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Friday, 16 January 2009

I think I've had enough.

I've been stuck in a needy relationship that's not going anywhere. It's just take take take, and I'll be honest, I've had enough. Yeah there's been some good times, but now things are stale. I'm sick of the promises, the glitches, the insensitivity, the assumptions, and the lies. It's not me, it's you. And before you ask, yes, there is someone else. 

Traktor, I'm leaving you. 

For so long, I've put up with your awkwardness, given you all my time, and hoped that one day, you and I would work in perfect harmony. But now, I've given up on that dream. 

The final straw came when I realized that even though I'd put many hundreds of hours into organising my collection, setting cue points, loop points, and beatgridding all my tracks, that none of this could be transferred to Traktor Pro. Not only that, but I'm going to have to change my whole way of working. Again. Traktor 3 was almost perfect the way it was, just a couple of little tweaks here and there, a sampler, and it would have been there. But no, that's not good enough, apparently what we need is a complete overhaul. That in itself, I'd be fine with if it added something to my experience of DJing with it. But instead, things have actually been taken out, rather than extra features added. And that wouldn't be so bad if they weren't features that were actually nessessary to DJ with. 

So now, I face a tough decision. Do I stay with Traktor 3, knowing that how I have it now is never going to progress any further, hoping that one day, Traktor Pro is going to emerge as something actually worth using - in the mean time updating 20k tracks to the new format, just because the developers didn't see the need for their loyal customers to be able to make a seamless transition between the two versions? Or do I head to Ableton, where I'd still have to put in the hours updating my collection, but be able to rest safe in the knowledge that the interface is going to stay familiar for the foreseeable future, and I'll likely not have to do all this work all over again? The reasons for staying with Traktor have been getting less and less clear for me, and with yesterday's announcement of Ableton Live 8, there's now very little that's keeping me using it. I've been toying with my DJ layout for Live for a while now, and every time I have a play with it, I discover new things I can do. With Traktor, I always feel like I'm fighting against the software, rather than working with it. If NI have a change of heart, and start listening to their users rather than dictating to them what they need, my Traktor collection will still be there, but as of today, I'm starting work on getting everything organized in Ableton. 

Monday, 5 January 2009

But will it mix?

So I finally got my new mixer, a Korg Zero 8, and this thing is amazing! For every person with one of these mixers, there seems to be differing opinions, so here's my little review...

I wanted a mixer that had audio channels, but had enough MIDI controls that I could control everything in Traktor from the same unit. Up until now I'd been using a Evolution UC33-e for MIDI control, and a Creative Audigy Notebook ExpressCard for outputting audio. This was a nice compact little setup, but there were a few problems with it - there were a lot of things to plug in, so setting up at a club could take a while. The UC33-e could be unreliable due to a dodgy USB port on the unit, and it kept disconnecting, leaving me with no MIDI control. Having only MIDI control over the mixer section meant there was inherent latency, which made doing quick chops with beats and samples almost impossible. Because I was only outputting 2 channels (master and monitor, with all the mixing handled by Traktor's internal mixer), I could only assign my Kaoss Pad 3 to the master output from Traktor - there was no way I could use it on just one individual channel. 

So my requirements were:
  • A single unit that would handle both audio and MIDI.
  • Simple setup.
  • Ability to send individual channels to the KP3 for sampling and effecting. 
  • Enough MIDI controls to handle Traktor's effects and other functions, so I have to touch the laptop as little as possible. 
Given this, the Zero 8 really became the only choice. The other contenders were:
  • Korg Zero 4 had no effects sends, and not enough knobs for controlling Traktor. 
  • Pioneer DJM800 is limited in it's MIDI controlling, and there's no built-in soundcard, so I'd have to plug a cable in for each channel I'd be using. 
  • Ecler EVO5 looked nice, but again, not enough MIDI controls, and no effects sends. 
  • Allen & Heath X:One 3D was the biggest contender, both in size and features, but a bit out of my league in terms of price. 
I had a lot of problems when initially getting the mixer working with Traktor, first of all, there were no drivers for Vista. I was using the XP drivers in compatibility mode, which would work for a bit, then cut out with loud nasty squeaking coming from the speakers. I was ready to send the Zero back for a refund. Then luckily, a Vista driver came out that day on the Korg Japan site which, after a bit of fiddling, I got working reliably. You can download the Vista driver here

A lot of people have reported hiss with this mixer. I'd heard there was no hiss on the digital SP/DIF output though, and since the mixer seemed right in every other way for me, I thought if worst came to the worst, I'd just buy a convertor, and hook it up to the digital output. As it turns out though, I've not experienced any hiss on any of the channels, so maybe Korg have sorted this problem out. 

