Native Instruments & Akai: Controller Crazy

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This month’s column finds Boston’s Paul Dailey taking on Native Instruments’ Traktor Kontrol S8 MK2 controller and Atlanta’s Reed Dailey tackling Akai’s pair of controllers (AMX and AFX). No, the two aren’t related, but they are both Chelsea supporters. So for one pro-audio column, at least, “we’ll keep the blue flag flying high.”

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8 MK2

Since the early days of partnering with Stanton on Final Scratch, Germany’s Native Instruments navigated the world of digital DJing using the road less traveled—and, for DJs, this has made all the difference.


Unlike Serato, which concentrated on a model that mirrored vinyl DJing, Traktor was conceived as a pathway to the future: Four-track deconstruction, loops, samples, and studio-quality effects all built around removing the constraints of manual beat-matching. N.I. set out to take the art form to an entirely new place where the performer is less DJ and more live remixer.

In light of this, it is hard to see how anyone that has been following the progression of controller-based DJing could not see this day coming. Native Instruments has gone all-in on the sync/beat-grid-based paradigm—not only delivering an incredibly well-made, futuristic piece of kit, but revealing a big part of its long-term strategy and direction for Traktor in general.|

I am what I would consider a Traktor power user. I am a big fan of the functionality of N.I.’s full-size controllers, and in settings where space is not an issue, my Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2 is by my side. I also love the flexibility and portability of N.I.’s modular controllers (X1, F1, Z1), which are often the only choice in crowded, poorly planned DJ booths, where you barely have room for a laptop and two X1s. The “type” of DJ you consider yourself also comes into the equation. Mobile DJs are more apt to use a larger, all-in-one controller, while club DJs, particularly global jocks like Dubfire and Danny Tenaglia, have most often gone the modular route.

Can you be considered a world-class DJ while using an all-in-one controller? Seems like a ridiculous question, as CDJs with USBs or HID mode are nothing but controllers in guise, but curious perceptions remain in the industry. So, this is the second paradigm that Native Instruments is seeking to conquer with the launch of the Traktor Kontrol S8, its fully integrated 4-deck Traktor controller, which includes Traktor Scratch Pro 2 software. And N.I. has elicited the legendary Carl Cox to help destroy this myth once and for all, as he’s added the S8 as the centerpiece to his nightly stage setup.

Built around a simple, well-made, stand-alone, 4-channel mixer, it comes complete with the ability to connect external CDJs and turntables directly to the unit for use with or without Traktor. The S8 features a powerful headphone amp, plus faders and knobs that are smooth and logically arranged to mirror many popular DJ mixers. Add a myriad of pads and push-button encoder controls, an accurate touch strip and greatly improved mic preamp section… and you have a first-class cockpit.

It certainly must be noted that in order to give proper space for all of these advanced features, the S8 has ballooned to extra-large proportions. It is more than 8.5-inches wider than the S4, which is already pretty big for many DJ booths. But the functionality and ergonomic improvements that the S8 provides are a reasonable trade-off. It ultimately comes down to the type of shows you are doing and the physical limitations of the DJ booth/performance area.

Features Abound: The first thing you notice when looking at the S8 is the dual hi-res screens, which look great. Not high-definition great, but considering what you will be using them for, they certainly do the job and offer a decent level of customization, with additional improvements likely coming via future software upgrades. Using the controls, it is very easy to zoom in and out, scan your library, reset BPM and pitch, and view two decks at once using the split-screen feature. One of the stated goals of the displays is to “keep you focused on performance—not on your laptop.” On this point, I score a resounding… “I’m not sure.”

Maybe it is a limitation based on the way I choose to use Traktor, but as much as I enjoyed the LCD displays, I did not find it possible to use them in place of the screen on my laptop. This may change over time, as N.I. adds more nuance to the displays, but even an incremental amount more focus on your crowd-vs.-your technology is a positive in my book.

