DJ Gear for Musicians Roundup

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Photo by Dave Vann

After all these years, I finally came up with a good analogy to explain DJs to musicians. You know those circus acts where a guy''s spinning a plate? Then he starts spinning another plate, and then another? Then holds a pole in his mouth, bounces a plate on top of that pole, then starts another plate spinning? And how if a plate drops and breaks, it''s an epic fail?

That''s what DJs do, except they''re spinning music instead of plates. DJs are multitasking musicians—while they''re playing one cut, they''re cuing up the next cut to make a seamless transition, analyzing beats, manipulating effects as part of the music, keeping tabs of timings to see how soon they''re going to have to make a transition, thinking about which cuts to play next, and—most importantly—reading the crowd like a hawk to make sure they''re driving the experience in the right direction.

Some say DJs aren''t “musicians” because they don''t play an “instrument.” I disagree, because the DJ''s setup has gone way beyond just playing serial musical tracks. With much software, DJs can mark loops on-the-fly in particular pieces of music, then play them against other loops, or use them as transitions. Two decks have yielded to four decks, instrument inputs, onboard sampling, and more. The number of creative options open to today''s DJs continues to increase exponentially, demanding an exponential increase in the DJ''s skill set, and obviously, musical sensibility.

More than a decade ago, EQ magazine coined the term “performing engineer” to describe the new breed of DJs who combined mixing, arranging, signal processing, and overdubbing with more conventional DJ techniques like scratching—and it''s a fertile field for any musician, not just engineers.

You say you''re not interested? Well, you know that rush you get when you come up with some fantastic chord progression or a melody line that sends shivers up your spine? Remember the first time you double-tracked a vocal and made magic? You''ll get the same feeling the first time you create a perfect combination of music that builds and transitions, and makes you want to move while you throw on effects and maybe even play guitar on top of it. You''ll find new creative avenues, and new ways to look at music. Even better, you can get started quite inexpensively, and simply—load the right software into your laptop and add a controller, and you''re ready to go.

Before getting into specific gear, there are some basic concepts you need to know.

The Music Library You load music you want to play on your hard drive. Most software will accept multiple file formats, and will need to analyze your library to determine the BPM (and sometimes, the key). This info gets logged into a database so you can retrieve the right music at the right time. The analysis also aids automated beat-matching—if you''re following a 125BPM song with one at 127BPM, your software will be able to slow down the 127BPM track for a perfect segue. However, the analysis process is CPU-intensive—while many of these programs work with relatively modest computers, you want your tracks analyzed before the gig; analyzing while gigging can lead to audio dropouts.

Controller I''m biased: Don''t even think about DJing with a keyboard and mouse. I''m sure it can be done—and you could probably drive from New York to Seattle in a Yugo. A good controller, with good software, is a musical instrument.

Audio Interface You''ll need more than one output to send separate signals to a cue bus and the main out. Some controllers have a built-in audio interface; worst case, with no interface and only a controller, the software will use a laptop''s stereo onboard sound with the main mix on the left channel, and cue on the right.

Software Of course, you need something to control with your controller. And here''s what you can do with the software . . .

  • Cuing and beat-matching
    Your computer will display the waveforms of the cuts you want to match, which you can line up visually and verify by listening to a cue mix that''s separate from the mix that goes to the house. Sometimes this involves finding a start point and triggering it at the end of the previous track to create the equivalent of a tape “butt splice,” or it might involve looping a repetitive portion and crossfading it with the end of the previous cut, then turning off the loop once the transition is complete so the next tune plays through. There are more options, like crossfading two tracks against a third—but all of these have to be cued up properly “behind the scenes,” while other music goes out to the crowd. One mechanism that makes matching possible involves two mini-turntable-like controllers, where moving a controller speeds the music up or slows it down. These controllers also make it possible to create electronic scratching and varispeed effects. Other options include sync buttons and pitch controls. “Cue” also applies to setting cue points within a track. More sophisticated software lets you place multiple cue points (“hotcues”), then jump among them as desired.
  • Mixing This performs crossfading, as well as adding instrumental overdubs or vocals/MCing from a mic. The crossfader lets you transition smoothly from one cut to another. However, other faders will control the levels of different tracks, as well as external input levels.
  • Effects Computers have made beat-synced processors common. Stuttering effects, LFO-synced flanging, delays, tone controls (including “kill” controls—extremely steep notches that cut a hole in the spectrum) and more are now part of standard DJ setups. These are often played, not just “set and forget,” so the processing becomes part of the music. One of the main differences among hardware/software combinations is how well they accommodate signal processing as a playable function. (Native Instruments even has a dedicated controller, the X1, which controls the effects in Traktor.)

