Tuesday, August 16, 2011

NI Kontrol S4 Review - Should You Upgrade?

There are plenty of good reviews out there about the S4, and if you read any of them, it's pretty obvious that it is a well-regarded piece of equipment. The purpose of this review then is not to add to the me-too chorus but to give a different perspective. If you've been DJing with another controllerm have experience and knowledge of Traktor, and are wondering what the real differences are between the S4 and other controllers, this review is aimed squarely at you. 

I have been using a Vestax VCI-100 MkI with the mappings on Traktor 1.2.x for over a year. Prior to that I was using an M-Audio MIDI controller keyboard with Traktor. You can read earlier posts in this blog for my experiences with using both of those solutions. In summary, I loved the level of individual parameter control I was able to achieve with the MIDI controller. I loved the build quality of the VCI-100, and it felt more like DJ'ing to use that device, but I was unhappy with the fader performance and the limited number of simultaneously-accessible effect parameter controls when compared to the MIDI controller. I knew that I wanted something that gave me the tactile feel of DJ'ing that I got from the VCI-100, but something that also gave me more real-time control over effects without having to do a lot of MIDI programming or remembering weird button combinations. 

I had been thinking that adding an X1 would be a budget friendly way to add dedicated effects controls to my set-up, but that did not address the problems I had with the VCI fader response time. I primarily mix various types of house, and transforms and drops on the vertical faders are a critical component of how I like to mix. On the VCI, it always felt like there was a weird lag on the faders that forced me to drop this technique from my repertoire. I've DJ'd for many years but I thought maybe I was just getting old and retarded, as I've seen Ean Golden do many crazy routines using the faders on his VCI. 

Finally an opportunity arose to get an S4 at a good price and I made the move. As other reviewers have said, this is a first-rate piece of professional gear. I'm going to break down my pros and cons into several categories.

  • Build Quality and Layout
  • Mixer and Audio
  • Effects
  • Sample Decks

Build Quality and Layout - Be forewarned, this section covers my only real negative feelings about the S4. Overall the build quality is a definite step down from the VCI 100. Where as the VCI is solid metal and feels like you could run over it with a car and it would hold up (other than the tempo faders which were admittedly very fragile), the S4 feels a lot more plasticy. This is a device that is going to need to be coddled a little more on the road, and if I do a lot of gigs I will definitely need to invest in a protective strategy of some kind - either hardshell case or the travel bag. The layout is also quite sprawling - in short, the thing is too big. It feels like the whole thing could have easily been shrunk by 33% for easier transit, easier deployment in the booth, and easier navigation of the controls. The knobs and faders themselves do not really ooze sexiness or quality, but nor do they feel super cheap either. But at this price-point, I would have expected more metal and less plastic. It also felt that with a smarter layout, longer-throw vertical faders could have easily been included. The short, stumpy wide faders look a little cheesy at first gander - however I found that having the LED levels integrated into the fader to be a nice feature, and the faders performed great in actual mixing, both for smooth fades and more violent use. 

That all being said, the layout is extremely clear and it is pretty easy to start finding things by feel without having to look. The large number of dedicated controls means that you're going to have to do some hard work to get the product to be more compact and still remain affordable. I found the faders to all be quite natural to use and I adopted to the throw distance pretty quickly. The illumination with the wall wart was quite bright, and the layout is super clear. This was a welcome change from my custom djtechtools template that I had pieces of masking tape on top of to keep up with all the latest mappings. The layout and buttons and knobs are nearly 1:1 with the on-screen controls, making it really easy to figure out how to use the controller without reading a manual if you already know the software. 

Mixer and Audio -  This is where the NI integrated package really stands out, and the proprietary NI control protocol makes this device worth it alone. The ability to do really subtle, drawn-out Chicago style butter blends is a welcome change from the 128 values you get out of MIDI. The VCI was just never that useful for doing long butter blends, there was just not enough data. In addition the audio quality itself is good. The device seems to put out a pretty hot signal. I had it going directly into my KRK V6 Series 2 and the signal felt alot hotter than when I'd been routing Traktor through my Focusrite Safire 24. 

Now would be a good time to mention that I did my playing on a new MBP running OS X Lion - something I did not really want to do but it's how it had to be. Traktor and the S4 worked perfectly. Meanwhile I'm still waiting for a new Focusrite driver for 10.7. Anyway I can't emphasize enough how responsive the mixer felt compared to any other MIDI-based controller I've used thus far. Despite some misgivings about the faders and size of the unit, the audio quality, and the overall musical-ness of this instrument make all of those points a lot less relevant. 

