Traktor DJ: Portable Performance Workstation

To the music making world, few companies are as recognized and revered as Native Instruments. The German group have been at the heart of the electronic music production and DJ scene for years, and while their contributions to the iOS world have been few, they are always an event worth waiting for.

Their latest unveiling is Traktor DJ, a powerful performance-focused companion to their industry-leading Traktor line of products and a remarkably intuitive tool for new and experienced DJs alike. Is it worthy of the Native Instruments brand? Find the answer with me after the jump.

Traktor: A DJ’s Best Friend

For those familiar with the desktop equivalent, Traktor DJ is pleasingly familiar, presenting you with two “decks” for playing two independent pieces of music.

For those unfamiliar with the basics, the principle of this and most other DJ software is that you are equipped with the means to combine and layer multiple music tracks and manipulate various aspects of the playback in realtime to create exciting remixes and heated dance sets while retaining an element of improvisation and live performance.

The Five-Cent Tour

Launching Traktor DJ brings you to the app’s primary interface, which follows the same clean and logical aesthetic of all its cousins in the desktop world. The two decks take up the most visual space, offering you sizable windows into the waveforms of your chosen tracks.

Main Interface

These waveforms are remarkably lively, with layers representing different frequency ranges and a rendering engine that presents peaks and valleys in a clear and helpful manner, allowing you to quickly grasp the contours of your tracks at a glance.

The two decks each feature a number of common features. Below each main panel is a smaller bar that shows you the entire length of the track, allowing you to quickly jump to points that lie beyond the zoomed-in view above. Likewise, you’ll find buttons for activating Freeze Mode and setting HotCues (more on these later), as well as buttons for controlling looping, playback, and effects along the right side.

To the right of both waveforms is a prominent crossfader that allows you to adjust the balance between the two decks, or eliminate one or the other entirely while you switch out a tune. Doing this couldn’t be easier: simply swiping up from the bottom of the interface at any time brings up the song browser, which syncs with your iTunes library for convenience. You can also use the + button at the top of each deck to open the browser if you prefer.

Getting Around

From the moment you open Traktor DJ, you’ll realize that this is a highly efficient tool honed for performance situations. The top bar is minimalistic but brilliantly informative: displaying the current time, the master tempo, and the iPad’s current battery status so that you never have to worry about any unpleasant surprises mid-set.

In lieu of a tutorial, an information button helps guide you through features of the app that you haven’t discovered yet, and a master output section allows for manipulation of the main output volume, channel splitting, and output recording.

Traktor DJ's Browser

Accessing Traktor DJ‘s Browser

To get started, we need to load some tracks. Doing so can be done in one of three ways: either by swiping up from the bottom of the interface, tapping the + button on one of the decks, or tapping the browser button in the top menu bar. Either one will bring up the browser, which allows us to select from a list of available tracks.

Tracks you haven’t loaded before are analyzed for tempo in realtime, and you can immediately see Traktor DJ displaying beat divisions for you on the waveform. Using two finger pinches, you can zoom in or out on the main deck panel to adjust how much of the waveform you want to see at any given time, and of course swiping during playback allows you to perform the iconic scratching effects that DJ performance is famous for.

Traktor helpfully (and very accurately) keeps everything locked to the master tempo for you, so you can swipe, loop, and mangle things to your heart’s content without losing the beat — this alone makes Traktor DJ unique in the App Store, and it’s incredibly inspiring to work in an environment that helps you explore freely.

Looping Sections

Setting up loops within your tracks

Tracks can be stopped and started using the Play button at the bottom right of each deck, and using two finger taps you can also set loop braces and engage the Loop mode with the button above Play to keep cycling through a specific portion of the track.

HotCues and Freeze Mode

One of the most useful features for longer sets is the ability to cue up specific points in your tracks for quick access. These are called HotCues, and can be assigned and retrieved using the HotCue button (the flag) at the bottom of each waveform.

Hotcues in Traktor DJ

Holding the button allows you to then tap any beat divison in the waveform display to set a HotCue, which you can then find immediately from the HotCue menu that appears when you touch the button.

Beside it, the Freeze button offers a more direct performance interaction by stopping the waveform and allowing you to “play” beat divisions simply by tapping them — even as the rest of the track continues to play! This allows for interesting transitions and solos, and encourages DJs to be more involved and hands-on with their tracks.

Freeze Mode

The Effects Section

Perhaps the most fun you can have with Traktor DJ is using its excellent effects. Tapping the FX button slides out the effects panel, which allows you to choose three different effects per deck. There are a total of 8 to choose from, including two basic filters (low and highpass).

Dragging down on any of the effect names allows you to pick one from a drop-down list for that slot. Then, by dragging your finger across the X/Y pad, you can perform live modulation of that effect in realtime. If you find a particular effect that you want to keep running permanently, simply hold your finger where you want the effect to remain on the X/Y pad and then tap the lock icon along the right edge of the pad.

Using Effects in Traktor DJ

One system limitation is that you cannot record any automation for the effects. So if, for instance, you wanted to use the filter to produce a consistent wobble in time with the beat, you have no way of doing that except manually. This is an unfortunate ommission, and one that will hopefully be corrected in future updates for those situations where simply locking an effect in place is insufficient.

There is also an EQ panel that gives you a broad 3-band equalizer that you can use, as well as a separate dedicated filter module for the deck (so you can have up to three filters working in tandem). The EQ and Filter modules also lack any form of automation, but the filter position can be locked in the same way as the effects.

Performance and Syncing

One of Traktor DJ’s secret weapons is its ability to sync metadata, beat grids, cue points, and BPMs with the desktop version (via Dropbox), allowing you to use the main software’s robust feature set to prepare a killer set on your computer and then sync it to your iPad for convenient, portable performance.

Performing using Traktor DJ is a joy, with its various interface elements and gestures coming together in perfect harmony to deliver an immersive environment for working. There simply aren’t any rough edges to bump up against, and it’s clear that Native Instruments has invested a great deal of effort into fine-tuning it for seamless live use.

EQ in Traktor DJ

It clearly lacks some of the more sophisticated features of its desktop equivalents, and the lack of robust hardware controllers and flexible audio routing and output options may make it a no-go for serious DJs, but there’s a lot of horsepower under the hood that can cover a surprising amount of ground.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you use it on its own, or together with Traktor hardware and desktop software, Traktor DJ represents a quantum leap forward for DJ performance using an iPad. The gesture-based navigation and superb interface design are a celebration of musical exploring, and the many features allow for many different creative approaches to manipulating your tracks.

While the lack of effect parameter automation and the expected limitations of the iPad’s hardware may keep it out of range of the most high-end performance situations, Traktor DJ is a capable tool for professionals and beginners alike and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive audio apps on the App Store today.


Summary

A robust tool for creating and performing exciting DJ sets, on its own or in combination with the rest of the Traktor product line from Native Instruments. While it lacks parameter automation, it ticks just about every other box for the perfect performance companion.

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