One mechanism that makes matching possible involves two mini-turntable-like controllers, where moving a controller speeds the music up or slows it down. These controllers also make it possible to create electronic scratching and varispeed effects. Other options include sync buttons and pitch controls.

“Cue” also applies to setting cue points within a track. More sophisticated software lets you place multiple cue points (“hotcues”), then jump among them as desired.

That''s enough basics. Let''s progress through some gear to get you started, getting more complex as we go along. We''ll start with controllers, then cover two of the most recent and important software updates.

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$79 MSRP, $60 street
Claim to fame
If you''re curious whether DJing is for you, DJ2GO is the simplest, most compact (it weighs only 13 ounces), least expensive way to obtain a feel for the DJ experience. Its MIDI output is compatible with a variety of DJ software, but works out of the box with the bundled version of Virtual DJ.

The controller You''ll find all the basics in this USB controller. There are two “decks,” each with a jog wheel-type controller, pitch bend buttons, pitch slider, sync button for automatically syncing one deck''s tempo to the other''s, play/pause button, volume control, cue button for cue point set/recall, and pre-fader level to the cue channel. The master section includes the crossfader, headphone level, master output level, and browse/load buttons to navigate through your music library and load tracks.

At this price, you won''t find extras like effects, looping, and the like. The jog wheels can scan through the track when stopped, but it would take a better DJ than me (or one with smaller fingers) to coax serious scratching out of them. When the track plays, you can use the controllers to bend pitch, or line up one track''s beats with another before crossfading into it.

The software This is a limited DJ2GO-specific version of Virtual DJ, but at this price doesn''t have some of the cooler Virtual DJ features like sampling, VJ options, effects, and the like. However, it does retain many important browser features so you''re not left twisting in the wind when it''s time to load the next track, and the simplicity is also what makes the package a great introduction to DJing—it''s not overwhelming, unless you''ve never DJed before. But even then, you won''t take long to figure it out.

Final mix Despite the small size, DJ2GO isn''t a toy—you could actually DJ a party with this as long as you didn''t need to go beyond playing, beat-matching, and mixing/crossfading the two decks. The package is complete, too, with USB cable and CD-ROM with software. Some of the buttons are lit, which helps in a typical performance setup, and the pitch sliders have a center detent for an easy return to the zero pitch setting.

Within minutes of setting it up I was bringing in tunes from my laptop''s African dance party folder and beat-matching different cuts, setting cue points, and cross-fading my way to a fun dance mix. For $60 street, this is exceptional value—and when you move on to something more advanced, you can always pass this along and get someone else hooked.

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$327.99 MSRP, $164 street
Claim to fame
This occupies the middle ground between beginner and hardcore pro controllers. It incorporates many features you wouldn''t expect at this price, yet the cost remains reasonable due to high-impact plastic construction rather than metal, and using smaller platters.

The controller The size is compact but not cramped; just be aware of where the volume faders are if you get hot and heavy with the platters. Virtually all switches have internal LEDs, making it easy to see what''s enabled. Each deck has low, mid, and high tone controls with kill switches; the Play and Cue buttons are somewhat oversize for convenience. There''s a set of FX controls along the top for each deck, and while limited when working with the bundled Traktor LE (which allows only one effect), the BCD3000 is also compatible with the full version if you want to bring on more functionality. Additional buttons provide hands-on control for setting cue points, setting loops, “relooping” (jogging the loop through a piece of music), and “scratch” is a momentary button that acts more like braking. For traditional scratching, you''ll need to use the controller platters in pitch bend mode, but of course, don''t expect the same kind of responsiveness as vinyl.

The I/O is a welcome surprise. It includes an XLR mic input with gain and tone controls (high and low), as well as two turntable inputs (one switchable to line in)—you can actually use this as a stand-alone DJ mixer with effects if that''s your thing. It also has a front-panel headphone jack.

