These are good times for DJs who like to do more than just mix one track into another. The dividing lines between the worlds of DJing and live performance, having been blurred already over the past few years, are continuing to disintegrate. Native Instruments has been one of the biggest leaders in this transformation, consistently advancing their flagship DJ app Traktor with new functionality like the Sample Decks introduced in Traktor 2, and a line of controllers like the X1 and S4 that give hands-on access to those advanced features.
At the NAMM show in LA this past January, Native Instruments hinted at a new Traktor update with a press release showing off what appeared to be a colorful grid of buttons. The rumor mill quickly swung into action, pontificating on what this could mean. It didn't take long for an official announcement to come out, however, and in May the latest version of Traktor, 2.5, was released into the wild. So what does this new version, which comes with the tag line "Traktor, Remixed," have up its sleeve?
Many things. First, Native Instruments claims to have reworked the tempo and beat detection engine for the better. This is immediately noticeable when analyzing tracks in 2.5 as you are presented with a new dialog of options that allow you to guide Traktor by specifying a range of BPM that the track will likely land within. These options include ranges as low as 48-95 BPM all the way up to 128-255 BPM, so it's safe to say that it should be able to handle most tracks you can throw at it. There are also checkboxes in the new dialog that allow you to control whether Traktor sets the beatgrid when analyzing, and whether it should replace the existing gain stored with a track with a more suitable one as determined by the new analysis.
Now, that may not excite many, but the second of the major updates is much flashier: the Remix Deck. This is a full-scale replacement to the Sample Decks, but you could be forgiven for thinking of them as Sample Decks 2.0. Where before you had four sample slots to assign to either one-shot or loops, the Remix Deck expands on that theme and gives you a very Ableton-esque 16 sample cells within each sample slot, for a total of 64 samples playable per deck. Like the Sample Decks, each of the four slot columns has its own filter and volume controls, and each can be muted and stopped independently, although that foundation has been built upon considerably.
Starting off, the four sample slots have been made much more independent, allowing you to both monitor and route them to the FX individually. This provides quite a bit more flexibility than the Sample Decks—for example if you have a vocal loop and a beat playing together within a single deck, there's a good chance you don't want to apply the same FX to both. Monitor and FX, along with Punch and Keylock, make up the four main sample slot parameters that can be toggled on/off by hovering over the heading of each slot with the mouse. Punch, in particular, is helpful as it maintains the relative position of loops while bouncing back and forth between other samples within the same slot.
The Remix Deck gets even more powerful by way of an advanced panel, which contains parameters that you can set for each of the 64 sample cells. Within this panel you can change the pitch of the sample (from one octave below to one octave above), the speed and length, and other parameters that affect the way it is played back. This advanced panel is accessed by double-clicking the upper border of the Remix Deck, but the individual controls are small enough that there is probably no way you're realistically going to be able to make adjustments to them with a mouse / trackpad while in a live setting, so there has to be an alternative, right?
If you're hoping to map your existing controllers to take advantage of the advanced features of the Remix Deck, unfortunately at this time you're going to have limited success. The controller manager in Traktor 2.5 allows you to map to the first four sample cells within each slot, and some of the basic slot controls like filter and volume, but none of the advanced panel controls. To open up the full potential of the Remix Deck, Native Instruments had a different vision: rather than attempting to cram hundreds to thousands of parameters into the controller manager (a task they report to be actively undertaking), they created what they consider to be the perfect hardware for the job.
This new USB controller is called the Traktor Kontrol F1, and is designed in a similar form as the ever-popular X1. The F1's layout is split into three main sections. The top houses the filter knobs and volume faders for each of the four sample slots. On the bottom you'll find the multi-colored 4x4 matrix of buttons featured on that teaser image from NAMM—these are the sample cell trigger buttons. This button matrix also does double duty when choosing parameter values like slot parameters, sample cell color and quantization levels.
The middle part of the F1 is where the advanced features are accessed via mode buttons and an encoder knob. All of the mode buttons have both a primary and secondary function, with the secondary function available while holding shift and pressing the button. It took a bit of practice to get acclimated to the different modes, but after going through the tutorials in the F1 manual and having a few play sessions it started to become quite natural. The manual is pretty essential though, because with a device as complex as the Remix Deck, there is no way to easily spell out every single parameter value—for example if you want to switch a sample from a loop to a one-shot, you have to know that loops are green and one-shots are blue when you're in the play type mode.
This is all good, but by default when you load Traktor 2.5 for the first time the Remix Decks will be staring back at you with empty sample slots. There are two options for filling them: you can load content from your track collection, or you can capture on the fly. Native Instruments provides a 1.4 GB downloadable collection of content for the Remix Decks on their website, with samples from Pan-Pot, Subb-an, Stewart Walker and others. This is pretty impressive and can certainly jumpstart you down the road of using the decks, but you're pretty quickly going to want to start capturing samples from your own decks.
Doing this via mouse is actually not too bad: you can drag and drop from a Track Deck into a sample slot, and a loop is automatically created from that track. If the track is not currently looped, it will create a loop starting at the current playback position using the selected loop size. Capturing samples from the F1 is just as simple, and a bit more convenient as you can control the loop size of the deck you're capturing right from the F1 itself (you can even beatjump the source deck as well, which might be dangerous in some circumstances). Once you've filled up the Remix Deck to your liking, you can easily save the samples and all of their settings as a Remix Set, which shows up in your track collection.
Overall, we came away quite impressed with Traktor 2.5. If you're a more traditional DJ who doesn't do much in the way of looping, the Remix Decks probably won't excite you too much. But if you were a fan of the Sample Decks introduced last year, the Remix Decks really do take things to an entirely different level. In combination with the F1, you can very easily deconstruct a standard DJ set into a live set, without the lead time required to get an Ableton set up and running. If you're keen on getting going with the Remix Decks, but don't want to necessarily put down the cash to get the F1, keep your eye out for updates (both official and unofficial) in the near future that will open this world up to other controllers.