So! You wanna be a DJ? Join the club! There are zillions of ways to get into music curation, and the next step up from creating iTunes playlists is probably to get a copy of Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ app, $4.99 for iPhones and $19.99 for iPads. You’ll be up and running in no time, learning to mix with the music you already have on your device — don’t mess with the 99-cent crowd unless you want to spend a lot of time frowning at your screen.
As you make your way into this weird world one of the things you should know is that DJs get really worked up about what DJing isn’t. People will tell you that DJing on an iPad is for little babies who shop at Urban Outfitters. Get used to the haterade, because it will accompany you all the way to the top. This week Tiësto (the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the DJ universe) promised to destroy Daft Punk because he’s mad that people think their music is cool. He looks and sounds like a desperate mannequin from the Ed Hardy section of Target.
Luckily, not everyone is lusting after Tiësto’s throne. They want to have a good time and maybe rock a party every few weeks or something. And that’s totally okay!
Native Instruments is a lot like the Apple of the digital DJ world. Almost every product they ship is good, and while they’ve spent most of their history making products for professionals, they’re expanding into the thriftier growing audience of more casual users. I have become particularly fond of using Traktor DJ as I go to bed, making massive buildups and breakdowns that no one will ever hear besides my cat. It’s also really easy — and fun — to do simple mixing jobs in Traktor DJ. If you find yourself enjoying the song-selecting lifestyle, gearlust will inevitably blossom in your soul. You might look to Native Instruments’ new Traktor Kontrol Z1, a $200 box custom-tailored for Traktor DJ that will hook directly to your iDevice and give you the power to cue tracks in headphones and adjust sounds using real knobs instead of just the screen. It’s an ideal tool to help you realize that perfectly cued transition you’ve been dreaming about between the “Under the Bridge” and “Kashmir.”
One touch interface meets another
From a strictly-hardware point of view, the black Z1 is a typical Native Instruments affair: EQ / filter knobs and volume sliders all balance smoothness and stickiness flawlessly. Beginners and pros alike will appreciate the simple efficacy of the two internal audio cards as well — a pair of RCA’s in the back, and an ⅛" headphone out in front, thankfully heralding the demise of the ¼" headphone out you will always lose the adapter for.
Forget about a session on the beach, or throwing away your adapters
On a conceptual level, though, there are some things about the Z1 I just don’t get. If Traktor DJ is designed to be ultra-portable, and the Z1 is designed for the Traktor DJ app, why does it require an AC adapter? Forget about a quick session on the beach. And if Apple’s A5 chip is the minimum recommended spec, why is there just a 30-pin cable in the box? It’s a bummer to go spend $30 on a Lightning adapter. Speaking of which, an iPhone 4S should be the actual minimum for running the small-screen version: I tried to use Traktor DJ on my 4th-generation iPod touch and it was a dismal affair. The Lightning-only iPad mini is the ideal form factor for Traktor DJ, and the $19.99 tablet app far outshines the usability of its diminutive sibling.
Because the software is so tightly designed as a touch interface, the addition of the Z1 does feel awkward in a lot of ways. Where traditional outboard digital DJ gear is designed to keep your fingers away from the computer, Traktor DJ by its nature requires a lot of interaction with the tablet. It feels awkward to have a hardware crossfader and EQ but also be reliant on reaching your hand up to the screen for an operation as simple as pushing play.
For people who have used "real" DJ equipment (whether it was a pair of Technics or NI’s own Traktor Kontrol S4) and who have enjoyed the playful simplicity of Traktor DJ, the Z1 can feel like pure hell because it lacks any sort of jog wheel — which I realized, after a few painful hours with the Z1, is a reflection of the software. There’s no way to manually adjust tempo of individual tracks, probably because it’s inefficiently awkward to "jog" the speed on a touch screen.
If you have used "real" DJ equipment, the idea of eliminating the jog wheel sounds a lot like eliminating the steering wheel from a car. You can go forward and stop, but how would you, you know, actually drive anywhere that wasn’t right in front of you? Just as purists scoffed as Apple dealt floppy drives a death blow when it announced the CD-only iMac, "real" DJs will scoff at this omission from Traktor DJ and the Z1 if they don’t realize they were created for an ever-growing class of casual DJs.
Machine recommendations and the casual DJ
DJ culture changed permanently when MP3s became a reliable vehicle for moving music around. A lot of people have access to a lot of music now, which used to be something only professionals had the time and money for. Once the library had been democratized, the act itself was next to fall.
The audio analysis portion of the Traktor ecosystem has been evolving since the beginning, and its beat- and key-detection algorithms are now a vital part of being able to use the software. While you can still search the library by name, the far more effective way to pick tracks in Traktor DJ is to use the recommendation system, which scans your entire library and provides a neat list of songs that match the current track in both tempo and harmony. For a while I tried to pick every song using text input, but I quickly realized that the "automagical" system works astonishingly well. To make a good mix, all you have to have is a good library of music.
This is an important development because it completely automates the core skillset of DJing: beatmatching, harmonic identification, and song selection. When it works — and it usually does — it’s awesome.
All you need to make a good mix is good music
While the recommendation system does remove some of the curatorial creativity from DJing, it makes up for it by providing a list of songs you probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought of mixing into a set. Combined with the other creative innovations of touch-DJing here — like the highly performative "freeze" mode and touch looping — seasoned DJs will probably find themselves creating surprisingly unique mixes they’d never thought of before… even if it feels a little bit like cheating.
This is the very first mix I recorded using Traktor DJ, without using any headphone cueing or external speakers. It’s kind of a mess — especially when mixing in non-click recordings like Althea & Donna’s "Uptown Top Ranking" and giving myself over to the sick pleasure of easy touch effects at the end of Aphex Twin’s "Milkman." But the blend selections I made with the help of the recommendation engine were definitely ones I’d never made before, and they were kind of good: a sort of passive collaboration between the algorithm and me.
Next, I plugged in Kontrol Z1 and recorded a second mix using both the new hardware and the app. While it’s still far from perfect, the beatmatching is much improved and the selections are a lot more like something I’d make on my own — that’s because I could pre-listen using the Z1’s dual audio outputs and use its hardware crossfader. But the phrasing doesn’t exactly line up the way it should (something I could have fixed with a jog wheel), and some of the transition filtering is awkward because I had trouble keeping track of which effects I had initiated on the screen, and which ones I had initiated on the Z1 — for example, the rough edges between Cat Power’s "Free" and Deadmau5’ "One Trick Pony."
Traktor DJ doesn’t offer the “pro” toolbox you’ll need to compensate for the breakdown of the machine brain, like poor beat detection in humanly recorded tracks with lots of timing variations. It’s here where most pro DJs will find the cracks in Traktor DJ’s otherwise very solidly built facade. But then again, a pro DJ shouldn’t have expected a pro toolbox from a tablet. Once you learn to work within the limitations of this diminutive package, you’ll find it’s a refreshing way of doing things at any level of the DJ game.
Just as you can’t make Dark Side Of The Moon in GarageBand (yet), you can’t rule Ibiza with just Traktor DJ and a Z1. But, as the ancients say, a professional is an amateur that never quit — and the dark lord of Planet Tiësto would do well to recognize that amateurs armed with cheap gear and well-designed recommendation algorithms are slowly but surely taking over his empire from the bottom up.