In the mix with NI's Traktor Kontrol X1 Mk2
On the surface, "miniaturization" and "DJ rig" don't seem to belong in the same sentence: you've got decks. Faders. Knobs. Oh, the endless knobs. Hard to fit that all in something that's portable enough to lug around without one of those metal gig cases — and when you start talking about cases, that's about the point that the casual bedroom DJ starts to tune out.
With Native Instruments' recently-released Traktor Kontrol Z1, though, things started to change. The box — which has roughly the length and width of a loaf of bread — is basically a lightweight two-deck mixer, complete with faders, EQ, and an external audio card, which means you can properly cue tracks without a hacky mono splitter cable. It also works with iOS devices through Native Instruments' excellent Traktor DJ app, but for me personally, this is kind of a gimmick — I need a laptop. In 15 years I'm sure this attitude will be looked at in the same light as CD DJs are today, but hey, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
Instead of the usual Kontrol S4, I tried making a mixset with the Kontrol X1 paired to a first-generation Kontrol Z1. Together, that gives you your mixer along with FX, loop, and transport controls. It was almost perfect: with my MacBook Air and two tiny boxes I could throw in my messenger bag, I had probably 80 percent of the flexibility of a Kontrol S2. No sane individual is trying to carry a Kontrol S2 in a messenger bag.
What I was missing, though, was fine control of the decks. I could fat-finger them with my touchpad, but getting a perfect beatmatch was kind of maddening. So it was kind of like NI had read my mind when it announced the Kontrol X1 Mk2 a few days later.
I haven't tried making a full mixset with the Z1 paired to the Mk2 yet, but after setting it up and configuring it over the weekend, I can already tell that it's going to solve all my problems and make for an absolutely killer portable two-deck DJ setup.
All the magic happens in the middle of the box, which is the area that's most drastically changed from the Mk1. Gone are the full-size FX toggles for each deck and the duplicate library browsing knobs — now it's down to one browse knob, which helps make room for a full-width touch strip. (A surprising feature that I don't personally use but is extremely cool nonetheless: the new browse knob is touch-sensitive, so it can be set to show a full-screen library view in Traktor when touched.) The loop controls are now accompanied by seven-segment LED displays that show loop size, just as on the Kontrol S4. It's helpful — ultimately, you want your eyes out of the Traktor UI as much as possible.
But back to that touch strip. Is it as good as a real CDJ-style deck? Of course not, but considering the size constraints of the X1, it's really good. Touching the center of the strip and moving left or right controls how much of the strip is devoted to controlling deck A and B, so if you want to momentarily do some scratching or some careful beatmatching, you can give the entire thing to one of the decks, then move it back to center. It's a quick process — it doesn't take more than a second or so to change the split.
Below the strip, the Mk2 has a new set of four hot cue buttons for each deck that can be assigned to loops, cue points, or samples, among other things; multicolor LEDs light the buttons differently depending on their current assignment.
I'm not a pro DJ, and I don't pretend to be. But for me, Native Instruments is closing in on the perfect casual hardware setup. Combine it with the fact that Amazon is currently selling the Mk2 for $149.99 for some crazy reason, and it's a no-brainer. Some will still prefer the all-in-oneness of the S2 and S4, but I'm finally sold on the Z1 / X1 combo.