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Native Instruments Kontrol S4
Reviewer: Andrew Unsworth • Date: December 2011 • Price: £749/$899/€869 • Link: NI

Introduction

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The Kontrol S4 is widely regarded as the ultimate Traktor controller, if for no other reason than it’s manufactured by Native Instruments, but is it really the best? It’s not particularly big, which is no problem in itself, but with so many controls crammed into such a relatively small space there’s going to be some impediment to use. And then there are the minuscule jog wheels, which are much smaller than those of an SL1210 or CDJ-1000. Countless controllers have been anticipated with barely contained excitement, only to meet with readily expressed derision and disappointment when their jog wheel deficiencies have been exposed. Has NI got it right with the Kontrol S4?

First Impressions

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

When I first popped the lid on the S4’s flight case my first impression was that it had been designed by a clown. The front mounted pots had cut into the foam of the flight case. Not only was the foam damaged, it also made it difficult to remove the front panel of the flight case. It was only after many minutes of careful coaxing that the front panel came loose and I could see that this wasn’t some elementary design fault on the part of NI and the case manufacturer, but neglect and carelessness on the part of whichever uncaring hack had reviewed the S4 before me (I swear it left here in first class order! Gizmo). The cue pots and MIC volume pots can be pushed in to give the front panel a lower profile and make it easier to place the S4 in a flight case, but someone hadn’t done this and the flight case paid the price.

In fact, the case and the S4 are a perfect match. The case is pretty tough and can be padlocked in two places. The handle is spring loaded and attached behind a sheet of metal that’s riveted to the case, locking the handle in place. Not only does the flight case protect your S4, it also gives you a sturdy laptop stand on which to position your beloved computer. The stand can be pushed back, giving access to the top panel of the S4, but be careful. Push the stand too far back and it’ll come clean off its runners, pebble-dashing the pub carpet with broken Vaio. Perhaps the best thing about the stand is its size. It’s large and sturdy enough to accommodate a large LCD screen and a full size keyboard without it feeling overloaded.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Would I buy one? Most likely, but it isn’t perfect. It's tough, but it doesn't feel as tough as my Road Ready CDJ-1000 flight cases. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t without necessitating a trip to A&E, but I get the impression I could put my fist through the S4 flight case, and I don’t get that with Road Ready’s CDJ-1000 cases. That’s just my perception, however. In use, I’ve had nothing to complain about, although it is difficult to see and interact with the back panel of the Kontrol S4 when the laptop stand’s in place.

As for the S4 itself, it certainly challenged my memory of it at BPM 2010, at which I’d been unimpressed by the build and finish of the unit. The Kontrol S4 is plasticky for sure, but its shell feels far tougher than that of the CDJ-1000. It’s not heavy, but neither is it worryingly light. Even so, I do have my concerns about the longevity of the units. I had intermittent problems with the power switch on the review unit and some of the controls don’t feel particularly strong. At first sight my main concerns were with the placement of the cue and PFL controls on the front panel. Would their positioning be the one design choice to render the Kontrol S4 awkward and unusable?

Ins And Outs

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The Kontrol S4 might not have the wealth of I/O options seen on high-end units such as the DJM-900 and DB4, but by controller standards it has plenty.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The most obvious is the 6.3mm headphone jack on the front, but round the back you’ve got two MIDI connectors (one in and one out), a type B USB connector, and another two 6.3mm jacks (one MIC input and one footswitch input). Other inputs include two pairs of RCA inputs for the connection of turntables, CDJs, samplers or whatever else you fancy using. There are two methods of outputting the master signal. The first method is using 6.3mm jacks for a balanced output and the second is to use unbalanced RCAs. I would’ve preferred XLR connectors for the balanced output, but having to use 6.3mm jacks is no great hardship.

One feature that’s conspicuous by its absence is the booth output, which is astonishing given the S4’s current role as NI’s flagship controller, but why? Is it because the S4’s intended for use in pubs, small bars and mobile gigs where a booth output is less valuable? Maybe the S4’s a mid-range device used to test the water while NI develops a club-bound rival to the Xone:4D? Or is it simply the result of an oversight on the part NI? If a booth output’s crucial to your performance then I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere or consider the Kontrol S2.

Auxiliary Input

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The Kontrol S4 has one auxiliary input through which music can be played when Traktor isn’t running, and you can use phono or line level inputs. There’s also a gain pot on the back panel with which you can adjust the volume of the auxiliary input. This is a clear benefit should the worst happen and your computer dies.

