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Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S2 review
In the world of DJ'ing there are few certainties, be it the music you play, where you play it, or what you play it on. One thing's for sure, and that is that technology is changing the craft of mixing as we know it. Controllers in particular are responsible for bringing the craft closer to the masses: they're bedroom-friendly, full of gadgetry and they bring the time honored two-decks-and-a-mixer set up into the 21st century.
Native Instruments already has offerings in this area in the form of the Kontrol X1 and Kontrol S4, both of which have been hugely popular. How, then, will its latest addition to the family – the Kontrol S2 – hold up against its established elder siblings, along with an increasingly crowded pool of competing models? Is this an evolutionary refinement of its bigger brother – the S4 – or a stripped-down, slightly more economical ($669) controller for those looking to dip a toe into the whole DJ thing? Let's get under the hood and find out.
The unit itself will look very familiar to anyone who has ever laid eyes on the Kontrol S4, as the S2 is almost identical in design just with a smaller footprint. The good news is that the level of build you've come to know and expect from Native Instruments is very much still present, which is great as we rated it highly last time around. Of course the smaller form naturally comes with some trade-offs, and we'll be going over exactly what those are in more detail later, but for now it's less of the same – if you get what we mean.
It's where the S2 differs in terms of hardware that is more likely of more interest to potential buyers, and there are a few key distinctions between the two models that may swing your decision. Knob twiddlers will be pleased to know that all the input controls are also pretty much exactly as before in terms of weight, stiffness and response. The mixer and pitch faders are the same length as before so no compromise has been made here, and the vinyl effect jog wheels are also identical in both size and response. So far so good.
Most notably, the S2 is a two-deck controller, so out go two channel strips in the mixer section, along with the omission of deck C and D activate buttons. On the S4 the deck sections are set to control A and B by default, but track decks C and D are just a button push away. With the S2 you can only use the first two as track decks, for the other two you're stuck with sample decks.
With no mixer channels for the two sample decks you're left with a single volume control knob with a button to activate each sample deck, which though rudimentary, does give you some control of your mix, and you do kinda get used to it. The single row of numbered buttons below the jog wheels are used for cue points and loops on the track deck, or for sample triggering when activated with the aforementioned button.
Other space has been claimed back by ditching the loop recorder section altogether, and the loop section has been tightened by removing the LED display along with two of the FX control bays. Perhaps most disappointing is the demise of the filter knob on the mixer strips -- such a small, but valued component. You can achieve the same functionality via shift+gain , but only for the main track decks, and it's a bit of a cludge as the rotary is incremental, making smooth fades more tricky.
Spin the device around, and there are some key differences around the back, such as no audio or MIDI inputs like before, but you do get a switchable gain control for booth and main, which is new to the S2. The front is almost untouched, bar the mic volume control being swapped out for an mic 'engage' button.
The biggest boon to the user is the overall size. Most likely this is what will sell it to you if you're not switched off by the lower knob count. The S2 is much more bag-friendly, a welcome development for some no doubt, as the S4 isn't friends with your average rucksack, no problem for junior however.
Of course, the Kontrol S2 can be used as a general MIDI controller, but it's fair to say it fully shines when used with Traktor Pro 2, a copy of which is included in the price whether you run a Mac or PC. As such, you're really shelling out for a complete DJ system, rather than an input device, and it is worth accounting for that when you weigh up the over all price.
Needless to say, the software integration here is tight, making it feel more like an integrated device, rather than a disparate software/hardware 'best effort' like it can with some generic controllers.
Needless to say, the software integration here is tight, making it feel more like an integrated device, rather than a disparate software/hardware 'best effort' like it can with some generic controllers. With the S2 connected, launch Traktor, and it will automatically open in a device friendly pre-configured mode. You can of course alter this configuration, but most likely – for beginners and those new to Traktor – you'll want to hang out with this setup for the time being.
Native Instruments' decision to allow the S2 to only work with two track decks might jar with some people, but in practice it make some sense. Of the many configurations available in Traktor, the two decks and two sample decks will be of the most use to the most people, and the S2, being custom built for this, arguably gives it the edge over the S4, albeit just for this configuration. No doubt some people won't be feeling the same, but Native Instruments likely isn't going after you with this device if that is the case.
The controller market is busy right now, and all the main (and not-so-main) manufacturers want a cut of the action. This market space is still maturing, as vinyl users make the cross-over, and new DJs jump straight in at the digital ground floor. To that end, the main competitors for the S2 right now include the Pioneer Ergo V, Novation's Twitch, Vestax VCI and the Stanton SCS.4DJ, amongst others, all of which have their own particular strengths.
Price-wise, the S2 is pitched towards the top end of the list, with only the Vestax fetching more than the S2's $669 asking price. You might argue that you're getting Traktor Pro 2 into the bargain, but have you tried using Serato Itch without a controller attached? Exactly. Clearly in the S2's favour is its integration, offering a complete experience that others in this range will struggle to compete with, but it's a differentiating factor they have pushed to the limit with the smaller form factor.
At the beginning of the review we asked if this was a refinement on the previous device, or something aimed at beginners, and the price does have an important part to play in that. In this case it feels like Native Instruments is hedging its bets a little bit and gunning for both the new and those looking for serious kit with a smaller price. It will be interesting to see which of those two groups will prove the keenest adopters.
Above everything else, the Kontrol S2 does what it's meant to do, and it does it very well. It's fun to use, and it comes with a great heritage. On those terms it's pretty hard not to see this as a probable success. The DJ controller audience are a keen and fickle mob, and if there is even one thing not to their liking, you can be sure they will vocalize it. As such there will be some who malign the omission of certain features, or how there is nothing really new, but over all Native Instruments clearly knows its own software, its previous successes, and the current state of the market – and when you put all that together, the S2 is the result.