Just over a year ago, the NAMMernet was twitching with news of an all new lump of hardware from Numark, but mysteriously powered by Serato - some mistake surely? Verily, I despatched emails to the relevant high ups and back came something that I wasn't expecting at all. Indeed it was true - Serato, purveyors of scene owning DVS Scratch Live had come up with something very new called ITCH. Cut down SSL? Well not really but more like a DJing OS that will power specially designed hardware, in this case the NS7 from Numark - an all in one behemoth controller with high speed MIDI and real spinning platters, as well as a conventional tried and tested DJing workflow.
So here we are, 15 months later and the NS7 is, at the time of writing, about to hit the world in what is the equivalent of an iPhone hype inducing campaign from Numark. I don't know if people will be camping out to get one, but dealers are certainly limiting numbers. Numark have backed this up with a dedicated NS7 site as well as touring countries with VIP DJs doing demos as well. Clearly Numark are heaping huge expectations on the NS7, as are the end users in return on Numark. They need a real trouble free crunch busting über product right now, so let's pull this gleaming black box to pieces and see if it does live up to the expectations.
Getting this 2 reviews in one epic of to a start, here's an overview for the hard of reading, lazy or busy: The Numark NS7 is an all in one lump of DJ tech based on Serato's ITCH DJ software. Essentially, it's like having 2 CD decks with real vinyl platters, loops, hot cues and USB device functionality, all driven via USB2 by ITCH's Scratch Live library sharing on-screen interface. ITCH drives the hardware via a one to one high speed (10X MIDI implementation that is hidden from the user.
The decks are variable torque direct drives, with heavyweight spinning platters finished off with real 7" vinyl. This comes with start, stop and reverse/bleep controls as well as 3 pitch ranges, infinite pitch bend and key lock. They can also be switched off to become jog wheels.
The mixer is a regular 2 channel affair, with a fully configurable crossfader and simple line faders with no additional controls. Each channel has 3 band EQ to kill with full headphone monitoring and complete control over master and booth output. There's also an aux/mic source which can double as a life saving emergency audio source if things go wrong.
Thanks to ITCH, the NS7 can do manual or auto looping, with full loop slicing abilities. You also get 5 hot cues to play with too. And all track loading and navigation can be done from the NS7 with a set of dedicated set of control that helps reduce the amount of laptop interaction.
Numark should be given a little more credit for doing things their own way. While other companies churn out a stream of extremely safe near guaranteed sales units, Numark want to push things just that little bit further, and bring out product that often bucks the trend and opens up the minds of potential buyers a little. This can be a dangerous approach, especially in an industry where straying away from established norms is often met with hostility. But in these ever changing times, almost anything is fair game. Design rule books have become mere guidelines, and gear designers are free to bring even the most insane ideas to the boardroom and have a hope of getting them seen.
Thus when approaching the design of this ITCH based controller, Numark had a set of software imposed rules to work with, but what they did with those rules was up to them. So having a relatively clean blank canvas, Numark had some tough decisions to make. Go small, go large or go crazy - well the DJ world has a plethora of A3 sized controllers that more or less work the same. Going crazy and making some wildly different controller is too much of a risk. So what Numark appear to have done is think really hard about what DJs might really want, and the middle ground between a regular analog setup and a laptop sized controller is where they've laid their hat.
Thus a fairly controversial all in one design was drawn up - one that incorporated everything that DJs need as well as addressing the reasons why people don't buy the small controllers. This couldn't be done in a small case so a larger and heavier unit is the result. Having the larger case means being able to adopt a much more DJ friendly workflow i.e. a 2 channel mixer sandwiched between 2 real decks. So straight away, DJs can step up and use the NS7 without having to relearn new controls.
So having established that the NS7 is much bigger than the standard controller offering, it has to be housed in a substantial case. In terms of size, it's 760mm x 380mm x 110mm to the top of the spindle (76mm to the top of the flat surface). The base is a one piece formed aluminium base, shaped, drilled and formed to take the decks and mixer. Supporting the whole unit are 8 thick stuck on rubber feet, that combined with the weight keeps the NS7 completely still. I cannot underline enough the solidity of this unit. The NS7 has not one bit of hollowness about it at all. Hitting it all over with my knuckles yielded no empty noises at all - just a dense thud of reassuring quality.
