Roundup – Cool Tools for DJs

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Yes, I’m a musician. And yes, I can play an instrument, thank you—and actually, that’s why I’m so into DJing. Like recording, it’s a different way to interact with music, and the DJ setup is becoming a sweet blend of gear that’s part instrument, part recording studio, and part sampler. It’s a new type of instrument with new challenges, and what’s more, it’s racing headlong toward a musical reality that pushes the envelope of the things that can be done with deconstructing and reconstructing sound.

This roundup is a good example of how the DJ world has expanded: We cover educational programs for the total beginner, sophisticated monitoring options, iOS devices you can toss in a backpack, semi-traditional controllers, “controllerist” controllers, and even hardware/software instruments that speak to DJs. It’s a world where anything goes, and one which you ignore at your peril.

The bad news is that yes, you may lose your gig to a DJ. The good news is that DJ might be you—and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

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N4 DJ Controller/Mixer
$699 MSRP, $499 street

Positioned toward the upper middle of Numark’s line of controllers, the N4 4-deck controller incorporates a 4x4 audio interface. Despite its reasonable price, it definitely has a pro feature complement and vibe; while the plastic case construction saves money, it certainly seems sturdy (the tall, rubberized knobs have virtually no “wobble) and offers the added benefit of making the N4 easy to carry around.

Ins and Outs The I/O is generous—XLR main outs, and separate RCA master and booth outs (with individual front-panel level controls for main/master and booth). Decks 3 and 4 can switch over to stereo RCA jack inputs, switchable between line and phono. The class-compliant USB interface works with Mac OS X/Windows (98SE on up) and accommodates recording your sets as well as computer control; the front edge is endowed with two mic ins (both with gain controls, and one with bass/treble), PC/input source selectors for decks 3 and 4, crossfader contour (scratch and normal), and two headphone jacks (1/4" and 1/8"). The global wall-wart adapter handles 100–240V.

Software The controller/software fit is a big deal, and Numark has taken the unusual step of packing in two programs—Serato DJ Intro and VirtualDJ LE. Serato DJ Intro is two-deck software that seems optimized for simplicity, stability, and tight scratching, although it has fewer “bells and whistles” than VirtualDJ LE, which is four-deck software with two samplers per deck and three hot cue buttons. Another advantage of VirtualDJ LE is that if you do the optional-at-extra-cost upgrade to the professional version, you can use turntables with timecoded vinyl or CD players with timecoded CDs for audio file control, and output full-screen video. N4 also supports Traktor, UltraMixer, djay, and PCDJ, but not Serato Itch.

Mixing Each deck has 3-band EQ, 45mm level faders, and load and cue buttons for loading music into the decks and cuing the material you’ve loaded. You’ll also find the expected jog wheels and controls/buttons for pitch, effects, loop control, transport, key lock, and similar functions, as well as the unexpected video transition knob (which doubles for doing track selection with the browser) and fade controls—yes, control your videos while you’re controlling the audio. In Scratch mode, the top of the jog wheels becomes touch-sensitive and optimized for scratching, while the sides serve the usual pitch-bend functionality for tweaking tempo. The pitch sliders are 100mm—nice—and indicate original playback pitch/speed via LED.

Final Mix The N4 seems oriented more toward controller-oriented DJs than hardcore turntablists, with its main claims to fame being versatility with affordability—while offering more features than you’d expect at this price. In particular, being able to handle a wide variety of input sources takes the N4 beyond being “just” a laptop DJ software controller to being a capable standalone mixer sans computer; and the inclusion of two different, valid pieces of software is also a cool move, as users can choose which “flavor” of DJing they want to do. The N4 is a tough controller to beat, but an easy one to use.

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Sound Trends

meta DJ iOS app
$19.99 MSRP

This stellar iPad DJ app uses a four-deck paradigm, but each deck can be a conventional DJ-style track deck with (of course) iTunes integration, or a looping-oriented module, or one of four different instruments. Then there are the effects. . . .

