DJ Controllers, Big and Small

As the definition of Djing expands both toward the simpler and more complex, so do the sizes and purposes of DJ controllers. We offer a guide to the largest and littlest ends of the spectrum.
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We love DJing, and so do untold millions of electronic music fans worldwide. More than ever, as the popularity of dance music and DJing expands, so does the definition of DJing, both for the better and worse. DJing can mean hitting Play on an iTunes playlist or some software with an auto-mix function. But it can also mean artfully and improvisationally mixing multistemmed files on four or more decks, or creating audio pastiches of hundreds or thousands of loops and fragments resulting in a unique experience that will never be repeated.

Most of the time, DJing still lands in the middle ground of those extremes, like it has for decades. Partly for that reason, the basic performance elements of DJ equipment tend to evolve slowly or not at all. Inventive DJs can still be endlessly creative with different configurations of those elements. So for this roundup, it seemed to us that the most interesting developments in DJ controllers involved the advancing technology and packaging strategies of the relatively standard DJ tools.

On the one hand, you have massive, all-encompassing DJ controllers that provide one-to-one hardware-to-software controls—and the more innovative, the merrier. Many of these units have adopted the growing trend of offloading the software display from the laptop to ever larger and/or more detailed color screens built into the controllers themselves. This helps the DJ avoid the dreaded “Serato stare”—that glazed-over focus on the laptop rather than looking at the audience.

The other trend that is creeping into these mega-controllers disconnects them from the laptop entirely, where the controller itself houses sophisticated internal software and the DJ pulls music off of flash USB drives, the way that club DJs on high-end media players have been doing for quite some time.

On the other hand, there is a thriving market for smaller DJ controllers that cater to ultra- portable setups and/or a piecemeal approach to creating a DJ rig, where you can mix and match modular units and add-on controllers, and where quite a few of the units have mobile device compatibility at the forefront.

In this article, we focus on both sizes, while noting that there is a wide variety of small-format, general-use MIDI controllers out there. Any one of them—particularly the many drumpad and button-grid controllers—could be configured to be indispensible with your DJ software. However, because of space constraints, we’re focusing on units built for DJ-specific use.

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THE BIG BOSS UNITS

PIONEER DDJ-RZ AND DDJ-SZ
PIONEERDJ.COM | $1,999 STREET, EACH

Pioneer’s two flagship controller behemoths closely resemble each other, with the biggest differences being that the DDJ-RZ is optimized for Pioneer’s own Rekordbox DJ software, while the DDJ-SZ is optimized for Serato DJ. Both units include full licenses for their respective software.

Pioneer DDJ-RZPioneer DDJ-SZ With DJ controllers, bigger does not necessarily mean better, but these two monsters make a compelling argument for that. They measure 34.3-by-16.5-by-3.9-inches and differ slightly in weight, but tip the scales at about 23 lbs. That means it would be challenging but not impossible to take these with you to gigs. Rather, these controllers can act as excellent at-home stand-ins for the high-end industry standard club gear that Pioneer also makes; the CDJ-2000NXS media player and three models of 4-channel DJM mixers, which would cost in the area of $5,000 (depending on the mixer) if you tried to replicate it at home.

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These DDJs do an expert job at mimicking the 4-channel layout, controls and feel of Pioneer’s pro club setups while also mirroring the controls of the DJ software they’re optimized for. They have the same 8.1-inch aluminum jog wheels found on CDJ units, and the same high-end Magvel crossfader with adjustable curves as found in the DJM-900SRT mixer. So these have a great, professional feel whether you’re a scratch DJ or not. The jog wheels also illuminate different colors for decks 1/2 and decks 3/4, making it easier to recall which deck in the software is active on the hardware decks.

These units also pile on high-end goodies rarely found on DJ controllers. The mixer section houses two hardware effects units: the Oscillator section has Noise, Cymbal, Siren, and Horn; whereas the Sound Color effects are Echo, Jet, Pitch, and Filter. With two USB ports and two separate 24-bit soundcards, two DJs can plug in their computers and use the controllers at the same time, meaning they could tag-team DJ or just transition into the next set without stopping the music—a huge plus for installing the unit in a bar or club for permanent use. There are 10 audio inputs and outputs including CD/line and phono ins that support DVS timecode functionality, as well as two mic inputs, two headphone outs, and three stereo out pairs, including XLR master output.

As the DDJ-RZ is the newer model, it has some extra oomph that the DDJ-SZ does not, such as a Sequencer section on each deck that lets you record, play and loop pad routines on-the-fly, and the DDJRZ’s Oscillator section also works as a sample effect to trigger and manipulate Rekordbox DJ sample banks.

