The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Choosing The Right DJ Controller
Right, so you’ve just stepped out of the night club’s dance hall and got yourself a drink.
Maybe you’re a musician like me who doesn’t discriminate against the electronic music scene.
Maybe you’re someone who wants to dive into the DJ and electronic music and party scene.
If as open-minded as described, you’ve probably thought about how the DJs do so much multitasking with their hardware.
As a musician, you’ve probably thought that “Hey, it’s not in the hardware, but how the DJ does it.” Truth be told (and this might be ugly for you and I but) a DJ’s controller is essential to the development of his or her craft and performance.
You’ll be loading samples to your velocity pads while at the same time keeping the songs running on cues and loops. Simultaneously, all repetitions should be exciting and fresh so the need for creativity while running logistics could or could not be too much for the human brain.
Not unless we’ve got great workflow with any DJ controller among other things, we’ll need a high-quality controller.
The DJ Controller
Imagine yourself playing an Xbox or any gaming console, even vintage ones, such as the NES/Famicom. Maybe you’re not a gamer, so imagine a TV remote control instead.
DJ controllers are the same thing except they’re not wireless. You’ll be dealing with lots and lots of wires.
A traditional setup includes two DJ turntables that house the two vinyls you’ll use for sampling, cueing and looping. The turntables attach to a mixer, which allows you to use faders to introduce the next song before the previous turntable is about to end. We designate the pans and add a few effects available on the mixer to our liking.
You’ll need a pair of noise-reducing headphones to make sure your mixes are properly balanced in the venue.
But that was about three decades ago. Today? Your smartphone has access to DJ software that doesn’t require any physical form of equipment. DJ software integrating CDJ controllers allow you to play music digitally from your computer. Like midi keyboard controllers or midi daw control surfaces you connect it to your computer using a separate audio interface (or a built-in one for most modern CDJs) you can create custom CDs on the fly or just play your mixes straight with your digital turntables.
The only downside is some CDJs could be a bit loose, which can be difficult if you’re coming from the traditional turntable era. However, high-quality CDJs are of high quality, which shouldn’t be much of a problem. So how do you find the…
Qualities of a Great DJ Controller
Lots of knobs. Plenty of features. The packaging tells you everything. But it’s entirely overwhelming if you’re going to be honest with yourself.
Once, I saw the Vestax VCI-380 and found it quite simple to use. It’s just got a few knobs and eight trigger pads which click (many people hate that). The features are just enough to keep things spicy in one gig.
I then borrowed a friend’s Denon MC6000MK2. It’s a marvellous piece of work. But I couldn’t find the simple, straightforward workflow I had with the Vestax VCI380. Somehow, simpler setups work for me. As for the Denon, I invested time trying to make my workflow smoothly transition and found the setup to be not too intuitive for me.
There will be complicated-looking controllers similar to the Denon model mentioned, which can be more or less intuitive than this controller or the other controllers and corresponding reviews you read about.
Buttons are well-built and seem not to move or fidget around too much. Faders have good grip and are loose enough. But the response time is lagging. The velocity triggers promising so much realism for your virtual instruments and samples end up having a flat response.
While the last sentence could be resolved by a look in the manual, cases where the buttons or even the jogwheels fail to deliver precise movements you’d expect from a realistic DJ turntable is a response issue. Having actual mixer faders and knobs failing to deliver surgical adjustments is a response issue as well.
Be warned, even high-end equipment with exorbitant prices exhibit such qualities so it’s best to thoroughly inspect everything before proceeding to finish your purchase.
You see some glossy, shiny top-plates made from heavy-duty plastic or metal. Looks fashionable. Why not take it?
Well, in my experience, I couldn’t trust plastics. I’ve played a gig once and a small dent on the side of my controller rendered the entire device well, dislodged, in a manner of speaking. I fared well with metal-constructed controllers.
Despite being fashionable, some controllers are made of heavy-duty metals. They may cost higher and could be a bit heavy but you’re making an investment.