Track Deck This has the basics and then some, with features like automatic BPM analysis and downbeat detection, the ability to sync decks, easy loop in/out to create loops, four cue points, and “auto-loop” for expanding or shrinking loops to various bar lengths. Touching and swiping the waveform does scratching. This resembles a conventional DJ deck; if you can navigate Traktor, you’re good to go.

Looptastic This is just plain cool. Picture an Ableton Live Scene, with up to ten loops playing constantly; but each loop is represented by a little square icon in a fader track that—surprise—is like a fader cap, and you can mix all these loops in real time. Touching anywhere along the fader track brings in the loop at that level.

Instruments The app includes two synths, the Drumtron drum machine and SaMPL3R. These aren’t so much editable as they are playable, based on the content you load into the instrument. For example, with Drumtron, what appears to be a matrix for programming beats actually contains patterns in the various cells for different drums; you can play these in real time, or hold combinations of patterns to create drum loops. This may sound limiting, but in practice, it’s easy to add patterns to go along with the Track or Looptastic “decks,” especially as the patterns are organized intelligently in terms of musical complexity.

SaMPL3R works similarly to Drumtron, as you can load arpeggiations, bass, chords, drums, leads, etc. These can be patterns, or by choosing Synth, you can call up a keyboard that’s chromatic or constrained to various scales.

The other instruments include One Shot, which lets you load or create a bank of up to ten one-shot samples, drawing from enough content that I didn’t feel like taking the time to count the number of samples (e,g., female voice, male voice, shouts, fx, etc.). The Riser instrument resembles a dual tonal KAOSS pad, where one pad controls volume and pitch/filter, while the other controls modulation. Although these are “canned” sounds, like the other instruments, they’re fun and supplement the Track and Looptastic decks well.

Effects All four decks can be processed by up to four effects in series, drawn from a roster of 15 effects and controlled via X/Y pad. You can control one effect at a time, and return to the underlying deck at any time. One semi-exception is Looptastic; it splits its faders into three zones, which can have independent effects.

Final Mix Other features include Numark iDJ Live and Acid file support, headphone cueing with a specialized cable, Airport output, MIDI sync, the ability to record your set, the option to buy additional content (as well as download free content), and more. But forget all that, and concentrate on the bottom line: This is a ton of fun, it’s no toy, and it has a welcome amount of sophistication. But don’t say I didn’t warn you—it’s habit-forming.

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Scratch DJ Academy MIX!
$69 MSRP, $49 street

This cross-platform program is intended for those who want to get started in DJing, but from the standpoint of putting together cohesive mixtapes and sequences of tracks as opposed to learning the tricks and techniques of controller-based DJ techniques. As such, it’s more about experimenting with song orders, harmonic mixing, coaxing tempos and crossfades to mesh together, and then exporting the mix into the program’s “Mix Vault.”

While I could do without lines like “mix the music on your computer into one seamless set—just like a professional DJ!,” MIX! can be very helpful for those who need to know the ground rules of DJing; in addition, short tutorials explain concepts like beat-matching, scratching, crossfading, stretching, and even some music theory. These tutorials aren’t particularly deep, but their conciseness makes them valuable for beginners.

How it Works The process begins by loading your songs into the library, although the program comes with some content to get you started. Considerately, MIX! points to your existing song locations rather then copying a duplicate set and burying it somewhere in your root drive. You can then drag songs into a playlist to build your mixtape. If you click on one of the playlist songs, songs in the library with related tempos or keys are highlighted, which suggests what you might want to add next to the playlist.

MIX! creates automatic crossfades among the various songs, but you can tweak these with respect to where the crossfading starts, the crossfade length and curve, and also add scratch effects (with several options) when transitioning between songs. You can preview the transitions, and tweak them until they’re as seamless as possible. In addition to crossfades, there’s the option to perform drops (i.e., cut directly from one track to the beginning of the next track, with no crossfade) if you want to transition from, for example, a track with a tempo of 127 bpm to one at 133.33 bpm. However . . .

