A Guide to the Best Traktor Controllers
Need help finding the best Traktor controller for your needs? This is a comprehensive guide for Traktor Kontrol: a line of hardware for DJs by Native Instruments designed to integrate perfectly with Traktor software.
Reading this guide should give you a solid understanding of how the hardware works, the types of workflows available, and what devices best suit your needs. This is not meant to be an overall walkthrough of the Traktor Pro 2 software.
When referring to Native Instruments hardware, “Kontrol” typically references a hardware/software combination that works together to provide an intuitive interface. In the DJ’s case, we’re referring to Traktor Kontrol, though many producers also enjoy the Komplete Kontrol series of keyboards.
Lets take a moment to discuss a few of the features involved in a typical Traktor setup.
Native Instruments is very focused on providing tight integration between hardware and software, and providing a smart interface for humans like us to do a lot of multi-tasking in a small space.
In some cases (such as the S8, S5, and D2), this involves the combination of a high resolution screen and touch-capacitive controls:
In these systems, when you touch certain parts of the controller, the screen will change to accommodate whatever you’re trying to do. For example, touching one of the FX knobs causes panels to slide down and show you the exact changes you’re making to that parameter.
If you want to see the length of your loop setting before actually engaging it, simply touch the loop knob and the number pops over the screen. Twist the knob left or right to change the loop length, and then push it down to engage the loop.
Even in screen-less devices like the Kontrol S4 or or the F1 (Remix Deck controller), there is still a high level of visual feedback. This comes in the form of multi-color RGB backlit pads, LED number displays, etc.
This type of integration, with focus on user experience, is a Native Instruments specialty. For many, this attention to detail is an appealing reason to operate within the Traktor ecosystem.
There are several ways to handle individual Decks within Traktor, depending on your type of workflow:
In an all digital system, the playing and mixing is typically done internally, and DJs often allow the computer to maintain tempo using the “Sync” function (though it is not required). A DVS-style system involves using turntables with timecode records (or CDJs in HID mode) to control your digital music. You can customize your workflow to land anywhere along the spectrum.
There are several types of Decks within Traktor software. You can switch between them by clicking on the Deck indicator (the A/B/C/D) and selecting one of the following:
- Track Deck: your “traditional” digital deck (which takes the place of a CDJ or turntable). Play songs straight through, or skip around using hot cues.
- Remix Deck: a clip-based deck which allows you to trigger samples and loops instead of play full tracks straight through.
- Stem Deck: a four-channel deck which contains split elements (such as bass, drums, vocals, and melody).
- Scratch Control: a deck which accepts timecode input in order to manipulate your digital music like a record.
- Live Input: direct-thru input from an external source, such as a CDJ or another controller.
In Traktor, Flux Mode is a feature which enables a track to keep playing along a virtual timeline, despite changes you make in the meantime. It allows you to use cue points, loops, and hot cues without losing your “spot” in the song.
Flux mode allows you to interact with Traktor’s transport controls, and when you’re done, the track jumps right back to where it would have been otherwise.
This functionality is described as “Slip Mode” on Pioneer DJ devices.
These devices generally contain everything you need to DJ comfortably with Traktor. This includes control of the mixing section, FX, transport functions, track browsing, looping, and other core features of the software. Each device contains a high-quality digital audio interface.
With any of these devices and a laptop, you essentially have everything that you need to connect to a club PA or sound system and play a complete set with Traktor.
The Kontrol S series is made up of several offerings in several different price points, and each one has a feature-set that makes it worthy of consideration. Below are details on each device.
The Kontrol S8 is the best Traktor controller offered by Native Instruments. The S8 is hands-down the most fully-featured and well-integrated controller currently available for Traktor. The touch-sensitive knobs, high-quality onboard screens, and smart UI design make for a pleasant experience… assuming you can do without the jog wheels.
This Stems-ready controller also functions as a standalone mixer, gives full access to remix sets, and allows you to control 4 fully-functional decks.
