With its effects, multiple decks and the Native Instruments' history of making software instruments, Traktor is arguably the preferred DJ software in electronic music. While NI has built some quality hardware controllers that could supplement (the X1 and F1) or replace (the S2 and S4) a standard DJ mixer, their latest creation, the Kontrol Z2, is more: it's simultaneously a conventional stand-alone mixer, an audio interface and a Traktor control surface.
Fresh out of the box, the Z2 has a very sturdy feel. It has the same look as the other Traktor family devices—sleek black with colorful backlit buttons built into a heavy-duty metal chassis. The knobs have a nice rubber grip on them. Connectivity on the back is pretty basic: each of the two channels has RCA phono and line inputs, and the unit has an extra pair of RCA inputs and a 1/4-inch mic input. While it's unfortunate that you can't have both this auxiliary input and the mic input engaged simultaneously, there's a convenient tone knob for shaping their sound.
Though the Z2 will probably be used most often with Traktor, the phono preamps deserve some praise. In an A/B comparison to a very high-quality analog mixer, the Z2 preamps sounded bright and punchy, if not better than the competition. For output, there are XLR and RCA outputs for the master and balanced 1/4-inch outputs for the booth. The front of the mixer sports both a 1/4-inch and 1/8-inch headphone jack. In addition to the main USB connection, the mixer has two additional (and very welcome) USB ports and can function as a hub.
Each channel begins with a phono/line switch and a button to specify an analog source or a Traktor deck. Importantly, this button allows you to switch between Traktor and standalone mixing mode. Pressing shift plus the Traktor button enters Live Deck mode, which puts Traktor effects on any analog source in real time. The three-band EQ has total kill capabilities, and each channel has a combination low-pass/high-pass filter that works on both Traktor and phono/line sources. Strangely, I detected a bit of latency to this filter: it takes a split-second for the filter to kick in after turning the knob, creating an unwelcome timing artifact. Below the filter are A and B buttons for engaging effects in Traktor.
The channel faders have a nice feel to them, as does the crossfader, but they have other issues. The faders do not have the most desirable curve to them, and I detected some latency. The crossfader, when set to its steepest curve possible (as you'd set it for sharp cutting) has to travel a small distance before you can hear the other channel, rather than instantly. Battle DJs might find this response unsatisfactory. (This is a known issue with some of the built-in innoFADER crossfaders. Anyone experiencing this issue can contact NI support to have it exchanged.) The crossfader also features a reverse switch.
The Kontrol Z2 ships with a serial number for Traktor 2.6, which integrates seamlessly with the mixer. Install was easy, and it was a relief to find that my library carried over to the new version, cue points and all. My old version of Traktor Scratch Pro was not uninstalled or replaced. The mixer's layout takes advantage of features both old and new. Browsing the Traktor library is simple, with a knob at the top of the mixer for moving up and down through a playlist and buttons on either side for loading to those decks. There's a Macro FX section for each channel, with a dry/wet knob and a knob whose functions change depending on the effect. The new Macro FX are multiple-effects designed in serial, with one knob doing all the work. One of the best new features is the pre/post button, accessed by holding shift and hitting the FX On button. In pre mode, the effects happen right before the filter, and in post, effects such as delays carry on after you lower the fader to eliminate awkward cutoffs.
Although the Z2 is essentially a two-channel mixer, Traktor decks C and D are present with a dedicated volume knob and no other controls—perfect for remix decks. Creating and controlling loops and beat-jumps involves just a single push-button encoder for each channel. Above each fader is a three-digit, seven-segment display that shows numbers to indicate loop length in Traktor and occasionally some other information. (This is the only retro-looking display on an otherwise very modern mixer.) Each channel also has four backlit buttons for cue points or for triggering samples in a remix deck. It's definitely nice to have this control built right into the mixer and close to the faders instead of on a second device.
Flux mode, which lets you jump around cue points and trigger samples without disturbing your place in the original track, has its own dedicated button below the cues/triggers. Snap and quantize modes, which ensure you don't set or go to cue points off-beat, also have on/off buttons. A handy settings button at the top of the mixer allows for handling various layout, timecode and LED parameters without consulting your laptop screen. Finally, there are buttons for sync mode and relative/internal modes.
The Kontrol Z2 is both a great-sounding mixer and versatile controller. It's definitely a good choice for those who play a hybrid of vinyl and digital, much as the Rane TTM 57SL is for Serato users. The Z2, however, offers more control and performance features. If you're using older CDJs, the Z2 functions as an upgrade, providing access to features like sync, advanced waveforms, flux and quantize. And despite all the controls on the top panel, the device doesn't feel too cluttered or confusing. It's as if NI combined their X1 with a pro DJ mixer.