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Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8 Review

Last updated 13 September, 2017

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The Lowdown

The versatile and innovative Traktor Kontrol S8 brings control over more of Traktor than ever and perhaps most importantly makes some bold statements of intent as to where Native Instruments sees Traktor going. The jogwheel-less flagship S8 is the bravest controller to have been released in recent years. It’s definitely not for everyone and there are a few quirks that need ironing out, but for electronic music DJs with an interest in walking the line between DJing and production (and who like DJing using the Traktor platform, of course) there’s a new flagship controller in town, and it’s mighty impressive.

 

First Impressions / Setting up

Traktor S8
Massive and seriously well-built, one thing’s for sure: No one’s going to be asking you to have a go at your “DJ toy” when you’re rocking one of these…

It’s large, and it’s well built. In short, it means business. Better built than the Kontrol S4, the Kontrol S8 immediately stands out through having two 4.7″ screens (they’re not touchscreen, by the way), one for each deck. Somehow the addition of screens makes one think of Pioneer’s CDJs; these “decks” are slimmer and less chunky but also at least as well built as CDJs, if not better. Of course there’s another area where the “deck” parts of the unit differ from CDJs as well as practically all DJ controllers: There are no jogwheels, the space where they used to sit being replaced by four mini faders, extra encoders and buttons, and those aforementioned screens.

The touchstrips right above the transport controls at the front of each deck are, of course, exactly where you find them on the Novation Twitch, the only other major jogwheel-less all-in-one DJ controller out there. A more standard set of four encoders and buttons at the top of each channel for FX give a note of normality, but overall, it all looks very futuristic. Nobody’s going to ask for a go on your “toy”; it doesn’t look like a toy, and most people wouldn’t know what the hell to do with it! This, I think, is a good thing.

The four-channel mixer again oozes quality. There’s a decent short-throw crossfader with plenty of room around it for scratch DJs to not feel cramped. The whole panel underneath the faders comes off for easy servicing. The front of the mixer section has crossfader assign and curve controls (flush with the surface), as well as 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone sockets. There are per-channel filters, with on/off buttons (great for cancelling a filter on a downbeat crisply), the usual three-band EQ, FX assign and cue buttons, and – hurray! – normal gain controls (not like the bizarre rotary encoders found on the S2 and S4). A central “channel” contains cue mix and volume, main and booth volumes, mic assigns, Snap and Quantise buttons for accurate cueing and looping, and a Master Tempo knob.

Round the back is actually pretty standard, and comprehensive. XLR and RCA main outs, TRS booth outs, four full line / phono switchable input channels with ground pole, two mics (XLR/TRS combo and TRS), plus Kensington lock, USB and power input/switch. A notable thing here is that Midi in and out have been retained; Native Instruments clearly wants you to think of this unit as part of a wider ecosystem of its products, current and future.

Setting up

Native Instruments’ Traktor gear is getting easier to set up, but it’s still never as plain sailing as it should be. I usually install on a test machine that’s been used for all types of things and that has all kinds of software on it, including myriad “beta” and so on versions of Traktor old and new, so I decided to “be a beginner” this time. So on a brand-new MacBook Pro, I followed the installation instructions to the letter…

service_center_error
I don’t want to go on about it but I get this error every time I install this… does anyone else? Or an I just monolithically unlucky?

For the uninitiated, Native Instruments has a “ServiceCenter” that it forces you to install alongside the Traktor software. The issue I have with it (apart from the fact that it appears entirely unnecessary) is that the first thing it always tells you is that it has failed to update itself. I can’t remember that not happening on a fresh install! This time, next, I was told the unit needed a firmware update (told, not asked), and then taken to a page that said “OOPS! We are experiencing unusually high traffic” before suggesting I refresh.

Finally it all worked. Now, I’ve seen all of this stuff before (actually, not the “OOPS” page) so I wasn’t worried, but this stuff is going to scare beginners. Having said all of that, the configuration wizard got me to a working set of decks fast enough with no extra audio configuration necessary, although it did seem to have decided that I was using DVS and plonked a pair of decks right there on the screen. But notwithstanding, I was all up and running in less than 10 minutes. Bit more work needed here, though, Native.