The Traktor Kontrol S5 is a feature-heavy midrange option that provides similar functionality to its big brother, the S8. The S5 is a great way for Traktor “power users” to deeply deconstruct and reconstruct the music within their sets, while sacrificing a few purpose-specific features from the S8 in order to provide an attractive price tag.
The S5 provides access to Stems, Remix Decks, and just about everything else inside Traktor Pro 2. However, there are no line inputs (so, no standalone mode or timecode).
Kontrol S4 (MKII)
This Traktor Kontrol S4 is a slightly improved version of the device that, arguably, put controllers on the map. Though it doesn’t support the fancy screens and the level of control over Traktor that is provided by the S8 and S5, the layout is well thought-out and perfect for 4-deck control.
The Kontrol S4 is a great option for DJs who don’t mind keeping their laptops within their line of sight. You even get Stems control, partial access to Remix Decks, and full DVS capability with the timecode add-on.
Kontrol S2 (MKII)
For the budget-minded, the Traktor Kontrol S2 MKII is a great option for Traktor users who only need two-deck control (and even offers partial onboard access to Remix Decks in a similar manner to the S4). For those who like the traditional dual-jogwheel layout and a compact footprint, give the S2 a serious look.
If you’re an iPad DJ, this is likely the best Traktor controller for you. It’s fully plug-and-play compatible with Traktor DJ (for iOS)… as is the S4, but without paying for the “extra” channels you won’t be using.
Which Should I Choose?
The entire lineup of all-in-ones offered by NI is pretty solid, and they all provide access to the basic functions in Traktor without making you feel like you’re operating with a handicap.
Logically, of the four options given, the S8 is the cream of the crop when it comes to operating within the Traktor ecosystem. It is the only one that comes with Traktor Scratch Pro 2, which means it comes fully DVS (timecode) capable straight out of the box.
The high-res screens and touch-sensitive controls make for a very smart and enjoyable user experience… and if you can deal without the jog wheels (as DVS users would), this device is about as good as it gets for Traktor. Even fully digital, the touch-strips do not hold back most DJs unless they are into scratching and other similar tricks.
The S5 acts as a sort of “S8 Lite”. It provides most of the functionality of it’s big brother: 4-deck control, Remix Decks and Stems support, screens with smart feedback and touch sensitivity, and an overall pleasant Traktor experience.
So what’s the downside? Primarily, you lose some control over your Remix Decks (it ditches the individual faders in the transport sections), and external inputs. That means that the S5 is a no-go for people who like to use timecode. But for most Traktor users who want a feature-loaded controller (and to save a few hundred bucks), the S5 is an awesome choice.
The current revision of the S4 is the prime choice for Traktor users who prefer jog wheels over screens and touch-strips. The original S4, arguably, put controllers on the map in 2011… and the MK2 version is still a solid and powerful choice for Traktor power-users. It’s even compatible with Traktor DJ (for iOS).
And though it doesn’t operate fully standalone, it does contain RCA inputs with software-thru capability. This means that the S4 is also DVS-capable, causing some users to choose it over the S5… saving a few hundred bucks in the process. Controller DJs who also like to scratch are also often attracted to the S4 for its high-res jogwheels.
The S2 rounds out the bottom of the list, price-wise… but is a great budget option for DJs needing 2 channels. For the price, you get access to all of Traktor’s basic functionality, an extremely manageable footprint, and USB-power (no separate power cord necessary).
It contains the same high-res jogwheels as the S4, and the same intuitive access to Traktor’s FX, looping, cue points, and more. It’s also the controller which makes the most sense for users of Traktor DJ for iOS… making for an extremely affordable and compact setup for mobile DJs.
Native Instruments makes it easy to find the best Traktor controller for your needs, by providing these modular options for those who want to go a la carte. These are purpose-specific pieces of hardware, which you can mix-and-match to suit your personal workflow.
Complete solutions are great, but many people like the flexibility provided by a modular setup. This allows you to buy different “sections” at a time (such as a mixing controller vs. a deck controller).
There are several options, which are outlined below.
Kontrol D2 Kontrol F1 Kontrol X1 Kontrol Z1
Decisions, decisions. The Traktor Kontrol lineup is comprehensive, and scales well depending on budget. With all these choices, it can be hard to decide where to spend your hard-earned cash. Below are some example setups. Perhaps these will get the wheels turning, and help you decide which gear to go with.
