Many DJs are discovering that working MP3s into their live sets can be just as effective as spinning vinyl or CDs. It provides an outlet for that massive Napster stash, and you can also carry a hell of a lot more music on a hard drive than in a record box. Whether you're designing the ultimate DJ set or crafting the perfect mix CD, a slew of new MP3 editing, mixing, and optimizing applications provide impressive control and flexibility. Standing out among them is Native Instruments' Traktor 1.0, an MP3 and WAV file mix specialist with a powerful automatic bpm calculator, automated crossfading, MP3 labeling tools, and extra filtering and EQ power. If the idea of DJing with MP3s is your thing, take this Traktor for a spin.
SETTING UP SHOP
Native Instruments recommends a multi-channel, 3-D, or secondary sound card with ASIO drivers installed on, at minimum, a Pentium II/366 mHz PC running Windows 98 with 64MB of RAM. Thoughtfully, the Native Instruments manual explains which Windows system files are updated should you desire to uninstall Traktor, dust off your decks, and go at it old school style.
To learn how to mix with Traktor and it does take some practice you should begin with the included Traktor Mix Compilation CD to learn how the user interface works and discover many of Traktor's main functions. This CD is packed with more than 70 songs, provided by artists such as Warp Records' Richard Devine and the Moving Shadow label's Timecode (aka Rob Playford), as well as seven complete DJ mixes. Each mix includes a preconfigured tracklist, track tempos, fade points, and automated mixes. Volume fades, frequency filtering, and EQ moves are all demonstrated in these mixes. Also, drop-down help menus appear if you hover the mouse cursor over a button.
AUTOMATIC OR MANUAL?
While the software's operation may appear intuitive at first, its many hidden features (such as manual loop making and filter automation) do require some study. After all, this software is not the kind of thing you see every day. Even Shawn Fanning (the inventor of Napster) didn't predict beat-matching software for MP3 DJs. So, unless you wrote the book on MP3 mixing, you will probably need to study the manual before you start laying down some wicked mixes.
Plan on reading all 70 pages to learn the ins and outs of digital scratching, mix overdubs, and tempo calculation. On the upside, the manual includes a list of keyboard shortcuts, so you can skip printing the help files and get right down to business. Also included is an appendix that defines terms every digital DJ ought to know.
When you configure your monitoring options, remember that the settings will vary depending on your sound card's capabilities. Most cards should support a stereo split that sends the main mix and cue mix to alternate sides, which is enough to get you started in introducing MP3s into a live mix situation. Even better, two sound cards or a 3-D card will permit stereo master mix output as well as stereo monitoring (previewing).
Headphones are recommended for the most flexible monitoring, and headphone monitoring can be configured in a couple of different ways.
Traktor's routing is at least as flexible as that of most standard DJ mixers, and it facilitates on-the-fly changes within a mix set. For creating and editing mixes, Traktor's monitoring should be set for Master and Monitor to allow for both previewing and listening to the resulting master mix. You can send the preview signal to either the right or left channel, while the master mix is sent to the opposing side. Also, you can send the whole mix or the preview mix to both right and left channels.
SETTING UP THE SET
Traktor can create and save mixes of tracks as MIX files without writing hard drive hogging WAV files. Although it does provide save-to-WAV functionality if you need it (such as when you're burning a CD of your mix), a 2 or 3 MB MIX file is easier to store than a 500-plus MB WAV version of an hour-long stereo set. Traktor handles virtual mixes much in the same way a program like Acid or Logic Audio stores MIDI information, functioning like an automated mixer that stores fader and EQ moves, which allows you to manipulate your files in a nondestructive fashion while leaving the original file intact.
If you want to construct a mix from your own tracks, downloaded MP3s, or tracks from ripped CDs, start by creating a playlist of tracks for the given mix. You can alter the playlist later if you want to add a track, and you can manipulate the track order at any time. Also, the playlist is compatible with MP3's ID3 tags. Each field can be copied from or to the ID3 tag to help keep your jams straight. The song's title, artist, time (track length), bpm, A# (track number), and album name can be saved to the MP3 file, while Traktor's own playlist stores cue points, fades, genres, comments, and file locations. Note that you should normalize each MP3 track or WAV file to ensure volume consistency, but if you need a little help in this department, the Traktor player includes a limiter to help add fatness preferably of the ph variety.
