At this point, it's safe to say that Native Instruments' Traktor DJ for iOS is a hit. It's been the number one music app on iTunes and has received glowing reviewss. Back in February, we marveled at what NI had achieved with their entry into the world of iOS DJ software.
Despite all of that positive momentum, the reality of DJing with an iPad or iPhone still wasn't all that attractive. Mixing with a headphone splitter (to enable cueing) can be inconvenient, and trying to navigate the popup windows to control EQ, effects and filter takes some time to master. Traktor for iOS was therefore relegated to the role of track preparation or casual use for many DJs. Native Instruments seems determined to shake that impression, though, which they proved earlier this month when they revealed a new hardware unit called the Traktor Kontrol Z1 that aimed to bring Traktor DJ off the couch and into the DJ booth.
The Z1 brings quite a bit to the table. The Native Instruments engineers boiled down the essentials of Traktor DJ for iPad and fit it into the same controller form factor as its Traktor Kontrol brethren, the F1 and X1. The Z1 has the most recognizable layout of the three, with a standard two-deck DJ mixer layout. Each channel has controls for three-band EQ, gain, volume and filter/effects (including a multi-color illuminated on/off button). Nestled in the middle of the controller is a crossfader, knobs that control main and cue volume as well as cue mix and a button to enable cue for each channel. Finally, each channel sports a seven-segment LED meter spanning a dynamic range of -30 to +6 dB.
The Z1 integrates well with the iPad/iPhone/iPod, connecting to all 30-pin iOS devices with an included USB adapter cable—no Camera Connection Kit necessary. (Those with an iPhone 5 or iPad 4 can use the Z1 with a Lightning cable, which is available for purchase separately.) Once connected, you'll notice two things. First, the Z1 charges your device when in use, which is a fantastic feature that allows you to concentrate on DJing without having to keep an eye on the power meter. Second, a dialog pops up asking if you want to allow the Z1 to control Traktor DJ. Once you click yes, Traktor DJ automatically launches and the Z1 is configured and ready to go. Thankfully, there's no need to mess with MIDI mapping or controller layouts.
In addition to the clever controller integration, the Z1 also has a four-channel audio interface. This is hardwired in a typical DJ manner, with stereo RCA output jacks on the back and a stereo 1/8-inch headphone jack on the front panel. These outputs are controlled by the main and cue knobs, and are also immediately configured when connected to an iOS device. What this all means is that the Z1 is 100% ready to roll as soon as you plug it into an iPad or iPhone—a pretty rare feature for that platform—giving you the full Traktor mix experience with EQ, gain, metering and filter, plus full cueing capabilities.
When you consider that the Z1 also works in the same zero-setup, plug-and-play manner with Traktor Pro on your computer, where it can be combined with its other Kontrol siblings, it's tough to see any downsides. There are a couple of functions that perhaps could have been included, most notably the ability to browse and load tracks from the controller, and the control of deck transport (play, cue). These additions would have resulted in much less need to jump back and forth between the Z1 and the iPad when using Traktor DJ. Another improvement would be eliminating the necessity of tethering to a power cable. Given its compact size and the mobile nature of the devices it's compatible with, it would have been a nice touch to run the Z1 off of battery.
Overall, there's a lot to like about the Traktor Kontrol Z1. We were already fans of Traktor DJ for the iPad, and with its exceptionally convenient audio and controller integration, the Z1 fills in the gaps that were preventing Traktor DJ from being taken seriously in a professional DJ setting. The LED volume meters, separate headphone output and dedicated EQ and filter controls that offer simultaneous control (something that isn't possible in Traktor DJ without the Z1) result in a much more capable mixing experience. Like it or not, it won't be long before you start to see more iPads in the DJ booth. And it's likely they'll be connected to a Z1.