Faders

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The Kontrol S4 has been widely hailed as a success by critics, even those that haven’t used it, because of the inclusion of peak meters. This is, on the face of it, a great idea, marred only by the fact that they’re not that useful. Their progression to peak is coloured blue, which gives no real feedback until the strip is fully illuminated, and then you get an orange blip. The peak meter will quickly rise to the penultimate LED, but you need to turn the gain control quite a bit to the right before you get the ultimate LED to turn orange. Like the peak meters on the DJM-350, those on the Kontrol S4 are a pleasant addition, and I applaud NI for their inclusion, but they don’t provide the detailed visual feedback that peak meters on mixers such as the DJM-900 or DB4 provide. I know there’s a huge price difference between the Kontrol S4 and those mixers, especially when the Kontrol S4’s competition typically doesn’t feature such things, but it’s a comparison that’s worth making so you know how effective they are.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The channel faders themselves are interesting because their feel is different to that of other mixers and controllers I’ve come across, being somewhere in between the grating, if free-moving, faders of the DDJ-T1 and the syrupy, slothful faders of the APC40. They’re capped by chunky blocks of plastic, bucking the usual trend of slim, tapered caps, which didn’t bother me at all. I can’t see it bothering most people. Regardless of their provenance or physical construction, the Kontrol S4’s channel faders possess a wonderful feel that doesn’t remind me of scraping my nails down a blackboard or moving bricks underwater. You push and they move without fuss, which is how it should be.

The one criticism I can level at them is a perceptible delay in the way the sound responds to fader movements. If you have a channel fader fully open, for instance, and then drop it to the half-way point there’s a slight delay while Traktor adjusts the volume of that channel. Please don’t think that the Kontrol S4 is the only controller to suffer from this because it isn’t. The delay is minute admittedly, but it does exist and it’s something of which you should be aware, even though it probably won’t trouble you.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Even nicer than the faders are the visual cues that adorn the S4’s mixer panel, an example being the illuminated channel designations situated above the channel faders. These are large and clear, with channels A and B being illuminated blue and channels C and D being illuminated white. The designation of a channel is only illuminated when a deck is selected using one of the Deck Select buttons on the Kontrol S4. If you’re currently mixing using decks A and B, for example, and want to introduce an acappella on deck C, you press the Deck Select button on the left-hand deck to switch focus from deck A to deck C. When you use the jog wheel, move the pitch fader, use the transport controls, et cetera, they’ll now affect deck C. To let you know that deck C is selected, channel A ceases to be illuminated blue and channel C is illuminated white. This has taken 150 words to explain, but the usefulness and necessity of it is obvious the moment you attempt four deck mixing on the S4. In the heat of a mix it’s easy to become disorientated and forget which decks are selected. These simple visual cues help to minimise that confusion. It goes without saying that switching between decks doesn’t stop the music playing on the unselected deck, it just stops you from manipulating it with the deck controls.

The mixer panel also features illuminated crossfader assign indicators. This is handy if you’re sharing the Kontrol S4 with other DJs at a gig. If one of your mates has assigned the channels to different sides of the crossfader or has them ignoring the crossfader completely, you can quickly see this and set the faders how you want. If you’ve seen the top panel of the Kontrol S4 you’ll have noticed that there’s no crossfader assign switches, but don’t panic, you can still assign channels to either side of the crossfader using the Shift and FX Select buttons. Genius or what?

What is a problem is the lack of a crossfader curve dial. I criticised the DDJ-T1 for failing to include such a thing, and partially accepted that it’s not strictly necessary because it’s aimed primarily at mix DJs, even though every DJ has their favourite setting regardless of whether they’re blending loops or ruining Peter Piper. The fact that NI’s also omitted such an important feature has left me stunned. I know it only takes four mouse clicks to change the crossfader curve, but it’s a chore that interrupts the natural DJing feel that a controller is supposed to provide.

You’ll be pleased to know that the lack of curve control is the only complaint I have with the crossfader. It is, in all other respects, an excellent fader for a middle-of-the-road controller. When its curve is set to sharp, the distance the closed crossfader must travel before sound is heard is slightly more than 1mm. This is truly amazing, and better than a lot of mixers. Needless to say, you can cut, crab and twiddle until your heart’s content and ready to quit. The crossfader’s light enough to scratch comfortably, but has enough resistance to make mixing possible without fear of the crossfader flying across its rail and back just because you’ve nudged it slightly.