Whether or not you intend to be a professional DJ or just a hobbyist, quality equipment lasts for an eternity even if you hide it in your basement or cabinet for years.
In reference to my workflow comparison between the Denon MC6000MK2 and the VCI-380 from Vestax with the latter being convenient for my type of DJ-ing, workflow is strictly subjective. Some online reviews can say workflow works best with a Pioneer DJ controller or a Serato DJ-specialised controller.
But it all depends on where you’re more comfortable. Plenty of controls could intimidate even the most veteran of users. However, a beginner could find it easier or intuitive to use plenty of controls upon beginning.
Again, it is all subjective. Every controller is worth a try. But it’s better to demo the equipment while you’re in the shop. Don’t buy it just because the reviews say they’re great. Buy it when you’ve tried it first.
Shops won’t allow you? Move on to another one that cares for their customers.
Why These 10?
Beginner controllers might be expensive toys. They might look cheap but durable (ack, plastic, ack!). They could be so unbelievably affordable you could buy two of them. Some of them are quite large so you could get annoyed.
But I can guarantee one thing for all these 10 DJ controllers. They’re going to improve your skill through frustration, elation, weight, features and workflow.
Pioneer’s long been in the club-wowing scene meaning DJs get some sort of wow factor using their products.
And that’s that truth; Pioneer can outdo its previous products aside from its competitors.
The DDJ-SZ is a testament to all the things throughout the years Pioneer has learned making their own stuff.
Let’s take a look
- Serato DJ is an instinct-based software for DJs or so I believe when I first tried it. Serato’s features is quick and easy for CDJ systems such as the DDJ-SZ.
Intuitiveness can be an issue whenever you see a giant-sized CDJ/DJM setup. But those colorful pads underneath the jogwheels are conveniently placed.
The conductive jogwheels, which display the central display found on most CDJs guarantee accuracy.
Quick access to Serato-integrated controls save you time moving from one place to another.
The pads underneath are quickly accessible and interchangeable so you could come back to that cue quicker than most CDJ’s in the market.
The colors could be customized per cue point so you know if it’s the intro, the bass drop, your outro or even more.
The only downside is that Serato DJ will always assign it to these defaults.
Every part of the DDJ-SZ is great with response. Conductive Jogwheels accurately move Serato DJ’s playlist song per song effectively.
Pads respond effectively so if you’re doing some Roll effects and dropping hot cues, you’ve got a powerful looping system with quick-response hardware.
Responsive turns to realistic when the DDJ-SZ’s mixer can be used as a stand-alone using some analog turntables.
While you can’t use Serato DJ, you could use the mixer’s effects to add new awesome powers to your mix.
Hardware is excellent. Potentiometers are rubberized and the jogwheels are made from tough hybrid, heavy plastic.
All ports are tightly affixed in position without much shaking even if you insert or remove items several times.
With a great assortment of effects with mixers, buttons large enough for hands of all sizes and a great integration with Serato DJ, there’s less to hate about the DDJ-SZ. Of course, the Serato DJ defaults for pad controls make for limited capabilities, but that’s the only problem I ever encountered.
Like I’ve said in the DDJ-SZ, Serato DJ is intuitive and powerful as a software. But a great DJ controller is the engine you need for such a powerful brain.
Pioneer has worked close with Serato to create controllers capable of maximizing all the features to make an intuitive and responsive experience.
If you liked the DDJ-SZ, you’re going to like this one.
For maximum intuitiveness, Pioneer worked with Serato to create the Dual Deck Control and Slip mode.
The Dual Deck Control activates once you toggle the Dual Deck button on every DDJ-SX deck. You get two tracks playing on the deck and you could control them simulatenously. Scratch two tracks or hot cue them both for maximum effect.
Slip Mode retains the play position of the active track in Serato DJ. Once you’re scratching, looping or doing hot cues, you could snap to the play position right back.