One extra where the case is concerned - it comes with a seriously heavy built-in laptop stand that sits right in front of the NS7 into some heavyweight fittings screwed to the underside of the NS7. It can all be removed it you want and breaks down into nothing for neat stashing in your DJ bag or case. I could argue that a laptop sat in front of you isn't especially crowd friendly, so you might choose to bring along your own stand and place it at the side.
IDEA: Use a flat screen laid on the stand running from the laptop instead of hiding behind the open laptop. Let the crowd see you!
Numark could have made the entire top surface out of one piece of brushed steel, but to reinforce the 2 decks/1 mixer style, it's been broken up into 3 distinct pieces - brushed steel decks and piano black mixer section. The interesting thing is the symmetrical layout - the vast majority of controllers have this, but your regular decks/mixer layout has the decks being the same tonearm on the right configuration. Numark however aren't tied by supplying individual decks so can apply the same symmetrical thinking to the NS7. I'm sure it was a tough decision for them but one that I feel works incredibly well. I have no doubt that some will complain about pitch being in the wrong place etc but your brain soon adapts. feeling quite natural in minutes.
The quality extends to the controls as well. Numark have always had a certain house style - rubber and plastic buttons that have felt good but not wow good. The NS7 controls however are in a whole new league of quality for Numark. The knobs turn very smoothly with a solid centre click where necessary, and the buttons have a reassuring but subtle click and don't suffer from squishy wobbliness that often happens. They are firm, and you need to get used to giving them a firmer press than you might expect. The pitch faders feel better than those usually found on CD decks and controllers as well. and it's the little touches like where a control pokes through the faceplate, it is surrounded by a plastic bezel meaning that even the roughest of handling won't damage the controls.
GRIPE: One minor down point - the pots are plastic stems. While I've never known of a stem breaking, I wish they'd been metal.
Firstly the layout - these are a curious mixture of merging CD deck and controller layouts into one workable format. CD decks tend to have play controls bottom left and stacked on top of each other. The NS7 takes the lead from controllers and puts them under the platter, with a row of 5 hot cue buttons just above. I've read some complaints about this but to me it's the ideal place - right by your hands rather than having to let go of the platter, which allows you to get quite creative with your thumb and triggering multiple hot cues while scratching for example.
The one thing you expect to see on a CD deck is a display - usually top dead centre. But because of the laptop being your display, it's not necessary and instead is replaced by neatly organised loop controls. I like the location of these as it's not something as immediate as hot cues. You're more likely to let go of the platter to set up loops. More on those later.
Just above these is the hilarious but perfectly named Strip Search control. One of the biggest issues for vinyl DJs inflicted onto non-vinyl systems is the total lack of needle drop. Hot cues kind of go some way towards this but it's not the same. Strip is a touch sensitive strip that effectively allows you to virtually needle drop inside the playing track.
Imagine that the whole waveform is loaded into the strip search control - touching your finger anywhere on the strip is like a needle drop. You can also touch and drag up and down the strip too. And with a little bit of practice, it can act as a cue for the start of the track as well. This has changed from previous version in that the metal bezel surrounding it is now polished metal so that it's easier to see in the dark
IDEA: The next version of this should be at the side of the platter, twice as big and have an LCD behind it for a very visual virtual needle drop. But even as it stands, this is a genius feature. If I wore one, I'd take my hat off to Numark and Serato for this. Perhaps if a number of tracks were lined up, a simulation of vinyl tracks could be cool for enhanced digital needle dropping.
The most obvious feature to get DJs interested is the platter. Yes, a real platter - none of your 4" plastic jog wheel nonsense here, but an actual high torque direct drive motor just like the TTX, with a really heavyweight aluminium 7" platter - just as if the TTX had been in a hot wash and shrunk. And it has a low (classic) and high (modern) torque setting for added feel tweaking too. I don't know the numbers but in term of feel we're talking strong finger pressure and harder hand pressure to stop the platter spinning.
IDEA: Add 45rpm mode. It only spins at 33rpm. 45 spinners need to be aware that switching to this will feel immediately different.
