Ever since DJs began digitizing their vinyl and showing up to gigs with laptop computers, the software world has been posing that neoclassic query, “To MP3 or not to MP3? That is the question.” With no shortage of MP3-friendly DJ products on the market, coupled with this year's slough of complementary hardware/software combos, you can only be sure that the digital-DJ trend is fueled and ready for liftoff. That said, the software industry has struggled to create an all-in-one, user-friendly, DJ-style interface that supports automatic, or at least on-the-fly, tempo synchronization. Many companies have skirted the issue entirely by employing a hardware interface, like Stanton's Final Scratch or Serato's Scratch. Other developers simply crowd your screen with too many virtual knobs and faders in the hope that you won't notice the beats slipping away.
Taking note of this, Native Instruments has given Traktor a makeover to include a greatly retooled user interface. Traktor DJ Studio 2.0 now promises easier-to-use cue and loop settings; better tempo detection; heaps of power-user customization features; and a number of attractive playback enhancements, including Autogain, filtering, mix automation (recording), virtual scratching and user customization. But is it really better than the rest?
READY ON DECK
Upon inserting the Traktor installation disk on both my Mac G4/667 MHz (PowerBook) running OS X and my Windows ME Athlon/800MHz PC, I cruised through Traktor's brief install menu. After typing in my serial number, I simply launched Traktor and reinserted the disk for copy verification, a one-time-only occurrence. After opening the program, Traktor's detailed Preferences menu immediately popped up, in which I entered all of my vital stats, such as soundcard, latency settings and MIDI interface. I liked that a user can easily separate the audio monitor (cue) from the main output or, if preferred, select the Use External Mixer box to automatically route decks A and B to separate channels. Other clever features are the ability to gradually adjust the slope of the crossfader curve from soft to hard, as well as tweak Traktor's deck-to-deck Auto-Fade timing. Note: Traktor's Auto-Fade feature creates smooth crossfades from deck A to deck B (or vice-versa) over a determinable number of seconds. By letting Traktor do the fade, you can focus your talents elsewhere, like on the filtering, scratching or EQ sections.
After configuring my preferences, Traktor asked me if I wanted the application to scan my hard drive(s) for playable media. This took an exceedingly long time on both machines, which is partially because I have more than one hard drive and several partitions on each machine. My PC wheezed; my Mac whined; and in the end, I was left to use Traktor's sluggish browser to locate my media. I should add that my install was of the original Traktor version 2.0 and that by the time I finished this review, NI had released three separate updates — 2.0.3 being the most recent (a necessary download for all Traktor users). It was indeterminable if NI had fixed this file-scanning problem, because I was updating previously installed software. I did notice that with each update (2.0.1, 2.0.2 and so on), Traktor's browser became faster and more workable. Other enhancements to the program included bug fixes, a Quick Search function, improvements to Auto-Gain and the all-important beat detection.
Still, Traktor's browser is begging for improvement. Specifically, it is the browser's file-tree complexity, small size and lack of file-folder read-through that I found tricky to use. Here, the software-savvy Native Instruments crew just included too many options and forgotten that browsing a record collection is still a vital component to any DJ set. For example, your Collection folder in the browser tree cannot see files two folders deep on the drive. Like with many people using iTunes or Winamp to rip their CD collections and ID3 tagging their MP3s in the process, song files are usually stored in their respective album folders, which are then subcategorized under artist or genre folders. Traktor can only see these by clicking all the way through (using the Explorer subsection) in the browser. In Native's defense, Traktor's manual explicitly directs users to prepare your sets ahead of time; for DJs who abide, there will be little need to go browsing while onstage. Instead, you are directed to import all files into your Collection or your Current Playlist. After doing so, you can then arrange your mix or set order, pull the file you wish, repeat songs and so forth. The new Quick Search function will also help to remedy this.
The rest of Traktor's interface is beautifully sci-fi and intuitive. Each module (such as loop, filter, browser and so on) is concealable and delivers the most flexible MIDI control and computer keyboard mapping (shortcut key) features that I have seen. Each shortcut key or MIDI knob can be set to any necessary parameter (more than 400 of them) in Traktor. You can also adjust the incremental sensitivity and acceleration separately for each knob. This feature will make touch-sensitive DJs smile. What's more, when Traktor's ingenious Autogain is engaged, it normalizes your track's playback volume gradually and without distortion. You can also boost or cut gain from the Traktor's EQ control panel. And let it be said that Traktor's digital and vinyl scratch simulation is authentic-sounding and doubles as a valuable scrubbing tool to cue a start point.