I’ve never come across a controller with a crossfader as good as this and only Gizmo can tell you if that of the NS6 is better or not. The S4’s fader section has some glaring omissions, but on the whole it’s incredibly successful.

Cueing

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

All four channels are cued using rubber buttons situated above each channel. When you press a cue button it illuminates yellow to let you know that it’s cued and can now be heard in your headphones. This is typical of most mixers and is nothing to get excited about, but what will have you jumping up and down on the spot is the ability to select and send a track to the preview player using one control on the S4. You select tracks using one of the global controls, a rotary pot labelled “BROWSE”. Twiddling this pot lets you scroll up and down a playlist. Pressing it loads the selected track into the preview player so that you can hear it in the headphones. Pressing it a second time stops the preview play. This is a genuinely handy tool.

You can crossfade between cued tracks and the master output using the Cue Mix pot located on the front panel. When twisted fully left you hear only the cued channels and when twisted fully right you hear only the master. Positioning the control anywhere in between lets you hear a mix of the two. I’m always surprised by the lack of attention given to this fundamental control by some manufacturers, but I’m pleased to say that NI has given it the due consideration it deserves. The mix of the two signals is clean and linear, with the listener easily able to make out individual tracks.

Like the DDJ-T1, the cue volume of the S4 is sensibly graded over the full course of the Volume pot’s travel. This means there’s a tremendous amount of flexibility in volume before you reach the point at which your drums shatter and your nose bleeds. One thing I was worried about with regards to cueing is the positioning of the Cue Mix and Volume controls on the control panel. As it turned out, my fears were somewhat justified.

The controls can be easily manipulated when fully extended, but their close proximity means that you risk deafening yourself whenever you move the Cue Mix control. In practice this never happens, because of the flexibility afforded by the volume control. You’re much more likely to decrease the volume, but that’s not the point. The two controls are too close together.

EQ Section

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Above each channel you’ll find a strip of EQs conforming to the time honoured layout to which we’ve become accustomed. In addition the pre-requisite three band EQ and gain pots, there’s also a filter pot, which is located just above the Cue button on each channel. Sadly, there’s no Key pot, and neither is there an on/off switch for the filter. Despite this, the presence of the filter pot is welcome and it promotes the use of an important feature. The trouble is it’s easy to confuse it for the bass pot when first using the S4 and it took me weeks to train myself to turn the correct pot. The fact that the filter pot’s chunkier than its EQ counterparts should have made it obvious, but I failed to pick up on it without effort.

As with its onscreen equal, the filter pot acts as a low pass filter when turned left and a high pass filter when turned right. The style of filter (ladder or Xone) can be selected through Traktor’s options dialog.

Similarly, the EQ pots are physical extensions of the equalisation options you’ve selected in Traktor. If you’ve selected P600, for instance, you’ll be able to cut frequency bands by 26dB and increase it by 12dB. If you’ve selected classic you’ll be able to cut the three bands by 26dB and increase them by 12dB. The pots move in a smooth fashion, and while they don’t have the high quality feel of the DB4’s EQ pots they still feel pretty tough.

The gain control for each channel can turn infinitely and works just as you’d imagine.

The only genuine problem with the S4’s EQ section is the result of its cramped workspace. Even though I’m careful and have normal hands, I still found myself nudging the jog wheel when manipulating the EQ controls, even when using the pots of the inner channels. The consequences of this are apparent, catastrophic and embarrassing. Should NI make another controller, some thought should be given to the positioning of the controls. Your customers will be happy to have the cost of extra plastic passed onto them if it means they have more room in which to operate.

Master Controls

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

If the global (or master) controls seem few in number it’s because they are. The entire master section is comprised of three illuminated push buttons, three illuminated icons and a master volume pot, but the controls that are present are those you truly need. The three push buttons, for instance, toggle the Snap, Master Tempo and Quantise functions, while the three icons illuminate to signify a connection to a computer (a USB symbol), a stressed CPU or drought-ridden audio stream (an exclamation mark), and whether or not a track is playing in the Preview Player (a pair of headphones). The orange lighting of the push buttons means that the state of the controls is easily observable without being an annoying distraction from other activities. Even though you rarely look at the controls, the illumination means that you always know what’s going on a subliminal level, with your conscious mind snapping into action (or should that be panic?) should the USB symbol suddenly extinguish or should the exclamation mark burst into life.