To give the NS7 a more realistic feel, it comes with a custom 7" vinyl controller. At first, I thought this was a custom moulded plastic disk, but it turns out to be actual real heavyweight vinyl sourced from a pressing plant. This sits neatly on a regular 7" felt slipmat, which obviously you could swap out for your own to customise the feel. I see no reason why you couldn't change the vinyl and slipmat to suit your needs - picture disks or coloured vinyl for example. Hell I nearly drilled holes in 12" vinyl for a laugh. Maybe before it goes back to Numark HQ...
The spindle is smaller than normal - 5mm to be exact - and works like the CDX/HDX, in that the motor drives the platter, but the vinyl is fixed to the spindle which is connected to the controller mechanism. The spindle connection method also works as a kind of tension adjustment control as well. The more you push it down to tighten it, the harder it grips the slipmats. We're talking about a safe 2 rotation backspin without feeling wobbly down to a half spin super grippy feel. And yes, you can use the spindle or the platter edge to bend the pitch, although the pitch bend buttons do a better job.
On the subject of pitch, the faders have a rubberised low profile knob and are much smoother than those on my TTXs. And while lack a centre click, there's a 4mm dead zone where the pitch stays at 0% and is assisted by a light to show when you're in the dead zone. As far as ITCH goes, the pitch ranges are 8, 16 and 50%, and even at 50%, the resolution is an amazing unflinching 0.01%. I tried mixing full tracks end to end at a variety of pitches and they stayed locked, even at the biggest pitch shift.
I had suspected that ITCH was doing the work internally rather that depending on platter rotation, but it seems Numark and Serato did a lot of work to ensure that the motor design and software was as good as it possibly could be. As a testament to this, I experienced ZERO sticker drift.
The pitch bend is interesting - usually it's a few percent either way, but the NS7's pitch shift appears to be infinite. The longer you hold it, the more it shifts - even down to stopping dead. It's interesting that this is software based, whereas regular pitch is handled on a hardware level.
GRIPE: Vinyl tension adjustment is inexact. I found it best to drop it on and without pressure, tighten it up. And I feel that the fixing mechanism could be made a little smaller. With such a small area to work with, every millimetre counts.
The platters also come with a start and stop adjust controls too, from instant to an estimated 10 seconds. I see the need for a stop speed, but has anyone ever used startup speed adjust on any deck? Still, I guess it's a spare knob for MIDI mapping. And like all other Numark decks, you get reverse spin and bleep for those instant moments of editing live profanity. So if you're a Hip Hop DJ, expect heavy use.
So I guess you really want to know how it stacks up against real vinyl and other established devices. Well this scratch happy hack says extremely well indeed. Obviously being 7" vinyl effects the feel, but it's simply a matter of adapting. But I had no problem busting every turntablist move I know, and one of our new reviewers Johnny 1 Move - a DMC level DJ - played and was very impressed indeed. It's not quite vinyl, but easily outclasses all other 7" models, and does begin to feel very natural. It certainly feels a hell of a lot better than mixing and scratching with 7" vinyl, and with practice becomes as natural as 12". You may struggle to adapt, but I didn't at all.
A related but important feature of the NS7 is the fan. Normally when you fire up your beloved chunks of hardware, they largely sit there silently waiting to be abused. But the NS7 has a couple of cooling fans in the back. For those with any experience of Numark's TTX turntables, you'll know about the initial problems on the original TTX1s and overheating. This was fixed pretty quickly, but try to imagine the amount of heat that could be generated by 2 x full sized high torque motors shoehorned inside a snug case. Now you see the need for additional cooling. In a normal environment, you'd never notice it, but sat next to me in my humble office as I type this, the hum in my left ear is a tad noisier than I care for in an otherwise silent environment. For the record, even when left running and spinning for hours, the NS7 barely got even lukewarm. Perhaps the solid subframe acts as a big heaksink too.
An important factor of making an all in one unit is to make sure that one part doesn't let down the whole unit. The crossfader has that potential and indeed has on some otherwise great mixers. The NS7 however is fitted out with uprated faders all round - Numark's own 45mm CP-Pro fader as well as 45mm DT45 line faders which are usually reserved for crossfaders. How do I know this? Well I feel that it's my civic and moral responsibility to lift the lid on any mixer that comes my way to have a peek inside...