In Use

Screen functions

Traktor S8 Displays
The Traktor Kontrol S8 has dual high resolution displays that save you from having to look at your laptop’s screen for most DJ functions.

Let’s start at the screens and the functions that make more use of them, as they’re the first thing that gives this unit a “wow” factor. They’re described in the manual as hi-res, and while they’re certainly not Retina (think iPhone first generation instead), they’re bright and clear. Indeed, there’s a settings button that lets you tweak the red, green, blue and brightness of the screens, right there from the front panel. (If you want to do the same for the LEDs, you can do it via the config menu in the software.)

The stated idea of the screens is to stop you having to look at your laptop quite as much. While to some that’s kind of irrelevant (“I tuck my laptop to one side, I only glance at it when I have to, what’s the problem?”), to others fulfilling the promise of being able to hide the laptop away would be a fine thing indeed, returning the DJ to the hallowed “me, the crowd, and no distractions” state of being. As you’ll see, the screens at least partly accomplish this.

Waveforms
S8 Display - Waveform
Song waveforms show up on the display as you’d expect them, along with the ability to zoom in and out of them.

The waveforms are pretty smooth and big, with the usual full-track view tucked at the bottom as well as the more detailed view dominating the screen. For looping (loops show in green), cue points, seeing the “lie of a track”, and beatmatching (the phase meters are shown with little LEDs on the touchstrips, like on the Kontrol X1 Mk2), they rock! There’s easy zoom in/out with the buttons to the right of the screen (although this is one function I don’t see many people using that often to be honest, for me waveform zoom is “set and forget”), while other buttons around the screen bring up BPM and key lock / change dialogue boxes.

FX, key & BPM
Display - Effects
The onboard display automatically changes to effects mode whenever you grab a knob in the Trakor Kontrol S8’s FX section.

Some buttons and knobs trigger a particular screen view; the most intuitive use of this is the FX unit above each screen, where touching any of the knobs slides down a panel that shows you instantly percentage, on/off, the chosen effect (or parameters in single effect mode) and a bar version of the percentage, too. It’s fast and effective, and definitely saves you gawping at a screen. This user friendliness is carried through to FX selection, with an “FX select” button and the big browse encoders letting you quickly choose an effect, again saving you from laptop gazing. You can even save FX “snapshots” for frequently used settings, which is cool.

With key, this all works great, but with BPM I found it convoluted. The Novation Twitch had a very intuitive one-knob BPM dial that while it adjusted easily to 1/100th of a BPM, also sensed if you were turning it fast, and progressively made the steps coarser. It was awesomely implemented. Here, to adjust a track’s BPM, you have to first press the BPM button to bring up the dialogue, then turn the “browse” knob for stepped 1/100th of a BPM adjustments (a full turn moves things about 1/4 of a BPM), or hold “shift” at the same time for whole BPM changes.

What’s more annoying is that the browse knob has a seemingly unused push function: surely if you insist on having two step choices, having one work when pushed down rather than requiring shift would be a better idea? Having said that, the Master BPM for moving everything at once is of course a great, future-focused addition for synced, locked DJ sets across multiple decks.

Split screen

A better implemented function is the “split screen” mode. This toggle lets you look at decks C and D on the bottom fifth of the screens (only very basic information), but it’s well implemented, and coupled with a nifty shortcut on the performance pads that means you can easily trigger two samples of a Remix Deck assigned to those decks, means you don’t have to leave decks A and B (typically playing full tracks) to trigger Remix Deck loops and samples. There’s also a reverse version to quickly check a Track Deck when in Remix Decks mode.

Library
Display - Library Mode
The Traktor Kontrol S8’s Library browse mode is one area of the device that could use a little more work, perhaps in the upcoming “3.0” version of Traktor Pro.

