Well, I’m not totally sure I’m going to sell it yet, but it’s definitely something I’m considering. I have a feeling we’ll see an update around Winter NAMM, so I’m waiting to see how responsive NI is to user requests before I make up my mind. If I do sell, likely somewhere around $799.
As for it being a love affair, well, sort of. I’ve always said that my main reason for going to Traktor was just to see what the competition was up to, and not because I was leaving Live for DJing per se (just used it two nights ago in fact). Yes the S4 is pretty, and it’s new, and there’s a lot of hype around it, but it has some flaws too. After quite a bit more time with it, here’s my updated thoughts on the S4 as a DJ package:
- Track browsing and crate organization is excellent, lots of options and ways to customize your playlists, and the way NI implemented the push encoder for previewing is one of the nicest things I’ve seen in awhile.
- Overall build quality is very good, especially the knobs and the jog wheels.
- Easy set up. One usb cable, one power cable, done. Does not draw a lot of power either, I often use it with my laptop running on battery power when I’m too lazy to move the laptop powercord from my studio to dj set up, lasts for hours like this.
- The loop recorder is really nice, grabbing recordings of audio as you tweak it via the filters, EQ, and effects is really convenient, and you can even move recordings from the loop recorder to a sample slot fairly easily with the hardware.
- Some really useful DJ features for when things go bad. IE, the main volume knob is seperate from the software volume knob, so you can always kill the sound instantly if you need to. The fact that you can hook up an MP3 player to the hardware and that it’s hardwired to the main outs is useful too if you need to reboot. The USB socket deserves a mention too, it’s SUPER snug so there’s no worries about the USB Cable coming unplugged.
- I like the layout of the Traktor software, they do a really nice job of letting you configure what you want to see. Having a dedicated button to switch the browser to full screen is nice too. Dual waveform view is nice too, though the waveforms are a little small IMO.
- No denying the usefulness of being able to manually beatmatch tracks if you need to, or if you don’t want to prep (grid) your tracks.
- Overall sound quality is good, as long as you really pay attention to your gain structure (see below for caveats).
- On the fly looping is implemented really well, though I wish loops could be longer than 8 bars when set on the fly with the loop encoders.
- The EQs are really not that good IMO. Not even counting the lack of the Traktor Pro 4-band EQ, the current three options are just not that good sounding IMO. Very phasey sounding, not that transparent. This is probably my biggest complaint with the S4. They’re still useable of course, but hard to be subtle with them. I’ve had more than a few people point out that it was pretty audible when I was EQing tracks, and I barely cut that much when using EQ for DJing.
- The metering on the hardware is next to useless. I don’t find that the signal is really represented well, does not seem to be accurate at all. Personally I think it’s reacting too fast and possibly the tiny bit of latency could be throwing things off. Basically it’s hard to accurately know your levels looking at the meters on the S4, I tend to look at the software meters instead, which is the opposite of how it should be.
- The faders and gain knobs are so so feeling. Not the worst I’ve used, but not up to the same quality as the knobs and jog wheels. The gain knobs have a potentially useful feature in that if you push them, they reset to 0dB. Unfortunately in order to keep the soundcard in the S4 from clipping, I often need to keep the channel gains closer to -6 or -7dB. This means accidentally pressing the gain encoder causes the volume to jump drastically and distort. Bad when this happens mid-mix. Also the gain knobs are detented, which can sometimes make narrowing in on an exact value impossible.
- Auto-levelling and the output limiter in the software are not that good. For some reason Traktor always BOOSTS the signal of tracks to level them, which means you need to crank the channel gains down a lot to keep from clipping. It also means it’s next to impossible to keep from hitting the limiter as well, which sounds not that good IMO (granted I’m really picky about this doing mastering for a living). I disable both of these functions and manage gain myself.
- The Sample Decks are not key-locked or timestretched, which means if you assign a sample to them from a track that’s not playing exactly at it’s original tempo, it will be out of sync or out of tune with the audio currently playing. As a result, I almost never use these unless I grab a loop with the loop recorder first, and then assign it to a sample deck.
- Effects are so so. They make it very easy to assign the effects you want to the effects knobs, but honestly I find most of them to be pretty bland. Also things like the delay do not show the delay time in musical values (i.e. 1/8th, 1/4, etc), unlike how it is done in Traktor Pro. All values are 1-127. Effects are prefader too, which is not how I prefer them.
- Very hard to see the hardware controls in low light. Too much black, and too small of text in most cases. Also the glossy area around the EQs and volume faders is super prone to collecting fingerprints, which makes your shiny new toy look very messy in no time.
- Not very easy to remap controls with the default S4 configuration. For instance, if you wanted to reassign the loop length knob to global tempo, there’s really no simple way to do this currently. So you either use the S4 hardware as NI intended, or switch to MIDI mode and lose a lot of funtionality that can’t be accessed via midi mapping.
It might seem like I have a lot of complaints about the S4 system, but in all honesty most of these are just minor annoyances. I think the main thing I’ve learned is that the S4 system has enough flaws that it’s not an obvious winner over my previous Live set up for DJing. It does a lot of things very well, but in some ways it feels like it’s not yet done or was rushed to market on the software side of things. Stability has not been a concern, which is the main thing, but I think NI still has a ways to go with making things a little more customizeable for power users. Most of my wishes are things that can be addressed by a software update, as well as being things that many other users have been asking for as well. That’s one reason I’m waiting until NI releases the next update, to see what (if anything) they address. Better sounding EQs, more accurate metering, and key-locking of the sample decks would definitely win me over.