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.