The CP Pro is a proprietary Numark contact fader - a good one though and quite worthy of being included in the NS7. It won't take the battering metered out by your average scratch DJ, but less punishing DJs should be quite happy with it. It's certainly smooth and suffers no bounce, but you're certainly in noisy clicky territory with this one. You do get the regulatory selection of controls - curve and reverse on the crossfader, giving you a pin sharp curve and minimal lag. It's a dream for scratchers no doubt.
The D-Type linefaders however are a little less smooth but don't click at all. Not really a problem though as the line faders are bereft of any fader controls at all - no curves or reverses here, although you could pop the faders out and physically reverse them yourself. Shame that Numark didn't feel it necessary to add these couple of controls. And I would have liked the line faders a little closer together as well. These little things do make a difference.
It's worth pointing out that during my unwanted intrusion into the guts of the NS7, I could physically fit Innofaders into all 3 slots. I didn't plug one in though - not about to possibly fry this stunning lump of DJ gear. Audio Innovate tell me it's not quite plug and play though. You need to contact AI first if you plan to drop money on an Innofader first.
One feature that is often added on and never used is fader start. On the NS7 however, I was positively drawn into using it creatively, firstly to see how well it worked from a juggling point of view, but then using it as hot starts. This feature has a lot of scope and my creative juices were ignited, rather than getting all nerdy about start times.
TIP: Use high torque or motor off if you plan to make creative use of fader start.
On a side note and of most interest to geeks and conspiracy theorists are the 2 unknown ports discovered under the mixer faceplate. Probably just diagnostic ports but I do like to stir things up sometimes.
In a bid to keep the proportions of the NS7 as small as possible, a narrow format mixer has been sandwiched between the decks. Not to everyone's taste except perhaps turntablists, but when you stand in front of it, you soon realise that it actually doesn't need to be any wider than this. Logistically, everything is where you'd expect it to be, which for me does make this a big step up from a regular controller. All the controls please my grid-like mind and the whole area is very logically laid out - a clear fader area, uncluttered mixer space and the top is given over to ITCH navigation and loading controls.
The EQs perform just as you would expect - 3 band EQ with gain, all of which kill quite happily. One comment about the high EQ - it doesn't do as much as I'm used to. My hearing is pretty shot at the top end but it's worth mentioning just in case it is the NS7 and not me. ITCH also offers you a switchable 6 or 12dB on the EQs. I couldn't hear that much difference though.
IDEA: It would be nice if ITCH could allow EQ preset loading for real customisation of sound.
This is all neatly contained right in the middle of the mixer section. Metering is via a pair of 20 part LEDs - 16 red and 4 white, which will either appeal to the minimal aesthetic types or hugely annoy traditionalists who can't live without green, amber and red ones. And the metering is switchable between master and post EQ channels too.
There's also another set of LEDs too aimed at making beatmatching a lot easier. When ITCH analyses your music, it adds BPM to the tags, and this is used to drive the auto sync feature. What these lights do is give you an indication of matching BPMs (not matching beats - you still have to beatmatch) - it'll favour the faster BPM, but will come on it they're locked. The zone in which they lock is quite small, and as a guide works quite well, but don't be expecting it to keep those 5 minute blends locked. I found it useful for quick mixing over 4 bars than beatmatching.
Cueing is simple - switchable master or channel cueing with a fader to switch between the 2 channels. That's not a balance control though - you get the channels in both ears. And no fear about the headphone volume either - plenty loud enough.
I always point out that sound quality is entirely subjective, and in the case of the NS7, it's entirely down to the quality of the source i.e. your music collection. These days though, sound quality is a moot point as technology is sufficiently evolved that source audio will be high quality, and the output route will be equally equipped with all kinds of digital goodies to make sure that your music sounds as good as possible.
I've already covered the EQs, but it's worth mentioning that no matter what music I used or how loud I cranked every control, it was only when cranking up the overdrive to max that things started to get a little scary. But in normal use, the NS7 sounds really nice. Of course, you get full control over master and booth volume too. And if you really need it, there's an undocumented overdrive option as well.