Remix decks are next up and this is something Traktor has spent a lot of the last year or so focused on. For those who have played around with the F1 modular controller, the interface here will be familiar. You do lose a few options (eight keys on the S8 vs. 16 on the F1), but you are in essence gaining two F1s – all perfectly integrated into your hardware. I dabble in remix-deck use and the ability to record a loop from one of the live tracks and easily drop it into a remix deck certainly makes this feature even more useful. I have to think, however, that if you don’t often use remix decks, the S8 may seem like a less-than-ideal option.

Some other features and choices of note include the inclusion of four new modes for use with the performance pads: Hot Cue, Loop, and Freeze. Hot Cue allows you to trigger up to eight pre-set loop/hot cue points (just like the X1/S2/S4), while Loop gives you two configurable rows, one for quick setting loop lengths – the second for quickly jumping around the track a set number of beats. This is particularly useful for quickly getting to the meat of a track, without messing up the structure of your mix. Freeze enables the ability to hone in on different elements of a loop, triggering and retriggering them as you see fit. Combining this with flux mode gives you a very cool way to totally trick out a track in real time.

Conclusion: As a DJ that performs at many events where manual beat-matching and unsteady rhythms (caused by human drummers) are still a part of what I deal with, I must admit that I will be keeping my S4 MK2 at the ready. But the underground-techno side of me has me falling for the S8. It not only brings together a high-quality mixer, chunky, backlit LED pads, and exceptional sound quality, but it adds features that take DJing in a totally new direction. Fans of next-level gear and those who want a glimpse at the future of digital DJing need look no further than the S8 ($1,199 MSRP). It’s an exceptional new flagship addition to the Native Instruments line up.

A Note on S8 Accessories: With the S8 being fairly new, not to mention relatively large, only limited accessories are currently available. The best of the bunch so far includes several bags from Magma (CTRL Case S8 and Riot Backpack XXL), one from Fusion (DJ Controller Backpack), as well as a great slide-top road case (Magma Multi Format Workstation XXL) and a new Decksaver that will do a perfect job keeping out the dust and dirt in your home studio. All of these offerings are available from Mixware.

akai

Akai AMX & AFX

CDJs, mixers, turntables, controllers… they all let you play what you want. It’s just a matter of picking your poison, so to speak.

Sure, who doesn’t love the look of a massive mixer and some big CDJs or a turntable? But in reality, if you know what you are doing, a controller can emulate a lot of the same things a traditional DJ setup can do, while offering flexibility, reliability, and, of course, a lighter load in your gig bag.

So with that in mind, I tested Akai Professional’s AMX and AFX DJ controllers for Serato DJ. It’s a two-unit “system” that allows you mix, record, and tweak four tracks at a time, while it also layers FX, loops, and samples over the top. Pretty amazing when you consider that, combined, they are around the size of a 13-inch MacBook Pro. (MSRPs: $349 for the AMX and $299 for the AFX.)

Quick Overview of Controllers: For those less familiar with what a controller can do, here’s a primer. Rather than having a traditional DJ setup of turntable and/or CD players and a mixer, you now have a laptop running DJ software, in this case Serato DJ, and the controllers are used to manipulate the music within the software. Essentially, you have replaced milk crates or CD cases with a laptop.

Software: When I first read about these controllers, I was curious which version of Serato software Akai would choose to bundle with the units. I was pleased to learn that the full version of Serato DJ was included. While the light version offers a lot of the same functionality, I am always just a little more happy to have every feature at my disposal. The added bonus of Serato DJ is that it enables you to upgrade to Serato’s DVS expansion pack, allowing you to then use turntables or CDJs, too.

“System” Overview: While many people will always love the look of gear on the table or in the booth, it’s become a fact of life that a light bag filled with cords, laptop and controllers is the way to go for many DJs. The AMX and AFX units offer all of the above advantages and more.

The units individually offer much of the same functionality as a traditional setup. The AMX plays the role of a mixer and gives some player functionality, while the AFX provides other portions of the player’s functionality and provides FX manipulation. With that said, let’s jump right into each of the components of the system, understand what each unit offers and see how they can be used to create the perfect setup for you.