So you save lots of time and headache just going back. How’s that for intuitive.
The pads and knobs are sturdy enough. Just like the build of the DDJ-SZ, the knobs are responsive.
Pads do not click and respond quick enough, possibly less than 1ms for size. Buttons are made from hard, heavy plastic, but they turn on and off with the lightest of touches. Now this might be a curse or grace for some players, but this type of responsiveness saves me lots of headache.
I went around with this deck in gigs for a couple of times. I’ve found them to be sturdy and excellent.
I door-bumped some sides, but I saw no scratches. While the heavy-duty case I got for this baby did all the work, some fragile units wouldn’t even last those door-bumps.
Knobs are far from shaky, turn slow or fast and are fixed in position. Buttons are made of hard plastic. The pad material could last for more than a decade of use.
Overall an excellent make.
Browsing tracks in the SX requires using a push-button encoder for your decks. Six buttons include four Load buttons that load your selected track to a deck quickly. Use the Shift layer and you could organize the tracks depending on their speed, the song title the artist name or track number, whichever’s convenient for the situation.
Quick loading your music, along with precise and responsive pads for roll, cues, loops and other functions allow me to work with the DJ controller without even looking at my computer. Now that’s something else.
No, I’m not a Pioneer fanboy. It’s just when I compare Pioneer’s worksmanship on their DJ controllers compared to others (who have held their own in respect), Pioneer’s work quality just stands out.
The Pioneer DDJ-SR is just what Serato DJ needs. While the SX and SZ both have his or her own outstanding qualities based on design, capability and durability, the SR is probably the best Serato DJ controller yet.
I could say Pioneer DJ controllers might be limited because of their complete religious dedication to Serato DJ. But if you’re working directly with Serato, it’s damn sure your design is intuitive. SR is designed similar to the SZ and SX, but it only has two tracks to play with.
However, two tracks doesn’t mean it’s a failure. You still get those pads similar to the SX and SZ.
You also get the same effects route when you need it. Everything is still the same and it’s so intuitive.
As expected with Pioneer DJ controllers, pads are responsive to the roll, loop, hot cue and cue functions.
While unlike the SZ where you could change their colors, the SR does its job well. Though you’d probably miss the linear position feature.
Knobs work great and as expected. Buttons are sturdy but respond well to immediate stabs and attacks. Overall a great experience.
Knobs do not wobble. Rubberised caps on pots make them sturdy enough for long sets.
Buttons are made of hard plastic.
As I’ve described with the SX and SZ, the hardware is pretty much solid it’ll last for decades even when you don’t use it (provided you keep them in a safe, dry place that’s not accessible to room weather.)
Again, if you’re working with a Pioneer DJ controller for Serato DJ, both have worked together to guarantee great workflow. Like the SZ, moving around is a breeze. The browser knob is large enough to be seen and you could load up your library quickly.
Press the knob and just press load on either side of your browser knob so you could load your song on the decks real quick. Press twice and you create an instant doubling if you need one for scratching or other forms of improvisation.
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4
If you’ve used any Native Instruments product, you know how effective their hardware to software integration is.
It has come to a point that intuitiveness and responsiveness is next to making your computer (both Mac and Windows) become a tool for creativity at all costs.
If you’ve tried Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk2, it’s more than just the control. It’s also about making things fun for you the first time.
Color-coding is Native Instruments’ biggest tool for making things intuitive and maximizing their software at the same time. But Native Instruments’ Traktor couldn’t work without a laptop. RGB buttons for transport and cue controls make for intuitive movement from one module to another.
Working in daylight? Just plug in the included power supply and you’ll have enough backlight to work. It’s not extravagant but just enough to see things.
Buttons are responsive even when pressed lightly. Faders look sleek and sexy but they’re more than just style.
The sleekness oozes on how flawless the fader movement is. This guarantees accuracy.
