Review: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z1
One of the most intuitive, effective iOS DJ apps on the market is Native Instruments' Traktor. It ditches the turntable metaphor in favor of loopable, flickable, choppable waveforms, and in doing so, offers a fresh approach to touchscreen DJing. Now, NI has released a hardware mixer that pairs nicely with both the iOS and Mac/PC Traktor apps, providing a more responsive, physical interface for vital functionality.
How It Looks
The Kontrol Z1 is housed in typical Native Instruments stylings: all-black everything, orange, white and blue LED-lit buttons, and a small footprint that makes the device portable enough to throw in a small backpack along with an iPad. The EQ and filter knobs, along with the volume and cross-fader sliders, feel sturdy and smooth, and the buttons depress with a satisfying click. The inclusion of two internal audio cards means you can output discrete audio to your speakers and headphones for proper cueing, a function which is achieved with a pair of RCA outputs in the back and an ?" headphone output in front. The unit ships with a 30-pin cable for connecting to an iOS device (a lightning adapter would have been nice too), along with a standard USB cable for connecting to your laptop. While it will handily charge an iOS device when connected, the Z1 also needs to be plugged into the wall via the included AC adapter, thereby somewhat limiting its portability—the option to run on battery power would have been especially convenient. Also, the glossy faceplate picks up fingerprints like a forensics specialist.
How It Sounds
The interface for mixing songs with Traktor is significantly improved with the addition of the Kontrol Z1. It's a genuinely plug-and-play affair, and having real knobs for EQing goes a long way, as do the faders—the physical controls make DJing feel both more substantial and secure than simply having to rely on a touchscreen for such precise, essential maneuvers. The ability to control the mix and volume in headphones while cueing up the next track is immediately valuable, and in general, things feel very intuitive, even with the mix of physical and touchscreen controls across separate devices. The Z1 doesn't add functionality to Traktor, but rather improves and physicalizes the app's functionality.
The Bottom Line
On iPad (and somewhat less so on iPhone/iPod), Traktor on its own makes for a surprisingly capable, fantastically portable way to mix songs. But by adding a bit more bulk and spending some cash, the addition of a physical mixer (with dual audio outputs) makes things even better. The Z1 doesn’t have jog wheels, and thereby doesn’t change the game; instead, it relies on Traktor's (albeit excellent) auto-detection functionality for beat- and key-matching songs. If conceding that level of manual control to the machine is no problem, then the Z1 makes an effective, reliable DJ partner for the iPad.