For digital DJs, these tidy all-in-one controllers package MIDI, audio, and software together for a complete setup.
AS AN electronic musician, you may have heard something like this leveled at you and your ilk at least once: “All you’re doing is pressing buttons!” As enlightened sympathizers, we know like you do that playing piano or drums really just boils down to pressing buttons, as well. So for better or for worse, and whether you’re an experienced DJ or not, with a good “all-in-one” DJ controller, you can pull off professional (and hopefully, paying) DJ sets by doing nothing more than—you guessed it—pressing buttons!
Of course, there’s much more than just that to great DJ’ing. More elaborate equipment can certainly help, but even a basic controller can get you started mastering the fundamentals, which is still your most direct avenue toward successful DJ’ing.
When we talk about an all-in-one DJ controller, we’re referring to a USB MIDI controller for DJ use that includes an audio interface and has enough controls to suffice as the only controller you’d need to perform; in most cases, that entails a controller that condenses the layout of two turntables and a DJ mixer into one box, and modern units generally include extras for effects, looping, sample and/or cue point triggering, transport, browsing and loading tracks, and more. Of course, depending on your ambition, you could always add supplemental controllers to the setup.
Of concern when choosing a controller are, of course, price and then built-in software, and whether the unit has two or four mixer channels. Most DJ software these days supports 4-deck mixing, meaning you could have four tracks playing and being mixed at once; sometimes, like in Native Instruments Traktor, special sample-launching decks can take the place of two of the 4-track decks. Even if you don’t anticipate using four decks, you may still want a 4-channel controller to assign the extra channel controls to other MIDI functions.
We break down our chosen controllers by some of our favorite shipping options in three price ranges: less than $500, $500-$999, and $1,000 and up, using street prices as criteria. All of them except for the Casio XW-J1 come with some form of software—either a limited version or the full professional program, depending usually on the price range. Every software component has more than enough to get you started, and in the case of the Casio unit, complementary programs can be had for a pittance: 10-20 bucks.
The best way to get DJ gigs is to produce your own music—something you already do! And a great way to get your music some exposure is to play it out; successful DJing and music production naturally feed off of each other. Choose wisely, and above all, enjoy.
Less Than $500
Gemini Slate & Slate 4
$199 & $249 street
Gemini saw the shrinking size of solid-state “ultrabook” laptops and smelled an opportunity to create accompanying ultraslim and ultra-lightweight DJ controllers, the 2-channel Slate and the 4-channel Slate 4. At only 25mm high, the controllers are made to slip into laptop bags, and when you pull them out, they can slide flush against a laptop on a table, because the cable connections—RCA audio out, 1/8" headphone out, and ¼" mic input—are on the left side rather than the back.
Though compact and low-cost, the Slates include a full complement of expected features, such as multifunction RGB backlit pads for triggering samples, loops, and cue points; dedicated effects sections per deck; dedicated filter knobs per channel; and full MIDI mapping capability. They come premapped for Virtual DJ, of which a free version is available. All versions of VirtualDJ come with advanced features, such as 4-deck ability, effects, sampling, recording, video mixing and beat syncing, keylock, and much more; the deluxe VirtualDJ Pro Full goes for $299.
Numark Mixtrack Pro II
The most popular names in DJ software are Serato and Native Instruments Traktor. For getting into Serato DJ, the version dedicated to MIDI controllers, the Numark Mixtrack Pro II lands on the right cross-section of affordability, portability, and a feature set that will meet the demands of many DJs’ performances. Serato DJ only works with approved controllers, and out of the box, the Mixtrack Pro II comes with the somewhat limited version, Serato DJ Intro; upgrading to the pro-level Serato DJ costs another $129.
The plug-and-play Mixtrack Pro II runs on USB power and works in lockstep with the software with no setup required. Scratch buttons toggle the touch-sensitive platters from jog mode to scratch; browsing controls let you load tracks without the mouse; eight backlit pads per deck work in Loop, Sample, and Hot Cue modes; and a basic soundcard provides the essentials: RCA outputs, mic input with gain, and two headphone outputs.
A Shift key doubles up the functionality of many of the controls, such as the eight effects-section knobs and the Pitch Bend buttons, which also work the pitch bend range and toggle the keylock.
