How in the world do you get away from the stupid trackpad and keyboard while DJ'ing from a laptop? This has been one of the bigger questions since DJs began moving from CDs to computer-based rigs. Traktor Kontrol X1 is one of Native Instruments' answers. The Kontrol X1 is designed to free the DJ from the laptop as much as possible, giving more control over whatever aspects of Traktor (or any other MIDI-compatible software) that they choose.
The first thing that really stands out about the Kontrol X1 has to be the quality of build. The buttons, the knobs with center detents, and the endless rotary encoders all offer a quality user experience with precision and accuracy that can sometimes be hard to find in hardware controllers. The encasement is also very sturdy, and not once did I feel like I would need to baby this piece of gear, nor was I ever fearful of breaking it during setup or breakdown. At 11.5'' long, 4.7'' wide, and 2'' tall, and weighing 1.5 lbs, it's a legit piece of gear that still remains portable. Throw in the Kontrol X1 bag (sold separately), and it not only travels well but will sit at the basic height of most mixers and turntables.
The layout of the knobs and buttons are really well thought out and you have ample space to move around, even though NI has put an enormous amount of functionality into a space only a bit larger than half a sheet of notebook paper. The box basically looks like the middle of most standard mixers, except with a series of buttons where the faders would be. It comes preprogrammed to a specific set of parameters, but also comes with a few different layouts to choose from, and it can be mapped to control absolutely anything you'd like within Traktor. The standard depth of functionality does, at times, come from several buttons having multiple possible functions, which can get tricky depending on how much you want from the controller. Many of the standard programmed functions are reached by holding down the shift button and pressing another button or turning a knob. Most shift functions are fairly well laid out and labeled, but there are a few that weren't totally clear, and in general, shift functions, while allowing you access to many more controls, can slow the DJ down in an arena where speed and fluidity are necessities.
The top half of the box is a set of eight knobs in two rows of four buttons. The standard setup here is programmed to give the DJ full control of the FX section of Traktor with control for dry/wet, on/off of each effect, and options to control even the different parameters in each effect. In the middle section, you'll find two infinite rotary encoders with detents that allow browsing through the user library and also selection of tracks to play. With the shift button held down, these knobs will also allow the user to seek through a track and to toggle the view from deck to library view. The usability of this section really can't be overstated. To be able to scroll through tracks and load them into each deck of Traktor without ever touching the computer is a thing of beauty. The next set of rotary encoders is used to control the loop section of Traktor. These knobs control the loop size when turned, and start or stop a loop when the knob is pressed. Shifted, you can move the loop, or make the loop active or inactive. The final section on the controller is preprogrammed to offer transport control. This is where the user has access to play, sync, cue, pitch bend, tempo, key, and beat jumping. The Kontrol X1's functionality and flexibility give the digital DJ the option to lose the vinyl or CD turntables, and with a few tweaks to the mapping of functions, can even allow the DJ to bypass the mixer as well. (Mapping volume controls for each deck and just the low-frequency gain to a few of the knobs gets you a super minimal mixer section.)
While the Traktor Kontrol X1 is totally plug-and-play with Native Instruments Traktor software, as mentioned already, it can also have MIDI functions assigned to it. You can even download other users' presets for Traktor or other software. In regards to Serato specifically, Native Instruments has actually included an overlay for the Kontrol X1 that shows exactly what the standard mappings control in Serato (so no guesswork necessary if you want to use it straight out of the box with that software).
I haven't had any problems with the Kontrol X1 communicating with the computer in the studio or while out playing in a club environment. Movements made on the controller also happen instantly in the software, so things like delays and filter sweeps can be made with precision, without latency issues. Once I tried this interface in the club during a live performance, I immediately fell in love with the functionality and usefulness. I was, however, using time-coded CDs, and I generally prefer to have the CD decks and mixer in my setup. The Kontrol X1 is great as an accessory to my normal DJ setup and has potential to help other DJs shed some gear. All this functionality - and the unit hardly needs any space in today's cramped DJ booths. With the introduction of Traktor Kontrol X1, Traktor definitely feels a little bit more at home in the DJ booth. ($199 street; www.nativeinstruments.com)
-Shane Thomas, www.djshanethomas.com