Rubberised pot caps feel high quality as you turn them round. They don’t wobble, they’re fixed into place and is flawless.
Jogwheels feel sturdy and when pushed down, activates a life-like approach to scratching. However, it’s still smaller than vinyl size. But you’ll probably adapt, I know.
Workflow is amazing…
Software integration is incredible especially when it comes to scratching. Fader response is quick. No digital artifacts during slow scratches, which is a great plus.
When mixing, the sync and keylock allows you to match the speeds of your tracks using the jogwheels or temp faders by deactivating them.
Having a one and two button in Traktor Pro allows you to assign FX banks. Fix button one with value adjustments using the X/Y pad, which you could control like a Khaos pad. Nice.
Then, button two has a EQ window with X/Y grid filter controls. Easy for fixing some sounds on the go.
Slicer works like a charm. Create eight slices and assign them to each of the eight cue buttons easily visible when needed.
Numark NS7 II
Heavy and big, that’s the first reaction I had with the Numark NS7 II. Sure, it’s heavy, it’s durable, it’s also a bit pricey.
Numark is on par with Pioneer products, but it goes a little higher over the price threshold. But if you know how to use it, you could have so much fun with it.
You get four decks and the standard 2×4 grid pad for each CDJ turntable.
While it is quite expensive, you expect something more when it comes to functionality and intuition. Faders have enough space and speed to move. Integrating closely with Serato DJ, you could feel the integration tight enough.
Having two load buttons makes the controller intuitive enough, but things could have turned nicer if there were four load buttons.
Four load buttons was something I was a fan off from Pioneer.
Meanwhile, working with equalization and effects were a breeze. Just press a few buttons and you get yourself to where you need to be.
Jogwheels respond a bit like vinyl platters, but not quite. There’s always something different for every CDJ out there. But I’ve got to say, the CDJ jogwheel response to scratches is excellent and the feel is excellent. Unscrew the CDJ a bit to get the feel you want. You’ll just need a hex bolt for that.
Buttons, knobs and faders all do their assigned work with amazing accuracy. I’ve once messed around with the faders a bit to the point I was afraid I’d break them. But they held fast. I repeated this for three gigs and they’re still working as great!
Build is excellent. As demonstrated by the responsiveness and sturdiness of the faders, all the other parts are as sturdy as.
The CDJ’s adjustable feature is something to keep watch of, but I believe even loosening that hex bolt a bit or tightening it just enough wouldn’t even hurt the hardware or its functionality.
Pad mode controls respond effectively. Just like the Pioneer DDJ-SX, this one has enough features to keep things interesting and intuitive when performing. I found the cues and looping features quite monumental in my workflow. Auto loop and roll allows the eight pads to get progressing loop rolls that quantify the speeds efficiently.
The features work intelligently depending on which function mode you’re working with. See for yourself. It worked for me for almost ten gigs and I could say they’re more effective.
See? I told you Serato DJ is almost everything for DJ’s nowadays. If you’ve got the Numark N7, you know you have a premium product in your hands.
Well, if those pair of CDJ LCDs don’t impress you, the features will. Unleash the full power of Serato DJ with this powerful piece of hardware.
Compact and heavy but small, the Numark NV is similar in appearance to the NS7 in many ways. Or rather, similar to the Traktor Kontrol S4’s size to be honest.
But it’s heavy-duty plastic and it’s glossy, perfect in appearance for any type of gig.
Intuitiveness? Well, if you have 2GB of artist stems, samples and loops, you get to a point that you create some songs within five minutes (in my experience).
While the DVS Compatible Mixer is not a standalone mixer (aww man, but only if you use analog turntables during performances), it’s not really a big deal.
Meanwhile, Jogwheels are acceptably responsive. However, I have big fingers and the size of those jogwheels aren’t really fitting for me.
Pads respond with different velocity levels, giving you the feeling you’re working with a 2×4 grid on each CDJ deck when in sample mode.
