REVIEW: Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2 - NI’s New Flagship Controller
After 25 years spinning with vinyl and CDs, I finally made the switch to a Digital Vinyl System (DVS) three years ago.
I started out with CD time-code and my Pioneer CDJ-1000 players, but soon found I wanted to take things further and converted to the Traktor Kontrol S4 controller from Native Instruments.
My original S4 has been a workhorse for me since its 2011 release, flawlessly serving me across a spectrum of events from weddings to nightclub. With a solid built-in soundcard, easy set up and built-in mappings for nearly every feature out of the box, the S4 puts a myriad of control at your fingertips.
Having said that, there certainly were some omissions on the original S4 that prevented it from receiving an A-plus grade from me. I am happy to report that most of those exclusions were addressed in the newest addition to the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol lineup, the S4 MK2.
While the new S4 MK2 ($799 MAP) retains the look, feel and functionality of the original, it has a number of augmentations that make it a much more capable piece of gear. As soon as you power it up and begin to dig around, you will find enhancements and improvements abound.
Initial Impressions: First things first, NI has taken the wow factor of the S4 and super-charged it. The new controller looks much more modern with 12 back-lit RGB keys for each deck (similar to NI’s Traktor Kontrol F1), aluminum jog wheels, and a slick, polished aesthetic. Like many things I will mention here, this might not be enough to entice current S4 users to upgrade. But speaking truthfully, the MK2 looks much better than its older brother.
Speaking of those RGB buttons, they are made of thick, responsive rubber—a bit of an improvement on the original’s plastic buttons. And I must say that this makes all the difference in the world, not only visually—as the colors tells you what they represent (cue, loop, fade, grid, etc.)—but also functionally. You can play the cues like the pads on an Akai MPC unit (or NI’s Maschine controller) without fear of a miss-hit. These are particularly valuable if you are a hot-cue fiend (like I am) or are looking for an introduction to remix decks. Those who are entirely interested in the full power of remix decks may still want an F1 controller, but this is a good start.
Improved and reconsidered faders represent another big step forward, with better look and feel—I found these to be miles more accurate and responsive. NI has also improved the pitch sliders, making them smoother and more precise in smaller increments—great for old-school DJs who like to ride the pitch during a mix. You will also see a big variance in the accuracy and feel of the previously mentioned aluminum jog wheels, making scratching a lot less cumbersome.
Fans of Native Instruments know that the Berlin-based company has put a great deal of effort behind their iOS apps. While I am a fan using them with NI’s mini controllers (F1, X1, Z1), I am not as excited about DJing with my phone and the S4. Generally, I believe that if I am going to lug my S4 to a party, I might as well bring my laptop and get the full power of Traktor. (The new Traktor Kontrol S2 MK2 may be a better fit.) But for those looking for a simple set-up with a ton of minimalist wow factor, the iOS apps work flawlessly with the new S4.
Bear in mind here, this is not the S5, this is the S4 MK2—so there’s the implication that NI sees this as an update, as opposed to a new product. This also means that a few long-standing omissions remain unresolved.
On my list of issues about the original S4, the lack of a booth output was front and center. NI has addressed this with the new MK2—sort of. NI did add a switch to the rear of the unit that allows DJs the assign the ¼-inch outputs to “booth.” But that then introduces two other issues. One is that you now are left to use the only remaining output (and unbalanced RCA) as your “main output.” The second is the booth volume knob was inexplicably placed on the rear of the unit—rendering it nearly pointless, in my view. To me, there’s simply no reasonable explanation as to why NI didn’t add a balanced XLR output for the main and a separate output for booth, with a volume-control knob on the top of the unit.
Quibbles aside, the new S4 MK2 is a great controller and full of features that have a very positive impact on usability and performance. While I am not sure that all the current users will be lining up to trade in their old S4 units, those who do will find a piece that’s fun to use and truly worthy as the flagship in NI’s controller line-up.