Despite being an all in one controller, the NS7 has more inputs and outputs than you might expect. Looking at the front, you've got a 1/4" jack mic input as well as aux RCA line in. This can be switched off as well just to be safe - no unwanted talkover. This also comes complete with gain plus bass and treble controls. I'm especially pleased to see these controls and their implementation as they could be a lifesaver should anything go wrong. Should your computer crash, just switch to an external source e.g, iPod playing through the NS7 without need to have your laptop running. It's a very crude backup, but is a first line fix should ITCH go belly up. If your NS7 dies, then switch over to your laptop for audio in an emergency. Of course, the NS7 has headphone controls - 1/4" and mini jack and a gain control too. And they're plenty loud enough as well.
Round the back are the outputs. Hats off to Numark - if they see a unit as appealing to pros, they add balanced XLRs to compliment the regular unbalanced RCAs. Another plus here is a booth output too, and both master and booth have gain controls. Aside from this are the USB, kettle lead and power button for the internally switching power supply.
On the subject of USB, the NS7 also acts as a huge and very expensive 4 in 4 out 24 bit 44.1kHz sound card. If you do get your own MIDI apps to work the NS7 then you have a sound card at hand. Or you could run another external software audio source such as Ableton through the NS7 as well.
I guess this is where the Numark element of the NS7 gets summed up, and for many people is where the weakest link gets dissected. If you've been reading, you'll have worked out that I've found the NS7 to be an amazing piece of work. That fact that I haven't found anything annoyingly wrong is a testament to Numark and Serato's lengthy gestation period for the NS7. People's perceptions of Numark's quality should be shattered by the NS7. It has been described as cheap and toylike by people who haven't even been close to an NS7, let alone touched one. I can tell you that toylike is the last word I'd use.
Like many other people however, it's the motors squeezed into a small space that is perhaps of most concern. While I'm quite happy that the issues were fixed years ago on the TTX, the need for a fan does tell me that Numark want to make very sure that overheating isn't an issue. I'm very confident that Numark wouldn't be so crazy as to rush out something like this if there was even the slightest doubt about the hardware at all. I know I'm very happy with it.
When ITCH first hit, there was a degree of confusion as to exactly what it was. Cut down SSL? Scratch Live Lite? Well not really. Think of ITCH as a DJ OS, where Serato laid down a set features - a template for hardware makers to work to and create their own ITCH controllers. Vestax went for their own VCI variant, whereas Numark went for this whole new uncharted mid range between VCI MIDI controllers and full sized decks. And ITCH isn't a separate product either. It's unlikely that you'll ever see ITCH running on anything except ITCH dedicated hardware, nor will you be likely to hack it to work on anything else either.
Essentially, ITCH has 2 parts - the visible track managing record bag replacing part, and the under the hood secret sauce driving the hardware part. And this is the important differentiation for me - whereas MIDI controllers drive existing software, ITCH controls the dedicated hardware. It is written entirely with these lumps of hardware in mind, rather that designing hardware to control a wide range of software. This focus is what Serato is famous for - one piece of software working with a limited number of devices, thus ensuring stability and easy support. And so far, that stability is shining through.
So having established that all the work is done on the NS7, it comes as no surprise to see that the ITCH interface is even more simple than SSL users are used to. Because the NS7 has physical controls where SSL has screen ones, the window is largely given over to music management, and it's here where ITCH shines. There's nothing new here really, but works pretty much how you would expect it to. So let's dig into how ITCH handles your music.
ITCH is very versatile and can read music from your iTunes library and just about any device you can plug into your computer. I didn't suffer from dropouts when using external devices - even compact flash media. You can read MP3s including all ID3 tags and artwork, as well as AAC, WAV, AIFF and Ogg files. Sadly, there's still no FLAC support. Some will lament this, but 320K MP3s are virtually indistinguishable from raw files (at least on the dance floor), and every download store is offering MP3 as standard these days.
