over all of Traktor’s effects, it isn’t as complete a solution as on most DJ controllers. However, its killer performance feature is that it controls the new Macro FX, that have been designed especially for performing on the Z2. Macro FX are factory-preset combinations of Traktor’s existing effects, all put onto one knob for easy and fun incorporation into the mix. The two knobs control wet/dry (ie the mix of the effected sound with the normal) and effect intensity.
One thing to note about the knob that controls the intensity is that it isn’t 0% to 100%: It’s more like the way one-knob filter work (that are low-pass filters when turned left and high-pass filter when turned right). So leave it at 12 o’clock and the effect is off, but turn it left or right and you’ll get two variants of increasingly extreme goodness.
Here are the effects in full:
- Wormhole. A musical delay/reverb style effect
- Laserslicer. A modulated slice effect
- GranuPhrase. Primarily, adds a short delay to the second and fourth beats of the bar
- Bass-o-matic. A pretty unsubtle triplet-style effect that quickly obliterates the track beneath it as you turn the knob
- PolarWind. A subtle colouring effect, a little like a fast-cycle phaser
- EventHorizon. Close to 12 o’clock it’s like a one-knob filter, developing into a modulated / timestretched delay the further away from 12 o’clock you get
- Zzzurp. A musical modulated effect, related to the standard Ringmodulator effect
- FlightTest. Kind of a repeater effect, operating on the whole beat if the knob is turned anticlockwise, the quarter beat if turned clockwise
- Strrretch (Slow). A completely overwhelming timestretch effect that soon destroys anything recognisable of the track underneath!
- Strrretch (Fast). Can produce some really mad sweeping sounds with a strange human voice quality to them
- DarkMatter. A noise effect, with compression adding a rhythmic quality to the distortion it introduces
Overall they’re a great sounding if often unsubtle bunch, and you’ll soon find your favourites for spicing up builds, breakdowns, mix ins/outs and so on.
Not forgetting the standard effects…
Just to mention before closing that Traktor’s always had some pretty advanced effects when compared to other software, and in particular I’m a fan of Transpose Stretch for an instant Dubstep-style effect; Ringmodulator for the classic Josh Wink “tweak” sound from Higher State of Consciousness; and Tape Delay for adding an instant “chillwave” quality to just about any track. All of the standard effects are accessible too from the mixer in the same way, although you can only control one parameter of each from the Z2.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that you can switch the effects from pre-mixer to post-mixer, something that’s very welcome and that I believe only became possible in Traktor 2.6.
Using the Kontrol Z2 with other NI hardware
If you’re DJing with record decks, you may consider adding a Traktor Kontrol X1 to your set-up. This will give you proper transport controls, two full sets of hardware FX controls, and other stuff too.
If you’re happy getting your hands dirty with a bit of Midi mapping, you could even remap some of the controls on the X1 that the Z2 already has to give you more control above simple deck transport etc.
But the most obvious controller to add on to this is the Traktor Kontrol F1. Adding one (or two) of these will give you complete control over the remix decks alongside the control offered by the Z2. Just be aware that in the case of adding two, you can no longer have another external controller for transport in the hub, as it’s only got two inputs.
As the Kontrol F1 remains the only device that can properly harness the power of the Remix Decks, it’s well worth considering this second addition if the Remix Decks are going to be important to you.
I really liked the Traktor Kontrol Z2. It looked on unboxing like it could have been a complex beast, and while it is indeed an advanced piece of kit, everything has been designed for performance in mind. It’s not trying to control every function of Traktor – just the stuff that you’re likely to use most of the time to put killer DJ sets together. Basically, having cues, loops and filters right there at your fingertips is very, very handy, never mind anything else.
The addition of Macro FX adds a new dimension to Traktor’s effects capabilities, although they’re not as good for me as, for instance, the range of effects Pioneer has on mixers like the DJM-850 that we have here. Flux mode is a really great addition for expressive DJ tricks, although again it’s not as good as best-in-class, in that it only works with loops and cues, not scratching.
