The Musician's Guide to DJ Controllers - EMusician
Whether you prefer a certain DJ app, want to combine vinyl with software or have a laptop-optional setup, there's a great controller for almost any need and budget

Electronic music production and DJing go hand in hand. DJs rarely ascend beyond a certain level without producing their own tracks, and electronic producers who don’t DJ, frankly, may be leaving money on the table from gigs that they otherwise would get. It behooves many of us to do both.

Trends in digital DJ gear have been reflecting this parallel to music production. For example, the major software programs tend to coalesce into their own ecosystem with exclusive hardware dedicated to the specific software functions, as is the case with Native Instruments Traktor Pro software’s 4-track Remix and Stems Decks. Algoriddim Djay sits on the opposite end of that spectrum with very little exclusive hardware and an interoperability ethos of natively supporting as many hardware controllers as possible.

Electronic musicians have fully re-embraced analog synthesizers and other hardware units, but also have unprecedented ability to interconnect them and integrate them into DAW software. In a similar manner, DJs who returned to (or never left) vinyl records have more options for hybrid mixers that blend software control with traditional DJ gear.

And the improving price/performance ratio of hardware electronics over time, has treated the DJ world to more hardware that can operate either as standalone gear or connected to a computer, in the same way that the Akai MPC X that we reviewed in the last issue operates as a standalone workstation or as a controller for the desktop MPC 2 software.

This round-up focuses on all those trends with a selective, rather than comprehensive, collection of the most recent and noteworthy DJ controllers. The first groupings showcase controllers designed for specific software at a variety of price points, followed by the hybrid controllers that also double as mixers, turntables, or standalone players. All of the controllers include audio interfaces unless otherwise noted, and all the prices are street prices.

Keep in mind that while many of these pieces have been designed for specific software with which they will wield the most immediate and complete results, these are all MIDI controllers that are mappable for any MIDI software. Some kind DJs may have already posted mappings to Internet forums to match the hardware to your preferred software.

ALGORIDDIM DJAY

Popular for its low price ($49.99; Mac/Win), user-friendly interface, and pro-level features, Algoriddim Djay Pro, is also the only DJ software at the moment that integrates with Spotify for mixing tracks streaming over the Internet. You can get a version of it for Android or iOS (supporting the iPad, iPhone, and even the Apple Watch). Algoriddim has baked in native support in Djay Pro for 100 DJ controllers and counting, but there’s not a ton of software built expressly for the program besides few models from Reloop.

Reloop Mixtour

Reloop Mixtour

The German manufacturer Reloop generally makes excellent DJ hardware that still flies a bit under the radar in the States. Its Djay Pro-focused models all work with Mac/Win/iOS/Android (Algoriddim software sold separately) and begin with the Mixtour ($199), a slim-format, highly portable 2-deck controller for Djay Pro. It may be the most highly functional and best designed DJ controller in its size that still includes a USB audio interface. Mode and Shift buttons help maximize the available controls. You have hands-on browsing, EQ, filter, cue point, looping, and channel control over both decks, as well as Master and Headphone outputs.

Reloop Beatpad 2

Reloop Beatpad 2

Reloop’s larger units for Djay Pro both have 4-deck functionality: the Beatpad 2 ($599) and the flagship Mixon4 ($799), which was jointly designed for and includes Serato DJ Pro software. The Beatpad 2’s 2-channel-strip mixer uses mode buttons to control four channels, while the larger Mixon4 has four distinct channel strips, as well as more robust effects sections and dedicated control buttons. The Mixon4 also has its 16 performance pads below, rather than above, the jog wheels, which many DJs prefer.

Reloop Mixon4

Reloop Mixon4

(Reloop also provides mappings to Traktor and VirtualDJ software for the above three controllers.)

