The new Vestax VCI-100 DJ MIDI controller takes a giant leap forward. The latest in a recent flurry of digital DJ-targeted controllers — and the first of its kind from Vestax — offers several original features, an excellent build quality and a well-conceived design. The longtime manufacturer of quality mixers has taken its time entering the increasingly popular field of digital DJ tools, and that wait appears to have paid off. This heavily anticipated unit had many people speculating that it might just be the perfect controller, with all the tools required to mix, scratch, blend and remix using DJ software and a single controller. The VCI-100 is one of very few products that offer a professional MIDI controller with sturdy, high-quality components designed specifically for digital DJs. The touch-sensitive jog wheels also show the potential to solve the long-standing problem of tactile pitch-bending in the digital-only realm. Needless to say, as a veteran digital DJ, I was anxious to put this unit through the paces and find out if Vestax had made the perfect digital DJ controller.
At more than 9 lb., the VCI-100 weighs significantly more than the average laptop, but this solidly constructed unit is still portable. The overall dimensions and thickness are comparable to a MacBook Pro, so you can easily slide both into a backpack or laptop bag — just make sure the strap is sturdy. Aesthetically, the VCI-100 is a real eye-pleaser, with the increasingly popular brushed-silver finish and blue LEDs highlighting the high-tech, clear jog wheels. Backlit buttons that respond to MIDI output add even more color to the lively display. MIDI controllers have at times looked more like Fisher-Price toys than professional DJ tools, so it's nice to see a unit that seems to say, “I am a real piece of gear; take my owner seriously.” The two main control areas are protected by surface plates, which list the recommended functions of the various buttons, knobs and sliders. Vestax had the foresight to make these plates removable and plans to make software-specific replacement versions. All of the controls move with a nice, sturdy feel, and they appear to be able to withstand the rigors of regular DJing in less-than-ideal environments. The knobs and faders feel smooth and are spaced properly for trouble-free playing. At first, the buttons seemed a bit stiff, but they turned out to play nicely after a little practice.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Programming MIDI controllers can become nightmarish, especially when adapting a non-DJ controller for a DJ application. Fortunately, this clever unit was designed with DJs in mind, so out of the box the VCI-100 works very well. No drivers are required for Mac or PC, and once connected via USB, the VCI-100 functioned right away. It comes bundled with a special version of Native Instruments' Traktor LE that has been tailored to work perfectly with the hardware controls. For users of Traktor 3, Vestax has a settings file available on its Web site that makes setup a cinch. Some of the ways that Vestax chose to implement the controls required a tiny bit of manual reading, but within an hour I was able to use the controller intuitively and mix comfortably without problems. For beginning DJs or those without programming patience, the plug-and-play connectivity is a big plus. Unfortunately, those who do wish to customize the controls might find themselves frustrated. The VCI-100 does not have an editor librarian or any way to modify the data sent by the MIDI encoders. The only way to work around this oversight is with tedious programming of MIDI translators. To give you an idea, it took three programs, five hours and some serious geek work to get two buttons to directly select two effects in Traktor 3.
Although the VCI-100 ships with Traktor LE, it will work with any program out there that accepts MIDI input and MIDI Learn. A new version of MixVibes is shipping pre-mapped to VCI-100, but no other templates were available for additional software at press time. The Vestax Web site indicates that the company is working on new templates and firmware for programs, including Ableton Live, Torq and others, but for now you will have to use good old MIDI Learn.
MIXING IT UP
For those who want to mix exclusively inside their software, the VCI-100 offers several excellent features. The most significant is the digitally controlled crossfader. Independent of your software's capability, you have the option of dialing in how sharp of a curve the crossfader sends. A simple knob on the back offers variable settings, from sharp — for scratching — to smooth for more gradual mixes. The feel of the crossfader can't match some of Vestax's best hip-hop mixers, but it does have a nice, smooth action that could be compared to a Pioneer DJM-600. Two input faders have long, smooth throws with natural resistance that makes fading in and out a real joy. Having this feel to the controls really makes the experience much more tangible. Above each fader, four easy-to-grip pots are designed as 4-band EQ controls. They also have a nice resistance without being too stiff for quick EQ cuts. All of the knobs you would expect to find on a mixer are present and in a familiar layout. The only exceptions are the Master, Booth and Cue knobs that are each assigned to three tiny pots that suit functions such as panning, but not frequently adjusted settings like headphone volume and program/cue fade. Admittedly, you can always reassign those functions to larger, more accessible knobs, but there are few of those from which to choose.