The Modular Digital Workstation
In this example, I’m using a Kontrol D2 on each side of a Kontrol Z2 mixer. This gives you similar functionality to a Kontrol S8. (You do lose two “full” channels, but if you’re like me, you’ll use decks C & D for Remix Decks anyway… which is supported by this rig.)
It’s fair to say that a Kontrol S8 will be a better value for many users (especially for better Stems and full 4-deck support), but many users prefer the customizability and flexibility of a modular setup.
And you’re not married to the Z2 in any way: feel free to pair it with a mixer of your choice. A Rane MP2015 with one of these on each side seems like it would be a special kind of heaven. You could also pair with a Pioneer DJM900 mixer. Just remember that you are relying on a mixer with an integrated sound card. If you want to use something like the Xone:92 or an older DJM model, you’ll have to bring your own audio interface (which adds an unnecessary complication every time you need to set up).
2 Kontrol D2’s + your mixer of choice
The DVS Motherbrain
This setup involves using a Kontrol S8 as the center of a DVS setup. Simply put two Technics 1200s (or your turntables of choice) on either side of the controller, and you essentially have the “best of all worlds”.
This is the exact setup I use at home, so of course, it comes highly recommended. This is, bar none, the best way to do timecode. The S8 comes with a license for Traktor Scratch, and is made to switch between Traktor and analog input signals (e.g. real vinyl) with a simple push of a button.
This is the best marriage I’ve ever seen of the “old school” vs. “new school” ways of DJing. It’s timecode without the laptop-gazing problem, it’s all the best modern features of Traktor (seamless looping, Remix Decks, Stems, etc.), and it’s straight-up vinyl mixing… all with relative ease.
For a less fancy, but very capable (and cheaper) version of this setup… you can replace the S8 with the Kontrol S4 which also accepts timecode.
A Kontrol S8 + bring your own players
The Tablet Ninja
The Kontrol S2 and iOS combo makes for a very cheap and versatile setup… especially if you already own an iPad.
Though Traktor DJ is pretty powerful in its own right, combining it with an S2 gives you tactile control over all the software’s major functions (as well as giving you full headphones cue capability). Though you don’t get all of the bells and whistles of Traktor Pro 2, the mobile version is a solid DJ app.
You can use the Kontrol Z1 instead, which saves a few hundred bucks. This setup is impossibly portable, and allows you to perform mixing and monitoring functions on real hardware while controlling FX, browsing, etc. from the tablet itself.
Or, skip external hardware altogether and simply install Traktor DJ on your iPad. With the official splitter cable, you can even monitor and cue tracks independently of the normal output.
Your iPad + a Kontrol S2 (or Z1)
Unlike Serato DJ, Traktor does not lock you to particular pieces of hardware. Traktor’s flexibility and compatibility were part of its early success, long before the official controllers came along.
Any MIDI-capable controller will work, though at the expense of certain features:
- Most custom visual feedback (screens, proper RGB buttons, etc.) will be non-functional.
- Features non-existent in Traktor aren’t guaranteed to work (but their inputs can be re-mapped to custom functions).
- Transport data is lower resolution, which means operations like scratching can feel “laggy”.
If these don’t apply to your situation, you may bring whatever hardware you wish and buy the software independently. Traktor is highly configurable for those who are willing to dive in, and many popular controllers already have custom mappings available online.
NI also provides their own line of standalone audio interfaces:
As you can see, Native Instruments has done a pretty good job of providing a little something for everybody. From the super tight and intuitive control of the flagship S8, to the extreme portability of the Z1, Traktor users are able to build their setup to personal spec.
DJ software is largely a matter of preference these days, and there are several great options. But rest assured that if you choose Traktor, you’ll be choosing pro-grade software which is trusted in booths all across the world.
If you’ve found this guide useful, I’d like to invite you to listen to The Passionate DJ Podcast. This is a weekly talk radio show dedicated to the art and science of mixing music.