Before I get started, for some people this next section could entirely wasted. Scratch Live users can breathe a big sigh of relief as their existing blood, sweat and tears invested in sorting out their SSL library is safe, as ITCH shares the same library. And it's a 2 way street as changes made in one reflects in the other, which is something you might need to bear in mind if you use both.
The old maxim goes thus - "Fail to prepare then prepare to fail". Never has this been truer than trying to DJ with a load of random music files on your computer. It really is a matter of garbage in garbage out if your collection is a haphazard mess So ITCH gives you different ways to manage your music. But first you need to get ITCH to analyse your music, to create waveforms and calculate BPM. It's better to do this ahead of organising your library so that you can use ITCH to auto calculate your BPM. It's pretty accurate and doesn't seem to get too confused with more abstract or less defined beats, but you can always override it with manual tap. It also helps if you refine the auto BPM range that reflects your collection to make it more accurate.
The first way is using ITCH crates. This is a metaphor for putting your vinyl into particular record crates or bags, but the difference being you can have a file in more than one crate. You can also have crates inside crates, or subcrates as they're known. These can be stacked as deep as you want and easily restacked into different orders, or just deleted completely - your music is still safe.
ITCH also directly supports iTunes playlists. This is great as it allows for smart playlists to be created in just about any way you want. For example, you can set up playlists based on ID3 tag info such as artist, genre, BPM or any combination that takes your fancy. For example, you can have a playlist broken down by genre and BPM. The only drawback is that you can't make changes to iTunes playlists from within ITCH. You do also get album artwork, but it's just in the top left corner and doesn't appear at the side of the decks.
Assuming your tracks are properly tagged up, you have some scope for filtering down by any 1 of 18 tags to make playlists. For example, clicking "All..." at the top of the library window gives you access to all your music, in handy sub windows sorted by genre, BPM, artist and album. Let's say I want to add all the deep house tracks to a crate - I select "deep house" in the genre window and the other windows are populated with the relevant track info. What is a slight let down is that I can't drag the deep house tag to the libray window to make a new crate or even drag it into a premade crate. Instead I have to select the tracks into the library. And of course, this crate has to be manually updated. At this point, the power of iTunes' smart playlist makes you think twice about using ITCH for all your library management.
Missing file management is pretty good too. If you add files to a crate and then move them within the same drive, they become "lost". But there is an option to find the lost files, which involves a lengthy scan of your drive. It's just as easy to re-add them to our library to be honest. If however, you add files to a crate from an external source and then remove that source, the files disappear completely, until you plug the devices back in.
So you do have a lot of scope with music organisation. ITCH allows crates within crates, but iTunes is considerably more powerful. Use both ways for the ultimate in music management.
One of the key benefits of using software is being able to add loops and cues to your files. You can do this offline or when connected to the NS7. You get a total of 10 loops per track, all selectable, lockable and deletable online or off.
In use, you have manual and auto looping. Manual uses the loops you've premade or created live. They appear on the small waveform as you click through them in manual mode. Autolooping works from the BPM of the track, assuming you've got an accurate BPM tag in your audio file of course. All the usual looping controls are in place - in, out and reloop as well as the ability to extend or cut the loop down as far as small as you like into ear bending buzzes. There's creative fun to be had with small loops and using the shift buttons to create new time signatures.
IDEA: Being able to see all the loops on the small waveform at the same time would really help.
Hot cues work in a very simple way. You simply move the waveform to the right point and hit the check box, or hit the right button while the track is playing. Deleting is as easy as hitting the check box again, or pressing "DELETE" and the right cue button on the NS7. The handling of cues on screen and on the NS7 is slightly at odds - ITCH displays cues with colour rather than knowing which hot cue relates to what button on the NS7.
IDEA: A small number against the hot cue on screen would be very welcome.
So having got your music sorted and ready to rock the crowd, it's time to play.
Bringing Numark's hardware and Serato's software together, especially given the relatively untested nature of the product and its form factor could have been a potential train wreck. But the whole package is a dream setup for those who want old school feel with new school tech.
