This is, first and foremost, a plea for the pleasures of back-to-back DJing and mixing (for podcasts and the like) the same way. The controller, being the S8 but also any related hardware, plays a supporting role, not the other way round.
But like so much else in the world of electronic music technology, solo too often trumps ensemble. So let’s talk about gear – and why I was surprised to like something as huge as the S8 more than I thought I would.
I finally convinced my techno-making musical partner Nerk to lug the S8 out of the offices of Native Instruments where the company has been hyping the thing up, and into our studio. The idea: take a break from production and mix together some of the sort of music we love and want to hear more of. You can listen to that at the end.
Nerk’s reluctance was over the S8’s hulk. It’s not terribly heavy, but it is big. He’s not alone, either. More than a few DJs I’ve talked to view big, coffin-sized controllers with derision. Not only directing their ire at NI, that includes oversized devices from Numark, Pioneer, and others. And I tended to lean the same way, just because most DJs I know either keep it compact so they can squeeze into cramped booths (see our backpack-ready round-up) or go with what’s already there.
Part of why I’m glad to get to review Native’s new D2 controller next week – it’s essentially the deck control section of the S8 lopped off the rest of the device – is that it seems more practical. And so its bigger brother, the S8, like the S4 before it, seems on first blush more like an SUV to the D2’s sedan. This is an oversized Cadillac Escalade of a DJ controller, in other words, bought to look expensive and ostentatious while parked in the driveway while never taken off-road. (That’s not so much metaphor as direct comparison.)
However, there’s actually some reason to give this breed of devices a second chance – and to hope they find their way into the occasional studio or club installation.
Mixing and hybrid sets. First, the S8 in particular (even more so than some of its bigger cousins) is an exceptionally flexible mixer. I have to confess to some surprise here. NI could have easily cut corners or left the mixer out altogether. Instead, you get a mixer with more-than-acceptable audio performance and an absurd amount of I/O.
This is a trend worth applauding even if you don’t have any interest in getting an S8 yourself. If DJing practice is going to evolve beyond a lot of mixing with CDJs, we need people incorporating turntables and even adding in hardware drum machines and synths for a little added variety and hybrid sets.
Now, of course, you could combine individual controllers with a mixer. And because dedicated deck controllers (hello, D2) allow that, I expect many will go that route. But building things into a single unit isn’t entirely daft. There’s reason to like the S8 on the road, once you do get some sort of flight case. If DJs can simply get a good table in their tech rider, the S8 can become reasonably practical. No, it won’t fit into a booth. But yes, it is actually desirable to have a single unit that you connect once for all your gear if quick set-up and break-down are in order.
Yes, that means I still stand by the feeling that at least Maschine Studio and Komplete Kontrol ought to have some audio I/O, but I digress.
Either way, of course, if you do decide to combine deck controls with a mixer rather than the all-in-one S8, you can still get more or less the same advantages.
But that brings us to the next, if also obvious, point – making physical controls and giving them space is a really good idea.
Table for Two. This is the big reason – literally – these controllers are worth a second look. The simple matter is, using an S8 (or an S4, or two D2s, or equivalents from other vendors) means you’ve got room for two people.
It’s funny, actually, the meaning of “Back to Back” has been diluted it seems. Seeing “B2B” written on a DJ lineup sometimes just means that people will be switching off, more or less at random. But what can make these spice up DJ sets is very much that act of swapping DJs with each new record. And that’s where these controllers get interesting. It’s a more collaborative set where two people can stand next to each other and really have a conversation with alternating records.
Why am I making such a big deal of this? I think physical interface has a huge impact on how artists relate to the music they’re making and each other – even before you start talking about the audience. The personal computer has often become an interpersonal obstacle.
With digital decks instead of just turntables, you can also riff on the concept. One person can start slicing and sampling or adding effects, particularly with the accessibility of all those features on the latest hardware. I’m very curious to try the NI gear mapped to Stems (especially when you can generate your own).
We don’t do much of that in this particular mix, but maybe that only proves my earlier point. Just having the space to play next to one another, we pushed and pulled each other in different directions – which is why experimenting with B2B is fun in the first place.
And I put this out there partly as I’m lining up mixes to start this week on CDM, and partly to suggest the notion that in music gear, what’s too big for one might be just right for two.
Enjoy the listening, our Nerk/Kirn take on the grooves that excite us.
NERKKIRN B2B Maerzmix by Nerkkirn on Mixcloud
Part of why I prefer Mixcloud – apart from the obvious fact that it’s legally licensed for the purpose of mixes – is that it allows you to easily and accurately tag tracks with times. I wish more people would do that; it could be a great way to discover new music. So see full track references in there. (Discussing Mixcloud and competing services should be the subject of another story.)
We go back to some old ones from Nerk (veteran of Toktok and including his collaboration with Dirk Leyers on Kompakt), as well as some new and recent favorites including from friends like Bill Youngman, Dasha Rush, and Aurora Halal.
When I’m not writing CDM, but actually making music on behalf of CDM: