Another year, another set of DJ controllers. Though there have not been any huge leaps and bounds in the controller market, there have been some enhancements and modifications to the ergonomics and controls. Some manufacturers have moved forward in this realm, while a few others have decided to stray off the map.
Native Instruments and Pioneer DJ have both debuted a similar set of mixer/controllers that appear to be a classic 2-channel battle mixer on the outside, but have a huge set of bells and whistles under the hood that bears the characteristics of a DJ midi controller. Native Instruments released its Kontrol Z2 and Pioneer countered with its DJM-T1. Unfortunately, both models did not make it to the top ten mainly because both models are more physically mixer-based as opposed to the complexities of what the rest of the pack offers as DJ midi controllers; even though they are still amazing devices and are a breeze to mix with!
So, let’s break down the basic necessities you need to get started in the jam process: (1) A laptop computer clocked in at a minimum of 2 giga hertz (GHz) with at least 2 gigs of ram to boot. (2) DJ software (either Serato DJ or Traktor Pro 2 – the rest of the herd is really in no comparison with these 2, so choose wisely if you are on a budget and try to see if the controller of your choice comes bundled with either of the 2) (3) A DJ midi controller with a USB out. Also, you will need a kick ass pair of powered speakers or no one will hear what you’re doing… duh??
Some key elemental features and factors that made up my top ten, and what to look for when choosing the right controller for your needs:
Channel-Strip EQs and LEDs
EQs actually have two important functions: (1) you need to be able to control the low, mids, and high in any given scenario to improve the overall quality when you’re recording, or to prevent your speakers from blowing out on you when one of these bands is pushed too much on a track. Sometimes when you are doing a special function, you may also be asked to turn down the bass by some stuffy patron. (2) The EQ is also a handy dandy filter tool. House heads and Garage heads popularized the tweaking of EQ bands to add a sense of climax to the dance floor on large systems that are quipped properly with limiters. If you do not have the latter, you could blow out your system if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Channel strip LEDs provide a huge whirlwind of an advantage when playing four decks. It is like that oil-lit lantern on a foggy evening. Even in sufficient light, all DJ’s need to get their bearings straight on what channel is active and whether or not it is peaking in the red. This feature is very important in the four channel market, but if you’re a novice, you may get by without it in the learning process, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Technology today has a lot to offer for DJs, and one of the best things is having the ability to fit your setup in one bag, either strapped to your back or over the shoulder. Although a few of my picks for the year did not exhibit strong qualities in this department, they still have a stronghold as a full-fledged controller for the rest of the qualities that are important to have.
Balanced Outputs (preferably XLR outputs)
Balanced outputs are louder than unbalanced; that’s all you really need to know! They have better signal-to-noise ratio, and are a professional standard for most sound systems. As far as the type of balanced connection option, I always prefer XLR outputs (pictured above) over quarter-inch headphone style plugs due to my experiences with having the balanced quarter inch plugs come loose during the middle of playing sets. XLR outputs are also always preferred for live performances among soundmen and roadies due to their reliable signal quality over long distances, and mainly their ability to remain connected with their locking design. All the new controllers are finally adding this option, and I am glad they finally woke up to this very important feature!
Independent Gain Controls or Trim
Trim and gain are the same thing. It is handy when you are dealing with stand alone mixers and you want to level all your sources to the same loudness, so you don’t sound like a fool when switching from one source to the next. In the digital environment, you may still need to tweak these knobs because all .wav and mp3 files can be recorded at different levels. Usually this happens when you get vinyl to mp3 conversion files due to a lack of compression and maximizer settings during the recording process. You will need this essential function on every channel in the controller of your choice.
Stand-Alone Mixer Option
When packing your gear, it is really an advantage on your back muscles to lessen the load, so having a controller with its own built in pre-amp will save your ass during a computer crash without having to pack more peripherals to compensate for this feature. You can count on mp3 players like the iPod to come to the rescue, and I always carry one as a backup in case there’s a fatal laptop crash! But, there’s no sense in carrying a life saver like an mp3 player if your mixer/controller cannot hold its own outside the usb connection to your computer. For DJs that still use turntables or CDJs, you can always resort to CDs or vinyl on the fly when this occurs. Most companies like Pioneer and Vestax always are usually offering this feature as a standard, and it makes a ton of sense, and you get your money’s worth.
SO LET’S BEGIN WITH MY TOP TEN FOR 2013 ! ! !
NOTE: For each entry, I have given report-card-style letter grading for portability factor and overall value in terms of asking price for what you get in return for dropping your beans. If I haven’t provided enough information, you can always click on the links that are highlighted.
