Native Instruments' first foray into the world of iOS was iMaschine, a fun but deceptively powerful beatbox for Apple's smaller devices. Now, and somewhat by surprise, appears Traktor DJ for iPad, a re-imagined version of its flagship DJ software that looks set to revolutionize the way we spin music. In the last few years, most DJs have switched from traditional vinyl to some form of laptop-based digital setup. But the iPad is actually perfect for DJing: it's amazingly portable and surprisingly powerful but still has a big enough touch screen to make manipulating music possible. The key here is in the execution, and as we know, NI is really rather good at that.
The app is a pretty small download and sells for $ 19.99 / 17.99 € / 1700 ¥. It will run on any iPad 2 or higher including the Mini, with the original iPad not officially supported due to its more modest hardware. Fire it up and the interface will be quite familiar to anyone who has seen the desktop version of Traktor, all muted greys and sleek, stripped-down design. There's none of the simulated turntables that other apps use, which is actually quite refreshing. Not that we ever really expected NI to suddenly start using them.
Your first step will probably be to just load up a track and start playing, which is as simple as tapping on one of the two decks' artwork areas to open the Browser. You can browse by song, playlist, artist, album or genre, and create and name new playlists on the fly. Any songs in a list can be sorted by name, artist or BPM, and you can tap on a track to see recommended tracks to go after it or to mix with it. Traktor DJ does this by analyzing every track the first time it is loaded, so it knows tracks' tempos before you start. Flip the Load switch to place a track into deck A or B and you're away. There's a search field to find files really quickly and you can set a master tempo too, using a dial.
Songs can be loaded from your Music app library, sorted and quickly dropped into a Deck for playback.
Spin those tracks
A note about music files: they have to live on the iPad, so as with every other app that runs on iOS, if you use iTunes Match you will have to download a physical copy to the device, though this can be done while DJing since audio continues even when Traktor DJ is in the background. It's reliant on your onboard Music app playlist or playlists that you create within Traktor DJ, and at present you can't manually copy files from elsewhere into Traktor DJ, which would be a nice addition for the future.
Create and name playlists on the fly, even while performing.
With the Browser open, you get mini views of the two decks at the top with waveform displays, play and loop buttons and a crossfader, so it's quite possible to play and mix tracks while browsing or creating playlists. To get more creative, drag the upper area down and you reveal a larger Deck view. You'll see that the tracks have been analyzed for beats, and this works amazingly well not only with dance music but anything strongly rhythmic. So beat matching hip hop is as easy as techno, for example.
Traktor DJ analyzes tracks when they are imported so by the time you load them, it knows all about their tempo and transients.
You can tap a Sync button on either deck to pull it into time with the other deck, and it does this without changing the pitch. A neighboring button lets you manually tweak the beat analysis markers to change the sync manually, and you can tap tempo manually as well as locking the beat grid. To be honest, the beat matching is the best I've ever used and even if you are a beginner, you will find that most of the time it's just taken care of for you. You'll still need to cue to the right point if you're looping tracks over each other, but the beat markers are very accurate. You will almost certainly want to add some kind of audio interface for your iPad if you plan to cue, since Traktor DJ lets you split the output to use one side for the main feed and the other for cueing, with volume and mix controls. There are quite a few available, from IK Multimedia, Apogee and others who are making specialized iPad audio interfaces. Another useful feature is that you can bi-directionally sync track settings and properties with Traktor Pro 2.6.1, letting you transfer beat grids, cue points, loops and BPM data between computer and iPad via a free Dropbox account. A handy “notification center” shows you features you may not know about, and crosses them off the list once you have discovered them.
Traktor DJ's beat analysis works very well and you can manually tweak it if you feel the need.
You can split the output of the app to enable cue mixing, though you'll want a hardware unit for this rather than the iPad's own headphone out.
Spin a track back or forward and you get the classic digital “whoosh” noise. Helpfully, if you scratch or spin a track while playing, Traktor DJ will do it but also remember where the track should have been had you not done so, and jump straight back to it afterwards. So you can scratch and spin without ever losing your place even if you have no real DJ experience. This alone will probably convince a lot of people to take the plunge. You can loop tracks easily by pressing the loop button, and set the default loop length as well as default quantize size in the app's preferences.
One really nice touch is that you can use a two finger tap to instantly loop anywhere on a track, swipe outwards to double the length of the loop and swipe down to clear the loop. This really underlines the benefits of using multitouch, and of course Traktor DJ guesses the loop points perfectly. The crossfader is easy to use, though I'd love to see a “double tap to auto crossfade” implemented. You can add markers on any Deck by simply tapping and adding up to eight, then tapping their icons to jump between them, so you can set up loops within a track and zap to them without having to scroll around. If you like, it's possible to freeze a Deck so that you can trigger any slice repeatedly by tapping on it to start playback, making it fun and easy to remix stuff on the fly.
Looping takes advantage of multitouch, with simple swipe and pinch gestures for zooming as well as setting, clearing and lengthening loops.
Easily set markers and zap between them to create multiple loops within tracks.
EQ and FX
Each Deck has an EQ section that can be revealed with a tap, and you can dial in low, mid and high EQ as well as a filter that can be locked to freeze it. There's also an FX section for each Deck with three slots per Deck, each assignable to use delay, gating, reverb, flanging, beatmasher, lo-fi or a filter. Each one responds brilliantly to the touch interface letting you dial in real-time effects that work effortlessly and stay in sync, adding lots of interest to your performances. The effects can be locked too, if you like. Rounding off the feature set is a simple Record button: activate this and your set is saved as a WAV file that can be copied from iTunes to your Mac or PC though not at present shared directly to SoundCloud or another online service, even though settings can be synced via Dropbox.
Quickly dial in EQ for a Deck and create filtering effects for better mixing and blending of music.
Each Deck has three assignable effects slots and these can be locked to temporarily keep an effect on even after you let go of the control.
Traktor DJ for iPad is an incredible app, at once very easy to grasp and use but with enough clever features to make you sound like a real DJ even if you're not. That's not to say it's a toy, because it really isn't. It's a very clever distillation of everything that is good about Traktor running on a touch interface that really unlocks the potential both of the software and the hardware. The beat analysis is unparalleled in its accuracy, and mixing and syncing tracks is simple. The effects are powerful and great-sounding, and navigating, looping and cueing are smoother and better implemented than we've ever seen done on the iPad.
Overall the app is slick and extremely well put together, and looks set to make DJs out of a whole lot of iPad owners. We'd hope to see a few things implemented in future like better integration with online sharing services, maybe even direct streaming of your set, and perhaps more ways to import tracks such as a Wi-Fi server. But for performance and as NI's first fully fledged iPad app, Traktor for iPad is a triumph.
Check out this video of Richie Hawtin using Traktor DJ: