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Native Instruments’ S5: Portable & Stems-ready.

In late 2014, Berlin-based Native Instruments threw the DJ blogosphere into a frenzy with the introduction of their first “platter-less” controller, the TRAKTOR KONTROL S8.

Given the direction of the company’s software and advanced elements, which are frankly not possible using the old paradigm of manual beat-matching, I don’t see how anyone who has been paying attention could have been surprised. But that didn’t stop the “DJ-purist” brigade from coming out of the woodworks to protest. Half a year later, with N.I.’s introduction of further forward-thinking features like Stems (more on this later) and the support of a number of big-time DJs, the S8 has found its place and is no longer being spoken about in such hyperbolic terms. Having said that, one of the few legitimate criticisms of the S8 (in my estimation) was related to the sheer size of the unit—it’s nearly 8.5 inches larger than the S4 and the new S5. For some DJs, finding room for S8 (or other similarly sized units) can be a challenge.

Enter the TRAKTOR KONTROL S5, marrying the footprint of the S4 and many of the enhancements found on the S8, to deliver one extraordinary controller.

First Look: Clocking in at $799 (MAP) and bringing forth a layout that is at once futuristic and familiar, the S5 features a ton of useful bells and whistles—and it makes quite an initial impression. Thick rubber pads, coherent layout and two bright, useful screens will help you move your laptop off to the side and interact more directly with your audience – something I am a big fan of. And yes, it comes included with Native Instruments’ flagship TRAKTOR DJ software.

Features: Many of my favorite features (hot cue, remix freeze and flux) from its big brother, the S8, are also here, offering the ability to trick out your tracks and jump around like a champ. Easy access and assignment of effects, along with visual cues of percentage timing is here, along with a responsive touch strip and pro-quality XLR outputs.

Tradeoffs: In spite of its size, I am a big, big fan of the S8, so in reviewing what is basically a pared-down version in the S5, I had to start with the idea that I would be giving up some of my favorite features and functionality in exchange for a much more portable option. A couple of omissions weren’t a big deal, but a few others have proven to be more challenging to get my head around. One of the most exciting new enhancements from the Native Instruments team is called Stems, which in essence is an open, multi-channel audio file that contains a track split into four musical elements—bass, drums, vocals, and melody, for example. With each element available independently, DJs can mix in ways that just weren’t possible until now. (Indeed, Stems has enjoyed support from major dance-music retailers like Beatport, Traxsource, Juno, etc.)


In theory, everything you can do in terms of manipulating stems files with the S8 is also possible with the S5. In practice, the omission of the ability to control all four stem elements without having to “double dip” by using the same keys for multiple features makes the S5 a bit more challenging. (Editor’s Note: Native Instruments’ Constantin Köhncke says, “Many DJs have mentioned to us that using the pads to control on/off is actually really great, but using sync to control filter and precise volume is more challenging.”)

Applications: The real question in evaluating the S5 for me comes down to where it fits in the product line. Is Native Instruments attempting to entice S4 users to fully embrace the sync-only paradigm and move up to the S5? Or is it the company’s intention to offer a less expensive and more compact option for S8 enthusiasts to take their love of remix decks and stems into the real world without breaking the bank (or their backs)? I guess it comes down to where you do most of your work. If you are a mobile DJ or open-format type of club DJ (mixing disco, funk, soul and other variable tempo music), you likely still have the need to make quick tempo changes and beat manipulations. In this case, the S2 or S4 units are likely to remain your controllers of choice.

If, on the other hand, you are a dance-music DJ who has fully bought into the idea that the skill in DJing is in programming and live remixing and not manually syncing tracks, you should definitely consider the S5 or S8.

Advantages: Again, the S8 is my favorite, but as mentioned, where it falls down is related to portability. The S5 is much lighter, easier to move around and fits into all of the same bags and backpacks as your S4. Another positive aspect of the S5 (for those familiar with the S4) is that the layout and design is very similar, leaving many buttons in the same place and making for a much more natural transition.

Conclusion: While you can use nearly any controller for your DJ sets, the deep integration Native Instruments has built between its software and the TRAKTOR KONTROL S2, S4, S5, and S8 units makes it increasingly difficult for Traktor users to venture outside of the N.I. eco system. Lucky for us, Native Instruments has a rock-solid lineup of outstanding hardware products for DJs of every type.

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1 Comment

  1. Akinkunmi Cook

    July 6, 2016 at 3:12 am

    Great review! I have the s8 & am very pleased but need a backup & smaller controller! I’m torn between the s5 (screens & 4 decks) & z2 (stand alone mixer & looping function)! Help!

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