While everyone has been pouring over leaks of Native Instruments’ new Traktor controller, few took notice that one enterprising engineer has made his own touchscreen prototype – an entirely DIY effort, from the guy who first took controllers to the market.
Kontrol-Dj, the decade-long, one-man engineering shop for DJs, over the summer quietly showed a custom solution for adding touchable displays to existing DJ controllers. There’s capacitive multi-touch support – out of the box, working with Image-Line’s Dekcadance software.
And for now, this little video is about the only DJ rig not involving an iPad or Android tablet that uses touch in this way. One thing you don’t see in the NI film about the Kontrol S8 is anyone touching the screen. It seems neither new Numark nor NI controllers yet incorporate touch.
Luis Serrano should know something about the history of DJ controllers: he invented the world’s first commercial offering, the KDJ-500. (The key word here is “commercial” – everything else was a DIY, one-off affair.) You’ll notice some familiar features even in that original model: jog wheels are combined with mixer controls. The arrangement and build would be perfectly desirable today, some 11 years later, for DJing, live music, or live visuals. (You’ll occasionally see someone ask around for one.)
Luis is now lead software engineer on Deckadance, Image-Line’s somewhat underrated, under-the-radar DJ app, and has made various other controllers (plus a mixer) over the years.
The touch solution here is compelling. Rather than use one control separate from the screen to control what’s on the screen, you touch the screen – and the waveform – directly. Ironically, Native Instruments has probably done more than anyone to popularise just that concept. Touch in Traktor DJ on the iPad is a revelation: suddenly, making and triggering loops and the like is stunningly intuitive. (Traktor is hardly alone, but I think deserves special mention because of its unique focus on touchable looping, etc.)
Now, obviously, tactile controls have appeal that touch can’t replace: knobs and faders work better in physical form than in virtual renditions, wheels need resistance, and so on. So you don’t see Luis using touch for the whole controller; instead, he integrates it with that hardware (including the jog wheels I love to hate so much).
Happily, iPad docks never caught on. We have seen controllers extend the iPad, so that’s one option – as Native Instruments like to show in their own solution. They even launched a promo video around the concept. The attendees aren’t staged: the crowd includes Berlin tech luminaries such as DJ Sarah Farina, Berlin Geekettes’ Jess Erickson, and the Through My Speakers crowd – plus a lot of NI employees. In other words, make whatever jokes you want about iPad DJs – this DJ crew can out-DJ plenty of aspiring DJs regardless of what tool they happen to be using.
I imagine in some weeks, as the NV ships from Numark and the S8 from NI, the iPad – augmented with controllers – will be the logical rival. It now offers several DJ apps with features similar to what you get on desktop, and touch is integrated directly with the program.
But that raises the question of why no one has worked out getting capacitive touch into custom hardware. Why haven’t we seen a touch-enabled CDJ? Why are we just now seeing screens (hardly new tech) in the controllers, but still no touch?
There would seem to be two remaining obstacles. One, simply, is cost. Add up the cost of those jog wheels (or pads), and faders, and pots, and even built-in mixers, and it may be that manufacturers can’t add touch within their cost targets. Only Apple and Samsung and Asus have the sort of supply chains that make touch screens cheap.
Another, trickier problem may be that touch itself isn’t always desirable. Add touch to a screen, and you open up the possibility of accidentally triggering tracks when you brush the display with your hand. That has also kept many DJs away from the iPad in high-pressure situations: capacitive touchscreens don’t like sweaty hands, and big audiences don’t like train wrecks.
Still, this seems to be an idea worth testing, not only in the DJ world but in future instruments, too. It’d be strange if all touch interfaces were left to Apple, when the iPad is very often not a perfect musical device. (Ask my iPad mini about that – it’s suddenly become unfriendly with WiFi networks since meeting iOS 8.)
So, whether the idea is ready for prime time or not, I’d keep an eye on experiments like this.
And, after all, Luis was ahead of his time last time.