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Tools of the Trade

Revolutionizing DJ performance with the head of Traktor DJ's product design team

By Chris Galvin
traktor

After last week’s review of Native Instruments’ new Traktor DJ for iPad app, we had an opportunity to chat with Jim Mazur, head of Traktor’s product design, to get him to answer a few questions about how the software came about, the iterations it took to solve the user-interface paradigm, and a much more.

Like the iPhone, this is a product that will revolutionize the way DJs perform. What design approach did your team take to craft Traktor for the tablet vs. the traditional desktop setting?

I think the answer is somewhat addressed in your question. When creating Traktor DJ, we really stepped back and tried to think about how we can craft new experiences for traditional DJ workflows on a tablet and not how we can simply move traditional desktop or hardware experiences to a touch device.

We also knew that with these new paradigms, we had to spend our time and make sure that the most basic interactions were the best we could possibly make them. This meant hours in front of whiteboards sketching out different approaches and then proving and disproving approaches through making functional prototypes. We didn’t want to be the first to make a DJ app on an iPad—we wanted to be the first to use the potential of the touch interface to its fullest in the context of a DJ application.

The success of a tablet application is determined by its ease of use in the first 30 seconds of use. Without going into too much detail, how many iterations of the UI did you go through before landing on the current version?

We started with at least five high-level UIs in the beginning of design and very quickly converged along one design approach, which we immediately started sketching out with additional iterations and variations. Once we felt convinced with the overall direction, we started prototyping in software and actually placed the application in front of both Traktor and non-Traktor users to see what was instantly understandable. It’s amazing what a first-time user can teach you about your design, and we knew from day one this had to be a central part of our design process in order to get it right.

The Freeze Slicing feature is really exciting because it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for DJs to perform. In some ways you’ve removed the tediousness of setting up beat-grid markers and in some cases sound packs. Can you speak to this?

Both of your points, the freeze slicing and the live editing of beat grids, allude to the paradigm of accessing your music in real time that is key to Traktor DJ. The touch interface provided us with the possibility to take the concept of the waveform as a visual representation of your music one step further, and actually use it to seamlessly interact with the track that’s playing. It’s such a great experience to be able to move within a track with confidence. Essentially, you can quickly turn the wave display into a navigation interface while keeping the song running.


There’s such a fine line between DJing and performing these days, especially with Traktor sound packs and the like. How do you see Traktor DJ scaling to this new hybrid style of performance?

One of the core beliefs that Traktor always embodied was that you should be able to perform with your music. Back in the day that just meant having access to looping, FX, and more decks for layering. With Traktor DJ we wanted again to focus on the basics and find the right way for people to take existing music and put their touch on it.

In a DJ context, for most of the time, performing is actually down to moving the crowd and finding the right progressions of songs and not mangling every song. With the recommendation engine we wanted to provide professionals with some additional tools to find new and even more interesting mixes. In light of ever-growing music collections, it can become almost too comfortable to stay with limited batches of songs that you know go together well and miss some really great mixes. Of course in the end, you must know your music, and like any such feature, use it as a tool and not a crutch.

While the UI is perfect for live performance—and I have to ask this because DJs and producers love their gadgets and gear—will you be providing any peripherals (tablet-specific controllers) for the tablet version of Traktor?

I can’t speak to any of the future plans for Traktor DJ or hardware. As you have said, the UI is set up in way for live performance and we definitely will continue to expand upon the performance potential of this software.

The test version I have doesn’t have the bi-directional content sync enabled. Can you speak to how that works?

The content synchronization essentially places your music metadata collection in the cloud, so all your tags, cue points, loops, and beat grids are stored in Dropbox. The actual music is not in the cloud, as we believe that most people are comfortable with using iTunes as their iPad music manager.

Traktor keeps track of the metadata associated to the songs that exist both in your iPad and in Traktor Pro. When you make a change to the metadata on one platform, it will automatically update on the other. As the changes are only metadata (and not songs) the bandwidth is quite small, so you can easily import a bunch of new music. This means that you can actually prepare your music for use in Traktor Pro while you are already creatively working with the music in Traktor DJ.

Will there be support for other tablet platforms?

We are constantly watching the market and asking our users which platforms they are on. Initially we saw that most Traktor DJs (no pun intended) are on iOS, so we started on that platform. More importantly, the support for audio on iOS is so much more powerful and matured than on most other platforms. Also, iOS as a platform is much more focused (less devices and configurations), so we knew that we could reach a better quality with the software as a whole.

And, last but not least, what’s your favorite feature of Traktor for the iPad?

Definitely freeze mode! We lost at least a couple of days of productivity when we got the first prototype of that! [laughs]