You could argue that given the fairly generous number of onscreen controls present in the Traktor interface the few controls on the S4 are insufficient, but I suppose with space being scarce controls such as Cruise, Full Screen and Mix Record were deemed too unimportant or infrequently used to include. Funnily enough, their absence isn’t missed on the Kontrol S4 as much as they are on the DDJ-T1, probably because the Kontrol S4’s control surface is already overly busy.

The other control in the master section is the master volume control, which nestles between the gain controls of the four channels. The control itself is bordered by peak meters that, unfortunately, suffer from the same problem as those of the channel faders. There’s only one LED to let you know when the master signal is peaking, which is okay, except the LEDs can be flaring orange without the sound actually clipping. There’s no gradation of the peak, as you get with higher level mixers, which means that you end up looking at the screen anyway. It’s also worth noting that the master volume control on the Kontrol S4 controls the volume emitted by the S4 and doesn’t control the onscreen master pot in Traktor, even though it’s the onscreen pot to which the S4’s peak meters relate.

If you’re unfamiliar with Traktor it’s worth explaining the purpose of the three global push buttons:

Snap mode is used to synchronise hot-cues and loops to whatever happens to be the master tempo, which means that if you press one of your hot-cues while another track is playing then Traktor will ensure that the hot-cue is played on beat and in sync with the other track so it doesn’t sound odd. In practice, Traktor does an excellent job, but sometimes it can be slightly offbeat.

Quantise
is similar, except that it’s used to maintain the phasing of two or more tracks should you progress through the track, perhaps by pressing a hot-cue button or moving a loop. Again, Quantise does an exceptional job of keeping everything synchronised.

You may wonder why, if they do such a good job of keeping everything synchronised, you’d ever want to switch Snap and Quantise off. The reason is that they can be restrictive. They interfere with hot-cue drumming, for example, by preventing you from taking the beats out of phase, however momentarily. You might also want to play something off-beat for effect. Either way, having the choice, and the visual feedback on their state, is incredibly useful and means you can exploit them however you wish without having to touch the mouse.

The Master Tempo control is illuminated if Traktor’s built-in tempo clock has master status, which means that the BPM of all synchronised decks match that of Traktor’s BPM clock. If a track deck has master status the Master Tempo button remains unlit.

Loop Recorder

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

You can record your loops using a variety of sources, such as the microphone input on the Kontrol S4 and connected turntables or CDJs. Sadly, you have to select the recording source using a mouse or trackpad rather than the Kontrol S4, but this is the only aspect of loop recording that doesn’t involve the S4, and if you only ever record from one source (the master) then it’s not really an issue.

To record a loop you set the size using the Size button on the S4, and then hit the Record button. If you’re not happy with it you can press the Undo button to delete it or you can overdub another loop on top of it by pressing the Record button again. You can actually layer lots of different loops into a single loop using the overdub feature, which is great if you want to make some trippy, spacey sounds using Traktor’s effects.

If you want to preserve your loop for later use you can copy it onto one of the sample decks using the Kontrol S4 only, no mouse or trackpad involved. This is a truly convenient method of quickly creating custom loops. Because the Loop Recorder is always set to the tempo of the currently playing track or the Master Clock it’s also a convenient way of creating a ‘panic loop’ that you can trigger should you unexpectedly find yourself at the end of a track. Other than that, the Loop Recorder is something that you’ll either use or a lot or happily ignore, the reason being that you can create loops for the sample decks using the regular track decks, and you can create them in your headphones too, in private. This is something you can’t do with the Loop Recorder because you can only hear its output through the master, along with everyone else. You can control the volume of the Loop Recorder using its Dry/Wet pot, but you can’t cue the loop recorder in your headphones, unfortunately.

I can see a genuine use for the Loop Recorder as a means of building overdubbed, custom loops, but other than that I’d prefer to create loops using the standard track decks, and I’m sure many other people would too.

Jog Wheels

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Although the Kontrol S4 has only got two decks, you can control no less than four decks by pressing the deck switch button on either deck. The left-hand deck switches between decks A and C, and the right-hand deck switches between decks B and D. Switching between decks really is as quick as pressing a button. There’s no lag, no waiting while Traktor sorts itself out and no interruption of the music. Neither is it confusing, thanks to the clear visual cues on the S4’s control surface.

Of course, for some users the ability to control four decks is a godsend, opening up creative possibilities hitherto undreamt, while others will find it a novel gimmick and nothing more than a worthless extravagance tacked on to help the marketing team shift more units. Either way, both parties will have to use the S4’s jog wheels if they want to have some fun, and what a fantastic pair of jogs it has.

The scratch platter is pressure sensitive and must be depressed like a button to engage it, but when pressed you’re rewarded with the most tightly integrated Traktor jog wheel this hack’s ever used. Scratching with the S4’s jog wheel is every bit as accurate and natural as various promotional videos have made it seem. Even with a comfortably high sample buffer, you get a feeling of immediacy when rubbing the platters back and forth, an immediacy you don’t often experience when using Traktor controllers. You may be put off by the small size of the jog wheels, and you certainly need to allow some time for adjustment if you’re used to turntables and CDJs, but it’s not really an issue if you’re using the S4 for a bit of standard, recreational scratching.

One thing that might irk some users is the stiffness of the jogs. Spinbacks will be a thing of the past for you (unless you’ve got your turntables or CDJs attached), but again, that’s not much of problem in the context of the S4, which is a general purpose controller and not a finely tuned turntablist tool.

Plus, the stiffness of the jogs is certainly a benefit if you’re using them to adjust the phasing of your tracks while beatmatching. The generous height of the jog wheels is also a definite help when adjusting the phasing of the tracks, because it means you’re less likely to touch the scratch platters accidentally. As mentioned earlier, the jog wheels are too close to the EQ and filter pots of channels C and D for comfort, and this might cause an accidental nudge of the jog wheels.

Pitch Faders

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The other deck feature essential for beatmatching is the pitch fader, and in a characteristic display of innovation NI has included two directional buttons (known as offset buttons) that are located at the top of each pitch fader. The offset buttons indicate the position of the virtual pitch fader in relation to the physical pitch fader. If the virtual pitch fader’s at 4%, for example, and the physical pitch fader’s at -2%, then the left-hand offset button illuminates to denote the fact. Pressing that offset button will then set the virtual pitch fader to the same pitch setting as the physical pitch fader. This might seem pointless at first glance, but the offset buttons do help when switching between decks. As an example, if deck A is playing at 6% and you switch to deck C to move the pitch fader to 0% you’ll then have a problem if you want to move the pitch fader for deck A again. This is because moving the fader will reset deck A’s pitch to 0% when the pitch fader’s touched. Another way of getting around this problem is pressing and holding the Shift button while you move the pitch fader. This prevents the virtual pitch fader from reflecting the setting of the physical pitch fader, which means move the pitch fader to the correct point, release Shift, and then adjust the pitch of the deck as you see fit.

The fact that NI’s thought about such problems, and produced solutions to them, is testament to the care and attention it’s invested in the Kontrol S4. It’s a shame, then, that physically the pitch faders are unremarkable and feel like a nostalgic, if fond, nod to the past. Their short length, for example, means that it’s difficult to accurately match BPMs if you’re using a pitch range other than 6%, but this really isn’t much an issue. To be honest, the pitch faders are a nostalgic addition to the S4, largely being an anachronism and an irrelevance. Traktor’s BPM detection is so good that most users will be happy to push the sync button and let Traktor beatmatch for them. I’ve been beatmatching for one and a half decades, and even I happily ignored the pitch faders in favour of the sync button.

Transport Controls And Deck Controls

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The S4’s transport and deck controls are constructed of soft rubber that feels pleasant to the touch. There are only four physical controls, but you can access more by using three of them in conjunction with the Shift button. In addition to the Start and Cue buttons, you have the Shift button and the Sync button. Pressing the Shift and Cue buttons together returns the track currently loaded into that deck to the beginning. This is handy if you want a quick replay. Pressing Shift and the Sync button together makes that deck the master for tempo, and pressing Shift and Play either activates or deactivates the keylock for that deck depending on its original state.

The buttons are all easily accessible, are large enough to avoid accidentally hitting the wrong one, and each button can be illuminated to denote a change in state.

Hot-Cues

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Everyone loves hot-cues. Jumping to any point in a track and drumming some beats as if your controller’s an MPC is highly addictive. Traktor offers you eight hot-cues, so it’s a shame to see the S4 offering only four. I know you can use Maschine as an extra controller, or configure an APC20 or some other controller for the job, but that’s not really a solution. Why would you want to spend money on extra controllers if you’ve spent £750 already?