Going Deeper You can take MIX! considerably deeper. For example, opening a song information window allows changing the tempo and key of individual tracks, the tightness of beat grid analysis, setting double- or half-time, tap tempo, and the start point for beat 1. While these may be complex concepts, they’re easy to edit. Furthermore, MIX! uses zplane’s algorithms for stretching, key detection, and beat detection (all of which are very accurate); you’ve heard zplane’s work before with various other popular DAWs. There’s also a master track with automation curves for tempo and level, as well as automation for high, mid, and low EQ gain.

Final Mix When I first checked out MIX!, I wasn’t that impressed precisely because the program accomplished what it set out to do—fence off the more advanced sections to make it easier for beginners. Digging deeper, though, revealed additional ways to optimize your mixtapes and in the process, learn more about the aesthetics of DJing. Whether MIX! is for you or not depends somewhat on your level of expertise in DJing, but find out for yourself: Download the free trial, and check it out.

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Dangerous Music

$1,099 MSRP, $899 street

Dangerous Music’s Source is an unusual product with many applications, including DJing. Geared for portability, Source monitors and routes a variety of input sources via high-end conversion, noiseless switching, and superb headphone amps. Its size and form factor suggest laptop-based audio production, but it’s equally at home in small studios.

Ins and Outs Source has independent monitoring sections for headphones and speakers. Both have buttons to monitor any or all of four shared inputs: stereo XLR+1/4" combo analog ins, stereo minijack, AES/SPDIF XLR digital in (with associated passthrough connector), and USB for stereo audio output from Mac/Windows machines.

Two front-panel 1/4" headphone outs share a single volume control, and two separate speaker pair outs (XLR and 1/4") have their own shared volume control, too. An additional, fixed-level line out mirrors the speaker section’s selected set of inputs. The speaker outs are designed for powered monitors, so they’re essentially beefy line outs.

Interestingly, Source includes two power connectors that match the included global wall wart. Presumably a single adapter couldn’t power two Sources, but Dangerous hints at possible future accessories.

Monitoring The speaker section can switch between two sets of speakers, but all buttons—input and speaker selectors—are set up cleverly so they can toggle momentarily or latch. Furthermore you can enable input and speaker buttons within their groups simultaneously, or program them so enabling one in the group disables the others.

Using It You can bring in stereo audio from a controller/interface, or via USB from your computer, and send it (with level adjustment) to the 1/4" TRS outs for booth powered monitors and to the XLR main outs. The fixed-level line out is ideal for recording. Meanwhile, you can monitor an iOS device or similar player from the headphones without sending the signal to the main out, but then enable it to the speakers when appropriate. Better yet, send a DJ program’s cue output to the computer’s 1/8" audio output jack, and patch it to Source’s second analog in. (Simply aggregate interfaces with a Mac; with Windows, use ASIO4ALL to enable the USB ASIO and WDM onboard audio simultaneously.)

Given the Dangerous pedigree and design, it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The sound quality is somewhere beyond excellent. Mixing with Source becomes a superior audio experience.

Final Mix While it’s not difficult to route cue and main mixes separately, I’d love to see four channels of USB I/O for this; and the ability to set separate levels for the two speaker outs would be convenient for booth setups. However, Source isn’t just a DJ tool, but has multiple studio uses—feed in a digital mixer or audio interface output (or computer USB out) for distribution to the two headphones and speakers, switch between speakers for comparison, send one set of speaker outs to monitors and the other set to a sub, switch between a reference CD and your master out, record a mix back into a DAW by routing the line outs to two audio interface inputs, and the like. Ultimately, “going to the Source” means routing and monitoring that are portable enough for laptop DJs, but robust enough for studio work.

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IK Multimedia

iRig MIX
$99.99 MSRP

This mobile mixer works with one or two iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod touch), or an iOS device and other player (CD, MP3, etc.) to provide “DJing to go,” needing only an AC outlet for the mixer’s global wall wart.

