Put the Needle on the Record with Traktor KONTROLX1

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Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL X1 Add-On DJ Controller

As a longtime vinyl DJ, I strongly prefer the hands-on approach of mixing music with two turntables and a mixer. For all the convenience offered by fully digital setups on laptops and tablets, there is no denying the tactile benefits of a traditional vinyl-only rig. From the pleasing heft of a rotating turntable platter to the gentle cradling of the stylus locked into a groove, the physical experience is difficult to translate accurately in the digital realm. Yet the march of technology continues, and the practice of DJing has evolved considerably since the art form’s birth in the 1970s, when Bronx-based DJ Kool Herc alighted on the simple but devastatingly effective idea of extending the danceable “break” portion of records by cross-fading between two identical copies. With so many new software-based tools on offer—along with newfangled controllers to take the place of turntables and CDJs—traditional vinyl DJs like myself have discovered the benefits of utilizing Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS).

DVS: Let’s Take it to the Bridge

In terms of DJing, consider DVS as a bridge between the analog past and the digital present. The premise appears complex at first but it’s actually quite simple and ingenious. At their core, all DVS use timecode vinyl—identical in look and feel to vinyl records containing music—that, when played back on a standard analog turntable connected to a compatible analog-to-digital converter, translate the corresponding signal to changes in the playback speed and position of a digital audio file stored on a computer. This hybrid of analog and digital technology is just the thing for vinyl jocks who’ve honed their chops on turntables—who’ve practiced the craft of beat matching and precisely back-cueing and cutting-in tracks by hand and exactly on beat. This allows the DJ to physically manipulate in this manner all the music available on their computer hard drive. When you consider the sheer bulk of a comprehensive vinyl collection, not to mention the back-breaking work of hauling those records to gigs, the benefits of a compact rig based around a DVS-enabled laptop become obvious.

My personal DJ rig comprises two Technics SL-1200mkII turntables, an Ecler NUO4 4-channel DJ mixer, and a Native Instruments Traktor Scratch Pro DVS system running on a 2009 dual-core MacBook Pro. All of the music I spin through the DVS system is housed on an external hard drive that is backed up to multiple locations, including a cloud-based backup on a folder in my Dropbox account. This ensures that I’ll be able to restore my precious digital music library should for any reason my gigging drive fail or become lost or stolen.

Of course, utilizing a DVS setup like this still allows me to play standard vinyl records, as most DJ mixers have input channels that are switchable between line (which is utilized by the audio interface of the DVS) and phono (which is connected to the analog signals picked up by the turntable’s stylus and cartridge). This enables ultimate flexibility at gigs if, for example, I wish to play some recently acquired vinyl alongside older tracks stored on my hard drive, or if, heaven forbid, my computer crashes and I need to keep the party going while rebooting my laptop.

GUIs: Taking It to the Limit (One Last Time)

While my rig has proven extremely reliable over the course of five years, I’ve long felt constrained by some of the limitations of DJing from a laptop, especially in terms of Traktor’s user interface. Track navigation and MIDI mapping, in particular, have been real bugbears. Part of the visceral thrill of vinyl DJing lies in the act of rifling through a stack of records to find the perfect track to work into the mix. Many times you have the ideal song in mind; sometimes you allow serendipity and chance to guide your selections. Through it all your adrenaline is racing and the music is pumping as the needle edges closer and closer to the run-out grooves on the currently playing track. While it might lack some of the seat-of-your-pants spontaneity of digging through the crates, one nice aspect of having your music on a laptop is that you can organize songs in various ways and locate them quickly. And since Traktor is able to sync to your iTunes music library, it’s easy to set up personalized folders with favorite tracks for peak-time play, or more chilled-out moods, or whatever makes sense to your own personal style of DJing. What’s less appealing, however, is mousing around on a trackpad to select and load songs into Traktor’s playback decks. After all, it’s more fun to see a DJ that’s fully engaged with his/her music than one that appears to be checking their email at the gig!

This need for hands-on control of Traktor’s GUI was precisely the thing that led me to investigate the Native Instruments KONTROL X1, an add-on MIDI controller for the software that can integrate with both Traktor-based DVS, as well as strictly “in-the-box” setups.

Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL X1 Add-On DJ Controller

Having tinkered in the past with creating custom MIDI mappings for Traktor using the relatively limited controller functionality built into my Ecler DJ mixer, I can attest that it’s not always a straightforward or rewarding process. What attracted me to the X1 was its promise of seamless integration with Traktor. Not only does the X1 work alongside a DVS setup (using Native Instruments Traktor Pro 2 software), but it can work as a stand-alone controller to take command of most functions of the software in those situations where turntables, CDJs, or mixers are unavailable, or a more portable rig comprising little more than a laptop is desired.

Control (Kontrol) I’m Here

After determining that the X1 would improve for me the process of track selection, control of effects, live looping, and a slew of other functions currently hampered by trackpad navigation, I decided to add one to my rig. But before I could dive into the brave new frontier of digitally enhanced, vinyl controlled DJing, I had to upgrade my aging Traktor Scratch Pro software to the latest Pro 2 version, which is required for use with the X1. Thankfully, this was a relatively painless process, and one that did not require me to upgrade the audio interface that originally came with the Scratch Pro package I purchased five years ago.

The Audio 8 interface that came bundled with the original Scratch Pro software has since been replaced by newer models, featuring more phono inputs and improved Cirrus Logic converters, which are bundled with the Pro 2 software. Rather than foisting the obsolescence of their older hardware, via their website, Native Instruments offers an upgrade path for users of older timecode vinyl interfaces, including the Audio 8. For registered users, a modest sum of $99 provides you with a full upgrade to Pro 2, as well as the requisite timecode vinyl records and CDs (should you prefer to spin with CDJ decks). 

TRAKTOR PRO 2

Having upgraded to the Pro 2 software, and with the X1 now in my arsenal, I was ready to enjoy the hands-on control of traditional vinyl DJing alongside the newfound convenience and creative possibilities offered by the Traktor Pro 2 software. Within minutes of installing the software and connecting the X1, track selection became brisk and intuitive, the hardware’s dedicated Browse encoder handling both navigation through my music collection and the assigning of tracks to Decks A and B with the quick turn of a knob and a press of button (arrow left for Deck A and arrow right for Deck B).

Setting up on-the-fly loops—a process that proved cumbersome using just a trackpad—was surprisingly simple with the X1. Dedicated Loop encoders for both Decks allow for the selection of common loop lengths (from 32 bars to 1/8 of a bar). And initiating a loop simply becomes a matter of selecting with a twist of the encoder the length, then pressing the same encoder on the downbeat to set the loop. It takes a little practice to perfect the technique of capturing seamless loops, but it’s definitely easier (and more physically rewarding) than fussing about with a cursor on the software’s GUI. Since adding the X1, live looping has become an invaluable asset in my sets; the ability to extend a track’s intro or outro is a great technique to prolong the anticipation and buildup of a mix.

Similarly, the X1’s dedicated Effects buttons and knobs have been a boon for adding creative spice into my mixes. With the X1, Traktor’s extensive collection of built-in filters, reverbs, and delay effects is just a button-press away. It’s easy to punch in a cavernous reverb to add space to a dry snare sound, or tweak a tempo synced delay to create interesting offbeat rhythms, or even sweep an entire mix with an LFO-controlled filter to add dramatic frequency peaks and drops. In fact it’s quite easy to get carried away with these effects, to the point where the original track becomes completely warped beyond recognition. Thankfully the FX (Dry/Wet) knob allows you to achieve a balance between effected and non-effected sound, to add just the right amount of sonic spice into your mix.

Viva la Vinyl!

After gigging out twice in the last two months with the X1 and Pro 2 software, I can say unequivocally that the pair has added a new dimension to my DJing. I’ve long been wary of jumping headlong into the woolly world of digital DJing. With many manufacturers now dispensing with the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” paradigm of two decks plus a mixer for their newest batch of controllers (witness Native Instruments’ latest jog wheel-less behemoth, the Kontrol S8), it’s clear that the art of DJing is blurring into the worlds of music production/beat making and vice versa, and that’s surely not a bad thing. But for those of us weaned on vinyl, who are not completely immersed in all things shiny, new and digital, I certainly appreciate that these bridges with the past continue to exist and thrive. Viva la vinyl!