Buyers Guide: How do I Choose the Right DJ Mixer?
These days, the selection of DJ mixers in varying functionality, style, and price is enormous, and increasing all the time. The biggest brands are continually trying to surpass their competitors by offering the very latest in technological innovation to meet the demands of an ever-increasing number of users. But, how do you know which mixer is right for you? We'll be splitting this Buyers Guide up into two parts to help you decide.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is: what kind of DJ are you? There are mixers that have been designed with specific DJ styles in mind, like hip-hop, for example. A hip-hop DJ uses techniques such as scratching and cutting, so they'd require a mixer that has this functionality. It's also important for hip-hop DJs to take the layout of the mixer into consideration, to ensure any buttons or faders don't get in the way during their mixing routine. Club DJs who specialise in house and techno music, on the other hand, rarely use the crossfader, as they tend to make long, fluid transitions. If you're a laptop DJ, you'll want a mixer equipped with a USB port, and you'll want to be able to assign its controls to your DJ software. These days, there are hybrid mixers that can function as a mixer and a controller, making it easy to integrate your analogue and digital setup into one unit. Mobile DJs who perform at parties and events will need to focus on the connectivity of the mixer, ensuring they get one with multiple outputs. You never know what the sound system will be like at the location, after all! What's more, DJs that travel a lot need a rugged mixer that is built to take a beating.
A mixer's primary function is to blend two audio sources together. Most straightforward mixers feature nothing more than two channels with gain, equalizer and level controls, and a headphone output for monitoring tracks. Let's go over the controls. First, the gain, which is a rotary knob that allows you to adjust the volume per channel. Since no two tracks, CDs or digital files are mastered at the same exact volume, this control is vital for making sure the levels match. Secondly, the equalizer. Many mixers are equipped with a 3-band EQ for adjusting the low, mid and high tones. While it's most commonly incorporated as three rotary knobs, the EQ can also be a fader or kill switch, the latter of which removes the entire frequency band when flipped. Thirdly, the level control, which is essentially the output volume. On most mixers, this is controlled by a fader, while on rotary mixers, it'll be a rotary knob. Monitoring via headphones can be done by pushing a button that's usually located just above the fader and selecting the channel you want to preview. These are the basic functions every DJ mixer needs to have.
There are mixers that enable you to connect multiple audio sources to one channel, which makes it possible to integrate two media players and two turntables in your setup. This also goes for mixers with multiple channels. A standard Pioneer DJ setup consists of two CDJs, two turntables and a 4-channel DJ mixer. If you want more dynamics in your sets, there are mixers available with built-in audio effects that can be synced with your music via BPM detection or Tap tempo. Tap tempo allows you to determine the beat by tapping your finger on a button. If you want to integrate your own effects unit into your setup, then you'll need a mixer with FX send and return functionality. Finally, you'll need to make a choice between a mixer with an analogue signal path or a digital mixer.
No matter what you choose, your job as a DJ is to blend and mix tracks as fluidly as possible, which takes practice. Technology is a way to enable creativity, but for some people, it makes them complacent. The best DJs are able to work well with the most basic equipment. In other words, a great mixer doesn't necessarily make a great DJ. It's important to think about your own style and ambition, and find a mixer that suits both. That concludes the first part of this Buyers Guide. Now, we'll go into more detail about the various features of a modern DJ mixer.
On the back of any DJ mixer, there are RCA inputs for turntables and line inputs for CD/media players. If a turntable has a built-in phono preamp, you can connect this to the line input as well. There's also a connector for a power cable and a master and/or booth output, which can be either an XLR, jack, or RCA. If applicable, the send and returns are also located on the rear panel. Other connectors you're likely to find are USB, MIDI, and Firewire, for hooking up digital devices like laptops or MIDI controllers.
Essentially, a channel on a mixer is a signal input. The right and left CDJ both have their own input, for instance, and that way every channel has the same controls: level, equalizer and gain.
The gain, sometimes referred to as the trim, is found at the top of each channel. It allows you to adjust the volume of the input signal so the levels of both channels are nicely balanced.
The EQ allows you to adjust the tone frequency of your music. In general, mixers have a three-band equalizer that lets you reduce the low, mid and high frequencies for each individual channel. Most mixers have rotary knobs for operating the EQ, while faders are also not uncommon. Not every mixer can offer the same frequency range. In most cases, it will be somewhere between -26 dB and +6 dB.
These are also known as isolators, and they enable you to remove high, mid and low frequencies completely. In fact, with the press of a button, this control will immediately remove an entire frequency band, which can create some interesting variations in your mix.
Headphone monitoring and cue buttons
These are located just above the faders. By pressing a cue button, you can send the desired signal to your headphones. This way, you can beatmatch two tracks by listening to one track through the headphones and the other through the master channel via the monitor speakers. Most mixers offer pre and post EQ monitoring as well as split cue monitoring. Split cue monitoring allows you to hear the cue signal in one ear and the master signal in the other.
Cue level and cue mix
Use cue level to adjust the volume level of your headphones, and cue mix to preview your crossfade.
Mic input and talkover
You can connect a microphone to the mixer via a standard XLR and jack mic input. Some mixers are also equipped with a talkover fucntion, which works as a compressor that automatically lowers the volume of the music when you talk into the mic.
Effects send and return
Use this feature when you want to send one or more signals to an external effects processor. They're then sent back to the master channel, or to a specific return channel, to be mixed with dry signals.
Level meters provide visual feedback regarding the input volume of each channel as well as the master volume output. The information is measured in decibels.
The master channel is where all the signals come together before being sent through to the master output. It's controlled by means of a volume knob or fader, and will often feature balance or pan controls as well.
With the master volume, you control the volume level of the front of house speakers. The booth monitor is a separate volume control that enables you to adjust the monitor speakers for the DJ, which are essential for mixing. They offer a direct reference between the music that the audience hears and the new track that's being mixed in. This not only keeps any audio delay to a minimum, but also ensures for accurate beatmatching.