The Hardware The mixer has two channels with 60mm level sliders, each flanked by a four-LED level meter. The 60mm crossfader has the requisite “loose” feel. Controls include per-channel cue button, and bass, treble, and gain controls; master controls are volume, input select, and X-Sync (covered later). Interfacing offers RCA stereo outs, 1/4" headphone jack with level control, two 1/8" audio input jacks, and Micro-B USB power supply connector. A second 1/4" jack provides a third input with level control for guitar/bass/mic, which you can process through an iPad app (like IK’s AmpliTube), then run it into input 1 while audio from another device feeds input 2. Or, simply mix this input (without processing) in with the other two inputs.

The Software A free version of IK’s DJ Rig app (also for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) gets you more than started, while the full version costs $19.99. You’ll find the basics and more: two turntables, each with low/mid/high controls and associated solo buttons, automix, level and crossfader, bend up/down, sync, cue, pitch adjust, and four banks of nine one-shot pads. Each pad has individual level and pitch controls; replace the pad sounds to create a custom collection, or record new sounds.

The three output routing options are also appreciated, and make it possible to use a single iOS device—you can route the main out to the left output with cue (headphones) to the right, select a standard L/R stereo output, or split each deck to its own channel. Three crossfader curves, and a crossfader filter for transitions, are available. Note that the software controls don’t “talk” to the mixer (e.g., changing the hardware’s crossfader doesn’t change the software’s crossfader).

The full version allows for setting internal loops within the audio along with slip and hold, offers four cue points instead of one fixed cue point, provides a waveform view, adds content, and includes six effects (lowpass, bandpass, and highpass filters; delay, stutter, and phaser) while the free version is limited to the lowpass filter. All effects have a KAOSS pad-style X/Y interface.

X-Sync This is very cool: When using two iOS devices, or even an iOS device and an external audio source such as an MP3 or CD player, enabling X-Sync can sync music on the two different devices. You can even match the iOS device to the external source, although of course, X-Sync is most effective with rhythmically consistent program material.

Final Mix iRig MIX is portable, light (the case is plastic), relatively inexpensive, and capable; it not only works with DJ Rig, but also the free versions of AmpliTube, VocaLive, and Groovemaker. IK has been in the iOS game for a while, so it’s not surprising they’d come up with something like this—but that doesn’t diminish its cool factor.

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Native Instruments

Maschine MK2
$669 MSRP, $599 street

The original Maschine did so many things right, and became so popular with musicians and DJs (it’s often synced with Traktor), that an update seemed somewhat superfluous. MK2 doesn’t address any “fatal flaws,” because there really weren’t any. But it does offer workflow improvements, some extras, and accessories.

NI didn’t mess with the features that made Maschine a hit: easily navigated hardware control coupled with pattern-based sequencing software, lots of content (with optional expansions), sampling, multi-effects, and stand-alone or plug-in (VST/AU/RTAS) operation. But with the benefit of years of observing the ways people used Maschine, NI zeroed in primarily on workflow.

The Accessories The rugged, all-metal Maschine Stand ($79) tilts Maschine when used on a tabletop to a more playable (and LCD-readable) angle, and includes a mounting adapter for mounting Maschine like a snare drum on 7/8" drum clamps. Rubber pads on the base make sliding around virtually impossible, and pins hold Maschine in place on the stand.

Maschine comes in white or black, and you can customize it with colored, metal (not cheap vinyl) faceplates that cost $79 and affix to Maschine magnetically so they’re easy to swap out; matching knobs are included. (While the stand and the new 1.8 software version are compatible with the original Maschine, the faceplates aren’t.)

Mechanical Changes Maschine MK2 makes excellent use of LED-colored pads (which are also somewhat more sensitive than the original). For example, you can make the cymbal pads yellow and the kick red for consistency among kits; furthermore, the drums shown in the software acquire the same colors. You can also associate colors with scenes, groups, and patterns. The buttons “click” for positive feedback, a big master encoder with push switch simplifies editing, and the two displays are more readable over wider viewing angles.