ATOMIX VIRTUALDJ 8 PRO

Reloop Touch

Reloop Touch

Reloop also makes the most remarkable controller dedicated to VirtualDJ, Touch ($799), which includes a full version of VirtualDJ 8 Pro software. Touch stands out for its built-in, 7" multitouch screen, which displays the software’s interface almost comprehensively, so you don’t have to depend much at all on the connected computer. Touch also supports full-screen video mixing and has a 4-fader effect unit on each side. Its performance pads give you eight loop, cue, slice, and other modes, with the option to split them into two modes on four pads each.

NATIVE INSTRUMENTS TRAKTOR

Although you can get Traktor maps for other OEMs’ controllers, only Native Instruments makes Traktor-dedicated hardware. And while NI makes some other stripped-down and more traditional controllers, its most exciting options remove the jog wheels in favor of touch strips, use color displays that update their views according to what you’re doing, and have dedicated controls for Traktor’s Remix Decks and Stem Decks, which are for the Stem file format that splits a full mix into four component tracks.

Traktor Kontrol S8

Traktor Kontrol S8

Starting with the big daddy, the Traktor Kontrol S8 ($1,199) has a full 4-channel mixer, as well as four Volume faders on each side for Remix and Stem Decks. Its interface accepts four stereo line or phone inputs for mixing and has four stereo outputs, including Booth out and both XLR and RCA Main outs.

Traktor Kontrol S5

Traktor Kontrol S5

With the Traktor Kontrol S5 ($799), you have a very capable option that’s more portable and fits into tighter spaces, but still has the color displays, four stereo outputs, and 4-channel mixer. It loses the dedicated faders, knobs, and buttons for Remix/Stem Decks on each side from the S8.

Traktor
 Kontrol D2

Traktor  Kontrol D2

To supplement other gear that takes care of the channel mixing and audio interface, the Traktor Kontrol D2 ($399) essentially represents a single deck sliced off of the Kontrol S8. It has the full Remix/Stem Deck control system, performance pads, transport controls, color display, and effects section. A single D2 can control two software decks and has an extra 2-port USB hub for chaining other devices.

PIONEER REKORDBOX DJ

Along the same lines as Native Instruments, the dedicated controllers for Pioneer Rekordbox DJ come from Pioneer itself. Again, it’s not such as bad thing to have the overall global leader in DJ hardware designing for its own software, and using some of these controllers can help familiarize you with Pioneer’s interface scheme used on its club-standard CDJ players and DJM mixers.

Pioneer DDJ-XP1

Pioneer DDJ-XP1

For DJs using turntables, CDJs or other devices, the beautiful Pioneer DDJ-XP1 ($249) add-on controller supplies a world of looping, effects, and performance pad options for up to four decks of Rekordbox DJ software. (It has no audio interface.) A whopping 32 performance pads give you all the usual options, as well as some rare abilities. For instance, their Keyboard mode triggers a Hot Cue or other sound in semitones, like playing a synth or sampler. A pad editor also lets you customize pad arrangement and assign pads to certain modes and features.

Pioneer DDJ-1000

Pioneer DDJ-1000

Pioneer makes many low- and mid-priced all-in-one controller options for Rekordbox DJ, but jumping to the DDJ-1000 ($1,199) lands us at the latest option for taking advantage of the software’s most advanced new features, such as the Related Tracks option that suggests mixable songs. The DDJ-1000’s full-size mixer includes a Sampler section and 14 tempo-synced Beat FX. It also integrates color displays in the middle of its full-size, CDJ-style jog wheels.

Pioneer DDJ-RZX

Pioneer DDJ-RZX

For video DJs with tons of space for an uncompromising surface, the DDJ-RZX ($2,999) integrates three 7" touch displays, as well as everything you need to mix audio and video on the hardware. It has touchscreen control over both audio and video effects. It includes the full Rekordbox Video software, which is an upgrade from Rekordbox DJ, as well as USB camera support for the video decks.

SERATO DJ

While you can use Serato DJ with any MIDI device, certain important functions are only accessible from Serato-certified controllers. Luckily there is a large and varied selection of those.