For some people, Jog Wheels are a big deal. I loved the feel of the metal jog wheels on the VCI, and the fact that they lit up differently if you were touching the outside or the metal platter made it super clear what you were doing. I never was much of a scratcher so I don't really care about whether you can scratch with a controller jog wheel (I think any real scratcher is going to want to use DVS instead of a freakin' jog wheel). The jog wheels on the S4 have a nice solid feel, but they are too tight and don't spin as easily as they should. I found I just like to use them to quickly set a cue point on a track and that was it. They were not that inviting to play with and the lack of visual feedback (does it matter if I touch the platter?) meant I didn't want to mess with them. I did use the outer part of the wheel to adjust the phase on some mixes and that was intuitive and effective enough. I can beat match all night long but I have no problem using sync functionality and then adjusting the phase to create the right groove or feel for a given mix.

Effects - Traktor 2 does not offer any significant new tricks up its sleeves when it comes to effects, but rather builds on the already successful arsenal of processors. One thing with the S4 that I thought was weird is that by default, the left side of the mixer (deck C and A) only can be routed to effect unit 1, while the right side of the mixer (D and B) only can be routed to unit 2. It took me a while to realize that you actually have to create your own mapping to enable routing of the left side to effect unit 2 and vice versa for the right side. A small bummer is that the effect unit light does not light up when you activate effects unit 2 on deck C or A, though I'm sure there is some way to do this. 

Other than this small frustration, the effects routing is very clear and the dedicated knobs and buttons - especially button 3, which doesn't work without the VCI firmware upgrade which I was always too lazy to do since it involved serial ports and what not - make creative effects a snap. I've always been a huge fan of the Beatmasher (not the slicer), and using that effect in Advanced mode with dedicated knobs assured the ability to get a great syncopated pattern going every time. This is an effect that in my mind does not work in chained mode - too often it just sounds like a train wreck. I like to keep Delay on effect 2 and Beatmasher on effect 1 throughout an entire session. Sometimes I will switch up and do a chained gater-delay-verb set-up, or I'll use one of the advanced filters for more control, but I love being able to control everything on the effects so much more easily than I could on the VCI. I can be tweaking the Beatmasher rotation on the left and slowly increasing the dry/wet mix for the delay on the right, something that I couldn't do at all with my old set-up. If you like effects, the S4 is a seriously fun time to party with.

Sample Decks - Next to the quality and feel of the audio mixing section, the sample decks are the real break through on this device. These are incredibly musical, intuitive, and FUN devices to wreak total havoc with. I feel that other reviews have covered these pretty well, but let me just be clear, this is one of the funnest innovations in DJing in a long time. You can continue to DJ as you always have, and during your set, just drop in cool snippets, beats and grooves. Because each sample deck has its own mixer channel, you can EQ them, filter them, and effect them, just like a regular deck. During the making of my first S4 mix, I found having a filtered snare build and some reverb'd hi-hats on deck at all times to be really handy for keeping the energy up, or for making a build even more dramatic. This is a way to add signature sounds, a capella snippets - the possibilities feel endless for what you can do, and yet they are so easy to use! No integrating other software, no advanced prep required (just make sure to put some a capellas in your bin if you want to mess with that). I can't recommend this feature enough, and any DJ that is not trying to use this approach in their playing is missing out. Mixes I listen to that aren't pushing things to the next level with the innovative tools that were unimaginable back when I was DJing with two decks and vinyl just sound like there is something missing - a level of excitement that should be there! You will freak out on how awesome these things are.

The short story is, if you want to push your sound to the next level and unlock incredible creativity, all in a super-intuitive package that sounds great -  without having to learn a whole bunch of new crap - well it doesn't get any better than this! I love my S4.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Focusrite Saffire Pro 24

Review: Focusrite Saffire Pro 24

So I'd been hankering for a new sound I/O for a long time, knowing that my M-Audio audiofile was a piece of crap. It finally just stopped working after 6 years of loyal service; I had gotten my money's worth it was time for something new. For producing, I had relied on my Echo Mia in my 2002 Mac dual G4 tower, but I have been producing on my Macbook Pro for almost 2 years now and had been using the M-Audio for this purpose as well.