10th Place: Hercules DJ Control Air
Starting off the top ten is a very simple little gadget for beginners that falls into the under $200 range, which doesn’t have much company aside it. The Hercules DJ Control Air ($169) delivers the best of both worlds, but what makes this little bad boy an attention grabber is that it features a sensor that can detect your hand that can be used for filter effects. Hercules calls it a velocity sensor. It features 8 programmable drum pads that can mainly be used for controlling loops, and features some extended finger-friendly knobs to compensate for the size. If you’ve ever seen a five foot player slam dunk in the NBA, well here you have it !
PROS: Small size, low price, features, Hercules quality built, bundles with Traktor LE
CONS: 2 channels only, not for professional use, no mic input, 1/8” mini jack for output
9th Place: Reloop Terminal Mix 4
Reloop for some reason has been a bastardized child in the U.S., but in Europe it is pretty well regarded as a steady seller. Their latest claim to fame in the controller market is the Terminal Mix Four ($799). It features everything you would want in a four channel midi DJ controller, but lacks channel strip LEDs and XLR outs. It does, however, have dual layer button functionality, but can get a bit cramped in the real estate end of the ergonomics. Small hands will go a long way here…
PROS: 4 Channels, jog wheels feel awesome with vinyl grip pad, mic input, multitude of features for effects, bundled with Serato
CONS: No XLR outs, lack of space and too many buttons can cause problems, no channel LED strips, A/C channel switch too close to crossfader, not a stand alone mixer
8th Place: Electrix Tweaker
In last year’s roundup, we had Novation’s Itch that was heralded as a game changer in the controller market. This year we have a small little box that essentially fell off a spaceship: Meet the Electrix Tweaker ($399). It combines a facade of an Ableton Live controller with the form factor build of a hip-hop style battle mixer, but don’t let its appearance fool you. This device is fully programmable, right down to every single knob, button, and fader, but you may be relieved to know that there are some pretty solid mappings in case you don’t want to waste away your summers trying to assign keys all day. One big bummer is that it cannot be connected via analog outputs, so you need an interface like the Traktor Audio 2. It does come bundled with Traktor LE, and comes with these pretty large rubber feet that are designed to raise the unit to turntable or mixer height. A little monster of a box and very compact and light!
PROS: compact size, priced modestly and bundled with Traktor LE, amazing design, very entertaining lights
CONS: No analog outs (you need an interface), no analog outs, not a traditional mixer, no jog wheels, no mic input, no channel strips or EQs
7th Place: Allen & Heath Xone DB4
Allen & Heath are simply the best at what they do in terms of build and audio quality. They blow away the competition, but their only bane in the market is their hefty asking price. The Xone DB4 ($2,899) is more than a mixer and more than a controller, but you will still need to couple it with a pair of decent controllers that will raise the roof on the spending limit, but you will get the best that money can buy, and it should last a few lifetimes. You get 4 channels, built in mixer effects, a stand alone mixer, and the best reactive LEDs on the planet.
PROS: well built, studio quality sound, button layout is comfortable, 4 channels, A+ layout for clubs, stand alone mixer
CONS: not for portable use, too damn expensive!, no jog wheels, built in effects can be a bit redundant for digital DJs, only one USB port
6th Place: Pioneer CDJ-2000Nexus Suite
If you thought the Allen & Heath system was a bit hard to swallow, then you may want to pass up this expensive piece of DJ real estate. You’ve seen them a trillion times in every big room performance, and they are still THE club standard for many world-renowned jocks, but if you ask me, they are too damn expensive, and you will need a hefty coffin if you intend on lugging it around, and good luck if you happen to bang it around along the way. But on the plus side, Pioneer has ventured into the dark edges of digital DJing by introducing a system that does not rely the use of a laptop, and has a fully functional color screen built into each player. The mixer is connected via network cable (CAT5), and the rest is history. Recently, Native Instruments has just devised a Traktor interface for all Nexus CDJs, so CDJ users can enjoy all the benefits of Traktor without a laptop. In the world of the digital DJ, The Pioneer CDJ-2000NEXUS System ($6,400+) is not a huge leap for controllerists, but a step closer for CDJ users who want to enter the midi market. I’d rather buy a car!
5th Place: Pioneer DDJ ERGO Limited
As a follow up to their previous ERGO model, Pioneer presents their DDJ-ERGO Limited ($699). This unit is cleverly designed for aspiring novices, but has all the trimmings of a serious 4 channel performer. The beautiful jog wheels are easy to use, and the button layout allows for an easy learning curve. With all those bright lights, Pioneer still neglected channel strip LEDs, but managed to offer some balanced outs. Bundled with Traktor LE, this is my choice deck for any beginner who wants to turn their bedroom or man cave into a private speakeasy…
PROS: 4 channels, balanced outs, laptop dock construction to tuck laptop underneath, mic input, excellent beginner layout, great ergonomics (hence, the name ERGO!)