For Scratch Live users, ITCH is like an old friend - one who you recognise but has lost a lot of weight. The interface is all about your library and a lot of waveforms. You can have the familiar SSL multicoloured waveforms on the left, right or the bottom of the screen. You also get a complete view of each track to skip through quickly on screen or for a visual reference for the hardware strip search feature. The deck also flashes when it gets towards the end of the track. You also get beat and tempo matching waves to make your mixing lives just that little bit easier.
To assist with making those mixes as smooth as possible, there's a new sync button. Pressing this makes the tempo on the selected deck match the other automatically. I know that for some people, this is a step too far across the automation line and tantamount to killing the DJ scene stone dead, but when you figure that the waveforms are already there, and you can make beatmatch just by simple pitch adjustment so that the BPMs numerically match, being able to do it by pressing one button is hardly taking a heap of skill away.
IDEA: I'd like to be able to switch off the waveforms completely so that I can become almost entirely focussed on the NS7 and just use the screen for track selection.You also get the familiar SSL spinning virtual decks that show the spinning position marker, the outer ring showing the time elapsed and the position in the track of the hot cue point and it's elapsed time. I pretty much ignored this in my bid to be free of the screen but they work well, and you may find them useful.
Talking of working screen free - the NS7 has all the controls you need for track and crate navigation right above the mixer controls. You can jump around the crates and files windows as you see fit and scroll around with the large knob, and select by pressing it. You'll also notice the "prepare" button. This gives you access to a temporary area, effectively the same as pulling records out of your bag in readiness for playing.
GRIPE: The prepare space doesn't survive a restart of ITCH. Why? I could be sat on a plane, putting together a killer set, only to have it disappear. Yes I know I can just make a crate, but that seems to negate the entire needs for prepare at all.
So we've got music sorted and we're happily working through our crates and tracks like the true superstar DJ that we aspire to be. So what else is left? Saving your set for posterity that's what. ITCH gives you some options for recording your set - MIX means master output and AUX means just the mic/aux input only. Set a filename, click record and you're set - the 16 bit 44.1kHz AIFF files are saved inside your main Scratch Live folder.
Fucking wonderful. Pardon the language but the NS7 has bowled me over in a way that I didn't expect.
Part of my reluctance to use a computer in my audio chain is the constant referral to the screen to do "stuff" that I'd much prefer to do on my hardware. I see DJing as a performance thing rather than a computer operating one and the NS7 keeps my focus on the hardware rather than on screen.
When I first started using the NS7, I immediately fell into the waveform watching trap - something that I felt very uncomfortable with. So I removed the laptop stand and put my MacBook Pro to one side to reduce my reliance on the screen. After getting down with hot cues, loops and stickered control vinyl, my use of the keyboard and trackpad is almost nil, and all track loading is done from the NS7. And I only look at the screen for track names and pitch. Kind of annoying that I have to check the screen for pitch range as I like to jump around from 8% mixing to 50% turntablism.
Size wise it's allowed me to rediscover juggling again. It's a skill that has always left me a little cold as the skills needs never seemed worth the logistic effort. But with everything being much more compact, I can't stop jumping on for a session. The NS7 is just so much fun to use - totally engaging in a way I didn't expect.
Performance is something people will be keen to hear about. Previously being the owner of the now dead Powerbook G4, my DVS experience had always been in need of some umph. But my spangly new MacBook Pro gave nothing but outstanding performance, even down at 1ms latency. And I've done nothing special in terms of optimising when running ITCH - I've usually got Safari, Mail, Skype, Adium Pages, RSS readers and all sorts of other resource hogging crap running, and ITCH still keeps giving me glitch free performance.
It hasn't been without the odd hiccup though. When I've really been hammering it in terms of hitting hot cues while scratching and changing pitch, I've heard the odd crackle, but this is running at 1ms latency and being excessively testing of the features. I've also had the play buttons fail to work on one occasion, and the crossfader off option enable itself twice now. But putting this in context - the NS7 has been on for the best part of a month and keeps getting switched on and off with ITCH still running while reviewing. Hardly ideal conditions, but start from cold and just running solidly for hours delivered a rock solid performance. And as you might expect with Serato's pedigree, ITCH hasn't crashed once.