What a waste of time that was! For $300, it is imperative that anyone working with music on a crappy sound card go and get this Focusrite unit immediately. I have been working with computers and music for quite a long time, and the value that this sound card offers is unparalleled. We live in an amazing world where this much quality is available at this price-point. I monitor through KRK V6 Series 2 self-powered bi-amped speakers, and I have never heard them sounding this good. Suddenly my stereo image was massive, my sound stage had incredible depth, basses were tight and focused, mids smooth and balanced, highs present but not jarring. I can listen to my old tracks and hear all the EQ problems right away, I don't even need to fire up a scope anymore, the speakers give me all the information I need.

The Package
This unit is definitely bulkier than the more Dj-market oriented devices such as the Native Instruments products or the other contender in my book, the Echo Audiofire 4. The build quality is solid, but this device is not meant to be slammed into the bottom of your old record bag when you're wasted at the end of the gig. Something like the UDG Producer Bag is the right conveyance if you want this tool in your arsenal.

It would have been nice if they allowed you to configure the LED meters on the fronts instead of locking them into being input-only levels, though they are certainly useful for what they are. Metering on the unit for recording is a plus. However I would have enjoyed seeing the signal out level as this is quite handy for the DJ scenario. I could assign my main decks to meter 1 and meter 2, and then assigned the master stereo program to meters 3 and 4. Small quibble.

The front has separate dedicated levels for main out and monitor outs. The "main" out is actually labelled monitor, and along with the internally mixer and routing software, you can configure a lot of interesting options for creating a main mix, monitor mix, etc. The dedicated headphone level is a nice plus. There are also 2 gain knobs for controlling the combo XLR-1/4" inputs on the front of the unit and a convenient 48V toggle for recording with studio quality mics. I've yet to do a voice-over on a podcast to try these features out, but based on the other reviews I've read, I'm sure they'll be more than up to snuff for what I'm up to.

On the back of the unit you've got 6 balanced 1/4" outputs, along with RCA SPDIF outs, giving you plenty of pro level options for hooking up to a club sound system. It can be a little wrong to go from a nice hot 1/4" balanced out to an RCA input on the club mixer, so hopefully the club sound guy will let you plug into either the house mixer that's running the system or some other proper interface to avoid this quandary. For those of us working in the majority of North American crappy clubs with crappy sound systems long-since fried, it won't matter as much anyway. If you gig in more civilized places where people actually care about sound, you'll be glad to have the higher quality outs.

With this many outputs, you could also opt to use an analog mixer and route each virtual deck on individual outs. I use a VCI-100 to do internal mixing, which offers the benefit of very smooth sounding mixes that are internally limited by my Traktor software, but when I go back and listen to old mixes of mine (or listen to a live mix done on a proper mixer), the mix is a lot more exciting... but that's a story for another time. Bottom line if you prefer to use an external mixing, that option is definitely available to you with this device. If you have a mixer that takes a SPDIF input, you can even route all 4 Traktor decks to individual stereo outs. I've messed around with 4 decks at home but I haven't practiced it enough to ever try it out live.

Included Software
The included Saffire MixControl is your key to leveraging the power of this unit in any of the more complex usage scenarios. The software allows you to configure 7 different mix arrangements for different uses within your studio. You can control what you're monitoring - here you may wish for instance to monitor "DAW 3 & 4" and route Traktor's monitor mix out to outputs 3 & 4. You can also control levels for all inputs, configure the 8 channel optical in to use ADAT or Optical SPDIF formats, etc. You can configure which submix should be your main monitor mix, etc. You can even use a special loopback mode to route signals between different audio apps. This has some applications for studio work that I can't fathom at the moment but read about in Sound on Sound when researching which sound card to get. For DJs, you won't really need to do much here other than configure your headphone monitor mix. There are lots of exciting meters which you could leave up in a dual monitor situation to impress punters.

The unit also comes with some Focusrite plugins you can use in your DAW. I haven't sessioned them that much as of yet, but my initial inspection suggests that they are very conservative, and intended to offer pro-grade results with out any special sauce for compression, EQ, and reverb needs - the things you couldn't live without when laying down some vocals with your new unit, for instance. These plugins are a nice bonus if you've been relying on Logic's crappy built in plugins as I have lately since I no longer have access to my beloved TC Powercore card that was in my old tower. The unit also comes with Novation Bass station, Ableton Live Lite 7, and a bunch of samples, which is pretty standard fare for any computer audio accessory these days; none the less it represents a further value that this product offers, and if you haven't really dipped your toe into the water, this is a great package to get you started.