I’m going to dub the library part a “work in progress”. Again, you can have it so touching the big, stepped “browse” knob automatically brings the library onto the screen, which is good. Not so good is that there is no control over the columns displayed at all, so if you want the unit to show your comments or genre column, you’re stuck. However, you can at least sort by the columns you do have, by turning a knob; so it’s easy enough to quickly cycle through title, artist, BPM, key, rating and import date.

Because of course Traktor only has one actual library on show on the main computer, you can’t have a different folder open on each screen on the S8; turn one on and the other automatically turns off; this again is a little annoying.

All of these things I think could be fixed in a future release of the software, along with the addition of a rock-solid recommendation engine like in Traktor DJ. That single thing alone could truly free the DJ from the laptop, as the recommendation engine lends itself to small-screen simple control on Traktor DJ, and could do so on the Traktor Kontrol S8 too. For now, the on-unit library is not quite there.

Remix Decks
Display - Remix Decks
One of the best implementations of the onboard displays can be found in Remix Deck mode, which displays valuable information at a glance without the need to refer to your laptop or a sheet of paper as a guide.

Introduced with the modular Traktor Kontrol F1 unit, the Remix Deck idea takes spare “deck” slots in Traktor (typically decks B and D, one on each “side”) and reimagines them as sets of four channels each containing up to 16 samples that can be looped, one-shot etc, and have various things done to them in order to construct grooves on the fly. It’s a hard one for some DJs to get their heads around (both the idea itself and the reason for wanting to do this), but this isn’t a review of the Remix Decks concept; it’s a review of what the Kontrol S8 brings to the Remix Decks that wasn’t there before. And yes – you’ve guessed it – the screens are key.

With these screens, you can now see all kinds of useful information about the currently loaded Remix Set and its constituent samples. Names, loop status, waveforms, waveform progress, colours (the colour coding carries from the screen to the pads); all are there to make using the Remix Decks more intuitive and more fun than ever before.

While the 2 x 4 pads do mean a bit more scrolling around compared to the F1, that scrolling is easy to do with simple up/down buttons, and in practice I didn’t find constructing grooves from the supplied sample Remix Sets any harder because of this; conversely, it’s more fun, as everything you need to see is right there next to the controls affecting it. This is probably the area where the screens make the most sense, actually.

There is easy control over four individual filters, pitch and FX send for the channels within each Remix Deck, again with the parameters displayed on-screen like with the FX units. Furthermore, you can set the four knobs and buttons that do this to be extra FX units if you like, giving the unit four FX units in total.

While we’re talking about the Remix Decks, a “capture” button lets you grab a pre-defined sample from track decks or the loop recorder and instantly assign it to a slot in a Remix Deck, and combined with the on-screen feedback, this makes on-the-fly remixing of the tune you’re currently playing something more likely to happen than without the screens there (nobody wants to stare at a laptop to do this while performing if they can help it).

If you’re intrigued by the Remix Decks, the implementation here shows lots of promise, and despite the lack of 16 pads, it definitely isn’t a step back from the Kontrol F1. However, if you’re not interested in the Remix Decks, there’s a big chunk at the heart of each deck on the S8 you’re never going to touch.

Performance pads

Performance Pads Options
The new backlit pads on the Traktor Kontrol S8 perform multiple functions, including Hotcue, Loop, and “Freeze”.

We’re on more familiar ground here, although Traktor does have its own twist on some of the functions:

Hotcues

Eight per track, they work exactly as you’d expect, the cues lighting the pads blue when pressed and getting flagged on the waveforms. Hit cue when you’re in a loop and the whole loop gets saved to the slot, and the pad lights green instead. Pressing “shift” then the pad deletes it.

Loop

Press the “loop” button and the eight pads split in two. The top four are green, and are “auto loop”, looping 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 beat respectively, although these values can be adjusted in the config. The bottom four are orange, and are beat jumpers: the outer two jump forwards and backwards the length of the currently set loop, the inner two always jump a single beat. There is also a loop encoder that quickly gives you access to all possible loop values regardless of how the pads are set, and has a clockwise-rotating LED ring to tell you the loop is engaged that changes colour according to which deck is set. Combined with the Flux mode, of course, you can recreate loop roll effects easily enough with this.