Sound quality is fantastic, I wasn't expecting anything phenomenal in this area, but to my ears it definitely sounds a lot less harsh than the Pioneer mixers I'm used to working on. For a digital mixer, it sounds surprisingly warm, with great punch in the lower end - for House music, this is perfect. 

You can pretty much set this mixer up exactly how you want it - there's so many options available, it's incredible. First up, there's about a million inputs, and the rotary dials at the top of each channel let you put pretty much any input into any channel. All the faders have an adjustable curve (not just the crossfader). I use the upfaders for mixing as I use 4 decks, so this was brilliant for me, and something I've not had before in a mixer. I set them up with quite a harsh curve, which I found worked really well with my choppy, "just slam it in" mixing style. There's also a cut/solo switch for each channel, when set to cut it removes the channel from the mix instantly, and spings back to the middle position as soon as you let go, returning the track output to the mix. Pushed in the other direction it latches, and mutes all the other tracks. You can solo more than one track at a time by pushing more than one of these switches upwards. On channels set to MIDI control, these switches send MIDI information, in the neutral position, no data is sent, but different controllers can be selected depending on whether the switch is up or down (so pushing up could control one button in Traktor, whilst pushing down would work a different one. You'll have to make sure you don't need both buttons at the same time though when doing this). On my MIDI channels, I've set this switch to control the 'action' button in BeatMasher, and the Reverb 'Put' button. This allows me to quickly enable the BeatMasher (for short bursts) by pressing down on it, or push it upwards, and holding the effect on (for long mashes, or keeping the reverb turned on while I do something else). 

Any channel can also be used set to send MIDI controller information for all the controls, or even just half the controls, which really gives you a lot of flexibility on how you have everything set up. I wanted to have 4 channels of actual audio for the 4 decks in traktor, rather than having everything controlled in MIDI - I wanted to have no latency whatsoever on the upfaders, and this method also meant by setting the EQs to filter instead of EQ, I can have a filter on every channel, meaning I can reduce my use of Traktor's Filter T2 effect, which was pretty much constantly turned on on all my decks. I then have decks 5-7 transmit MIDI control information. From these channels, I can choose the effect selected for each individual deck, operate the effects, and even control cue points using the A/B buttons above the upfader. Finally, on channel 8, I have the input for the Kaoss Pad. I could have routed this back into the return for EXT1, but this limited me in a couple of ways: There was no easy way to have a single wet/dry control for the KP3 effects - turning up the EXT1 send on the channel all the way to the top would not fade out the 'dry' signal after it got past half way, which was a bit disappointing, and meant that I'd have to work the channel upfader to take the dry signal out of the mix. To get over this, I assign the KP3 input channel to the right side of the crossfader, and any channels I want to wet/dry control to the left side, then moving the crossfader gives me an easy control over how much of the effected signal I have in the mix. Having it set up in this way also means that I can further effect the KP3 signal with the EQs and effects on the mixer itself. Whilst we're on the subject of effects, you should know that the Zero8 doesn't have a seperate effect for each channel like the Zero4 does - instead there's 3 buttons under the screen that let you switch between channel, send and master effects control: 
  • Channel lets you apply the effect to any one channel, and is added post EQ. 
  • Send is applied to any channels that have the "Zero FX Send" knob turned up - this allows you have one or more channels effected, to the level you choose from this knob, and the overall level of the effect is controlled from the knob in the returns section of the mixer. You can choose whether each channel is sent pre or post fader for the send effect, but it suffers from having no ability to remove the dry control of the mix (like the Kaoss pad effects return mentioned above) unless you choose to send pre-fader. 
  • Master applies an effect to the master output, and so effects all channels (and effects returns) currently in the mix. 
This, again, gives you a lot of possibilities, and all 3 options can be enabled at the same time, with different effects selected on each by using the hold button also under the screen. I'm thinking about using this to keep a compressor constantly on my master output (to keep the mixer levels at a more constant level), but I'm still experimenting finding settings that work well for this. It's a shame that there's no way to store favorite effects for instant recall, like you can with the KP3, as searching through the effects with the rotary is not the quickest way to find the effect you need with so many on offer. I would have thought this would be an ideal use for the rotary buttons, as they don't do anything while the screen is in the effects pages. 