Use Cases
I chose this device as it offered a truly professionally specificed piece of studio gear I could use to produce my tracks, while also allowing me to use it as a DJ'ing solution. There is acceptable portability for the amount I actually DJ in clubs, which is not very often these days, while there is plenty of room to expand if I start getting paid more than I currently do in royalties and sales for my tracks (let's just say ain't no one gettin' rich off their music around here). I'm really happy with the result and can't recommend this product enough. I think if I were gigging like a real DJ multiple nights a week, I would probably opt for a the Echo Audiofire 2, for a high-quality bullet proof I/O unit I could throw into the bottom of my DJ bag when drunk, but for the casual DJ and more serious producer, this unit is the way to go.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Computer Paul Bio

Originally hailing from the musically diverse Washington D.C. area, Computer Paul aka Steve Shapero, was raised on a steady diet of go-go, hip-hop, reggae, and hardcore punk rock. D.C. hardcore shows were famous for having reggae bands (or even bands that played hardcore and reggae all in the same set), go-go bands, and punk bands like Fugazi all sharing the same stage in the same night.

The transition to the heavily dancehall-influenced sounds of Jungle in Montréal's underground dance music scene was a natural one in the early 90's. CP gave up his guitar and traded it in for 2 turntables and a stack of Suburban Base 12" singles. Arriving in NYC in 1996 before Giuliani had successfully outlawed all forms of public dancing, CP discovered the then-vibrant club scene which revolved around the city's well-known big room DJs like Louie Vega and Danny Tenaglia, as well as the countless unsung underground heroes that were the lifeblood of the party scene.

Together with friends Sean B, Thomas, and Chris Kazimir, CP started the Freeskool series of parties. In the late 90's, Giuliani had overseen the effective shutdown of all of NYC's smaller venues, forcing underground music to go deep underground. Freeskool got started as a series of "outlaw" loft parties in what were then unfrequented corners of Brooklyn. Each DJ in the Freeskool crew had a unique and completely different sound from the other DJs: Breaks, 2-step, House, Techno, and Jungle could all be heard in the same venue in the same night. This is where CP learned to rock a huge crowd and "take them on a journey".

The popularity of the party grew and turned into a bi-weekly event at a speakeasy in the Lower East Side. CP continued to hone in on a sound that had a solid foundation in the American mid-west (Chicago/Detroit) deep house sound, combined with a heavily percussion-influenced sounds coming from NYC. The constant call of Salsa in the streets of Brooklyn was to be a big influence in the CP conga-driven rhythms. CP became one of the tightest and most consistent mix-oriented DJs, earning the respect and recognition of the underground scene. CP has played at numerous venues in NYC, as well as clubs and one-off underground events in London (AKA Lounge at The End), Montreal (Blizzarts), Vancouver BC, and Seattle.

Following the collapse of both NYC nightlife and the economy due to 9/11, CP moved to the west coast and hung up the headphones for a long time, focusing instead on production. Teaming up with renowned Jazz vocalist Michelle Amador, he produced his first EP for BPSS. The track "Does It" appeared on the world-renowned Bagpak Selects series Vol. II. The EP covers diverse musical territory ranging from downtempo haziness, to UK soul, to classic body and soul style NYC house.

Following up on the critical success of the first EP, BPSS has just released the Westward Exansion EP, featuring 4 tracks of straight up funky disco house vibes without any of the fromage. These are the tunes that have all the elements to get a dancefloor moving, with disco edit and raregroove loops forward in the mix, backed by a solid foundation of congas and harder-hitting Detroit-house style drum programming. These are go-to tracks when you're flustered in the booth and need something to drop that won't let you down. Also features a super hot electro-ish remix by the likes of DJ Woodhead, from Vancouver, BC, Canada.

With all the excitement of releasing tracks, combined with the resurgence of good music, partially made possible by the amazing technology advances in both production and DJ'ing, CP has picked up the headphones once again and is rocking the world with his unique American sound, combining over 15 years of record buying experience and music knowledge with the unique live remix capabilities of Traktor DJ software. Check out his latest mixes on his podcasts, found at

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thoughts on the VCI-100 vs conventional MIDI controller for Traktor

In this post I'll compare and contrast my experiences mixing with a piano-style MIDI controller vs. my recently acquired Vestax VCI-100. I've rocked the last few podcasts with my trusty Radium 49 MIDI controller which features 8 vertical sliders and 8 rotary knobs in its arsenal of effects-tweaking controls. Mixing with dinky little faders proved to be of little interest to me, so I spent all my knob-twiddling energy in the mix tweaking out the effects. I managed to program all the piano notes to do useful things, but I never quite figured out what the ideal layout was for these controls. I focused on the loop controls and efx parameters I didn't have room to map to the knobs and sliders. I definitely found the knobs lent themselves to more musical tweaking, while the faders, as mentioned, were just too dinky to do anything real useful with.