Pioneer DDJ-SB3

Pioneer DDJ-SB3

Fortunately, Pioneer has not abandoned Serato software, because it recently updated one of the best-selling and greatest options for affordable Serato control to the DDJ-SB3 ($249), which includes the somewhat limited Serato DJ Lite software that is upgradable to Serato DJ Pro for $99. The DDJ-SB3 fixes the layout problems of its predecessor by improving the transport controls and providing eight performance pads per deck, up from four. Those pads also have two cool new modes: Pad Scratch for beginner-friendly scratching and Fade FX, which lower volume while applying effects for transitions.

Roland DJ-202

Roland DJ-202

Another affordable product, the Roland DJ-202 ($299), is the best low-cost option for getting Serato DJ Pro software, which adds mix recording, more cue points (8) and sample slots (32), more effects, and additional performance modes. Besides being a great option for a compact and portable 4-deck Serato controller, the DJ-202 streamlines the most distinguishing characteristics of the larger DJ-505 ($699) and DJ-808 (see below): an onboard sequencer, four TR drum kits, and vocal FX on the mic input. You can use the DJ-202’s performance pads to sequence either the Serato sampler’s sounds or to make beats with the included 909, 808, 707, and 606 drum kits.

Numark NS6II

Numark NS6II

Mid-priced Serato controllers abound, but Numark has two distinct 4-deck options with Serato DJ Pro that stretch the price/performance ratio admirably. The NS6II ($799) includes two USB ports for simultaneous use, dual Mic and Line/Phono stereo inputs, Booth and XLR/RCA outputs, hi-res jog wheel displays, and capacitive touch knobs for instant effects and EQ band-kills.

Numark NVII

Numark NVII

The Numark NVII ($699) offers the lowest-price entry for a dual-display Serato controller, providing advanced browsing, track view, and other view modes from the color screens. It also has touch-activated functions like the filter knobs and jog wheels. It has nine performance pad modes, Booth output, and XLR/RCA Main outs.

Roland DJ-808

Roland DJ-808

When looking at high-end Serato DJ Pro options, the large-format Roland DJ-808 ($1,299) fully realizes the drum machine and Voice Transformer (VT) effects features mentioned with the DJ-202, along with being a full-featured, 4-channel controller. It has a complete TR-S drum machine module at the top of the unit and 16 step-sequencing buttons with Accent control, buttons for easily selecting the Serato Sampler or TR-909/808/707/606 drum sound to sequence, drum tone controls (Trim, Attack, Tune, Decay), and level faders, among other features. The VT section has dedicated controls for Pitch, Formant, Reverb, and more for the mic input, including a handy Duck switch for lowering the music while speaking. The 8-in/8-out audio interface also includes two USB audio inputs for other Roland Aira gear and 5-pin MIDI Out.

Denon DJ MCX8000

Denon DJ MCX8000

Not only is the Denon DJ MCX8000 ($1,299) a do-everything, 4-deck Serato DJ Pro controller, but it also has internal Denon Engine software for operating as a standalone unit for playing music off of two USB storage ports or from the four stereo line or phone inputs. The Engine track database also will import your Serato DJ cue points, so you can perform with your tracks the same whether you’re hooked up to Serato on a computer or using the MCX8000 as a standalone machine.

STANDALONE PLAYERS/SOFTWARE CONTROLLERS

Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2

Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2

Like the MCX8000 above, there are more and more DJ players that will work either on their own or as a software controller. The apex of the DJ hardware world, the club and festival standard Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2 ($2,199) CD and media player, exemplifies this trend perfectly. This latest model of the legendary CDJ has a 7" color touchscreen with QWERTY keyboard, a high-res USB audio interface, hot-cue keys, and both a USB drive port and an SD memory card slot. The CDJ-2000NXS2 also works with Rekord-box, Serato, and Algoriddim Djay software.

Denon DJ
 SC5000 Prime

Denon DJ  SC5000 Prime

For the first time in a long while, the vaunted CDJ has some honest competition in the marketplace now that the Denon DJ SC5000 Prime ($1,899) media player offers some extra features above and beyond the latest CDJ at a lower price. For example, the SC5000 Prime has eight multimode performance pads along the bottom, a multi-touch 7" screen, as well as an HD display for track info or art in the center of the jog wheel, three USB flash drive ports along with an SD card slot. The SC5000 Prime also integrates with Rekordbox and Serato software.