One thing I couldn’t find was manual looping here, which is a shame if it indeed doesn’t exist (by this I mean the ability to define your own in/out points regardless of beatgrid analysis). Not all songs are always beatgridded perfectly, or even beatgriddable in the first place, at least currently in Traktor.

Freeze

The new-to-2.7 Freeze mode, as seen on Serato DJ (as “Slicer”) and Traktor DJ on iOS, lets you “freeze” a section of the tune and replay its parts in a different order. The “slicer” option lets you do this on an active loop, the “freeze mode” lets you do it on a “freeze area” of a size you adjust.

Touchstrips

Traktor S8 Touchstrip
Below both banks of Performance Pads is the Traktor Kontrol S8’s controversial replacement to the jogwheel: The touchstrip.

So this is the big jogwheel replacement! Actually, it works fine, which you’d expect as it’s been done before (see Novation Twitch) and it is actually quite an intuitive and space-saving jogwheel replacement. It has “weight” (i.e. you can “throw” a paused track and it scratches through it like you’d spun a piece of vinyl on a platter), it is good to cue on, and there are even “invert” settings so you can set it to work how you’d expect it to were it real vinyl or CDJ (i.e. right to left is the equivalent of clockwise).

When a track is playing, these touchstrips only nudge (there’s no “scratch” button) so while the S8 manual rather optimistically states that “scratch DJs will feel instantly at home on these” or something along those lines, it ain’t true. If you want to be able to do an instant spin back to end a track, for instance, you can’t, as you have to pause it first to put the “deck” in cue / scratch mode. This is a shame, and could be easily rectified I’m sure in firmware and with a config option in the software.

For manual beatmatching, if you disengage sync it’s all easy enough, notwithstanding the fact that you need to press two buttons and a knob to change the BPM, but as is probably becoming clear to you now, manual beatmatching using the hardware supplied is not top of the list for Native Instruments on the S8. If you want to do that, you’re meant to add record decks or CDJs with timecode (more later on this). Finally, “shift” and the touchstrip is a fast track scrub, with the small blue / orange LEDs above the touchstrips showing you your track position.

Mixer and external sources

Traktor Kontrol S8 Mixer
The Traktor Kontrol S8 is also a fully-spec’d hardware mixer, capable of being used as a standalone unit for DJing with CDJs or turntables.

The mixer is great. It feels good, it sounds good, it has basic (compared to a Pioneer club mixer, for instance) but well thought-out and high quality features. Four channels means flexibility: You can route Track Decks, Remix Decks or external sources / microphones (“live inputs”) though your chosen channels, which all go through Traktor and so through your effects and so on. You can, of course, use timecode vinyl or CDs if you want to do scratching, old-school beatmixing and so on away from the touchstrips and Remix Decks. The metering is much better than the S4, with decent per-channel VUs and reasonable main VUs too.

Traktor S8 Front and Back
Hook up your turntables and your CDJs: The Traktor Kontrol S8 is certainly capable of handling all of them, indeed acting as a nerve center for the digital DJ with an eye (and an ear!) to the future.

And as it’s a true standalone mixer, you can bypass Traktor altogether, unplug your computer and play away with analogue sources; in this mode, the filters switch to hardware and still work. And you can pick and mix any of the above with few limitations (the microphones have to be on channels C and/or D, but that’s about it). This flexibility – all-in-one DJ controller, DVS, standalone mixer with hardware filters – represents a major plus point of the Traktor Kontrol S8.

Conclusion

This is an important controller for Traktor fans, as it is the first all-in-one unit to offer comprehensive control over the software since 2.x arrived with its Remix Decks, and in removing the jogwheels (yet at the same time offering standalone mixer capability and DVS support), it says: “However you want to use Traktor, the S8 has got you covered. A hybrid unit for all types of DJ.” (Oh, and the screens are undeniably cool.)

