Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right DJ Controller?
It used to be so simple. A DJ simply had two turntables with a mixer in the middle. But times have changed. These days, we're being bombarded with innovative, constantly-evolving DJ technology where each new development raises the bar. The introduction of the DJ controller started a true revolution, and today, it is the weapon of choice for many digital DJs.
A DJ controller is a MIDI-controlled or USB-to-analogue console that is used to operate DJ software. It allows the user to operate two or more virtual decks and mix the audio from both sources. The controller is hooked up to a computer, laptop, tablet or mobile phone that has the software installed on it. Essentially, a digital DJ controller emulates the traditional DJ setup of a mixer and turntables, or CD and media players.
All digital DJ controllers have a headphone output to preview music and set hot cues, and a master output for the speakers, except on some iPad or tablet controllers. DJ software, a controller, headphones and a set of speakers are all you need for a complete system with features DJs could only dream about a decade or so ago. As the market grows and develops, DJ controllers become more powerful, stabler and less expensive. This is all great, of course, but it also makes it even harder to know which DJ controller is right for you, especially if you're new to DJing.
For starters, there are many different controllers, each with their own unique DJ software. Then, there are controllers that are compatible with various types of software systems, so which platform and operating system do you choose? Bax-shop has compiled a list of the most popular units on the market and this Buyers Guide will take you through each of their various options and features.
As far as beginner DJs are concerned, these days, just about every DJ controller is suitable for learning on, so there is no one 'best choice' for that. If you are a DJ, and want to be an even better one, then choose your DJ controller carefully, as you'll be using it a lot! Trust your instincts. Is it too big? Too small? How much does it weigh? Does it look cheap? These are all important factors to keep in mind. Don't choose a controller based on good reviews alone; choose one that makes you feel comfortable, since the idea is to eventually take it on stage with you.
Software and hardware
The sole purpose of the controller, a.k.a. the hardware, is to offer the user a set of controls to operate the software in a user-friendly, intuitive way. The software you choose is therefore just as important as the hardware. In order to choose a good controller, it's good have some understanding of the functionality of the various DJ software systems, because it's a lot harder to switch to a different software system than it is to another controller.
Traktor DJ software
This hybrid software is one of the most popular systems on the market today. Traktor is a little complex, but it has the most functionality of all DJ software systems, which means you can adjust it in great detail according to your own personal preferences. Should you decide on Traktor DJ software, you're going to be limited in your choice of controller, however. Native Instruments, the developer of Traktor software, offers their own line of controllers which work seamlessly with their program. While it's possible to use Traktor with just about every DJ controller (via MIDI mapping), users who do so regularly run into problems. Traktor software simply does not work as well on controllers that are not made by Native Instruments themselves. Jog wheel performance in particular is not up to par, which is especially irritating for vinyl DJs who are making the switch to Traktor.
The best Traktor controllers
Traktor Kontrol S8
Traktor's latest show piece is the S8, which is also currently one of the most advanced pieces of hardware - to be used with Traktor software - on the market. The controller is equipped with two integrated LCD displays but surprisingly enough, it does not feature any jog wheels. Track cueing takes place using the touch strips that are located at the lower left and right corners of the S8. Furthermore, this controller can be used as a stand-alone mixer and is compatible with Traktor Scratch DVS (Digital Vinyl System). You can also hook up extra CDJs, media players or turntables to it.
Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2
Connecting multiple decks is possible with the Traktor Kontrol S4 as well. Both the S4 and the S8 come with the complete version of Traktor's DVS system. The S4 is equipped with 4 channels and is a good smaller alternative to the S8. It does not have built-in LCD displays, but it is equipped with jog wheels. Touch strips are not ideal for beat matching, which is important to note. Finally, the S4 is more affordable than the S8.
Traktor Kontrol S2 MK2
Are two decks with a handful of samples sufficient for your needs? Then the Traktor Kontrol S2 is quite possibly the way to go. It's the stripped-down version of the S4, and it allows you control over the remix decks (although in less detail). Just like the S4, it's equipped with jog wheels and works with iOS and Traktor DJ.
