Advantages of getting a top-quality DJ controller
While you can mix music with software alone, any DJ will tell you that having a controller makes a world of difference in your ability to produce good music. Having a high-quality DJ controller allows you to quickly mix tracks within the software without having to manually move tracks around with a mouse or trackpad, which usually entails sorting through endless menus. A full-scale controller gives you the freedom to quickly access the controls you use most and is much more intuitive than any audio software for the vast majority of DJs.
A DJ controller is also more than just an interface to your software – it can serve as an all-in-one audio board for outputting your music. Many DJ controllers allow you to preview tracks you’ve mixed from your laptop before fading into them over the PA system. At the same time, DJ controllers can serve as the interface between your computer – which contains your audio software and your entire music library – and whatever speakers you are planning to play out your tracks over.
Features to consider when choosing your controller
DJ controllers can seem complicated, especially for beginning DJs, but there are a number of features in common that define the performance, usability, and price of different controllers. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the important features you need to know about when choosing a DJ controller.
When you’re choosing a DJ controller, it is important to be honest with yourself about your abilities as a DJ and your expectations for how you will use the controller. Beginner DJs are likely to be confused by professional-level DJ controllers and advanced DJs are likely to be frustrated with entry-level controllers – either way, choosing a system that isn’t matched to your ability level isn’t a great situation.
Included software and compatibility
The software included with your DJ controller is an extremely important part of your DJing experience, since this is ultimately what you’ll be mixing music in with the controller. The Rekordbox DJ software is considered relatively easy for beginners to learn, but powerful enough for professional DJs, so many controllers – including the all of the Pioneer controllers we reviewed – come with this software. The Serato software comes in multiple versions depending on the experience level of the DJ that the controller is intended for – one of the best additional investments you can make as your experience level grows is to upgrade your software while continuing to use the same controller.
Be sure when choosing software that it is compatible with your computer – Windows or Mac – as well as with your mobile phone – Android or iOS.
Don’t forget to check whether the controller can be mapped to other software applications via MIDI if you plan to use your own software rather than the audio program that comes with your controller.
Number of channels
The number of channels on a DJ controller effectively determines how many different tracks you will be able to control individually in your mix. Controllers typically come in either two- or four-track models, with beginner-level controllers, like the Numark DJ2GO2, featuring only two channels and most expert-level controllers, like the Pioneer DDJ-1000 and DDJ-RZ controllers, featuring four channels. Two-channel controllers are often able to control four tracks depending on your audio software, but note that in this case one set of controls on the controller will need to be switching between two tracks – so most DJs recommend a four-channel controller if you plan to be mixing with four tracks.
The dimensions of your DJ controller can be a big deal if you are tight on space, such as if you have a small studio setup or are planning to play at a cramped club, as well as if you plan on traveling with your controller. In general, beginning DJ controllers will be smaller than professional-quality controllers since they have fewer controls.
One of the biggest contributors to controller size is the presence of turntables – if you are tight on space, considering opting for a controller with miniaturized turntables like the entry-level controller from Numark
Along with size, weight is an important consideration when it comes to transporting your controller between home and a studio or a club. In general, entry-level controllers tend to be lighter than professional-level DJ controllers, although weight should be a secondary consideration to having the feature set you need, to mix music the way you like.
Screens are a common feature on professional-quality DJ controllers, since they allow you to use your controller without a laptop connected, if you want to. However, screens can be helpful even if you are using your controller with the audio software open since they allow you to monitor sound levels directly on the controller, freeing up window space in your audio software. The number, size, and types of screens vary on these controllers, from a large touchscreen on the Pioneer controller, to a set of three small screens on the Numark controller, so you should consider your DJing style when choosing what types of screens you need.
Inputs and Outputs
The inputs and outputs on your DJ controller will determine where your audio is able to be routed, so make sure you choose a controller with numerous options. Most controllers come with a microphone input as well as one or two USB connections to link to your computer or another secondary screen. The number of output channels can also vary, which can be important if you are working with larger speaker systems or multiple audio interfaces. Check especially that small entry-level DJ controllers have the outputs you need, since they are relatively stripped down compared to professional controllers.
USB and Internal Memory
If you plan to use your controller without a laptop – something that is often restricted to expert DJs – you’ll need a way to load your audio library onto the controller. This can be done by opting for a controller with internal memory to store the audio, but more controllers are designed with a USB input since this provides greater flexibility in adding and subtracting music from your controller. For example, the Pioneer DDJ-1000 and DDJ-RZ controllers both come with two USB ports so you can add multiple music libraries.
Jog wheels are the pair of platters that come with nearly all modern DJ controllers. They’re designed to replicate the vinyl turntables of older DJ systems and allow you fine control over mixing music. The wheels can be used to speed up or slow down tracks, as well as to create fades in between tracks. For many DJs, having jog wheels is also essential for creating custom scratches in a mix. Jog wheels may be motorized or non-motorized and have different sensitivities to touch, depending on the construction of the controller – all of which comes down to DJ style and preference. They also vary widely in size, although the size of the jog wheels is one of the major determinants of how big and heavy a controller unit will be.
DJ controllers are expensive pieces of equipment, but you’ll need a few accessories to complete your DJ set. Most DJs will want a stand to hold their controller at a comfortable level, as well as a pair of headphones and a carrying case for moving the controller to gigs. Some controllers come in a bundle with some or all of these things – like the bundle from Pioneer that includes a set of headphones and a stand with the controller – which can be helpful in that it saves you from making multiple purchasing decisions. On the other hand, you may want a specific set of headphones, or a more heavy-duty carrying case.