Next, you will want to calculate and lock in each track's tempo by using the bpm dialog box. That alleviates the headache of trying to beat-match on your PC in real time. Although there are two manual tempo-calculation tools from which to set a track's tempo, Traktor's real-time tempo analyzer is fairly accurate. The software always attempts to assign a tempo, but you will need to verify its assessment by checking out a one-, two-, or four-measure loop within the displayed present tempo. If the loop sounds off tempo, left-click on the tempo display to fire up the bpm dialog, where you can tap tempo or set it to a manually configured loop.
If you choose this loop option, you will need to go back to the main screen to set up a manual loop. To do that, left-click on the loop bracket during the first beat of the first measure, and then the opposite bracket on the first beat of the following measure. The start and end points may still need some fine tuning, however. Once the loop feels smooth, go back to the bpm dialog and select Set (tempo) From Loop. Once the tracks are playing, the turntable-like pitch fader on both virtual decks has a ±35 percent range. You may drag the fader for coarse adjustments or make finer adjustments by left-clicking (±0.1 bpm) or right-clicking (±0.3 bpm) on the pitch-bend buttons.
GOT AN ITCH?
Traktor says skratch it. By moving the mouse back and forth, you can simulate the scratching sound of a hand on vinyl. Although you may not want to challenge DJ Craze or Babu to a wax-wreckin' duel, this record-scratch feature sounds a lot like the real thing. Native Instruments even recommends, when it comes to digital scratching techniques, “Don't hesitate to be rude.” Here are a few ways to get rude: by pressing the Shift key, the right mouse button allows you to mute the track during backward movements, giving you a crossfader-style forward scratch. As is the case with vinyl, lots of practice will smooth out the jump-out jags, skips, and, in this case, blips.
THE VINYL CUT
Traktor's user interface is quite impressive, but it's not quite as flexible as those in other pro audio software applications. You have the option to select or deselect the EQ, Player, Cue, and Playlist, but they consistently remain in a single vertical box. Also, Traktor's EQ layout is a bit problematic for those without a MIDI controller. Instinctively, most people think of EQs as vertical, so the horizontal (rather than vertical positioning) of the EQ sliders and kills takes some getting used to even though their location replicates their standard spots on a DJ mixer. Native Instruments does make its own MIDI interface hardware component, 4Control, available for $199.
Also, one has to wonder, why has Native Instruments given Traktor only two decks? Many vinyl-based club DJs frequently mix from three or four sources by employing extra turntables, MiniDisc players, CD units, or even personal MP3 players. Who cares about re-creating the limits imposed upon traditional DJs? The digital world is a realm where you should be able to move beyond such confines. I tried opening two incidents of Traktor, and it does work, though you can see only one interface at a time and will ultimately be aching for monitor space, even if you have access to a second screen or a laptop projector.
Nonetheless, Traktor is a great software package for both live DJing and mix-making. It is ideal for the organized DJ who spins a predetermined set of records, and for those who enjoy cataloging MP3s according to tempo and pitch. Once a mix is complete, the DJ's focus can shift to embellishing a mix rather than cueing each track. In a Traktor mix, you can edit track starts, volume, crossfades, filters, EQ kills, EQ shaping, and more. The nondestructive MP3 and WAV audio file handling make Traktor mixes easy to access and store and leave plenty of room for more MP3s or audio files. If your style is to create mixes on the fly, you will have quite a bit of homework to do before showing up at your next gig. The upside: after you've loaded each track in the playlist, locked in the tempo, and assigned the fade points, Traktor has the power to help you make mixes that are truly astounding.
Idaho-born drummer and producer Dave Hill Jr. has worked extensively with drummer Michael Shrieve (of Santana) and is currently composing and playing in New York City.
PROS: Creates DJ mixes with MP3 or WAV files. Flexible monitoring options. Excellent EQ kills and filtering options.
CONS: Manual beat-matching can be difficult. Initial tempos need to be set up before live performances. Manual loops can contain pops.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 3.5