The mixer recieves a MIDI clock from Traktor with minimum of fuss (you can set it to recieve MIDI clock over firewire, or via a MIDI cable, make sure you select the right option on the mixer, or risk wondering why it's not working for days like I did), with the added benefit that it send this information on through the MIDI port to the KP3, meaning that the effects and samples on both units are kept in time perfectly with Traktor. 

There's a bank of 8 rotary encoders to the right of the mixer, that can be set up with 4 banks of MIDI controller data. You can also press these encoders down, and they act as buttons. I have these set up to load tracks from the browser in Traktor, and control looping and cuing. One niggle I have with these buttons is that they disable when you select any of the effects on the touchscreen, so you have to select the controller bank above the buttons again to start sending MIDI information again. If you're thinking about using this mixer with Traktor Pro, you should know that these rotary encoders don't work very well with Pro yet, they work fine in one direction, but not the other (NI know about this problem though, so hopefully it will be fixed soon). This also happens under v3.4 for me, but it's fine in 3.2. When you have these controller banks selected, the touchscreen also sends MIDI information, so you could use this to further fuck with the effects in Traktor. 

So on to the touch screen. You use this to choose most of the options on the mixer, and most of these were pretty self explanatory. It lets you set all the fader curves (individually for each fader), as well as things like MIDI clock, what inputs are sent over firewire, and change MIDI note data for the 4 controller banks. By pressing one of the 3 buttons below the screen, it switches into effects mode, and in most cases you use the screen itself to control the effects. This works well enough, but the touch screen is less responsive than the one on the KP3, and about 3/4 of the size, which can make getting predictable effects a fiddly business. Because it's not divided into a grid like the KP3, it can also make it hard to know where to touch the screen to get the desired effect - on the KP3, I have no problem knowing exactly the coordinates to touch in order to get the effect I want. Most of the effects on the KP3 are included, with the exception of the drum machines (which are crap anyway) and the synths (which can be useful in certain situations). You do gain about 20 effects that are knob controlled (using the rotary encoders) rather than screen controlled though, and these include things like delays and compressors, so you have finer control of these effects. The range of effects, covers pretty much everything you'd need, you've got the usual range of filters, delays, flangers, reverbs, some are fairly similar, and only the paramaters changed by moving your finger on the screen are different. You also have a load of effects that'll make things a bit more interesting, like decimators, and tape delays, along with a nice beat looper, that allows you to choose how many beats are looped by pressing the timing boxes on the screen. It's a shame with all this power, that they couldn't have included a proper sampler on board as well, but I have the KP3 for that, so it's not really a biggie for me. 

The mixer itself feels solidly built, although the controls themselves feel a bit plasticy. The upfaders are nice and loose, almost to the point of being too loose, but they have a really smooth feel to them. One of people's biggest complaints with this mixer has been the fiddly knobs. The knobs are very thin, and closely positioned, but I can't see any other way of getting that many controls onto one mixer without making them that small. The knobs have a bit of resitance to them, which is good, but they also wiggle a bit, which makes it feel like they might not last long after a bit of abuse. We'll see how they hold up, as I abuse mixers more than most.

For the record, since this mixer is Traktor Skratch certified, I hooked up my CDJ and tried using it to control the decks in Traktor Pro. After choosing which channel to send the timecode information on it sprang to life - I was expecting some headaches, but it ran like a dream. Personally, I have no need for vinyl/CDJ control though, so this is not something I've tested extensively. 

As reported by a lot of others, the headphone output is on the quiet side, but a headphone amplifier should sort that out. 

Overall though, I'm fucking loving this mixer, it's opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me, and every time I play with it, I discover something new I can do with it :) I haven't been this excited about DJing in a long time :) Yeah, there's niggles, but even after nearly 2 years of being on the market, this mixer is still the only one that does everything I want. Keep your ears open for a new Ruforia mix done with this mixer in the very near future :)