That said, the hot-cue buttons are large and they’re made of rubber, which makes them comfortable to use. You can also configure the Sample buttons to work as hot-cue buttons if you want. Deleting hot-cues involves the simple use of the Shift key in conjunction with the hot-cue you want to delete, and storing hot-cues involves the simple press of an empty hot-cue button.

If you have Snap mode switched on, you can hit the hot-cue buttons and Traktor will make sure that the hot-cue is triggered on beat. If you plan on doing a bit of hot-cue drumming, however, you’ll need to disable Quantise mode. The purpose of Quantise is to keep beats of two or more tracks synchronised, but if you’re hot-cue drumming this is exactly what you don’t want.

The hot-cue buttons are well-designed and are implemented with performance in mind.

Looping

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Traktor’s looping system is at once incredibly powerful and manifestly simple, and it’s mirrored faithfully by the Kontrol S4. At its most basic, you simply punch in the start and end points of a loop using the Loop In and Loop Out buttons that can be found on each deck. The buttons then turn green to let you know that the loop’s active. If you prefer, you can set loops of 1/32nd to 32 beats in length using an autolooper dial. An LED at the side of the dial shows you the length of the loop you’re about to (or have already) set. Sadly, the loop length display doesn’t display the length of loops you’ve manually created. Presumably, this is because the display’s programmed to display numbers that are a multiple of two, and if you create a manual loop it might be an odd number or you might simply confuse Traktor with your imprecision. Either way, if something can be done to change this is in a future firmware update, so that the loop lengths of manually created loops are displayed too, then that’d be a clear benefit for S4 users.

Loops can be saved for later use by pressing a free hot-cue button, which will then turn green to show that a loop is assigned to it, but unless all loops are made ‘active’ they’re nothing more than hot-cues. This means that if you’ve assigned a loop to a hot-cue button it won’t loop if you press that hot-cue button, it’ll just play from the loop in point as if it’s a hot-cue. You may say “just keep loops active”, but the problem with that is that Traktor will then play any loops that it comes across whether you want it to or not. This is really a quirk of Traktor, not the S4, but it lessens your enjoyment of the S4 nonetheless.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Not only can you set loops, you can also ‘move’ the loop through the track using a pot located to the left of the manual loop buttons. You can also set perfect, seamless loops by enabling Quantise and Snap. The only problem with this is that you can’t create imprecise loops when Snap’s active. This means, for example, that you can’t slap the manual loop buttons to create stutter effects, because Snap mode won’t allow it. Of course, you can enable or disable Snap mode with the press of a single button.

It might be just be me, but when I look at the S4’s loop sections I feel intimidated by the number of controls and display items that are packed in to that small space, and yet, when I use them, I have no problem at all. Even though the loop sections look busy they’re actually well spaced. Would I prefer more space around them? Of course, but unlike other areas of the S4, I didn’t accidentally hit something I hadn’t intended to hit.

The S4’s loop controls are every bit as incredibly powerful and manifestly simple as those on Traktor itself.

Sample Decks



Thanks to software like Traktor and the easy availability of CDJs, DJs can no longer expect applause for playing a string of perfectly beat-matched tracks. To make themselves distinct from the competition they have to create their own style by mixing tracks together in novel ways. One such novel way is to combine loops to introduce a track gradually or in a way that isn’t possible if you were to mix a track in normally. Having recognised this, NI has added sample decks to Traktor and included four sample buttons on the Kontrol S4.

In order to use the Sample buttons you must use decks C or D as sample decks. You can then create a loop using deck A or B and press one of the sample buttons to assign it to that button. The button is then illuminated dimly. Pressing the button triggers the sample and illuminates it brightly. Of course, there’s more to the sampling on the Kontrol S4 than that. If you switch to decks C and D you can control the volume of the samples, filter them and control their tempo using the deck controls. Unfortunately, you can’t switch between loop and one-shot modes using the Kontrol S4 because this still has to be done using the mouse or trackpad, but when decks C or D are selected you can use the hot-cue buttons to play them, although the samples will only play as long as the hot-cue buttons are depressed.

Decks C and D make great auxiliary decks when set to sample mode, allowing you to drop snippets of tracks into the main mix, preparing the crowd for the big drop. Because you can switch decks C and D between sample and track modes easily using the mouse it’s not a case of either or. You can use the sample decks when you need them and then switch back to a track deck later.

