Traktor S4 – Long term use

Well, I’m not totally sure I’m going to sell it yet, but it’s definitely something I’m considering.  I have a feeling we’ll see an update around Winter NAMM, so I’m waiting to see how responsive NI is to user requests before I make up my mind.  If I do sell, likely somewhere around $799.
As for it being a love affair, well, sort of.  I’ve always said that my main reason for going to Traktor was just to see what the competition was up to, and not because I was leaving Live for DJing per se (just used it two nights ago in fact).  Yes the S4 is pretty, and it’s new, and there’s a lot of hype around it, but it has some flaws too.  After quite a bit more time with it, here’s my updated thoughts on the S4 as a DJ package:
The Good:
– Track browsing and crate organization is excellent, lots of options and ways to customize your playlists, and the way NI implemented the push encoder for previewing is one of the nicest things I’ve seen in awhile.
– Overall build quality is very good, especially the knobs and the jog wheels.
– Easy set up.  One usb cable, one power cable, done.  Does not draw a lot of power either, I often use it with my laptop running on battery power when I’m too lazy to move the laptop powercord from my studio to dj set up, lasts for hours like this.
– The loop recorder is really nice, grabbing recordings of audio as you tweak it via the filters, EQ, and effects is really convenient, and you can even move recordings from the loop recorder to a sample slot fairly easily with the hardware.
– Some really useful DJ features for when things go bad.  IE, the main volume knob is seperate from the software volume knob, so you can always kill the sound instantly if you need to.  The fact that you can hook up an MP3 player to the hardware and that it’s hardwired to the main outs is useful too if you need to reboot.  The USB socket deserves a mention too, it’s SUPER snug so there’s no worries about the USB Cable coming unplugged.
– I like the layout of the Traktor software, they do a really nice job of letting you configure what you want to see.  Having a dedicated button to switch the browser to full screen is nice too.  Dual waveform view is nice too, though the waveforms are a little small IMO.
– No denying the usefulness of being able to manually beatmatch tracks if you need to, or if you don’t want to prep (grid) your tracks.
– Overall sound quality is good, as long as you really pay attention to your gain structure (see below for caveats).
– On the fly looping is implemented really well, though I wish loops could be longer than 8 bars when set on the fly with the loop encoders.
The Bad:
– The EQs are really not that good IMO.  Not even counting the lack of the Traktor Pro 4-band EQ, the current three options are just not that good sounding IMO. Very phasey sounding, not that transparent.  This is probably my biggest complaint with the S4.  They’re still useable of course, but hard to be subtle with them.  I’ve had more than a few people point out that it was pretty audible when I was EQing tracks, and I barely cut that much when using EQ for DJing.
– The metering on the hardware is next to useless.  I don’t find that the signal is really represented well, does not seem to be accurate at all.  Personally I think it’s reacting too fast and possibly the tiny bit of latency could be throwing things off.  Basically it’s hard to accurately know your levels looking at the meters on the S4, I tend to look at the software meters instead, which is the opposite of how it should be.
– The faders and gain knobs are so so feeling.  Not the worst I’ve used, but not up to the same quality as the knobs and jog wheels.  The gain knobs have a potentially useful feature in that if you push them, they reset to 0dB.  Unfortunately in order to keep the soundcard in the S4 from clipping, I often need to keep the channel gains closer to -6 or -7dB.  This means accidentally pressing the gain encoder causes the volume to jump drastically and distort. Bad when this happens mid-mix.  Also the gain knobs are detented, which can sometimes make narrowing in on an exact value impossible.
– Auto-levelling and the output limiter in the software are not that good.  For some reason Traktor always BOOSTS the signal of tracks to level them, which means you need to crank the channel gains down a lot to keep from clipping.  It also means it’s next to impossible to keep from hitting the limiter as well, which sounds not that good IMO (granted I’m really picky about this doing mastering for a living).  I disable both of these functions and manage gain myself.
– The Sample Decks are not key-locked or timestretched, which means if you assign a sample to them from a track that’s not playing exactly at it’s original tempo, it will be out of sync or out of tune with the audio currently playing.  As a result, I almost never use these unless I grab a loop with the loop recorder first, and then assign it to a sample deck.
– Effects are so so.  They make it very easy to assign the effects you want to the effects knobs, but honestly I find most of them to be pretty bland.  Also things like the delay do not show the delay time in musical values (i.e. 1/8th, 1/4, etc), unlike how it is done in Traktor Pro.  All values are 1-127.  Effects are prefader too, which is not how I prefer them.
– Very hard to see the hardware controls in low light.  Too much black, and too small of text in most cases.  Also the glossy area around the EQs and volume faders is super prone to collecting fingerprints, which makes your shiny new toy look very messy in no time.
– Not very easy to remap controls with the default S4 configuration.  For instance, if you wanted to reassign the loop length knob to global tempo, there’s really no simple way to do this currently.  So you either use the S4 hardware as NI intended, or switch to MIDI mode and lose a lot of funtionality that can’t be accessed via midi mapping.
It might seem like I have a lot of complaints about the S4 system, but in all honesty most of these are just minor annoyances.  I think the main thing I’ve learned is that the S4 system has enough flaws that it’s not an obvious winner over my previous Live set up for DJing.  It does a lot of things very well, but in some ways it feels like it’s not yet done or was rushed to market on the software side of things.  Stability has not been a concern, which is the main thing, but I think NI still has a ways to go with making things a little more customizeable for power users.  Most of my wishes are things that can be addressed by a software update, as well as being things that many other users have been asking for as well.  That’s one reason I’m waiting until NI releases the next update, to see what (if anything) they address.  Better sounding EQs, more accurate metering, and key-locking of the sample decks would definitely win me over.