Pioneer XDJ-RX2

Pioneer XDJ-RX2

In a category pretty much of its own, the Pioneer XDJ-RX2 ($1,699) standalone digital DJ system feels like a hybrid between a DJ software controller with multimode performance pads and a club-style set of Pioneer CDJs with a mixer. You can use it completely on its own with USB flash drives and the 7" touchscreen. It has onboard Beat FX and Sound Color FX, as well as three stereo RCA inputs and three stereo outputs (Booth and XLR/RCA Main). It also integrates perfectly with the included Rekordbox DJ software connected to a computer.

MIXER CONTROLLERS

Traktor Kontrol Z2

Traktor Kontrol Z2

Most relevant to DJs using DVS—turntables with control vinyl to manipulate software decks—a class of controller mixers combines software control with high-end DJ mixers. The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z2 ($599), for example, includes Traktor Scratch Pro 2 and timecode vinyl and CDs. It comprises a 2-channel standalone mixer with two extra channels for Traktor’s Remix Decks. It integrates just as well with turntables or media players connected to its audio inputs as it does with add-on controllers like the aforementioned Kontrol D2 connected to one of the Z2’s two USB hub ports.

Pioneer DJM-S9

Pioneer DJM-S9

The remainder of these mixer controllers work with Serato DJ Pro and Serato DJ DVS. The Pioneer DJM-S9 ($1,699) is designed to be a 2-channel battle mixer for scratch DJs, so it keeps the areas surrounding the high-end Magvel Pro adjustable crossfader clean and puts the software controls above the faders. These include performance pads with eight modes, FX selectors, and Style Levers for quickly triggering or locking on effects.

Mixars Quattro

Mixars Quattro

Mixars Quattro ($1,499) is the only 4-channel mixer controller of this bunch, and it provides software control for all four decks, as well. That includes transport controls, track browsing and loading, looping, and cue point and sampler triggering. The Quattro also has two onboard effects modules: a 14-program beat synced effects units with display, and four filter/tone effects selectable for the channel Filter knobs.

Rane
 Seventy-
Two

Rane  Seventy- Two

The 2-channel Rane Seventy-Two ($1,899) raises the bar for mixer controllers with its color 4.3" touchscreen display that shows vertically scrolling track waveforms with their cue points. Laid out like a scratch mixer with a clean fader section, the Seventy-Two still has tons of Serato control, including 16 total performance pads with 10 modes, effects control, and an effects section with level and filter knobs. The mixer has two USB ports for computer connections, as well as two USB ports meant for the companion Rane Twelve turntable controllers.

TURNTABLE CONTROLLERS

Rane
 Twelve

Rane  Twelve

For DJs who love the vinyl turntable feel, without the feel of a tweaked lower back from hauling full record crates, the Rane Twelve ($799) delivers a powerful motorized platter with adjustable torque and a real 12" vinyl that spins at 33.3 or 45 rpm and has a Motor Off switch for traditional wind-down effects. The extremely precise platter controls Serato tracks with 3,600 ticks of resolution, and you can switch it to control all four Serato decks. It also has a touch strip for track searching, as well as triggering cue points. Since it was made to work in conjunction with a mixer, it does not pass audio.

Reloop RP-8000

Reloop RP-8000

The Reloop RP-8000 ($699) is a fully functional professional DJ turntable with a variable-torque, quartz-driven, direct-drive motor. It also happens to have a complement of MIDI controls and is Serato certified, although it does not include Serato software. The Trax encoder scrolls through playlists and loads tracks from Serato’s library, while the column of eight drum pads control Cue, Loop, Sample, and Slicer modes or two of those modes at once split into four pads each.

The RP-8000 is available with an S-shaped tone-arm or a straight tone-arm, and you can daisy chain up to four of them together into a single USB computer port.