FX Units

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Think of Traktor and you think of effects. I’ve used Traktor for years, and even though I rarely use effects it’s still the first thing to spring to my fragile mind when I picture Traktor. Given that, it was inevitable that NI would grace the S4 with the most productive and efficient means of interacting with Traktor’s effects yet seen. Except that it hasn’t.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with NI’s implementation, and everything works as it should. You can switch between chained and advanced modes using the Mode toggle switch located on each of the two FX controllers. Each FX controller features four buttons that mirror those seen on screen (one being the activation button and the other three buttons having a specific function dependent on the mode and effect in use) and four pots (one being the dry/wet control and the other three being used to control effect dependent parameters). The controls aren’t particularly well spaced and you’ll have real difficulty manipulating two adjacent pots simultaneously without mashing your fingers.

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The buttons are well illuminated, large enough to hit on autopilot and they respond to FX changes made using the mouse immediately, but they’re uncomfortably close to the FX pots. The lack of space makes using the S4’s FX controllers an awkward experience and puts you off using them entirely.

On a more positive note, the Shift button grants you even more control of Traktor’s FX units, letting you select effects and save effects settings as snapshots to be used later. You can also use the S4’s FX controllers to command FX units 3 and 4 when deck 3 or 4 is active.

The S4’s FX controls are functional, but flawed, and I can’t help pining for the spacious and better implemented FX controls of Pioneer’s DDJ-T1 when I use them, even though they were completely ruined by that controller’s Needle Search feature. I don’t understand. Effective and intuitive manipulation of Traktor’s effects is vital and of paramount importance for any controller, so why hasn’t any manufacturer got it 100% right yet? For me, the DDJ-T1 is the only Traktor controller that offers FX controls I’d actually want to use.

Audio Interface

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

The audio interface is a 24-bit 96KHz affair featuring two stereo inputs and two stereo outputs. Typically, you’ll have one stereo output going to your headphones and the other going to the master outputs on the back panel. As for the inputs, they can be used to attach turntables or CDJs to control Traktor via timecode or simply to use the Kontrol S4 as a mixer. Please note however, that the Kontrol S4 must be used in conjunction with Traktor for it to function as a mixer.

The sound quality of the Kontrol S4 is excellent for its position in the market. It doesn’t sound as good as the A&H’s Xone:DB4 or Pioneer’s DJM900NXS, but in comparison to other controllers at its price-point it sounds great. It even sounds better (to my ears) than Pioneer’s DDJ-S1. The sound emitted by it has a certain warmth and fullness to it that you don’t often hear through controllers of this price.

Configuring the Kontrol S4’s AI is quick and simple, thanks to its sensibly designed settings utility. There are no superfluous graphics bigging up the manufacturer and the GUI isn’t overcomplicated by pointless settings that only exist to give the false impression of complexity. Instead, you’ve got a clean, uncluttered panel featuring two tabs. The first tab lets you set the sample rate (from 44.1KHz to 96KHz) and the second lets you adjust the sample buffer (from 32 to 512 samples). It also displays the output latency, which is determined by the sample rate and sample buffer settings that you’ve chosen. The second tab displays information about your driver, the number of I/O errors the AI has encountered during the current session, and the number of applications currently using the device.

Opening the S4’s configuration utility via Traktor causes playback to cease, so it’s not something you want to play around with in front of an audience. Please note that while it’s possible to access the S4’s AI using more than one application simultaneously, it’s unlikely your PC and S4 can cope with it.

And don’t think the AI is a Traktor specific device, because it isn’t. It also works well with other applications, such as Ableton Live 8 and Mixxx.

Native Instruments is synonymous with high quality, DJ focused audio interfaces. Fitting anything less than adequate in the Kontrol S4 would’ve meant instant ridicule and a dead product. Luckily, they haven’t and the S4’s sound quality, together with its rational and sensible configuration utility, put it ahead of the competition in this regard.

Timecode Control

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

One key feature of the Kontrol S4 has ensured it’s gone straight to the top of many a DJ’s shopping list, and that’s timecode control. It might offer timecode control of only two decks, but for many people that’s plenty, especially when you’ve also got access to two software decks as well.