 

You have gas

GAS, what most musicians know as Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  That never-ending feeling that you have to have the latest and greatest in gear to make your music better.  It’s something we all struggle with, and it can be both a blessing and a curse.

There’s no denying that new gear helps trigger fresh bursts of creativity, just the mere fact that you’re forced to be in front of the gear as you check out your new toy means that it’s forcing you to actually sit down and do something musical.  New gear means new ways of working, so it’s not surprising that you’re bound to come up with something new, results that you perhaps have not achieved before with things you currently own.

In the short-term, this has the effect of validating the purchase.  You think “hey, this is great, this new bit of gear helped me come up with something I never would have before”.  Well, possibly, but sometimes you really need to step back and look at the underlying cause of that too.  Certainly the newness of it means that it’s exciting, you’re using tools that you aren’t familiar with, so it can be more fun.

Often times this initial discovery period becomes the sole reason for the purchase, that time when everything you do musically seems fresh and exciting.  And it is exciting, there’s no denying it.  But how often has that feeling faded faster than you expected?  How many times have you completed a couple of projects with your new toy, and then your attention starts to wander again?

Not to get too deep here with the comparisons, but in a way it’s not much different than dating someone.  It’s fun and new at first, everything feels great and you couldn’t be happier.  But then the magic fades, your attention wanders, and you start looking at what else is out there.  Sure you could go through life jumping from one partner to another, but many people (myself included) will tell you how shallow and unfulfilling that is in the long-term, and how much more satisfying it is being with that ONE special person.  When you become a team and work together, you’re rewarded with things you never imagined early on.

Musical instruments are the same way.  It’s easy to be tempted by the latest and greatest, but sometimes you need to step back from the marketing hype (and they sure know how to hype their new products!) and re-assess what it is that a new purchase will bring to your studio in the long haul.  All too often I see people get wrapped up in this, asking other musicians “Should I get music equipment x,y,z?”  Or “I have $500 to spend, what should I buy?”.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking other people what they think about a particular instrument, but at the same time realize what you’re doing.  If you have to ask someone else what you NEED, then chances are you really don’t NEED anything at all.  New gear purchases should always be obvious to you, they should fill a real need in your workflow, or add something to your studio that you currently don’t have.

Oftentimes just taking a deep breath and thinking about how your current tools could be pressed into doing the same thing, will cause you to realize that perhaps the need you thought was there is not so great after all.  By re-looking at the gear you have now, and how it could be used in a new way, you’d be surprised at how you can channel that same type of excitement new gear brings.

We all have instruments with features that we don’t use that often, so by digging in and re-evaluating how we use our tools, we not only get the chance to work in a new way, but we also come to master our tools more than we thought we had.  And in the long haul, THAT can be more exciting and fulfilling than a short-term fling with something we really don’t need.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the latest Sweetwater catalog just arrived and I can’t wait to go see what new toys were released recently 🙂

Laptop, I love you, I hate you.

First up, if you haven’t seen the new teaser for the Elektron Octatrack, it’s definitely worth a look:

Obviously I’m a huge Elektron fan already (owning a Machinedrum and Monomachine, as well as moderating the Elektron-Users.com forums), so I’m interested in the Octatrack a lot.  Thinking it might let me use all hardware again to play live, leaving behind Ableton and my laptop for samples of my studio work.

Which brings me neatly to my main topic, the simplicity of the laptop, and why I’ve never been able to completely embrace it no matter how hard I try.  Like a lot of musicians, I went through a phase early on of owning a lot of studio gear to make music.  Multiple racks, keyboard stands with multiple synths, grooveboxes galore, you name it.  Then of course the digital audio revolution happened, and slowly but surely I started selling things off and moving more and more to producing entirely in the box.