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NUMARK NS7III
NUMARK.COM | $1,499 STREET

For vinyl purists who love the incomparable feel of spinning with vinyl but still want the convenience and slick performance features of a controller, Numark has continued to build out its series of gargantuan and uncompromising turntable-style flagship controllers with the NS7III.

Numark NS7III The biggest difference from its predecessor, the NS7II, is the addition of the high-resolution 3-screen bar positioned at an upward angle from the front panel for comfortable viewing. For each side of the four-deck, four-channel controller, the 4.3-inch screens show different views of the included Serato DJ software decks, and shows the full track library or scrolling colored waveforms in the center screen. That lets you put your connected laptop out of sight and out of mind.

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And like its predecessors, the NS7III’s full direct- drive motorized platters feature 7-inch real control-vinyl pieces on top. Manipulating tracks feels entirely similar to using a professional DJ turntable, complete with motor torque adjustment, Start and Stop Time adjustment, and reverse play. The platters also send super high-res MIDI with 3,600 ticks per revolution. All the internal turntable mechanics, metal casing, and display unit add a lot of weight, but Numark still managed to make the 31.6 lb. NS7III about 4 lb. lighter than the NS7II. As expected, it’s still a large footprint at 29.8-by-24.7-by-4.2 inches.

The NS7III’s 29 capacitive touch-sensitive knobs add new performance dimensions for the per-channel filter, gain, EQ and effects, and the 16 Akai Pro MPC pads offer improved backlighting for handling their five performance modes. There are also five dedicated Hot Cue buttons on each deck, so you can jump to different cue points while reserving the pads for sample triggering, looping, slicing, and so forth.

The mixer section can be used standalone (without a computer) and includes four stereo inputs for CD players, turntables, MP3 players, etc., along with two mic inputs, two headphone outs, and separate Booth (RCA) and Master (RCA or XLR) outputs.

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PIONEER XDJ-RX
PIONEERDJ.COM | $1,499 STREET

While the above Pioneer DDJ-RZ and DDJ-SZ mimic a professional Pioneer club DJ booth setup, and the above Numark NS7III lets you set the laptop aside and use its displays, the Pioneer XDJ-RX attempts to do both, except that it runs on its own internal software and requires no laptop at all.

Pioneer XDJ-RX There have been plenty of other all-in-one DJ systems that ran off their own internal system without a laptop, but we’ve never seen a really great one until now. The Pioneer DJ XDJ-RX 2-channel mixer and 2-deck unit adds an angled panel with a 7-inch, full-color LCD and dedicated button controls for displaying the internal Pioneer Rekordbox software. The display is large enough to show info from both decks at once, including waveforms, BPM, beat grids, and Hot Cue info. It also shows the full music library coming from either connected USB sticks and drives or WiFiconnected computers, smartphones, and tablets.

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The XDJ-RX’s audio circuitry and quality are borrowed from Pioneer’s higher-end club gear, as are the layout and operation. It approximates the more expensive CDJ-2000Nexus and XDJ-1000 music players and DJM Series mixers that dominate clubs and festivals worldwide, so you can get used to playing on that kind of system using the XDJ-RX at home or on others’ gigs and be ready to step up to those systems when the time comes.

The XDJ-RX also uses the same Rekordbox file prep software that the pro Pioneer gear uses and has four illuminated pads per deck for triggering cue points, loop, and Loop Slice mode. Slip Mode keep the track playing silently in the background so you can improvise on the pads, or scratch and reverse the jog wheels, and then pick up the song at exactly the right place.

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DENON DJ MCX8000
DENONDJ.COM | $1,299 STREET

Denon DJ MCX8000 The newest entry into the do-it-all monster DJ controller market has one of the most comprehensive features sets at the lowest street price. It seems that Denon paid attention to what was out there, picked and chose the best of the best features, and wrapped it all up into the 4-deck/4- channel MCX8000. The company also managed to fit it into a relatively slim package weighing 18.4 lbs. and measuring 28.7-by-17-by-2.8 inches.

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The main thing that sets the MCX8000 apart is that it can run on 4-deck Serato DJ software (included) from a laptop but supplemented with the two built-in high-def color displays, and it can also run standalone without a computer using Denon’s Engine 1.5 software. In the latter case, you use the Engine (Mac/Win) software to prepare your music files with cue points, loops, playlist/crates, etc., put the tracks on USB sticks for the MCX8000’s two top-panel USB inputs, and then mix them with the controller’s internal Engine software—the best of both worlds, indeed.

It can also run Engine and Serato DJ simultaneously, so you can transition between DJs uninterrupted all from the MCX8000.