To use timecode, all you have to do is attach CDJs or turntables to the back of the Kontrol S4, flick the input selector switches to phono or line as desired, and then run Traktor’s setup wizard. Because you’re not using any outboard equipment, as you would with an audio 4, audio 10, and so on, you don’t have a mass of unnecessary power and audio cables cluttering up your workspace. Once you’ve told Traktor that you’re using timecode you can then configure inputs and outputs as you need them. If you want to use decks C and D for timecode and use decks A and B as virtual decks, using the S4’s deck controls, you can do that too. The S4 offers a remarkable amount of flexibility, and just because you’re driving Traktor with regular decks, don’t think that you’re limited by the comparatively reduced feature sets of those machines. You’re still able to use the Kontrol S4’s looping and hot-cue controls for timecode-driven decks.

Assuming you’re using a fairly powerful computer with a decent amount of RAM, you can get usable performance at sample buffers as low as 64 samples. The timecode performance of the Kontrol S4 is immense, and considering the price of it, and all the features it offers in addition to timecode, it’s impossible not to regard the S4 as something of a bargain.

MIDI Control

As wonderful as Traktor is, there are times when you need to use other applications, but will the Kontrol S4 let you do this? Absolutely, but you must first switch it from its native NHL mode (the proprietary control protocol responsible for the tight integration between the S4 and Traktor) to regular MIDI mode. You do this by pressing the Shift and Browse buttons simultaneously, and the Kontrol S4 lets you know that it’s activated by displaying the word “on” via the loop length LEDs on both decks.

Once MIDI mode’s activated you can boot up whichever application you want to use and configure it to use the Kontrol S4 like any other controller. Indeed, the Kontrol S4 makes an excellent controller for Ableton Live when used in conjunction with an APC20. As with any controller, you can configure your applications to work with the Kontrol S4 in a way that suits you.

Allowing the Kontrol S4 to be used as a regular MIDI controller adds further value to the unit and makes it even more versatile.

Conclusion

Native Instruments Kontrol S4 review skratchworx

Like many people, my first encounter with the Kontrol S4 was at BPM and, like many people, I wasn’t that impressed by its perceived build quality. I’d never base an opinion on something I hadn’t used properly (especially when its manufacturer’s Native Instruments), but neither was I tearing my wallet apart to find the £750 needed to buy one. Happily, the review model was a million miles away from the pre-release unit at BPM and, as you may have guessed from this review, it’s well worth the money NI are asking for it.

Is it the perfect Traktor controller? No, not at all, but it’s the closest thing yet. I’m sure (I hope) that in time NI will create a larger version that includes more features and four deck timecode control, but until then, the Kontrol S4 is, for me, the best mid-priced Traktor controller you can currently buy.

Although individual controls are generously sized, they’re packed in to too small a space for comfort, which means you frequently nudge adjacent controls unintentionally. Also, certain functions, such as track selection, aren’t as well supported as you’d want. It’s certainly easier to browse for and select tracks using Pioneer’s DDJ-T1 than it is using the Kontrol S4. I also think that the FX controls of the Kontrol S4 don’t offer the same level of convenience, control and space as those of the DDJ-T1.

Indeed, if you’re not that interested in timecode control or would prefer something else, then both the DDJ-T1 and Denon’s MC-6000 are worthy and credible alternatives, although neither features the slippery smooth Traktor integration of NI’s Kontrol S4. Everything considered, especially value for money, the Kontrol S4 is an excellent buy.

Ratings

Build Quality
My view is that this unit will last longer than you think, but not as long as you’d want. If you’re using it in your home studio you shouldn’t experience any problems, but if you’re constantly moving it about then…who knows?

Sound Quality
The sound quality isn’t as good as that provided by the likes of the Xone:DB4 or DJM-900NXS, but it is excellent and you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with it. NI knows how to make audio interfaces that have excellent sound quality, and the Kontrol S4 is no exception.

Features And Implementation
The Kontrol S4 isn’t the perfect Traktor controller, but it’s as close as you can currently get. Everything you need to enjoy the key features of Traktor is present on the Kontrol S4, but there’s not enough to completely divorce you from the mouse and keyboard.

Value For Money
£750 is a lot of money, but when you consider the wealth of features (including timecode control) that the Kontrol S4 offers, the unit does present excellent value for money.

Bottom Line

If you’re looking for the best mid-priced Traktor controller then, in my opinion, this is it. It isn’t perfect, but in terms of value for money the Kontrol S4’s ahead of the pack.

Thanks to Constantin Koehncke of Native Instruments for the loan of the review unit.

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