Take full control of Remix Decks and Stems with this modular controller from Native Instruments, the company says. If you like the look of the deck section of the S8, but don’t want an all-in-one controller (due to having your own mixer already, wanting to add Remix Decks / Stem Decks to an existing set-up, or playing in clubs where space is a premium), this unit will appeal to you. It’s quite expensive though, especially with no audio interface on-board, so is definitely aimed at “pros”.
First Impressions / Setting up
It looks exactly as I described, like an S8 deck surgically removed from that rather large unit. One difference is the addition of four feet, designed to raise it to the height of a standard mixer (such as a Pioneer, Allen & Heath, or indeed the Kontrol Z2), and also there are four deck / FX select buttons top-right – but apart from that it’s no different.
The audio interface hasn’t made it across with the unit, though, meaning this is Midi only. So while Native Instruments is calling it a “deck”, it is not a “deck” in the sense of a record deck or a CDJ, that has an audio output and can be used with a standard mixer as-is. If you want to integrate Traktor with your existing system from scratch, you’ll need to factor in an audio interface too (or have a mixer with one built in, like the Kontrol Z2).
We reviewed the Kontrol S8 a while back, and pretty much everything I said about the decks part of the controller stands here, too, so feel free to go and read out Traktor Kontrol S8 review for a refresher.
One other thing that’s different is that there is a USB hub. Native Instruments is promoting the idea of a pro set-up for controlling Traktor consisting of two of these, but unfortunately as they take a lot of power, you need to plug them in to a power outlet (fair enough, they have nice screens that have to draw current from somewhere), but you can’t just daisy chain two of them together via USB; the power needs to be routed via a separate proprietary power splitter cable. However, for plugging in lower-current Midi stuff (a Kontrol F1 or X1, for instance) the two-socket USB hub would be fine.
Again, most of what I said about this unit in the Traktor Kontrol S8 review still stands. If you really think you’ll miss the jogwheels, it’s never going to be for you, although the touchstrip does a decent approximation of manual control for nudging etc. The screen is good, although not good enough for involved library work and searching, especially as you still can’t control what columns the library shows, so you still need the laptop nearby unless you’re more organised than I am with your playlists when it comes to library use. And manual beatmatching is still a pain on it due to relatively unintuitive pitch controls.
But if you’re a DJ playing electronic, beatgridded music and you’re already bought into the Traktor way of doing things, there’s an awful lot here to love: Excellent pads with the full gamut of modern deck features (slice / freeze, hot cues, loops, slip / flux), and screen that are genuinely useful aside from the limited library integration.
However – and it’s potentially a HUGE “however” – one development which has absolutely nothing to do with the hardware but I think might actually be the making of this unit (and the S8) is the imminent arrival of the Stems format. For the uninitiated, this is a new music file type that instead of holding a single, finished recording of a track, has four “stems” (for instance, drums, bass, melody, vocals). You can then DJ with all four parts, using the four faders and other controls on the D2 (or decks of the S8) to control these parts differently – for instance only using effects on the vocal, getting instant acapellas/instrumentals, etc.
Now, the Stems format is for another article, but were it to catch on, this unit is perfect for controlling it, and judging by the products publicity pages on Native Instruments’s website – where Stems feature far more prominently than Remix Decks – Native Instruments is re-rolling the dice.
It may be a wise move, because while people may indeed want more control over their music in this digital age than vinyl or even CDJs allow, maybe the Remix Decks were a step too far for most DJs to get their heads around. Time will tell of course, but the idea of having a pro DJ set-up with two of these (for use as “Stems” decks) and say a couple of CDJs for Track Deck HID control within Traktor alongside that does sound promising; the touring DJ would then bring two D2s, use the club’s existing CDJs and mixer (especially if said mixer contained an audio interface), and be able to play a mix of “straight” tracks and Stems tracks in to make an exciting performance with little extra gear or hassle of setting up.
Firstly, continued kudos to Native Instruments for using their hardware and software approach to push boundaries. As a product, you can see this getting into DJ booths much more than the S8 (where let’s face it, the S8 is going to struggle through sheer size), and offering control over some of the undoubtedly cutting-edge features of Traktor, working alongside traditional gear and methods.
That said, it doesn’t at present have a single “killer punch”. There’s no audio interface, so it’s a pain to use it simply as a down-and-dirty extra Traktor deck in an existing set-up, as you’d need to fiddle with an audio interface too. The screens still aren’t really a laptop replacement (plus, of course, you do NEED a laptop – sounds silly, but many people start questioning that when the screen is built in to the controller, a paradigm Pioneer is of course exploiting deeply with Rekordbox). And for all their promise, Remix Decks and Stems are still not convincing a lot of DJs as to their necessity.
Funnily enough, the Kontrol D2 reminds me a little of the Apple Watch (a device I have been trying out in order to review Pacemaker and djay for Apple Watch, two DJ apps that are on that platform). The Apple Watch is well made, expensive, quite desirable – but it’s not really got a single thing that it does any better than the phone which it relies on, at present at least.
As they stand, a pair of D2s (and Native recommends using them in pairs, as each is designed to control the ‘left of mixer” and “right of mixer” decks, ie A/C and B/D) is going to set you back $/€1000, then you need a mixer too, so buying into this idea is not going to come cheap to you, and it will only really make sense for large numbers of people as / when NI’s software delivers something killer that gets widely adopted and shifts the Kontrol D2s from desirable to necessary. We have, of course, jist discussed what that something might be.
I suppose to “complete” the picture that the S8 started to paint, this unit had to happen so that there are options for the pro booth as well as the bedroom/studio. But for most DJs, aside from those who can see a rock-solid DJ booth use case right from the off for a pair of these, I would still advise going for the Kontrol S8 as the best all-rounder, or holding off to see if Stems catch before deciding to invest in D2s to take out on tour with you. Were Stems to catch on though, the D2s could become as ubiquitous in DJ booths as the much-loved Kontrol X1s already are.