After loading tracks into both decks, it was time to test Traktor's bpm detection and my own beat-matching skills. Each deck provides several pitch (bpm) adjusting options, including a classic turntable-style pitch control and two tempo-nudge buttons that allow you to simulate a DJ baby-sitting a vinyl platter's rotation. Traktor makes an educated tempo (bpm) guess after only two or three seconds of playback, which you can later fix manually via Traktor's tempo display menu (by tapping the Spacebar to the track's beat). Defining a track's bpm usually involves manually clicking into the tempo-setting box, configuring and then locking the tempo. You can also help Traktor by adding in your own beat markers. This works best for ambient or less beat-driven music. In general, I found Traktor's automatic beat detection to be great at techno, house and most dance styles with short, repetitive drum patterns. However, for music without a constant kick or defined percussive rhythm, bpm will need to be configured manually. Once this is done with each track, you can press (and hold) the deck's Sync button to have Traktor attempt to synchronize decks A and B. I found that tracks do not remain synched but need to be watched (similar to vinyl). Depending upon your focus, this could be a problem.
Traktor allows you to record, overdub and can even automatically create a mix set from your current playlist. But before I did this, I was completely distracted by Traktor's loop section, which was easily the most fun feature in the program. Here, Traktor helps you quickly create one-, four-, eight- and 16-beat loops, as well as your own loop lengths. By setting up a loop, you can then really get into Traktor's dynamic and quite expressive filter section. You can set the amount, low cut (frequency), width and resonance. To toggle between high- and lowpass filtering, simply hit the Invert button. With similar ease, Traktor's EQ section has any feature you can imagine on a hardware mixer: individual band kills; EQ punch-in; low, mid- and high boosts and cuts; and the mix-saving Autogain mentioned previously.
DIG THIS CRATE
Traktor comes in a couple of different flavors, including a special FS version engineered for Stanton's popular Final Scratch product. Other lighter versions are Traktor DJ and Traktor DJ Player; the latter is a freeware application designed only for playing back other folks' mix sets, whereas Traktor DJ is a live-performance-specific predecessor of the subject of this review (and is PC-only).
Traktor DJ Studio 2.0 is a good product — maybe even a great product — if you are the type of DJ who maps out your entire set and configures your playlist, saves them, names them, tames them and never gets that improvisational itch. Some DJs do, however, feel the need to go for something extra: change up their sets, go record shopping the day of the show or just plain tire of their same old set. In these situations, Traktor may cause you some frustration, particularly if you have never set up the track or the track has an undefined groove. Still, for those who plan ahead and play primarily techno, trance and house styles, Traktor is simultaneously an inexpensive and professional tool. The filtering, EQ and simulated scratching are up to Native Instruments' typical high standards. Artists like John Tejada and DJ Hell are already onboard as endorsees. And with Final Scratch compatibility due in April 2003, your next dirty drum 'n' bass gig may just be chockful of MP3s.
TRAKTOR DJ STUDIO 2.0 > $199
(FULL VERSION); $169-$179 (UPGRADE)
Pros: Can mix MP3, WAV and AIFF files. User-friendly loop feature. Powerful filtering and EQs. Autogain volume-normalizing feature on both decks.
Cons: Browser tricky to navigate. Beat detection inaccurate with music lacking repetitive rhythms.
You've seen the lone DJ wrestling with bag upon crate of vinyl or CDs, heaving them up stairs and slinging them down hallways. Even name DJs shuffle into the club with an entourage of vinyl-toting, gorilla-size roadies. But times have changed, and vinyl has never been as portable as digital-encoded MP3s and backed up on one of Apple's fab little iPods (which also work with FireWire-capable PCs). By design, iPods automatically synchronize their files with the world's most sublime audio-ripping program ever: Apple's iTunes (sorry, Mac-only). The combination of the three — Traktor, iTunes and an iPod — is a Traktor mix-master's dream. I should add that most of the conversations regarding DJ-mix software hover around whether MP3s sound good enough to cut it in your typical club sound system. But iPods (and iTunes) can also house (rip) WAV and AIFF files, which run perfectly in Traktor DJ Studio 2.0. Just keep in mind that for each minute of stereo audio (recorded at 16-bit, 24kHz), you will chew up about 10 MB of hard-drive space. This means that the 20GB iPod (with a street price near $500) can house about 2,000 minutes of music. This shift in the way music is transported begs the question: Does the acronym DJ (disc jockeys) now infer the digital jockey?
Mac: G3/500 (G4/733 or higher recommended); 128 MB RAM (512 MB RAM or higher recommended); OS 9.2 and higher or Mac OS 10.1 or later; multichannel soundcard recommended (minimum four mono or two stereo outputs)
PC: Pentium III/500 (Pentium III/700 or higher recommended); 128 MB RAM (256 MB RAM or higher recommended); Windows 98/2000/ME/XP; multichannel soundcard recommended (minimum four mono or two stereo outputs)