For another $100, you could opt for the Mixtrack Quad, which has four channels for four-deck mixing and was upgraded with multicolor pads that give color feedback according to their current state. However, at press time, the Mixtrack Quad came with 4-deck VirtualDJ LE software rather than Serato DJ, although Serato consistently adds support for more controllers.
Don’t look now, but you don’t need a highend laptop and expensive software to start DJ’ing legit sets. Casio’s first foray into DJ controllers, the XW-J1, works with Macs and PCs, but is also compatible with iPads and iPhones and comes with a built-in 30-pin iOS dock connector (Lightning adapter sold separately). It also works seamlessly out-of-the-box with Algoriddim’s Djay app for iPad ($9.99), iPhone ($1.99), or Mac ($19.99); Vjay video mixing app for iPad ($9.99) or iPhone ($1.99); and Image Line Deckadance 2 ($79) for Mac or PC.
Casio partnered with Vestax on the XW-J1 hardware, and it features the same high-quality jog wheels, touch strips, and audio interface found in similarly priced Vestax units. But it’s the interaction with Algoriddim’s iOS apps that really distinguishes the XW-J1. Djay 2 for iPad makes an excellent case for doing gigs without a laptop; it takes advantage of multiple views on the iPad touchscreen to offer a feature set surprisingly free of compromise. What’s more, certain XW-J1 controls adapt to the current view of the Djay 2 app. For example, the grid of six performance buttons on each deck adapts to launch samples, effects, loops, etc. according to the screen view.
Within a well-constructed, compact footprint of 13.9"x9.8"x1.9" and 3.2 pounds, the XW-J1 supplies track-browsing/loading controls, 3-band EQ, and dedicated Filter knob per channel; an FX section, and requisite tempo and transport controls.
Reloop Terminal Mix 8
Although it makes some of the most delicious-looking, tank-like, and feature-dense controllers around, Reloop is still building its reputation and distribution. It’s worth tracking down the latest and greatest of its Terminal Mix series, the Terminal Mix 8, for its excellent shoehorning of comprehensive features into a mid-size and mid-price controller.
The Terminal Mix 8 comes with the full Serato DJ software out of the box, and it makes very efficient use of its 20.7"x14.3" surface area. Its many step-up features include extra track-browsing controls, buttons for scrolling through Serato software control panels, gain and filter for all 4 channels, Serato sampler volume control, crossfader-curve adjust, gain and filter on each channel, separate DJ booth output with volume control, a phono/line aux input, two master outputs, and generous effects sections with extra Shift-level functions.
However, the cornerstones to this unit are the multicolor, velocity-sensitive pads with four performance modes—Loop, Sample, Cue, and Slice—and the ability to work in two of those modes at once. The Slice mode instantly chops up the playing track into eight parts that you can bounce around rhythmically on the pads for a little live remixing action.
With chunky and ergonomic controls, the Terminal Mix 8 was built for road wear, and its glorious rainbow-spectrum lights are sure to mesmerize you after losing too much sleep to late-night mixing.
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2
Although you can map any MIDI controller to work with Traktor Pro 2 software, you’ll get the highest-quality, plug-and-play interaction with the program from NI’s own all-in-one controllers. The full-featured, 4-channel Kontrol S4 MK2 sets the gold standard, although the scaled-down 2-channel Kontrol S2 MK2 also presents a solid option at $499 street. Both controllers come with the full Traktor Pro 2 software, making them professional solutions straightaway.
No other all-in-one controller will give you the same comprehensive dominion over Traktor Pro 2’s intricate, industry-best effects decks, detailed Remix Decks for live remixing, loop recorder, and auto-looping as the Kontrol S4 MK2. It has easy routing of the four channels to either effects deck, dedicated toggles over the Snap and Quantize buttons (which let you set and trigger loop and cue points either synced to the tempo grid or not), and generous connectivity, including MIDI I/O, footswitch in, two auxiliary line/phono inputs, and two stereo main outputs.
A dedicated Flux button on each side of the unit accesses Traktor Pro’s Flux mode. This recent addition to the software lets you add live re-edits such as cue-point juggling and looping to the playing track, and then drop back into the track as if it had been playing continuously.
Besides brighter LEDs and an output level boost, another key addition to the S4 MK2 over the original is compatibility with NI’s Traktor DJ iPad mixing software. Traktor DJ is the most professionally adopted iPad DJ’ing software, and one of the best outright. Even if you don’t use Traktor DJ for shows, you can use it to prep a track’s cue points, loops, and beat grid, and then sync those preparations to your track collection wirelessly and use them in Traktor Pro.