AMX Functionality: As we mentioned above, Akai has created the units to be a system; however, the AMX can be used without the AFX. From a functionality standpoint, the AMX can be broken down into four different layers of functionality—mixer, soundcard, music-library browser, and players.

If we examine the AMX mixer controls, it is a two-channel mixer with removable “innoFADER” crossfader with Xfader curve control. It made a lot of sense for Akai to include a high-performing fader and controller knob, due to the fact that this slim controller can act as a mixer to be used with two turntables and replace both a traditional mixer and Serato box. The AMX is able to act as a mixer due to the built-in soundcard, a pair of RCA inputs for two CD players or turntables, along with an RCA output. In addition to the high-quality crossfader, there are rugged, rubber high, mid and low knobs, large filter knobs and infinite gain knobs for each channel.

Next up is the music-library browser, which is driven by a large infinitive knob button combo. Having a single object serve a duel piece of functionality allows the ability to not only scroll through track list, but it also offers the ability to jump in and out of track lists by pushing down on the knob. This functionality had not previously been included in some controllers, which would result in having to use the laptop mouse to jump from playlist to playlist. Now with this knob button combination, it allows an individual to truly would never have to touch their laptop during a gig.

Similar to the logic of placing a high-quality response crossfader and soundcard in the AMX, it also made a lot of sense to include sync, cue, and play/pause buttons. So this controller, if paired with a laptop, could control a large portion of core Serato DJ software, making it the perfect tool for a DJ who travels and does lots of mobile gigs.
AFX Setup: We’ll try some soccer parlance here. If the AMX is the workhorse of the team, think of the AFX as a striker filled with finesse, excitement and unpredictability. Unlike the AMX, the AFX can only be used when either a compatible Serato DJ controller or SSL box SL2 version (or above) is also plugged into the computer. What does that really mean to me?

Basically, the AFX was meant to be used as an add-on device. So individuals who already have Serato DJ controllers, devices like the Numark V7, or SSL system can enjoy the use of the AFX to add additional functionality to their setup. Now that we have talked about the AFX setup, time to dive into the functionality.

AFX Functionality: At 10-inches-long and 5-inches-wide, the AFX shares the same form factor as the AMX. But the form factor is where the similarities stop. At the top of the AFX are two sets of buttons, one for “Decks 1/3” the other for “Decks 2/4.” These buttons allow this compact controller the ability to control four decks.

So for the purpose of our discussion, we’ll only be looking at the AFX as it would function if paired with the AMX. The AFX has six FX knobs each with an associated kill button. Each FX button can be assigned to either deck, which means layering has never been so amazing. Now instead of three FX per channel, a user can have six.
Next up is the Parameter knob, which is located in the middle of the device. Similar to the track selection knob/button, this one offers a ton of creative options, including the ability to do loop rolls with an active display indicating the loop length. This feature was by far the most fun part of this controller for me. While everyone loves a good loop roll, it is also important to highlight the five activation buttons and eight responsive buttons located at the bottom of the unit. The five activation buttons include the following: cues, auto looping, manual loops, slicer, and sampler. As it sounds, the activation buttons switch the functionality of all eight buttons located below. So when the Cues button is selected, the eight buttons can become backlit, based on the number of cue marks which have been identified for each track.

While cue buttons are something that we look at as more standard, the ability to live sample and/or use samples is something that is becoming increasingly important, as the line between DJ and live performer continues to blur. While the AFX has the ability to play samples, we do want to highlight that the eight buttons used to trigger those samples are about half the size of a traditional APC controller. But, as this is made by Akai, the kings of the drum machine, the response of the buttons is spot-on.

A Quibble: While the five activation buttons allow for tons of varying controls by track, we wish the deck-selection button was located closer to the cue buttons to allow for faster switching between decks. Not a major issue, but different design decision.

Conclusion: For functionality and versatility, both units offer a plethora of options. If you love Serato DJ, you love not having to break your back carrying a ton of gear and, of yeah, you really want a ton of features. And what’s more, you want them all without the heavy price tag of a mixer, CD/turntables, soundcard, FX unit. If that scenario floats your boat, then this system is for you.