Another surprise: Although the BCD3000 can''t be bus-powered, it doesn''t use a wall wart; instead it has an internal supply—one less thing to pack, lose, or replace if someone runs a PA speaker over it.

The software Native Instruments has been doing the virtual DJ thing for years, and at this point Traktor is highly evolved from a functional standpoint, and has a refined user interface—for example, smaller labels are in all caps to make them more readily visible, and the “look” of the two decks is unambiguous. Looping in particular is extremely well implemented—so much so that I became very interested in exploring Traktor Pro 2, which is reviewed later on in the roundup.

Final mix The BCD3000/Traktor combination works very well—if I could see something on the screen, I could generally control it with the hardware. The hardware is responsive and obvious, but most importantly, this particular combination passed the most crucial test: I had a whole lot of fun with it, and even better, didn''t have to think about it.

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$399 MSRP
Claim to fame
This is a pro-level, USB bus-powered, all-metal controller/audio interface (with ASIO 2.0 for Windows, Core Audio for Mac) that looks beyond your laptop by including mic, line, and turntable inputs for mixing in external sound sources. Although it''s a general-purpose MIDI controller, it comes with a fairly sophisticated version of Virtual DJ 7 LE that incorporates many features of the pro version.

The controller There are two physical decks and four virtual decks, all of which can play simultaneously, with controls to switch between the A/C and B/D decks. To go along with this, the CD-sized, multifunction jog wheels are a big deal—push down to scratch, or rotate without pushing to line up tracks or bend pitch; pushing without rotating is like putting on the brakes.

Sliders include the obligatory crossfader, as well as (for each physical deck) controls for volume, pitch, tone (bass, middle, and treble controls with individual kill switches), and source select with gain. It has navigation controls for finding and loading files, and cue select. Six assignable buttons call up various other functions (effects, hotcues, loop, bend, sampler record, etc.), whose parameters you adjust with a control knob. A shift button provides six additional functions. The transport has stop, play/pause, cue, four hotcue points, fast-forward and rewind controls, and a sync option to match deck tempos.

The software Like most other MIDI-based DJ controllers 4-Mx works with various programs (Traktor Pro 2 fans can find a template online), but you may not feel the need to venture beyond the included version of Virtual DJ. In addition to expected features like beat detection there are some excellent effects, the option to integrate looped or one-shot samples into the mix, and the ability to record the overall output—nice. It even accommodates VJing, too, and the controller treats video files like audio files. You can select transitions and apply effects, although if you expect to do video, you''ll need a fairly powerful laptop with good graphics capabilities. On a more basic level, you can simply associate video files with audio files to enhance your DJ sets with video.

Final mix The jog wheels have a precise, natural feel (and the internal lighting is subtle, but cool); the platter base is the same diameter as a CD, and the wheel tapers up to the surface. The construction is solid and substantial, and the complete set of inputs means you can go beyond just what''s on your laptop. The ASIO audio interface is an advantage as well. Granted the pricing is beyond entry-level, but then again, so is the product itself.

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Claim to fame
Traktor has dominated the digital DJ software market essentially since it was announced in 2000. Back then, digital DJing was not always considered “legitimate,” but Traktor played a large part in showcasing the creative potential of DJing with a computer.

Part of this is because Native Instruments has, not surprisingly, infused a musical instrument mentality to DJing; with Native Instruments-branded control surfaces (S4, S2, and X1), the musical instrument connection becomes totally obvious—Traktor Pro 2 even integrates with Maschine. (As to computer compatibility, Traktor does Mac 10.6 or 10.7, as well as Windows XP SP3 and 32/64-bit Vista or 7.)

What''s new Much of Traktor Pro 2 concentrates on four-slot sample decks, into which you can import loops or grab loops from one of the decks. The sample decks are interchangeable with four standard, virtual decks; each slot has its own level and filter control, and you can save anything you grab to your loop library.

Sample decks work well with a four-deck approach, as you can layer and manipulate loops (or one-shots) against each other, as well as integrate them as accents or complements to longer tracks. To sweeten the deal, NI includes loop content with the package, but it gets really interesting when you use loops for live remixing. As expected, within reason whatever you load will sync with whatever is playing.