One of the biggest gripes seems to be the all-in-oneness. The general assumption is that because it's Numark, it will break and when it does, you'll be left with nothing. I guess the latter point is valid, but if you're a playing out DJ, you'd have a backup strategy in place regardless of your format. Do you have backup mixers, decks and laptops? Do you still take a record bag just in case? There is only so far that you can practically take the backup argument. A safe bet is to have a Vestax VCI-300 in reserve or just a simple MIDI controller. I'm quite happy that the NS7 will be a very solid and reliable performer.
HINT: If one deck goes off, you can always use the old one deck instant doubles trick though to get you through the evening.
Finally, luggability. Some people see oversized heavy controller, but I see compact regular DJ setup and as such look at this to replace a conventional decks and mixer setup rather than trying to find a bag big enough. The NS7 is certainly a beast and demands a real flight case, but it is still a smaller and one man carryable case rather than a huge coffin or separate boxes.
I'm not going to dwell on this for very long because I really don't see the NS7 as needing to use other MIDI software. The whole point of the NS7 is that it is what it is, and not really about what it could be if you do this and hack that. The whole unit is a one stop shop for almost everything you might need. There are glaring omissions - effects for example - but I think it's just a matter of time before they're added, with accessories to match.
MIDI is a mixed bag with the NS7. There is no formal support from any software vendor right now, and because of the high speed MIDI being used, getting the platter to work as well as ITCH appears to be a problem. Numark will no doubt be working with interested software companies, but I suspect that ITCH support is the key area for buyers and whatever new goodies that brings along the way.
For the record, I could get the regular controls to work in Traktor Scratch Pro and Deckadance, but not the platter. If you want to do more with the NS7 than is on the feature list, you might want to wait. But if you do, you'll miss out on all the current ITCH goodness.
If you've paid attention, especially to the one out of character moment of gushing potty talk, you'll realise that I have nothing but praise for the NS7. The actual hardware is exactly the kind of thing you would expect from Numark. It's a bit left field and forward thinking. Imagine it with a built-in screen and you've got a USB media controller. But it's the success of ITCH running a regular mixer and deck format that is most interesting to me, and just where this will go. Split the NS7 up into single decks and a mixer, then you can see where this has the potential to go - ITCH separates. I've been harping on for years about hardware becoming dumb controllers being driven by laptop and software, and ITCH is the reality of this. Imagine being able to pick 4", 7", 10" or 12" decks with a choice of mixer, all being driven by ITCH and hiding the awful complexities of MIDI configuration. The NS7 and VCI-300 are ground zero for ITCH and have proved that the idea is sound and works brilliantly.
The NS7 isn't for everyone though. Some will feel it's too big, others too toy like - we've all read the forums. But the key to it, and possibly more than any other unit I've ever used, is to get in front of one and play. Once you've done this, I guarantee that most of you will change your mind about the NS7. From the people I've spoken to, all objections to this milestone unit disappear. And do not underestimate the importance of the NS7 in the DJ technology timeline. This is the start of something big for Numark and especially Serato. If the New Zealand boys went public, I'd be in like a shot for shares.
The NS7 is a solid lump of supreme quality hardware - one of the best I've ever used. A step above normal Numark quality levels. Metal pots would have been the icing on the cake.
There are many factors at play in the digital domain, but everything I played sounded of the highest quality. No pops, dropouts or hiss. And the fan doesn't interfere at any stage either.
Features and Implementation
Compared to many DVS systems (an unfair comparison perhaps), it lacks bells and whistles. But as a core feature set the NS7 is brilliant. Trust me - bells and whistles will follow.
Value for Money
In the current economic climate, it's so hard to rate this, especially given the country to country economic variation right now. If you were to piece a similar system - 2 x CD decks, a good 2 channel mixer, Scratch Live and a MIDI controller, you'd have a system that wasn't as good and would probably cost more.
Cast aside your objections to the NS7 and ITCH and get in front of one. If I were mad enough to play out again, the NS7 would be at the top of my list by a long way, and possibly main plaything in the skratchlab as well. And coming from a 25+ year vinyl spinning DVS fearing luddite, that's some praise right there.
The NS7 is one of the most exciting pieces of nextlevelness I've had in the skratchlab. I love it with a passion and will miss it more than any other piece of gear I've reviewed.
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