At long last Native Instruments has delivered an all-in-one controller aimed at digital DJs looking to break completely free from the old school turntable paradigm. But is the wait worth it? Let’s dive in…
First impression count, and the first look I got of the S8 certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s a large unit, probably 20-30% bigger and heavier than the S4 I’m used to, though not so heavy that you’d need to drag a friend with you to the club to help carry it (I don’t miss toting around turntable coffins at all!). While I never personally had any issues with the built quality of the S4, the S8 definitely feels and looks more robust.
Happily, almost all of the shiny black plastic of the earlier models is covered by aluminum (the area around the displays is the only plastic showing), meaning no more unnecessary fingerprints to clean. For people with OCD like myself, this is MOST welcome! 🙂 The knobs and rotaries feel exactly the same as the earlier versions of the S series, which is fine with me as I think NI has always done a good job there.
The faders however are a noticeable improvement, the throw is much smoother and tighter feeling on the upfaders, and the crossfader actually feels like a proper crossfader now. I still think the fader caps are tiny bit cheap feeling, but it’s a minor point and easily remedied with some ChromaCaps if needed. One benefit of the larger footprint is that you have a lot more room between the controls it feels like, especially in the effects sections. Also, many of the knobs are now touch sensitive, so as soon as you put a finger on them the displays reflect what those controls are ummm…. controlling.
Ah, the displays, now we come to the meat of the new S8, what really sets it apart from earlier controllers. They seem to be identical to the ones on the Maschine Studio I reviewed earlier, which is to say bright and easy to read, even from a distance. Just like with Maschine, NI has done a brilliant job of showing you everything you need to see on those displays, rendering the laptop display completely redundant for everything except searching your library. I didn’t once find myself needing to look at my laptop to DJ with the S8, and that is the real game changer making the S8 feel like an instrument on it’s own in a way the S4 and S2 never did. I’m hooked, and I can’t imagine going back!
While the waveform colors follow the theme you select in Traktor preferences, the actual waveform looks more like the Traktor iOS app than the laptop display. That’s fine though, still super easy to grid your tracks or get the structure of a song at a glance.
Another benefit of the displays is that you can now see your remix decks in great detail, and your effects as well. Since there are now enough knobs on the controller to let you access all 4 effects units at once (finally!), you get a lot more options in how you can affect your tracks in real-time. One note however, the knobs under the displays are endless rotaries and lack the center detent of the top effect knobs. It makes sense as they can also control things like remix deck pitch and filtering too, but it can make setting your group effects back to the center “off” position a little finicky too.
Other improvements are the much more comprehensive IO options on the back, and a louder headphone output on the front. Something that was a common complaint on the S2 and S4, in loud clubs their headphone amps could feel a little underpowered. There’s even a standard 1/8” headphone jack for people using IEM’s or standard earbuds for DJing, a welcome touch as I use those myself occasionally and the 1/4” adaptors always seem to be hiding when I want to 🙂
With the jog wheels gone you’re obviously going to be relying more on Sync to get your tracks lined up, though I’m guessing if you bought an S8 you would be doing this already. The new Touchstrips work great for letting you skip through a track, or push and pull a track a bit to fine tune sync issues. Even if you don’t use the Sync button, it’s still easy to beatmatch tracks manually by adjusting the global Tempo knob and the Touchstrips. It didn’t take me but a couple minutes to get used to doing this, though I doubt I’ll really have much need to anyway.
I’m very happy that the S8 now has a global Tempo knob too. As someone who tends to start out my sets with downtempo and progress to more upbeat songs, this is a much better way of controlling tempo over the course of a set. Much more intuitive than constantly needing to hold shift to “re-zero” the pitch faders on the S4.
The 8 large pads on each side of the S8 give you access to your cue points, user-definable loop and beat jump divisions, Freeze functionality, and your Remix Decks. They feel nice and solid, maybe not as playable as those on Maschine, but very close. Cues and Loop settings are more or less identical in function to the S4, though the new Freeze functionality is an excellent new addition.
If you’ve used the iOS version of Traktor, Freeze will make sense right away, if you haven’t you’re in for a really fun way to remix your tracks on the fly. Combined with the very welcome Flux button right next to them, it’s simple to create your own unique fills and transitions, and have the music kick back in on time and as expected.
The amount of audio you can freeze at any time is determined by the current loop length of each deck, and this is set using the all new loop knob. I find with the new displays, having only one knob for looping works great, you can really see exactly what you’re looping right on the unit with a glance. Though I admit, I did find the rotating LEDs around each knob when the loop is active to be a tiny bit bright and distracting.
So, what about downsides of the new S8? There are a few things I should probably point out, the biggest one for me currently is that you can’t modify the default mapping of the controller. At all. You either use the default template, or you have to manually map everything with the controller in MIDI mode, which means no HID controls and the displays are blank.
This is a really a shame for me personally, as I’ve been in love with the Xone 4-band EQ ever since I got my Xone62 years and years ago. On the S4, I would just repurpose the Filter knobs to be lowest EQ band, allowing me to access all 4 bands of the EQ as intended. On the S8 you can still select the Xone EQ, but the low-mid band can’t be controlled by the hardware, which makes it pointless. I really hope NI opens this up a little in the future, and judging by the number of complaints I’ve read about this, I’m not alone.
I also found the crossfader curve control a little difficult to adjust, I wish it was one of those knobs that pops out when you pressed it in to make this a bit easier. I did have one small issue with the left display getting stuck showing me a remix deck, nothing I did would get it to revert back to my other deck display. Power-cycling the controller fixed it and I couldn’t replicate, but for the sake of fairness I thought I would mention it. Finally, with the Browse knobs set to open the browser when you just touch them, I found I kept opening the browser on the displays when I was reaching for an effect knob. Easy enough to turn this functionality off though.
All in all I really don’t have that much I’d change about the S8 though, I think NI really hit the nail on the head when they designed it. Within a couple minutes I was easily navigating around remix decks, capturing loops on the fly, all sorts of things I never touched on S4 as it just didn’t feel intuitive. It finally feels like there’s a really solid balance between normal two-track DJing, and a more complicated remix deck approach. Not just in terms of functionality, but how easy it is to access all that functionality too.
I think the S8 is a very welcome and well thought-out top of the range controller. Overall it feels much better than previous S models, everything is easier to access, and most importantly the new displays really make it feel like a self-contained standalone instrument (like the Maschine Studio). Once you realize you can focus all of your attention just on the controller in front of you, putting the laptop completely out of sight, suddenly DJing with a laptop feels a LOT more like DJing back in the day did. Focused, fun, and fast to achieve any ideas you might get in the heat of the moment.
It’s probably a bit too big and heavy for DJs that frequently travel, but for occasional gigs and certainly just mixing at home, it’s hands down the best controller I’ve used. I was a little hesitant about the price initially, but after using it even briefly, I think it’s well worth it if you’re someone who never really uses jog wheels or wants better Remix Deck control.
I was forced to admit that NI did a great job on the Maschine Studio, pretty much ticking off all the boxes that took it from good to excellent. With the Traktor S8 it’s clear they are on roll lately, and listening to their users too. Well done Native Instruments, well done.
If you have any questions, please put them in the comments and I’ll answer them asap. Thanks!