CONS: not too portable, not a stand alone mixer for the price, no channel strip LEDs, knobs could be better quality, no XLR outs
4th Place: Numark 4 Trak
Numark puts out the most controllers, but they never seem to get it right, until the 4 Trak ($1,499). Its recent price slash at $699 that is well below the intended MSRP has kicked this model forward on my top ten as the bang-for-the-buck in DJ midi controllers. Although it lacks channel strip LEDs, it has a ton of features that compensate for that, including a channel lit jogwheel that clears the confusion of channel assignment during live play. It has a beautiful angled rear panel that houses all the effects knobs. The faders are easy to maneuver, and it is, most of all, quality built. Another huge plus is that it comes bundled with Traktor.
PROS: 4 channels, stand alone mixer, XLR outs, bundled with Traktor, strip search sliders, smooth layout, 2 mic inputs
CONS: no LED channel strips, not portable-friendly, buttons could be designed a little better
3rd Place: Pioneer DDJ-SX
This controller should be first place, but the only flaw it has is that it is solely designed for Serato users, which leaves us Traktor users in the dust! But by the time you read this post, I am sure or hope that they will release a Traktor version down the line. For the asking price, I would not venture any further, and the quality build jog wheels are of amazing quality when compared to previous Pioneer midi DJ controllers. Pioneer has not wasted any time in wooing the likes of CDJ users into the controllerist market with their DDJ-SX ($1,199), and they have done a fine job by implementing all the needs and wants of every controllerist, while at the same time maintaining a traditional overall CDJ appearance. You have performance pads, pitch sliders, effects, and everything but the kitchen sink!
PROS: Incredible design, quality build, 4 channels, LED strips, stand alone mixer, top notch jog wheels just shy of CDJ-2000 quality
CONS: Serato ONLY ! A little too big to carry in a bag , but that’s it !
2nd Place: Vestax VCI-400
Well, we are narrowing down the list! I hope this has been a bit of a learning experience for those who are inquiring about becoming a DJ, and a helpful gauge to all the fellow DJs out there that can look forward to another year in the evolution of the DJ controller.
Vestax has been the grandaddy of controllers. They introduced us to the VCI-300, and they stumbled a bit last year, but have come back strong with their VCI-400 DJ Controller ($999). It features some brilliant sturdy metallic filter knobs made of brushed aluminum, and a layout that sets the standard for controllerism. It is also a stand alone mixer that can stand up to the rigors of mobile usage, and it’s just big enough to fit in a bag. This is the controller of choice for novices and pros.
PROS: built like a tank, XLR outs, channel strip LEDs, portable, excellent sound card interface, mic input, programmable pads
CONS: mappings could get a bit tricky, stand alone mixer only 2 channels, no bundled Traktor or Serato software, could be slightly lighter for the size, but why complain!
1st Place: Traktor S4 suite (with Kontrol F1 and Kontrol X1)
Well there you have it. The geniuses at the Native Instruments design team have taken something amazing, and rather than go to the drawing board and create an entirely new controller product (like some other manufacturers), and putting your investment dollars to shame, they have instead added to it by building 2 add on modules: The Kontrol F1 ($249) and the Kontrol X1 ($199); add that to the Traktor Kontrol S4 ($899), and for under $1,400, you have the most dynamic and amazing system on the planet that will allow DJs to exhibit their true talents as remixers and producers in a live setting- much like being recognized as a creative artist rather than a mere cardboard cut-out pseudo beat matcher made popular by mobile wedding jocks and Paris Hilton. This Traktor suite ushers in a new age of remixing live, and it can all fit in one gig bag!!! As a Traktor user, I am proud to see Native Instruments steal the spotlight once more! A huge plus for modular design!
PROS: Unlimited live remix potential, excellent layout, balanced outs, portable and lightweight, top notch buttons feel great, bundled with Traktor Pro 2
CONS: not a stand alone mixer, no added USB ports, no XLR outs, price could be slightly lower, but still wrth it in terms of performance!
Well that just about rounds things off in the DJ midi controller market for 2013. I hope this post will help you decide on where you exactly decide to plant your shoes and get started as a DJ. It is perfectly clear that more money spent will certainly NOT get you more tools of the trade, and more tricks to boot, but there are some high quality level products out there if you have some money to burn. 2012 certainly had its share of price cuts, lowering most controllers to the $700 price range, and I just do not buy in to the whole iPad incorporation as a serious DJ controller. We need to keep the bar raised for professionalism.
Thanks for reading my take on the Top Ten Controllers for 2013 by yours truly, DJ Rio. And here’s to another year of mixing! Cheers!!! (not the British “cheers”, but the whole toast with your drinks cheers)