Ever since Apple's famous silhouetted commercials implied that anyone with an iPod would become possessed with dangerous dancing skills, the prospect of adding iPods to a DJ rig has naturally enticed club DJs. The allure of carrying thousands of tracks (or at least a few hundred songs at uncompressed bit rates) in a pocket, and the fact that everyone already had one anyway, caused many DJs to incorporate iPods into their gigs right away, simply by connecting their outputs to RCA inputs of a DJ mixer. In many settings more casual than big-time clubs, a movement of audience-participation DJing has sprung up based on patrons bringing their own iPods to bars to experience their own 15 to 20 minutes of disco glory.
Of course, the number one problem with trying to DJ with an iPod is that there is no pitch control built into the unit's hardware or software for changing the speed of tracks in order to beat-match. A secondary inconvenience is that iPods — normally praised for their tiny size — don't give DJs the level of hands-on control they're used to.
It's this sorry state of affairs that Numark has attempted to correct with one of the most talked-about pieces of DJ gear since the Pioneer CDJ-1000. The iDJ iPod Mixing Console builds two iPod docks into a basic DJ mixer, allowing the user to play the iPod's music with large hardware controls, mix the tracks with 3-band EQ and faders including Fader Start, monitor the mix with headphones and add more sources to the setup, including a microphone and dual turntables or dual CD players.
Unfortunately — although understandably at this price — there are some sought-after features that iDJ will not allow. When I took the iDJ to house parties, the first question almost everyone asked was, “Can you go ‘wiki-wiki-wiki’ with it?” (moving their hands back and forth in the universal gesture for record scratching). The answer is “No.” The control wheels on the iDJ — which are often mistaken for miniature versions of the jog wheels that let you digitally “scratch” the music on DJ CD players — are actually just broken-out versions of the iPod's own Click Wheel and are used for navigating the iPod's menus and controlling iPod volume.
The other missing key feature is pitch control. With the iDJ, you still cannot change the playback speed of your iPods' music. To do this, Apple would either have to add pitch control to the iPod software, or the iDJ would have to buffer a cued song in RAM, so that you could alter the playback speed of (and digitally scratch) the audio. Adding this would also significantly increase the price of any hardware device. Without these key features, the iDJ will likely be used either as a more convenient and useful way for working DJs to add iPods to their rigs, or as a stand-alone mixing station for casual DJs and hardcore iPod enthusiasts.
NUTS AND BOLTS
You can use any iPod model with the dock connector on the bottom with the iDJ. This includes the latest, fifth-generation iPod with video playback, the thicker iPod Photo models, iPod Nano, iPod Mini and every other model in between. Once you pop it in, the iDJ charges the iPod, and you can then use the iDJ's controls for the iPod. These include buttons for Play/Pause, Next Track, Previous Track and buttons that mirror the functions of the iPod's Menu and Enter buttons. When you press and hold the Next or Previous Track buttons, the audio fast-forwards or rewinds. However, cueing a track to the exact moment you want with these buttons is difficult, because the audio skips several seconds at a time. Lastly, the control wheel zips through the iPod's menus and controls its internal volume when a song is playing. The controls on each side of the 2-channel iDJ are identical, and they include a switch that chooses the audio from the iPod or from the available external phono and line inputs. Each channel also includes a gain knob with a value from mute to +10 dB, a 60mm level fader and 3-band EQ. The EQ knobs have center detents and a value of ±15 dB. Rounding out the front panel are a Master output level knob and a 60mm crossfader. A Fader Start feature can pause and un-pause two iPods when you crossfade between them, or you can switch this off from the front panel. The cool factor of the iDJ's blue LEDs can't be overlooked. The iPod control buttons are all backlit with blue LEDs, and there is a blue LED level meter. Let's face it, these are bound to impress at least a few people at an average party more than your insane beat-juggling technique.
A busy back panel on the iDJ includes an S-Video output for displaying iPods with photo and video output capabilities. The S-Video only works for the left-side iPod. For each iPod, there is a USB 2.0 port for synching iPods to a PC or Mac the same way you would normally to load music from Apple's iTunes software or load them with data files. For each channel, there is a stereo RCA input, a switch for changing from line level to phono input and a ground post for attaching the ground lead of a turntable. Stereo RCA pairs exist for the master output and the record output. It's too bad that, with the USB ports, the iDJ cannot work as an audio interface for computer recording. As it stands, you'll have to send its record outputs to a separate computer audio interface or other recording device.