While the Kontrol Z2 is not a true four-channel mixer, in the same spirit as the Kontrol S2 it’s called “2+2″, and it does give you meaningful enough access to Decks C and D for some decent sample and acappella action. But if you were to add an X1, for instance (and I’d advise it if using with record decks due to the lack of transport controls on the Z2), you might want to look at mapping some knobs to add EQs back to decks C and D, because I missed having some way of EQing those channels from the unit.
So what gear can it be compared to? Well, Pioneer has the Traktor-designed DJM-T1 mixer, which does a lot of what this mixer does but lacks the filters, Flux mode, post-fader FX, colour coded feedback from the Remix Decks and USB hub. However, it does have transport controls (so no real need for an X1) and two full FX control sections. It’s slightly cheaper, so you should definitely compare the two.
Also, if you’re looking to add a scratch system to your existing gear (ie replace your mixer with a Scratch-software enabled mixer so you can DJ with either records/CDs or music files from software), you may want to consider the biggest rival system to Traktor Scratch, namely Serato Scratch Live.
In this case you’d be looking at a Rane mixer, of which the Sixty-One is the closest to this. Without even comparing features sets, bear in mind that the Rane Sixty-One costs pretty much double what this does.
Is this the right route for you?
Whether or not ultimately it is worth your while owning a Traktor Kontrol Z2 will depend on where you are in your DJing career / hobby, and what gear you already have.
If you have no gear and you’re coming to Traktor and digital DJing afresh, it’s probably best to go for a DJ controller with everything in one box. This’ll be fine for home, parties, bars etc, and some people even use theirs in clubs (depending on the part of the world, club itself, prevailing DJ culture etc).
You don’t, in my view, really gain anything by having record decks and/or CDJs plus a mixer at home, unless you’re itching to be a turntablist, or you’re a hip-hop DJ wanting the real vinyl feel, or you have some other pressing reason for choosing old-fashioned gear over a controller. If you are one of those DJs who is hell-bent on replicating the “club gear experience” at home, then you may decide to go for expensive club-grade CDJ / media players and a mixer, and nowadays the best of these set-ups can be used with DJ software such as Traktor.
If you do decide to go down this route, the Traktor Kontrol Z2 could be a good mixer to choose instead of one of the mixers commonly seen in clubs, because it integrates really nicely with Traktor and the additional controller available for the software.
Just bear in mind you’re not likely to see many clubs installing it (I’ll bet they’ll continue to go for Pioneer or Allen & Heath mixers, as they always have done). At a basic level, though, mixers are mixers – if you can use this one, you can use any.
But here’s what I see to be the biggest potential group of users: people who already own some old-style DJ gear. Maybe you have a couple of turntables and an analogue mixer, or two old CDJs and the same.
By replacing your mixer with a Traktor Kontrol Z2, you can continue to DJ exactly as before, but now the whole world of Traktor is only a USB cable into your laptop away. You can mix and match seamlessly from one to the other, and due to the fact that you’ve only changed your mixer, get into DJing with Traktor in a very natural way.
For the price, this is actually a really good way to “go digital”, because firstly, you’re not ditching your existing equipment, and secondly, a full scratch system with a decent hardware mixer plus pro DJ software for the price Native Instruments is asking for the Kontrol Z2 is actually pretty good value (as I say, just look at the Serato prices if you don’t believe me here).
So overall, it’s a great-sounding analogue mixer, that brings just the right amount of Traktor’s headline features to your fingertips to make it a lot of fun to DJ on. It sounds great, it integrates well with your analogue sources and gear, and it’s well priced. It should do really well for Native Instruments.
So overall, it's a great-sounding analogue mixer, that brings just the right amount of Traktor's headline features to your fingertips to make it a lot of fun to DJ on. It sounds great, it integrates well with your analogue sources and gear, and it's well priced. By replacing your mixer with a Traktor Kontrol Z2, you can continue to DJ exactly as before, but now the whole world of Traktor is only a USB cable into your laptop away. You can mix and match seamlessly from one to the other, and due to the fact that you've only changed your mixer, get into DJing with Traktor in a very natural way.
- Traktor Kontrol Z2 Mixer
- From: Native Instruments
- Price: $799
- Reviewed by:
Are you a DJ looking to getting into digital who thinks this could be your route? Are you planning on buying one of these and building a modular system around it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.