Besides those two built-in displays, the first thing you notice about the S8 is the size. At 58.5-by-38.7 cm, it's substantially bigger than the S4, and it weighs about 50% more as well. Some of that weight gain can be attributed to the extra internal hardware required to let it function as a standalone mixer. The overall layout has also changed substantially, especially when it comes to the outer deck control sections. Jog wheels have been replaced with a sort of merging of the X1 and F1 controllers, with the new LED displays prominently featured near the top. In the center mixer section, the differences are subtle but important—the loop controls are gone, presumably due to the prominence of the remix deck controls on the S8, and the cue mix and volume knobs have filled the void. Additionally, there are on/off buttons for both the filters and the tracks themselves, the latter allowing you to easily switch between external (turntables, CDJs) and internal (Traktor) decks.
The front and back panels of the S8 are new as well, with features one would hope for from a high-end DJ mixer. The front has crossfader-assign switches for each of the four mixer channels and a recessed knob that alters the crossfader's curve. Around back you'll find an impressive array of connectivity jacks: four stereo RCA pairs and two microphone jacks (one XLR, one 1/4 inch) for input, and for output you have your choice of XLR or RCA for the mains and 1/4-inch for the booth. If you're looking to connect MIDI gear, you can use the hardware MIDI connections or the USB connection, which can also be used to turn the S8 into an audio interface. As an audio interface, the S8 gives you four pairs of inputs and two pairs of outputs (booth and main) that run at 24 bit, 48 kHz.
Let's turn back to the LED displays. As the spotlight feature of the S8, it's important to understand what they bring to the table. To start with, when you push the Browse encoder, the display changes to show the same browser tree you see within Traktor Pro. Navigating through the tree from the S8 is fairly straightforward by way of the clickable Browse encoder and an accompanying Back button. You can change the sort order of playlists using the performance controls below the display—a crucial feature that is curiously not documented in the manual at the time of this review. By default, the S8 gives you the artist name, track name, BPM, key and rating of the tracks. This is certainly workable, but it would be nice to able to configure the views to scroll to other fields like genre or comments.
Once you have a track loaded in a deck, the track waveform pops up on the displays. The S8's waveform style feels most reminiscent of the Traktor DJ app for iOS, and it also uses a similar pop-over display workflow. On the left side of the LED display, you'll find two small buttons that open pop-ups where you can view and make adjustments to the BPM and key of the currently loaded track. The ability to view and change the key of a track on the fly without having to look away from the controller is one of the S8's killer features. Combined with Traktor Pro's key detection, this gives you everything you need to achieve harmonic mixing.
There are a few other areas where the LED displays come in handy. You can use them to adjust the beat grid of any tracks that aren't analyzed correctly, with the S8 featuring a mode dedicated to doing just that. The displays also help out when using Traktor's effects. The S8 allows you to set up and use four effects units at once (the performance knobs and buttons below the displays link to units 3 and 4), and you can configure them all right from the controller. Thanks to their touch-sensitivity, when you touch any effects control, the displays also give you immediate visual feedback showing you the effect name as well as its current values.
The last area where the S8's screens play a major role is when using Traktor's remix decks. Switching the side sections of the controller between the main decks and the remix decks is tremendously simple, thanks to a pair of dedicated Deck buttons. When you do that, the displays switch to the same remix deck overview that you see in the Traktor Pro 2 software. The S8's large performance pads can be used to both play samples from remix sets and to capture loops and samples on the fly. You can also use the performance controls to adjust the filter, pitch and effects-send for each of the four slots in a remix deck. With all of the possibilities this opens up, keeping track of what's going on could be intimidating, so having the extensive visual feedback of the displays to help you out is unquestionably handy.
I could continue to expound on what else the S8 brings to the table, like the freeze mode, the replaceable fader section with spill-resistant design and everything you can do with the touch strips, but suffice to say I came away impressed with what the engineers and designers at Native Instruments have accomplished. My only concern is that, with its large size and the fragile nature of LED screens, I might think twice about taking it on the road, at least without a solid case (and, given its weight, a strong back). It seems to follow in the path of Maschine Studio, which to me is meant to take up permanent residence in a studio/club. With that said, as a Traktor user, there's simply no controller out there today that I'd rather own.
Ease of use: 4.6