On the front panel, there are both ⅛-inch and ¼-inch headphone jacks, but only one of these can be active at a time. There's a gain knob for the headphone output, as well as a Cue Mix switch for sending either channel 1, channel 2 or the master mix to the headphones. A ¼-inch mic input has an accompanying gain knob and tone control for boosting the low or high frequencies.
IN THE MIX
I used the iDJ both as a stand-alone system and with an external CD player and turntable attached. In both cases, any experienced DJ will probably find that the performance is largely defined by what the iDJ can't do as a mixer. Besides the lack of pitch-shifting, digital scratching and exact cueing (due to the iPod's own limitations), the iDJ also lacks several key features DJs look for in mixers, including kill switches, adjustable fader curves and an effects send.
That said, I have no complaints about the performance of the available features. The feel and response of all the controls are excellent. It's nice to have the large, blue buttons and control wheel laid out for easy use. (Take note that, for iPods older than the fourth-generation Click Wheel models, the iDJ's functionality is limited; for example, the control wheel, Menu button and Enter button don't work, which is a definite drawback.) The audio quality from the mixer is clean and transparent; there is little noticeable coloration to the sound either from the iPods or external sources. Just by plugging in an iPod and using the dock as the audio output, there is an improvement over using the headphone jack to output the sound. The EQ is not earth-shattering — you could find a more majestic separation of frequencies on a stand-alone mixer of a comparative price — but it's of an acceptable quality. With Fader Start switched on, a paused iPod begins playback when the crossfader passes the center point, while the other iPod pauses itself. This is useful if you don't want any crossfading between songs, but it's something you could approximate on your own with a little effort.
When routing CD players and/or turntables into the iDJ, you can work around some of the iDJ's limitations. As long as you always mix from an external source to an iPod back to an external source, you could always match the external tempos to the tempo of the iPod track. However, if you're at all seasoned as a DJ — or even if you're just beginning — you're bound to feel constrained by the iDJ as a mixer sooner or later. For that reason, I can't recommend it as the centerpiece of a DJ setup or as the sole device for newbies who want to learn everything there is to learn about DJing.
Yet, the iDJ does have its place. For established DJs who don't mind the extra gear, it's the best thing going for adding iPods to a DJ rig, but I would add it as a submixer with the main output routed into my main mixer. It's far and away a better option than hooking up an iPod from the headphone output into a mixer. With the iDJ, you'll enjoy enhanced audio quality, easier control and better visibility in the dark, and you won't have to worry about a battery running out. During more informal gigs — house parties, weddings, etc. — mobile DJs won't have to deny requests; anyone with an iPod can pop it into the iDJ to hear their favorite track. It's also certainly going to liven up the growing number of audience-participation “iPod DJ” nights at bars because people can mix tracks rather than simply turn on a playlist. As a stand-alone system, the iDJ won't make a QBert out of anyone, but hardcore iPod nerds are sure to covet it as the ultimate docking and playback station. And in any dorm room, hipster living room or loft apartment, the iDJ is sure to make a better conversation starter than an LCD TV or an Xbox 360.
Just like Motorola's ROKR phone last year, the iDJ is sure to suffer from people's high expectations. The first phone to include iTunes software, the ROKR disappointed anxious punters who wanted the style and convenience of an iPod with telephony. What they got — in part due to Apple's own influence — was a standard candy-bar phone, a clunky interface, an arbitrary 100-song limit and very slow file-transfer speeds. The iDJ is even more a victim of Apple's limitations that are built into the iPod — no pitch shifting, no precise cueing — and its lack of scratching and advanced mixer features will inevitably let down the growing crowd that takes a “we want it all, and we want it yesterday” attitude with regard to iPod DJing. My prediction is that, within a year or so, some combination of updated iPod software and advanced hardware from Numark and/or other companies that includes better mixing functions and audio buffers will take iPod DJing to the level that people want it: on par with mixing from vinyl, CD and computer hard drives with software and hardware interfaces.
For now, the iDJ is certainly fun to use, and it's an adequate performer with the features on hand. As an innovative product, however, it's not reasonable to expect the first-generation to be the be-all and end-all of what the product category could become. I have no doubt that Numark could have produced a more advanced mixer that addresses some of these shortcomings, but a higher-priced version might not have the same pop-culture appeal.
iDJ > $349
Pros: Enhanced hands-on control of an iPod. Great for low-light use. Better audio quality than an iPod's headphone port. Charges the iPods and syncs to iTunes over USB 2.0. Lots of external inputs. Separate record output.
Cons: Functionality limited heavily by the iPod's own shortcomings regarding DJ use. Can't be used as a computer audio interface. No kill switches. No adjustable fader curves. No effects send. USB 2.0 cables not included.