But has it really got everyone covered? Well, not if you want an all-in-one controller to manually beatmatch on it isn’t. Stick with the Kontrol S2 or S4 for that. Manual beatmatching on the supplied hardware here is laborious, which is a shame as it needn’t be; a firmware change to the way the pitch controls work would be all that’s needed to fix it. Until the Traktor software handles “elastic” beatgridding (the ability to beatgrid tracks that aren’t electronic, basically), this will be a deal-breaker for some DJs.

But let’s assume you’re happy beatgridding in advance, your music is suitable for the way Traktor does that, and sync is fine by you: Here stuff gets much more fun. The master tempo knob gives you control over four locked decks of goodness. The onscreen beatgrid controls (as in, on the screens of the S8) are intuitive and fast for those moments where you need to adjust a beatgrid on the fly. And apart from the currently limited library display (genre and comments at least, please, NI!), the screens really do reduce your reliance on the laptop. You can spend more time engaging with your music and your audience, less screen gazing, while achieving more. It’s exciting, and you feel it – much as you do using the Numark NV, indeed, that other controller that has this type of screen built in.

Of course, the Traktor Kontrol S8 is a different beast to the Numark NV. With true analogue / standalone mixer capability, DVS and Remix Deck control plus Midi for making it part of a bigger set-up, what you’re buying into here is the new heart of the whole Native Instruments Traktor ecosystem. With controllers feeling throwaway for years, this is anything but. Buy a Traktor Kontrol S8 and you’ll still be using it in five years’ time in ways you probably haven’t thought of now, I’m sure of that. That’s definitely a strength: hell, there are even buttons on here without anything written on them! It’s definitely a work in progress, but overall, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traktor Kontrol S8
The Traktor Kontrol S8 is certainly a device for DJs keen on getting their hands dirty with the “next big thing”, and will most probably last for quite some time in terms of technology. The lack of jogwheels do make manual beatmatching a bit of a chore, though, so hardcore traditionalists will look elsewhere.

As with any innovation, I don’t think it’d be right to judge too harshly on early firmware and a 2.7 version of Traktor, when you may have expected such a bold piece of kit to come with “v3.0” in the box. Remember the first iPhone and how it couldn’t even cut and paste text? We fell in love with it for its potential. If Native Instruments continues to develop Traktor, which I’ve no doubt it will – and in this case, that means Traktor Pro 3 soon, and a few of the rough edges of the S8 ironed out – both the platform and its flagship controller have an exciting future.

I guess the bottom line is: Are you a fan of electronic music, sync, beatgrids, Remix Sets? The Traktor Kontrol S8 is for you. Want to use it in the future with other Midi gear as you expand your DJ/producer skills? Ditto. Want to do one or both of these, while at some point adding CDJs or real turntables for DVS? Again, seriously consider it (even though many a scratch DJ would baulk at the width of the thing for having turntables on either side). But just want to load your wide selection of music and manually beatmatch away? Look elsewhere, it’s not for you, at least not right now.

Finally, the price. It’s not exactly cheap, is it? You can – if you just want a box to plug into your computer to DJ with Traktor on – get something for a lot less (look at the Traktor Kontrol S2 and S4, of course). But look at it this way: You’re getting a pro constructed unit (it is, it’s beautifully made). It’s currently state-of-the-art. It has onboard displays. It is effectively two F1s as well as all the other functions of a DJ controller in one box. It has a decent four-channel standalone mixer with hardware filters. And it works out of the box with Traktor DVS. Suddenly it’s looking better value at less than the price of one Pioneer CDJ-900 Nexus.

One thing is for certain, though: You do need to be serious about your DJing to go for the Traktor Kontrol S8. There’s a learning curve, especially if you’re getting it and resolving to “crack” the Remix Decks at the same time. You need to be a “futurist” type of person, as there is depreciated regard for traditionalists here. And you do need to love Traktor, as you’re buying into an entire ecosystem lock, stock and barrel. But if all of this sounds like you, currently there’s no better controller for you than the Traktor Kontrol S8.

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