The first thing I thought once I started mixing with the VCI-100 was: THIS feels like DJ'ing. It made me realize (at least for me but I think this applies to us all) that DJ'ing is partially the act of compulsively adjusting anything that has a knob on the mixer. After about 5 minutes of being in the groove using the long-throw 100mm vertical faders, I craved more action than was possible with the default Traktor VCI-100 settings.

I headed over right away to the DJ Tech Tools custom midi maps and installed Ean Goldens VCI-100 map for Traktor. With a screenshot of the controls on one monitor screen and Traktor on the other, I was able to pickup the new mappings within one mix session. The solid, professional feel of all the knobs and sliders made me feel a lot more musical. The jog wheels are a nice touch for beat matching, and I found that I could beat match entirely by ear like an old school DJ should. Between the tempo sliders and the touch sensitivity of the jog wheel, you can get your mixes tight without relying on the auto sync behavior of Traktor, which doesn't always work that well especially for disco and other non-compute rbeats. I still find that the software locks in your beat matches a lot more tightly than two 1200s will, but I look at this as a benefit: you can focus a lot more on the fun creative aspects of mixing, instead of expending all your concentration on just keeping the groove locked and maybe tweaking the EQ a bit.

I've now gotten into the groove of using the custom map, such that I can flip between using the left-hand EQ knobs as EQs or as parameter tweaks for chained effect unit 1. The only drawback of this layout is that you don't get a dry/wet mix knob for effect 1, but if you need to adjust this you can always cycle the dedicated effects knobs for unit 1 and adjust. There are a few defects with the firmware, but I'm not trying to install firmware 1.3 just to get rid of them; they just aren't worth the hassle.

I've got at least one confirmed club date coming up Nov. 12th in Vancouver. I'll be using this rig for sure. My only fear is that I'm still using my aging M-Audio firewire audiophile interface, and the driver obsessionally acts up and causes total signal loss from Traktor. Bottom line is that I think this unit will allow me to rock the crowd in a way that reminds me a lot more of what DJ'ing was like for me in the days of 2 1200's and a mixer with some fat EQs on it. The tempo-synced effects with auto-detect tempo accuracy means that the creative possibilities with this stuff is just a lot deeper than what is possible with a single hardware effects unit as found on the Pioneer mixers. Combine this with the looping capabilities of Traktor and you can really go nuts.

Stay tuned for podcast 6, which will be the first to feature the new hardware. I did podcast 5 as a special episode for my friend Bob who shares my birthday. It is a pretty deep and banging club style mix that I'm not sure my listeners will dig as much - there is pretty much no disco on it, and I'd like to keep the more upbeat and fun vibe of the other mixes. If you like super deep clubby chicago-detroit style house mixes (ie no commercial jingle crapola) check it out on Soundcloud.

Friday, October 2, 2009

EP2, Westward Expansion, OUT NOW

Heavy percussion, raregroove soul, disco, and funk samples surrounded by new school drum programming blur the lines between classic house and updated disco edit territory. Cuts features a more disco-laden percussion sound, mixing raw samples and harder beats with a west coast smoked out vibe, while Steal Some Days is more of a straight up houser. Be sure to check the Woodhead treatment for an updated electro disco vibe.

Buy now from these fine retailers:

Bagpak Music

Monday, September 14, 2009

Satellite Reunion Party

This was an awesome party. I got coerced into going under the pretense that I would DJ on the rooftop, but I quickly figured out that that wasn't going to happen. But the music was great and I ran into a lot of old friends from the store. It was great to see everyone again and see how they were all doing, and it was great to just be on a rooftop in Manhattan and hear awesome music (mostly of the old school variety, very New York house circa 94-96, a strong chapter in the glory years). I'm wondering if there is a resurgence of dance music in New York and maybe the country at large. It always seems to go in cycles. The people at the party were mostly old store employees, but there were definitely people there to just hear good music. I even talked to some people who were there just to learn about real DJing. Good job Scott on putting out a great party.