The rest of the unit is jam-packed with features. Eight multicolor pads per deck control eight performance modes, and each deck has an effects section, dedicated Beat Grid and Loop sections, track select/load controls, display controls, and a Needle Drop touch-strip. The 4-channel mixer/audio interface has one LP/HP filter per channel, two mic inputs with echo control, XLR booth, and master outputs with separate booth EQ, two headphone inputs, and four stereo inputs.

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Modular Units and Add-Ons

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS TRAKTOR KONTROL D2
NATIVE-INSTRUMENTS.COM | $399 STREET

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol D2 This modular unit looks like it was chopped off the side of a Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S5, except that it has an extra row of controls that give you command over track browsing and all four decks of the Traktor Pro 2 software (included with the price). That way, you could use the Kontrol D2 as your only hardware, but it also has three USB connections, so you can use two of them to chain other Traktor Kontrol units together (see below). If you want to use the Kontrol D2 with a mixer, four unfolding, padded feet raise the surface to standard DJ mixer height.

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The Kontrol D2 was also made specifically to mix the 4-track Stems files that Native Instruments has pioneered. The high-res color screen has a Stems view, as well as different viewing modes to keep your eyes away from the computer, and a 4-fader Stems control section gives you easy command over new mixing possibilities, such as processing only the vocals or filtering only the drums.

Eight multicolor pads operate several performance modes. Rounding out the Kontrol D2, transport controls, an effects section, and a track-seeking touchstrip make this a capable, modular DJ controller.

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RELOOP MIXTOUR
RELOOP.COM | $199 STREET

Reloop Mixtour While you may well want to build around it, the compact Reloop Mixtour has everything you need to DJ from a Mac, PC, iOS, or Android device. It’s especially tailored toward working with the excellent Algoriddim Djay 2 (Android/iOS) or Djay Pro (iOS) apps, and its portable design, along with its support for full-size USB, micro USB, or iOS Lightning connections, make it a great candidate to do so. However, you can also get mappings for using the desktop Djay Pro LE software, Native Instruments Traktor Pro, and Virtual DJ software.

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The 2-channel control/mixer section has 3-band EQ and gain per deck, and a Filter/FX knob with a mode switch on each deck. Reloop makes efficient use of eight multicolor performance pads. Four per deck can work in either cue point launching mode or looping/transport control mode. A Shift layer provides deeper looping controls. You also have a full track browsing/loading section.

A basic audio interface provides the essentials—an 1/8-inch headphone output with headphone cue controls and stereo RCA master out with Master volume knob. This is an impressive level of completeness in a small space.

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NATIVE INSTRUMENTS TRAKTOR KONTROL F1, TRAKTOR KONTROL Z1, AND TRAKTOR KONTROL X1 MKII
NATIVE-INSTRUMENTS.COM | $199 STREET, EACH

Native Instruments Kontrol F1Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z1Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol X1 MKII This trio of Traktor Kontrollers are made to mix and match either with each other or with other controllers and vinyl-based DVS systems to meet a variety of needs. Out of the three, only the Z1 includes an audio interface and comes with software (Traktor LE 2). Its 24-bit/96kHz interface and controls are also made to integrate perfectly with NI’s Traktor DJ iOS app. It has stereo RCA master outs, an 1/8-inch headphone out with cue controls, and a limited but pro-quality feature set of 3-band EQ and gain per channel and a Filter/FX knob for each channel with mode switch.

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The X1 MkII supplies the track browsing/loading, effects, and cue point/transport control over two decks and two effects units. Its multifunction touchstrip handles track seeking, track pitch, and effects manipulation.

With the F1, you have the only one of these three controllers with dedicated control over Traktor Pro 2’s four Stems Decks and four Remix Decks. For each of those decks, the F1 supplies individual faders and filter knobs. The 16 multicolor pads and four Stop buttons let you manipulate Stems and Remix decks with helpful visual feedback.

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AKAI PRO AFX AND AMX
AKAIPRO.COM | $199 AND $249 STREET

Akai Pro AFXAkai Pro AMX This Akai Pro duo provides comparable feature sets for Serato DJ that Native Instruments’ Kontrol Z1 and Kontrol X1 MkII do for Traktor Pro 2. However, the AMX mixing surface/audio interface has a more robust feature set, including two sets of line/phono inputs for connecting external gear. It also has complete track browsing/loading capabilities and transport controls for two decks, while the crossfader has reverse and an adjustable curve.

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The AFX can control four decks, and its eight pads have a whopping 10 modes of use, including transport and all the real-time performance modes. The AFX can assign the two software FX units to any deck, and it has full control over three effects per effects unit. The nine knobs are also touch-activated to allow for additional tweaking options and EQ kills. Its touchstrip at the top also has three modes to perform track search, track pitch, and effects manipulation.

