The S4 has landed, can it continue NI's return to form?
A few weeks ago we were pleasantly surprised by the news Native Instruments were launching a huge comeback with various new pieces of software with the hardware to match. We’ve had our hands on the baby S2 controller a few weeks now and it’s a great all rounder that compliments the new version of Traktor very well (Read Our Review Here). However the product we have all been eagerly awaiting is the S4, complete with industry first Haptic Drive jog wheels. Do the jog wheels live up to the hype? Has Native Instruments created a controller so good you will want to change platforms? Let’s find out!
The deck section of the S4 has had a major overhaul from the NI controllers of old. Gone are the days of transport controls being found at the centre bottom of the decks, NI have taken the more industry standard of bringing the play and cue buttons over to the left hand side with large hard plastic tactile buttons. This is a great update, the whole system feels instantly more familiar and less daunting to users coming from the Pioneer, Denon, Roland scene. 8 RGB performance pads are found to the right now. These feel great but are a little smaller compared to rivals units and aren’t velocity sensitive, instead they have a click at the bottom of the stroke. Native Instruments have decided to stick with dedicated loop and beat jump dials rather than physical buttons, these perform well and can perform different tasks such as key shifting when holding shift. The knobs will feel familiar for anybody coming from Native Instruments older DJ hardware. In the middle of the loop and move controls are the high resolution displays. These displays are great and provide a wealth of information about current tempo, active loops, the track time and a basic waveform overview. The screens can also show information about the stems and remix decks but more about that later.
Onto the main event, those large motorised haptic drive jog wheels. These 5” capacitive units are much larger than jog wheels found on previous NI controllers and thats no bad thing. They are responsive, feel great under the finger and sport a stylish fading LED needle indicator around the brim. This however isn’t the reason why everyone is talking about them. That would be because now, they move. Spinning platters on controllers isn’t a completely new concept, Numark have had moving units on the NS7 for years and Denon recently introduced a motorised version of their SC5000 media player. However, unlike Denon and Numark who opted for a system with a moving platter and slip mat, NI chose a high torque motor to move their capacitive wheels. You can choose between a spinning turntable mode or a more traditional static nudge wheel with adjustable tension. The tension control is directly adjusted on the unit by holding the TT button and rotating the jogs. This is a great feature and this genuinely creates jog wheel tension that feels far superior to mechanical offerings found on units such as the DDJ 1000.
A more disappointing element of these jog wheels however was the much anticipated haptic feedback. This too is a brand new technology and creates a nudge effect on the jog wheel when the DJ passes over a hot cue. We were really looking forward to this, imagining a system that made beat juggling and scratch drops a whole world easier. However in practice the nudge feedback, wether in corse or fine mode simply feels like there is grit underneath the jog wheel whilst you pitch bend. The hot cue lumps in practice feel more like lose mechanic jog wheels than helpful references and at times depending on your jog wheels speed, the feeling disappeared completely. A nice gimmick but not a game changer like we had hoped the technology might be, that said NI do have the ability to update the firmware so this might get better in time.
At the top of each deck you can find 4 knobs within the effects section. These knobs can be programmed within the software to either control 3 individual effects that can be layered or a single effect with greater control over it’s parameters. With over 40 beat synced effects to choose from they sound great and all work post fader.
Within Traktor Pro 3 you can chose between a variety of deck styles. From regular track playing decks, live input (through mode) to stem deck and remix deck. The latter remix deck is controlled with the 8 RGB pads and the high resolution screens provide key information so you can keep your eyes away from the laptop. The remix decks relies upon samples you load in and essentially creates a step sequencer thats quantised to the master playing deck. This unlocks a whole world of creativity and the ability to create live remixes on the fly.
Stem audio files break tracks down into layers that you can individually manipulate on the fly. Within Trakor Pro 3 when you load a stems enabled track into a Stem Deck the RGB pads light up according to the layers within the track. You can then turn each layer on or off, control its volume or even add a filter. It’s another unique tool within Traktor that enables you to enhance your DJ sets and make them stand out from the crowd.
At the heart of the Kontrol S4 is a four channel mixer complete with 3 band total kill EQ. All the faders on the unit are ‘Carbon Protect’ units, which feature an upside down design providing greater durability and resistance to dust or liquids. These fader feel great and the crossfader is tight and smooth, great for scratch DJ’s. A brand new feature within Traktor Pro 3 are the new mixer FX, these are very similar to Colour Effects found on Pioneer mixers and work in much the same way. You can find dedicated controls for the mixer effects below the EQ for each channel and you can individually select certain effects or filters for each channel too which is a fantastic. At the top of each channel are effect bank controls, allowing you to assign each channel to either the left or right bank of deck effects.
Being powered by a 24-bit / 96-kHz audio interface the unit sounds fantastic and sports a great range of inputs and outputs. Each channel features a line input with phono added to channels A/B, the unit is fully DVS compatible. You can plug a XLR mic into channel D and channel C can accept 1/4 inch jack microphone. A nice touch is the inclusion of a USB hub on the rear of the unit, great for laptops with limited available ports. Outputting is handled by a pair of balanced XLR ports plus unbalanced RCA ports, dedicated left and right booth outputs are on 1/4 jack. It is worth noting that you will lose a channel when using a mic or external source and the laptop must be connected at all times to operate the unit. Stand alone mixer functionality isn’t yet available but hopefully this will be addressed in a future firmware.
The Native Instruments Kontrol S4 is a powerhouse of a controller that packs unrivalled creative tools into a small and portable package. We would have liked more metal in its construction, compared to a similar Pioneer or Denon controllers the unit feels light and time will only tell if it last on the road. The S4 is priced very competitively, it meets the needs of NI users of old and now with its friendlier design and unique features its sure to turn heads. That said Traktor is still a very complex piece of software which can be daunting for first time users. The turntable style jog wheels are fantastic fun, they feel great and we would love to see them on more products in the future. We are looking forward to seeing the firmware updates, the stand alone mixer is a feature that will really add value and will allow the S4 become the centre of a DJ setup. We were left a little underwhelmed by the haptic feedback system but that doesn’t take away from the fact this is a fantastic controller that’s sure to be a hit with Traktor users new and old.