After setting the standard for Serato DJ controllers when it came out, the competition was left to play catch-up to the DDJ-SX’s enormous feature set, including eight performance pads per deck, which unlock four performance modes, including the awesome Loop Roll mode. Slip buttons on each side let you go crazy with the pad modes or scratching and then slip right back into the track’s linear progress when you’re finished.
The 4-channel controller lets you spin from four decks within the included Serato DJ software, and a unique Dual Deck mode will control both decks 1 and 3 or decks 2 and 4 in the software from a the same hardware deck, meaning you could scratch or hot-cue both tracks at once.
On top of near 1-to-1 control over Serato DJ functions, including full effects, tempo, and beat grid editing functions, there’s a “Needle Search” touch strip for accessing any point in a track very fast, and Reverse and Vinyl modes for the jog wheels.
Designed as the centerpiece for comprehensive DJ setups, the DDJ-SX includes external audio inputs with inputselection switches for all four mixer channels, and three stereo outputs: XLR master, RCA master, and ¼" booth output. The unit as a whole is quite large—but it wastes no space and only weighs 13 pounds despite feeling sturdy and robust.
$1,000 & Up
Traditionally, Serato has captured the side of the digital DJ market that comes from turntablism and demands a vinyl feel with its modern technology. So for vinyl purists who still want the convenience and slick performance features of a controller with Serato DJ software, Numark pulls out all the stops for the NS7II, a gargantuan and uncompromising turntable-style DJ setup.
Like its predecessor, the NS7II eschews normal DJ controller jog wheels in favor of full direct-drive motorized platters with real control vinyl pieces on top. So manipulating tracks feels just like using a 7-inch record on a professional DJ turntable, complete with motor torque adjustment, Start and Stop Time adjustment, and reverse play. The requisite hardware for such an apparatus already adds a lot of weight to the unit, so Numark goes all the way with it, building the whole chassis out of no-nonsense metal. The result is the heaviest controller on the market at 35.8 pounds, but it’s built like a battleship’s pilot-house console.
Besides its real vinyl feel, the NS7II improves upon the original in every way, and leaves nearly no stone unturned when it comes to Serato DJ control. It offers eight Akai MPC velocity-sensitive trigger pads, and there are five dedicated Hot Cue button on each deck, so you can jump to different cue point in the track with the buttons while reserving the MPC pads for sample triggering, the Slicer, etc.
In addition to the different Serato DJ performance pad modes we’ve discussed above, the NS7II also has touch-sensitive knobs, useful for example for flicking effects on and off and tweaking them with a single movement, and a Filter Roll button that engages a very cool Loop Roll with added filter sweep.
Whereas Numark’s huge controller beast replicates the feel of dedicated turntables, the Pioneer’s 34.3-by-16.5-by-3.9-inch, 22.9-pound heavyweight contender, the DDJ-SZ approximates another clubstandard DJ setup. Pioneer’s CDJ-2000 CD player/controllers and DJM mixers dominate the club and festival circuit. The DDJ-SZ gives you the size and feel of such a setup, but with performance features built for the included Serato DJ software and at a much lower price; the three separate units would cost $4,857-$5,457 street, depending on the mixer.
With the DDJ-SZ, you can use the same 8.1-inch jog wheels found on CDJ units, and the same high-end Magvel crossfader with adjustable curves as found in the DJM-900SRT mixer. The 4-channel controller’s jog wheels illuminate blue for decks 1 and 2 and white for decks 3 and 4, making it easier to recall which deck in Serato DJ is active on the hardware decks.
The DDJ-SZ offers the same advanced performance features for Serato DJ that are found on its smaller sibling, the DDJSX, and then piles on high-end stuff rarely found on DJ controllers. The mixer section houses two hardware effects units: the Oscillator effects Noise, Cymbal, Siren, and Horn; and the Sound Color effects 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 DDJ-SZ 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. The unit has 10 audio I/Os, including CD/line and phono inputs that support DVS timecode functionality and two mic inputs. With two headphone outs and three stereo out pairs, including XLR master output, the DDJ-SZ is class all the way.
Contributing editor Markkus Rovito is a drummer, electronic musician, and DJ, and a frequent contributor to DJTechTools.com.