Of course, in many respects this was really not at all that different from having lots of hardware initially.  Like so many others, I became obsessed with ‘collecting’ plug-ins.  Dozens of dynamics processors, too many softsynths, and more than a couple DAWs.  Slowly, I realized I was turning to a select few plug ins though, and I began to whitle down my collection.

Then I made the jump from a desktop to a laptop, and suddenly things changed.  I realized that here was a really compact means to making and performing music.  This one tool reduced clutter and cable nests, removed the need for external monitors, keyboards, and mice.  Paired with something like Logic or Live, I could basically create anything I wanted with such a simple, and yet extremely powerful toolset.  It was a sort of revelation, and in the years since prompted me to sell more and more gear, to the point where my studio looked more like a beginner just getting started, instead of someone with almost 2 decades of experience.

There was a problem though.  Despite achieving my dreams of a minimalist set up, I really wasn’t enjoying the music making process anymore.  At the time I thought it was the lack of physical controls that was throwing me off, and thus began the great MIDI controller experiment.  I think I must have tried dozens of MIDI controllers trying to find one that reminded me of using a groovebox.  Sadly, nothing ever really worked like that, at the end of the day a laptop is still a computer, and a generic MIDI controller still requires too much configuring to be useful in the heat of the moment.  I didn’t want to stop to remap every parameter I wanted to control when I thought of it.  Even things like Novation’s Automap just didn’t sit well with me, very unpredictable in use.

So for now I’ve accepted the fact that I just can’t work with only a laptop, I need at least a few pieces of hardware to use when making music too.  Someday I hope a more elegent solution is found, in the meantime I’ll have to live with the love-hate relationship when it comes to the laptop.

Timeless tips

I was going through some old archives of mine, and I ran across a list of my top ten pieces of production advice, something I had written years ago.  Struck me that I probably wouldn’t change anything even after all this time.

1. Less is almost always more.  Turn down the effects, back off the compression, use less EQ and reverb, get rid of tracks that don’t really add anything important to the song.

2. Don’t force yourself to write only in one genre (blasphemy, I know).  Variety is the spice of life, so experiment with other genres/styles, it’ll only make you a better musician/producer.

3. Learn at least basic music theory.  You may never, ever use it, but it’ll help you understand how we got to where we are, and might just help you out in the future.

4. Don’t force yourself to write if you’re not feeling it.  Go outside, take care of your errands and BS, and come back to it when it’s fun again.  Even if that means a month long hiatus (or longer).

5. Do it for the right reasons.  Make music because you love the process, not the hopeful outcome.  Never make music thinking you’ll make money, cause you won’t 99.999% of the time.

6. Understand it takes years and years to get that polished and professional sound.  It’s not down any magic plug ins or settings.  An experienced producer can make a pro-sounding tune no matter what the gear.  It’s the ears, not the gears. (trademarked)  The only way to get to this point is practice, plain and simple.

7. Learn to calibrate people’s comments about your tunes.  There’s a fine line between solid, unbiased production advice, and personal preferences.  Listen to what people say, and then judge if their comments are expressing their own personal preferences, or if it’s a genuine advice from an experience producer.  Listen either way though, both kinds of advice can be helpful if taken in the right context.  On that note, your friends will always tell you they like your tunes.

8. Learn to play a real instrument.

9. Interviews with other producers are the best source of production advice.  Especially if they produce a completely different genre than you.

10. Slim down your studio.  Kinda ties into #1 above, but the less gear you have, the easier it is to learn it, and the farther you can take it.  Especially with plug ins.

And… done. Or is it started?

Well I finally got around to setting up my own blog, something I’ve been wanting to do for too long now.  The main intention is just to get some discussion going on mostly music-related topics, though who knows where it will lead.  Same rules as all the forums I help run: no religion, no politics, and no flaming/trolling.  Act like a grown-up, simple enough.

Of course, things are never as easy as they seem, so in the process of creating a new blog, I ended up redoing my entire website as well.  If you get any errors or notice a dead link, please let me know so I can correct it as soon as possible.

First up then, do you think the roll your own midi device trend will continue?  So many controllers coming out that seem to lack any form of inputting very much physical input.  Lots of grids of button and shiney touchscreen.  Is this really the way things should be going?  Do musicians really need to worry about crafting their own instruments now?  It sometimes makes me wonder if there are people out there who just like creating systems instead of music.  The idea of having to actually ‘code’ something I need to make music makes me shudder  🙂  What do you think?

Deeper discussions on production coming up soon, I plan to make this a pretty active blog, so subscribe and check back often.

Peace and beats,

Tarekith