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Traktor Kontrol X1 hands-on, fists pumped

CNET's Donald Bell gives his first impressions on Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol X1 USB interface for DJs.

The Traktor Kontrol X1 (seen right) breaks Native Instruments Traktor DJ software out of point-and-click purgatory. Donald Bell/CNET

The Traktor Kontrol X1 is a $229 DJ package that bundles Native Instruments' Traktor LE DJ software with high quality, USB-powered controller hardware.

Compared with similarly priced DJ bundles, such as M-Audio's Torq Mixlab, Torq Conectiv, or Vestax Spin, the Kontrol X1 doesn't pitch itself as an all-in-one DJ solution. For example, crossfader and volume-mixing controls are noticeably absent from the system, as is any kind of integrated audio card.

In spite of these shortcomings, the Traktor Kontrol X1 is one of our favorite entry-level digital DJ bundles. Unlike the aforementioned competitors, nothing about the Kontrol X1 will become obsolete should you ever want to make a go at DJing professionally.

All of the buttons and dials on the controller correspond precisely with software actions you'll want handy, whether you're a newbie or a true DJ hero. And because the hardware is customized by the company behind the software, no other piece of hardware on the market dovetails better with Traktor DJ software, regardless of what price range you're looking at.

It's fair to complain about the lack of mixer and soundcard features on the X1, but on the other hand, it's precisely these types of features that build in obsolescence on similar devices. Audio mixers and sound cards are constantly evolving, and the features you'll want from them will change as your skills evolve. In other words, if you really hope to make a career out of DJing, Native Instruments has done you a favor by not including mixer and audio functionality on the Kontrol X1. You're better off in the long run if you break these out separately, using a standalone audio card and DJ mixer to complement the controller.

OK, so what exactly does the Kontrol X1 control? The hardware is split into two sections: a top half for managing audio effects, and a lower half for executing on each of the two decks. The controller is also divided vertically, with the functions on the left and right corresponding intuitively to decks one and two.

The effects section uses a bank of four buttons and four knobs, mirrored for each deck. Each deck's effect bank is made up of three effects (delay, reverb, and filter), which can be activated independently using the lower three buttons and adjusted using the knobs found next to each button. Users who upgrade to a professional version of Traktor DJ software can access additional effects and customize the bank with a supplied overlay template.

The button at the top of each deck's effects bank acts as a global activation switch, while the adjacent knob works as a dry/wet control. All of the knobs in the effects section have a center detent, allowing you to lock in the 12 o'clock position by feel. Also, if the photos haven't already made it clear, the buttons on the X1 are both illuminated and color-coded (effects are red, deck controls are blue). Overall, the layout is fairly brilliant, although a black-on-white design would be a heck of a lot more visible in the dim light of a nightclub.

The controls below the effects section operate each of the two decks. Predictable buttons for play, cue, skip, loop, sync, tempo, and pitch are included on each side. A shift button at the center of the X1 activates a secondary set of functions for each button, which are spelled out below the buttons and highlighted in gray. Most of the shift functions truly are secondary, but some DJs will probably whine that you need to hold shift to manually adjust tempo (autosync control, however, doesn't require a shift press).

The coolest feature of the deck control section, though, are the two pairs of smooth, infinite, decremented dials that act as select buttons when pressed. We've used similar buttons on the Numark NS7 and Numark iDJ2, and they're perfectly suited for a controller like this. For example, the topmost of the two knobs (located midway down the controller) scrolls through your song files when turned, and cues the highlighted track into the appropriate deck when pressed. With the shift button activated, this same knob is used to scrub through your loaded track, or expand the view of your song directory when pressed. The whole scheme is brilliant, and sure beats having to point and click your way around a laptop screen in a dark club.

Below the browse/load knob is an identical-looking dial used to activate and manipulate any looped segments of your song. Personally, I'm not one to get all tricky with loop points, but techno and trance DJs will likely use and abuse this knob into oblivion.

Finally, a note about the Traktor LE software included with the Kontrol X1. I'm probably a little biased on this since Traktor was one of the first DJ programs I learned to use years ago. The LE version of Traktor is a light version of its full-bore Traktor Pro software, which retails for around $199. As light versions of software go, Traktor LE is about as much as most DJs require, offering two decks, effects, EQ, MIDI support, waveform view, multiple loop points, and one of the better song and playlist browsers you'll find. Traktor is both Mac and PC compatible, and an upgrade to the Pro version (offered at a reduced priced of $139 for LE users) brings with it extra effects and up to four simultaneous decks.

Compared against other entry-level DJ applications, Traktor LE offers more features than Serato Itch or Algoriddim Djay, although the simplicity of these programs can be an asset to beginners and no-frills types.

Bottom line: The Traktor Kontrol X1 hardware and software bundle is highly-recommended for amateur DJs whose interest in DJing goes deeper than house parties and free beer. Just know that you'll need to invest in a mixer and four-channel audio card to really make the most of it.