An additional Loop Recorder is a true sampling module that records from one or more decks, the output, or external ins if present. You can use it by itself, or transfer whatever you record to one of the sample decks.

Traktor Pro 2 has added four new effects (Tape Delay, Ramp Delay, Bouncer and Auto Bouncer) to bring the total to 32; these sync (of course!) to either track or master tempo. As “playing” effects becomes more entwined with DJ performances, this is another solid plus for Traktor Pro 2—and with a multi-channel audio interface, you can break the effects out separately, turning Traktor into a virtual multieffects.

Waveforms of color The“TruWave” colored waveforms are a very useful update. I''ve seen this concept before in Samplitude, where you can basically do a visual “find and replace,” but as applied to DJs, the colorizing makes it very easy to pick out instrument sounds based on frequency (for example, kick drum). It''s a simple, effective improvement, although you''ll need to re-analyze your library for the new format. You can also zoom way in on waveforms, for extremely precise loop marking. You can''t overlay waveforms or see them in parallel, but NI''s approach is perfectly useable.

NI has certified several non-NI controllers as “Traktor Enabled,” including multiple models from Allen & Heath, Behringer, Denon, Numark, Ecler, Korg, Numark, Pioneer, Stanton, Reloop, and Vestax. If you don''t use a controller, there''s an internal mixer function with kill switches, tone controls, crossfader, etc.—but as I''ve said, DJing without a controller seems pretty pointless to me.

Final mix If anyone still thinks DJs aren''t musicians, they should look over the shoulder of someone who knows his or her way around Traktor. If this doesn''t qualify as a musical instrument, I don''t know what does.

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$249.99 MSRP, $200 street
Claim to fame
Torq has been around for several years, accompanied by the (now-optional) Xponent controller. It incorporates a perspective created by being part of the Pro Tools family, so it addresses “producer” DJs as much as club DJs.

What''s new With version 2.0, Torq takes this orientation further. (Note that it still works back to Windows XP SP3 and Mac OS 10.5.8, but is also compatible with 32/64-bit Vista and Windows 7.) There are now four virtual decks, each with level, EQ, cuing, and crossfade, which take advantage of Torq''s excellent looping capabilities (you can even “pre-loop,” which defines a loop by marking its end rather than beginning—cool). For me, one of the best features of having four decks is you can be prepping something complex on two of the decks while the other two keep pumping out the music. I''ve also become a big fan of having relatively short loops (4–8 measures) on two of the decks, and fading them in and out of the “main” tracks to provide accents.

Rather than being tied exclusively to Xponent, Torq 2.0 now works with other controllers (e.g., Numark NS7 and V7, Vestax VCI-300, Native Instruments Traktor S4, Behringer BCD3000, Allen & Heath Xone 1D and 4D, Denon DN-HC4500, and other hardware via MIDI learn). Yes, you can boot the software without seeing the “Please attach your M-Audio hardware” warning, and Torq retains the ability to ReWire into host programs. I also appreciate the setup wizard, which makes it easy to hook up your hardware without drama. The browser has also been tweaked.

Morphing à la carte One major change involves effects, and how they''re handled. In particular, the Traq Morph feature takes crossfading beyond level changes to morphing effects. (This is especially effective with filtering). Also, there are now up to four simultaneous effect inserts (and one VST effect) per track, groupable as effects chains.

Another change is the interface itself, which has been redesigned for a much more modern aesthetic. It takes up more screen space, but you can show/hide sections to compensate.

One difference compared to “lite” software is that in addition to beat-matching—including “groove-template”-like options for accommodating music with variable tempos—Torq incorporates zplane''s excellent “élastique” stretch algorithm, so it''s a lot easier to match pitch along with tempo. If it drives you nuts to fade from one cut to another that''s just slightly sharp or flat . . . problem solved.

Final mix Torq''s strength has always been unambiguous hands-on control, with Xponent offering an open layout, tight integration, and full-size platters. Xponent remains a solid choice—given that Torq can generate MIDI sync, the physical MIDI I/O is convenient, and I like having jacks for an expression pedal and footswitch. But it''s clear that the “separate the software from the hardware” philosophy seen in Pro Tools 9 is now part of Torq, giving DJs yet another sophisticated software option for their controller of choice.