Serato DJ software
Serato doesn't produce their own controllers, but they do work closely with well-known hardware developers like Pioneer, Numark and Denon. That makes their software a lot more universal than Traktor. The choice for a Serato DJ-compatible controller will most likely depend on the kind of features you're looking for. While Serato DJ software is more user-friendly, it offers fewer options and less functionality than Traktor, so you're a bit more limited to what the Serato engineers had in mind. It also means, however, that you'll get the hang of the system a lot faster. Serato DJ's music library, for instance, is organised in a logical way which works seamlessly with iTunes (most DJs' application of choice for putting together a playlist). It also works really well with non-electronic music. Extra effects for Serato DJ are available as paid plugins. It's also important to note that Serato DJ only works with a controller, mixer or audio interface with a Serato DJ license. Without one, you can only work in offline mode, so you can prepare DJ sets, but you can't actually DJ. This means there is also no laptop stand-alone option, which is present in most DJ software packages. Other than this, the differences are not really that big. Should you ever switch from Traktor to Serato DJ, however, you'll find the learning curve easy to overcome. Lots of affordable controllers tend to come complete with Serato DJ Intro, which is the entry-level version of the software. When you're familiar with the software and want to record your sets, you can upgrade to the full version.
The best Serato controllers
This revised version of the DDJ-SX controller supports Serato Flip. It has two large jog wheels, four channels with tons of controls and a stand-alone mixer, sixteen control pads with a number of innovative operative modes and a durable metal construction. Although it's slightly on the heavy side, this is a fantastic controller that offers seamless integration with Serato DJ.
Together with the Traktor Kontrol S8, the Numark NV is one of the few controllers with two integrated displays. It's a lot more traditional than the S8 as it still uses jog wheels in combination with performance pads. If you're looking for a controller with on-board displays and you prefer Serato DJ over Traktor, then this is the best choice for you.
Reloop Beatmix 4
The Reloop Beatmix is a great example of how Serato DJ has expanded on the controller market. If you judged the Beatmix 4 based on its price alone, you wouldn't be doing the product justice. It's a 4-channel Serato DJ controller with a pad section for cues, loops, and samples, two large jog wheels and integrated LEDs. It has a plastic housing and comes complete with Serato DJ Intro, but it can't be used as a stand-alone mixer. Despite the compromises it's made as opposed to its competition, it's a remarkably good DJ controller that's worth every penny!
Virtual DJ software
Virtual DJ is the third big name in DJ software and is especially popular with travelling DJs, but serves the Club DJ just as well. Their latest software version, VirtualDJ 8, has been completely re-written to offer the user the sandbox mode, for example, which allows you to jump forward in the mix to check if certain transitions work fluidly. It also features a sampler, sample editor and track cleaner (for quick re-edits), and even an AutoMix editor for pre-editing your sequence and fine-tune the mix-in and mix-out points. Even though VirtualDJ 8 works with virtually every controller and DVS, there are few controllers that actually come with this software included. In the next section, we'll take you through two controllers that do come with VirtualDJ.
The best controllers for VirtualDJ:
This Pioneer WEGO3 was the first controller to come complete with VirtualDJ 8 LE. It looks more mature and professional than its predecessor, the WEGO2, with an aluminium cover plate and more discreet controls around the jog wheels. Regardless of the upgrade, though, this controller is really best used at home.
Hercules DJ Console RMX 2
The Hercules RMX 2 DJ controller is greatly underestimated. It features a rugged metal housing, two external inputs for CD /media players or turntables, and improved audio reproduction compared to its popular predecessor. It also has two good jog wheels, performance pads, and an accurate pitch. Due to its compact size, this device is somewhat limited in its options, but at the same time, it easily fits in your bag! The Hercules RMX 2 is a durable controller with great features.
The majority of digital DJs probably use one of the DJ software systems we've gone through, but there are more. Just because these systems have more users doesn't necessarily mean they're the best. Almost all controllers can be used in combination with multiple DJ systems via MIDI mapping, which means you can connect the controller to a computer or laptop, load the DJ software, and assign it to the controller you want to use. This way, you can try out all kinds of DJ software till you know what works best for you. Other popular DJ software systems that are definitely worth trying are DJAY, MixVibes Cross and The One.
Hopefully, this Buyers Guide has helped you narrow your choice down to two, possibly three alternatives. Some final important tips: Firstly, make sure you buy a controller that's developed for the DJ software you want to use. This prevents a lot of extra work and headaches! Dealing with incompatible software means dealing with driver downloads, firmware updates, endlessly searching internet forums, etc. Secondly, be sure to bear in mind the cost of the Pro version of the software. The LE/Intro/Lite versions of software that often comes with your controller is limited and doesn't offer you everything the full software does. Certain possibilities and functionality will either not be present or won't work. A good rule of thumb is - the cheaper the hardware, the greater the chance you'll get a basic version of the software. Thirdly, check the system requirements and make sure your computer or laptop supports the DJ software, and shut down any non-related programs or apps while the DJ software is running. Always read the user manual, especially the part about setup instructions! Even the most straightforward controller may need a driver or a routing, and certain settings may need to be adjusted for a good workflow. Take care of the basics - your future self will thank you!