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BEHRINGER CMD DV-1, CMD MM-1, and CMD PL-1
MUSIC-GROUP.COM | $79, $99, AND $99 STREET

Behringer CMD DV-1Behringer CMD MM-1Behringer CMP PL-1 This trio of Behringer MIDI modules can supplement any DJ setup that already has an audio interface included, since none of them pass audio. If you start with the CMD MM-1, you’ll have a DJ-mixer style controller with an external power adapter that supplies juice to its generous 4-port powered USB hub for connecting whatever other peripherals you add. The CMD MM-1’s controls can be assigned to anything but are laid out as if they would control four MIDI channel strips with faders, four knobs each, and buttons for headphone cueing and effects-deck assignment.

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The CMD PL-1 is the modular deck controller, with a 4-inch touch-sensitive jog wheel, transport buttons, pitch fader, and eight knobs and buttons well-suited for effects control, deck switching, and cue points. The CMD DV-1 is designed with specific focus on commanding multiple effects from up to four effects units, switching deck focus between four decks, triggering up to eight cue points and looping and transport controls.

All three of these controllers come with Deck-adance LE software, which can be used standalone or as a VST plug-in.

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RELOOP NEON
RELOOP.COM | $149 STREET

Reloop Neon Anyone rocking Serato DJ who doesn’t have a lot of control over the internal SP-6 sampler, or the looping and effect controls should check out the Reloop Neon. DVS users on control vinyl/CDs or controllerists without enough pads to go around on their main controller are particularly apt to need a supplemental pad bank such as this. It does not come with the software, but it is plug-and-play Serato DJ certified, and you connect two Neons together to go into one computer USB port.

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The Neon gives you up to 4-deck control over Pad FX, Slicer, Looped Slicer, cue points, Flip, Hot Loops, Loop, and Manual Loop, as well as the SP-6 sampler. The color-coded pads are velocity sensitive with Aftertouch. A dedicated Modular Stand is sold separately.

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Livid Instruments MinimLIVID INSTRUMENTS MINIM
LIVIDINSTRUMENTS.COM | $129 STREET

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The brilliant, miniature Minim works well as a MIDI controller for any Mac software or iOS app, and it works wirelessly over Bluetooth powered by an internal, rechargeable Li-ion battery. But it fits into this DJ controller roundup well because it’s so portable (1 lb. and less than 7 inches wide), it doesn’t require a precious USB port, and because nearly every major DJ software app has several good uses for sets of eight pads that DJ controllers don’t always address. It also has other MIDI-assignable controls—13 buttons, two side switches, and a touch slider. The 3D motion control lets you change parameters just by moving the smartphone-sized Minim.

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PIONEER DJ DDJ-SP1
PIONEERDJ.COM | $299 STREET

Pioneer DJ DDJ-SP1 Like the Reloop Neon, the Pioneer DJ DDJ-SP1 serves to supplement the control needs of Serato DJ users, but it goes several steps further for the added price. It has 16 backlit performance pads, rather than eight, for all of Serato DJ’s performance modes and sample triggering, but it also provides 4-deck control with deck switches. Moreover, it has two full effects sections and track browsing controls.

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The DDJ-SP1 doesn’t come with Serato DJ software, but it does come with a download license for the Serato Video plugin ($149 value), and it has special controls for using Serato Video: That should make it extra appealing to the growing number of DJs incorporating video into their sets.

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Allen and Heath XOne K1 ALLEN & HEATH XONE:K1
ALLEN-HEATH.COM | $249 STREET

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For the software agnostic and customize-happy crowd, the Xone:K1 should appeal. Its ample assignable controls comprise four faders, six endless rotary encoders, 12 analog pots, and 30 three-color switches. The layout would lend itself well to just about any DJ software, particularly Ableton Live and the Remix Deck within Traktor Pro 2. (However, Native Instruments doesn’t yet allow thirdparty hardware to control its Stems Decks.)

The XONE:K1 connects via USB but also includes two X:Link Ethernet ports for daisy chaining MIDI and power with other X:Link-enabled controllers and mixers.

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NUMARK DASHBOARD
NUMARK.COM | $299 STREET

Numark Dashboard Remember that cool three-screen display on the Numark NS7III, I mentioned earlier? Well, Numark did a pretty smart thing in making that display bar available as a separate add-on for any Serato DJ controller, including all-in-one controllers or mixers used for DVS setups. The Dashboard has three height adjustment options and tilt control. It connects to a computer over USB but also has a convenient two-input USB hub in case you run out of ports when adding this accessory.

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Many DJs find that by stashing the laptop somewhere out of the way and positioning screens like these in front of their decks, mixers, and controllers, it’s not only more ergonomic, but it looks better and more natural to the audience.