Traktor S4 – Long term use

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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:
The Good:
- 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 Bad:
- 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.

 

  1. DJ Girish01-05-2011

    I have been using S4 for a month now. Honestly, I love it. Probably because I was always in love with Traktor but I was tired of mapping to my VCI, X-session and all. Now with the dedicated hardware and loop record feature, its like my dream of Ableton and Traktor coming together true. I just love the sample decks too where I keep pads and one shots to trigger soundfx on the fly. Keep your S4.

  2. Nreek02-08-2011

    Man, great analysis, i feel your pain/joy on every point. Except for the file management. I disagree, i tend to think it’s very simple.

    But overall, the conclusion that there’s been a rush to launch it quickly leaving some minor, but present issues in the software side -hopefully will be adressed anytime soon.

    The effects issue, the pre-stored loop size not represented in display when activated, and the weird cue button behaviour are the stones in my shoe for the time being.

    By the way, i found your mastering for begonners guide very useful. Thanks for that!

    Cheers

  3. Tarekith02-08-2011

    I more or less have decided that I’m going to be selling the S4 at this point. I don’t have any major complaints with it, it is fun to use. But really doesn’t add much more than my Ableton set up. Or maybe I should say, the features it has that Ableton does not are not things I really use anyway. I really want to wait until the next update is announced before I make up my mind for sure, but it’s taking ages for them to do anything about that.

  4. Shane02-22-2011

    Awesome post Tarekith. I bought my traktor s4 two days ago and with some testing and mixing unfortunately I have to say that I was also disappointed about the product. My main issue were the eq’s. They dont seemed to be as transcient and subtle. This is the biggest blow for me especially my mixing consist of lengthenly eq mixing between 2 tracks. Furthermore the bass eq’s are overpowering whereby the mix between two song are immediately audioable compared on being smooth and seamless.

  5. Tarekith02-22-2011

    Honestly, the EQ was probably my biggest complaint. It’s not BAD, but I think they definitely could be better.

    I guess to update my post, my S4 got sold last week, should be in the new buyer’s hands tomorrow. It did a lot of things right, and I loved the all in one aspect of it a lot. If I was gigging a lot and wasn’t able to bring my Xone and APC40, then I’d probably consider it again. But for the downtempo stuff I usually do, it just wasn’t really adding anything to the equation. In some respects it was even harder to use for me.

    I think the deciding factor for me was when I was trying to do my new Tipper Dj mix. It was just a real struggle on the S4, as the tracks were covering a huge tempo range, and used a lot of different time signatures too (3/4, 9/16, 7/8, 4/4). When I tried to do it in Live however, it just clicked and ended up being probably one of my favorite DJ sets that I’ve done:

    http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith_-_Tipper_DJ_Set.mp3

    I think I knew then that it was time to go back to Live. :)

    I think Traktor does a lot of things right, especially if you’re someone who really enjoyed or misses working with vinyl. Ditto if you’re a DJ who plays mostly straight up dance music. At first it reminded me in a good way of using 2 decks and a mixer. But over time it also reminded me of how limiting I found that way of working too. Personally preference I guess. The S4 is a really well done controller, but just not for me in the long run. It was fun to use though, and I don’t regret getting one (however briefly) at all.

  6. Navar03-12-2013

    I totally understand the shortcomings, especially given your performance needs.

    My situation:
    When I do DJ – as opposed to performing original material live – it’s typically house, disco, funk, synth funk, R&B, and even a little jazz. It requires a lot of manual beatmatching for things to sound natural and to circumvent the hours upon hours of warping I had to do in Ableton to properly mix unquantized music. Traktor was the solution, but I had to decide between taking my timecode vinyl setup everywhere and having to rely on the extremely dicey hardware situations that can occur in smaller clubs/lounges/bars, or finding an all-in-one solution that would get rid of the unpredictability/portability issues while introducing some new concerns – i.e. software EQing and gain staging.

    Life is a tradeoff I guess. I prefer timecode vinyl and a hardware mixer, but the S4 is handling my needs at the moment. It is a worthwhile tradeoff. Plus, I can begin syncing Traktor with Ableton and blending the two when I’m ready for a truly dynamic DJ setup.

    Most excellent article.

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