A few cosmetic problems arose when testing the VCI-100 in the club. The knobs are entirely silver without any clear center indication, so a quick visual reference to check the position of, for example, the low cut proved to be nearly impossible in low light. The function markings were also hard to discern, and I frequently squinted to figure out which button did what. A simple Sharpie marker could fix both problems if you don't mind marking up a brand-new controller.
JOGGING AROUND THE BLOCK
Successfully designing a surface controller that effectively duplicates the action of a turntable has been the Holy Grail of DJ MIDI devices. The Vestax VCI-100's high-tech controllers go beyond your run-of-the-mill jog wheels and offer several key performance features packed into a single wheel. Pushing or pulling the edge or top of the wheels sends out several MIDI messages that combine to create a tactile pitch bend. The interesting part is how Vestax has merged Scratch and CD modes into one by using adjustable pressure sensors beneath the metal centers of the jog wheels. When enough pressure is applied, the VCI-100 stops sending out pitch messages and engages Scratch mode. When the pressure is released, Scratch mode turns off and the song continues playing.
In theory, this combination of technology and the high-performance crossfader could bring real scratching to the world of MIDI. When the VCI-100 first arrived, the way the unit was programmed resulted in a delay of the record-release. So rather than snapping back to playing speed almost instantly, like the way the industry-standard Technics SL-1200MK2 does, the VCI-100 ramped back up to full speed slow enough to make cueing on time nearly impossible. The good news is that this programming was tied specifically to Traktor. And as a result of this review testing, Vestax released a firmware update that corrects the problem, along with an update to Traktor LE 3.3. With both those updates installed, performance was clean, without the prior ramp-up problem. If you already have a VCI-100 and want the firmware update, you need to take it to an authorized dealer because the update will require a special cable. Otherwise, new units will have it the latest firmware installed.
That jog-wheel quirk is a symptom of the unit's positive complexity. Every control sends out many different messages that combine to create the performance you would expect. To actually program all of the functions on your own would be very tedious work, so Vestax is trying to ship the units as plug-and-play as possible to ensure the product works perfectly for everyone.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
Once you spend some time with the VCI-100, you notice a lot of potential functionality under the hood. Some creative thinking from the DJ and firmware updates from Vestax could add up to a seriously deep controller. Take the jog wheels for instance: Abandon scratching entirely, and you have three powerful assignable controllers packed into one. Pressing the center can engage a stutter effect, and further scratching might increase or decrease the speed of that effect. Engage the jog-seek button, and the same combination sends out completely different data that can be connected to another effect or the looping section. Let go of using the center section as a mixer interface entirely, and suddenly you go from a shortage of controls to more than enough for even the most robust programs.
I spent many hours with the VCI-100 at the studio and in the clubs, and I was on the fence about it. At first, the weight was a big turnoff, but the VCI-100 really started to grow on me with more use. The smooth jog wheel worked wonderfully for pitch-bending, and its pressure-sensitive plates opened up a lot of cool possibilities. At the same time, I had many other ideas for the controls that were difficult to implement due to the lack of a MIDI editor. At a street price of around five bills, some may see the Vestax VCI-100 as a steep investment for a MIDI controller, as there are less-expensive options out there that offer similar controls, and sometimes a soundcard. The rock-solid build quality combined with the established reputation of Vestax, however, make it a safe investment. You may deem it a decent value considering the bundled software and dual mixer/player functionality. With a basic soundcard, premapped controls and a computer, you can be mixing tracks like a pro in no time.
Watch the author's VCI-100 demo video at remixmag.com.
VCI-100 > $699
Pros: Crossfader curve adjustment. Pressure-sensitive jog wheels. Backlit buttons. Excellent build quality. Bundled with Traktor LE.
Cons: No editor/librarian software. Updates only via service center. Knob and function visibility problems in low light. Jog-wheel scratch delay.
Mac: G3/600 MHz; 256 MB RAM; OS 10.3.9 or later
PC: P3/500 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP SP 2