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“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware,” said computer visionary Alan Kay in 1982. And when it comes to making computer software into something you can control physically with your hands, that has made some music tool makers look to integrated hardware for control.

But music users – DJs included – also expect to be able to use their own controller hardware when they play, an expectation cemented by decades of access to the standard MIDI protocol. That meant that Native Instruments stirred up some controversy from its users when it failed to match third-party control of new remix features in its Traktor software with its own, custom hardware, the F1 Kontrol.

The results reveal a bit of the gap between MIDI and protocols used by modern computer hardware – and the gap between what Native Instruments has released to the public and what it plans for future versions. (NI is ultimately working to let you use a variety of controller hardware with Traktor 2.5.)

First, here’s what’s missing. Traktor 2.5 introduces a new feature called Remix Decks, as clearly explained in the tutorial video at top, showing preparation. Instead of playing tracks as-is from start to finish, the idea is that Remix Decks offer more elaborate controls over bits of tracks for manipulation, allowing you to “remix” materials on the fly. You can control Remix Decks from third-party hardware like the Akai MPD (or NI’s own Maschine controller), among others, but there are some limitations, as first reported by DJ TechTools. Only the first four slots are assignable, not the sixteen slots available in the software, which would map more logically to the many 16-pad controllers available. Also, other bi-directional data is missing, so light-up color feedback can’t map back to controllers that support it, and scrolling is unsupported. This means that, for many users, only the F1 Kontrol hardware from NI is able to access the Remix Deck features in full.

Traktor’s 2.5 Remix Decks will have Limited Controller Function.. For Now [DJ TechTools]

Native Instruments confirmed to DJ TechTools that this was not intended as the long-term state of Traktor 2.5, but that, instead, the software would eventually support all third-party control. Readers complained to CDM that the omission was tantamount to intentional lock-in, pushing Traktor users to buy additional hardware. We asked for additional clarification from NI as to why this release lacked this functionality. Native Instruments tells CDM:

There was a conscious decision to focus on tightly bringing the hardware and software together on the lowest level and ensuring that we did the best job possible on connecting the Kontrol F1 to the new features of the Remix Decks in Traktor Pro 2.5. For this, it was important to test this closed system before opening up the infinite possibilities of what mapping can bring.

Also, we wanted to round out the Controller Manager a bit more (relabeling, output learn and a few other features that didn’t make it) before just cramming more in on top. It was not possible to do this in an open fashion to really nail the nuances that we absolutely wanted to go into with the F1 – the last thing we wanted is any stability issues because we tried to do too much. People certainly do not appreciate when something is not there but there is only one thing worse: Something that is there but not ideal, well rounded or worse, not stable.

Native Instruments has separately told DJ TechTools that they expect to unveil the reworked Controller Manager, the feature that supports custom mapping, in the next major release.

The reason that the F1 is different from other controllers is that NI makes use not of MIDI, but of HID – the USB Human Interface Device class, to be specific. That basic protocol is a fundamental part of the standard USB specification. In other words, to support additional hardware via MIDI, NI has to do additional work, both in providing the MIDI implementation itself and support in its Controller Manager facility.

NI tells CDM that they “want to implement MIDI support looking forward, but could not make it in the initial release.” They say there is no timetable yet, but they can confirm support.

In the meantime, users have found ways of providing their own support. DJ TechTools, which hosts the community in which much of the work is being done, calls them “hackers.” These can be considered hacks in the sense of “building your own solution to a problem by any means necessary,” as they require no reverse-engineering of something truly proprietary. HID is a standard protocol, so effectively what users are doing with HID support is using a standard protocol to provide support even without the user interface supporting it in Traktor. We’ve covered music projects that use HID before; some readers have suggested in comments that HID even become a standard way of augmenting MIDI support. For their part, DJ TT is working to add support for its MIDI Fighter 3D hardware. Two users are working on templates for Lemur, the iOS touch application. Another user has a project on GitHub with F1 support.

None of these projects appears to offer seamless, turn-key support in both directions of the full functionality, so it’s unclear whether users or NI developers will be first to offering an alternative to the F1. Most Traktor users, though, will almost certainly want to await the new controller-mapping features in an upcoming update to Traktor. Even if the preference is for modification and customization, this will allow for standard MIDI mappings without the complexity of trying to make controller support work through another means.

Four Hacker Projects Unlock Traktor’s Remix Decks [DJ TechTools]

Your feedback?

Looking beyond just Traktor 2.5, I’d love to hear from people working with HID for music, and whether any enterprising musicians out there might imagine some more comprehensive solution for using HID for control – if such a thing makes sense. In fact, do you agree with the apparent conclusion by NI’s engineers that HID is a superior choice for this kind of bi-directional control application to MIDI over USB?

We’ve been looking at the notion of doing some sort of very focused “hack day” in Berlin and online, as in one with specific goals or themes in mind rather than the (very awesome) generalized hack days hosted internationally in recent years; if you’re interested in helping plan, do get in touch.

As an illustration of how non-homogeneous musicians’ rigs typically are, here’s the first photo I stumbled upon of the F1 in the wild – alongside NI’s own Maschine (which would benefit from MIDI support in Traktor) and Ableton Live:

A little bit of this, a little bit of that – two NI hardware controllers meet Ableton in the kind of hybrid setup typical in the real world. Photo (CC-BY) Hong Kong-based JasonF.

Previously:

Traktor 2.5, Kontrol F1 Arrive with Live Features; Hoping for More Live DJing