Software Changes For those who don’t own Komplete or Massive, the inclusion of the Massive virtual instrument is a big deal. It’s a dubstep mainstay, but it’s also a fine, big-sounding (and CPU-hungry) synth; you get Komplete Elements, too. The other refinements mostly involve workflow so you can stay more in the “hardware domain.” Time stretching and pitch shifting are now brought out to the Maschine interface itself, and the Transport controls can trigger your DAW’s transport. This version includes new tape and tube modes for the Saturator effect, and a transient shaping effect—if you don’t already have a transient shaper, this is a very useful addition. (Try it on the bass samples, too.) You can now audition individual sounds before loading them, and while this is not a new feature, it’s worth pointing out that being able to drag-and-drop MIDI and audio files into your DAW from Maschine is welcome.

Final Mix Like other beats fans, I took immediately to Maschine; those without Maschine are fortunate to be able to start with MK2. For owners of the original, MK2 isn’t “mandatory,” as the 1.8 software is compatible. However, this also means the original version retains its value, so it could be worth selling and moving to MK2—which offers some undeniable benefits. Native Instruments has been generating one hit after another these days, and Maschine MK2 is most certainly one of them.

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$624.99 MSRP, $349 street

It took a while for DAWs to break from the “tape recorder/mixer replacement” paradigm, and most DJ controllers still follow the dual-turntable model, even though software is going where conventional DJ setups never ventured. Native Instruments’ solution was to go modular; Novation has retained the single unit approach, but re-invented it for a controller-oriented world.

The Hardware Twitch packs a lot into a small footprint. Bus power adds to the portability, although the lights seem less bright than controllers with dedicated power supplies. Replacing the jog wheels with touchstrips isn’t just about a major size reduction, but a different way of working: It’s much like “swiping” and grabbing with touchscreens, and I imagine those raised on iPads will feel right at home. You can even “pinch” to adjust loop lengths, and with a little practice, do decent scratching.

Outputs include separate master (1/4" TRS, not XLR) and booth (RCA) outs, with the booth switchable between master and cue. A built-in, cross-platform 2x4 USB interface allows direct monitoring, and the mixer incorporates an auxiliary RCA stereo input with gain control. The front includes 1/4" and 1/8" headphone jacks, and 1/4" mic input with gain control.

In addition to 60mm level sliders (also assignable to effects—cool) and 45mm crossfader, other controls provide standard functions such as low, mid, and high EQ for the two decks, effects controls, loop options, rotary pitch control, autosync, etc. More highlights: each channel’s eight pads, which trigger cues and loops but aren’t dedicated solely to those tasks.

The Software Twitch is Itch-centric and includes the program, but is not as tightly wedded to software as some other controllers. It includes an overlay for Traktor (2- or 4-deck mappings, with easy toggling between deck pairs, and excellent use of the pads for assignable control), and was also designed with Ableton Live in mind—download a Live template for Twitch-oriented sets, as well as a “translator” utility to optimize Twitch’s MIDI messages for Live. While it’s not as tight a fit as the Akai APC series controllers, those who use Live in a more “DJ” way will find Twitch a fluid controller.

Slicing and Dicing One advantage of using Itch is Twitch’s control over Itch-specific mappings, like slicing. The software slices the file into eight equal-length cue points, which you can re-arrange on the fly with the pads—play them straight through or loop them—as well as change length with the touchstrip. For example, you can load a drum part and twist its beat around in relation to another track, or split a bass part into sections and re-arrange the melody; timings are quantized, so like loop rolls, you can’t go wrong. And this just scratches (ahem) the surface.

Final Mix. Twitch isn’t a MIDI controller adapted to DJs, but a DJ controller adapted to MIDI. Its implementation is most complete with Itch, but works very smoothly with Traktor and Live too. Most importantly, it expands the controllerist’s world, offering an alternative to traditional approaches. Twitch is a very hip piece of hardware that bids a fond farewell to turntables, while looking toward the future. n