Even with some great touch controls, the hardware’s compact size makes it less vulnerable to danger. While being plastic (and being a bit more careful in usage) the NV is quite durable. Jogwheels feel sturdy and effective. However as durable as they are, it can be difficult to do some traditional DJ turntable techniques.
For one, you have to adapt to the touch controls. The Jogwheels also have a free wheeling mode that they’re spinning back real quick. Patting is a bit difficult. It’s like almost working with a smartphone touchscreen with an Algoriddim DJay or Mixvibes software to work with.
Overall, still an amazing and powerful controller. If you’re not a scratcher DJ, that is.
Earlier, my example was the Denon MC6000 MK2 about a top-notch DJ controller whose workflow didn’t sit well with me.
While I didn’t include the VCI in this list, I wouldn’t consider it top-notch because it’s an acquired-taste kind of thing.
So I tried to review the MC6000MK2 and I believe it’s better than the VCI even if the latter is my preference.
Another controller meant to work with Serato DJ, the Denon MC6000MK2 is a small controller for the tons of features it has. It has eight whopping channels for both digital and analog inputs. It’s convenient when you’re playing for small venues.
Cueing is done effectively with a split and master cue control. While some people might complain about not having some minijack for quick headphone access, you can always get an adaptor with almost any headphones sold today.
Small mixers aren’t for everybody and compressing eight channels into a small mixer isn’t for everyone. It takes a bit of getting used to. But the features, semi-intuitive as they are, are plentiful and flavorful.
Where Denon tries to compress everything in such a small package, the MC6000MK2’s parts aren’t cheap.
You have a huge metal slab with rubber buttons responding with just enough pressing force. Jogwheels, logically laid out, may not be for everyone. It feels a bit slower, but I found a fix by loosening the jogwheel a bit.
Knobs respond quickly to changes and its integration with Serato DJ is just excellent.
As mentioned, the Denon MC6000MK2 is made from solid metal slab. Knobs, buttons and faders are built solid and they slide with enough resistance to tell you they’re not made cheap. I’ve been using this for 20 gigs with some of them not mine and I’ve got to say they can outlast almost anything.
Being small and cramped, it requires some time to get used to. If you have long, large fingers like mine, it’s going to be big trouble. But after you adjust to it (took me about four weeks at best), the features will give you such a fun time. It requires some investment but the payoff is amazing.
If big, compact yet powerful is your thing, you’ve got the Allen&Heath Xone:4D to work for you.
Raved about by plenty of users, it is indeed powerful. It made the list because of sheer power and some lovely filters.
But intuitiveness and workflow scores low for me. Yet still a great buy.
Allen&Heath wanted to create the best hybrid DJ mixer topping its Xone:3D. Hybrid means having some analog and digital combined at the same time.
A&H want to create the best mixer but not the best DJ controller out there. However, combine that mixer with some good turntables or a powerful CDJ, intuitiveness is everything.
Sequencer is a quick-and-easy use function. It also allows step-sliding to create some flowing, organic sounds. Connecting to the computer is easy. The analog console knobs and buttons are easy to locate, not unless it’s not your first time to use a mixer.
Oh it is, of course!
All the controls are responsive, especially the analog filter knobs. This is essential especially if you want to create great sounds immediately and using those analog filters must be convenient or else it loses its appeals.
Mixer faders and knobs are amazingly accurate. While a bit short on distance, the faders work.
Build is of a metallic-black metal chassis. While a bit thick and heavy, it’s sturdy enough to last a fall or two from two storeys high. Knobs feel sturdy with a bit of resistance with every turn. Buttons won’t come off quickly and would probably last centuries.
Inputs and outputs are fixed in place and they do not come lose even after thirty gigs (a friend of mine told me. He uses this almost every night).
Reloop Terminal Mix 8
I know you’re saying right now that probably every beginner’s DJ set in my list is integrated with Serato DJ.
Yup, you’re right. Serato DJ is responsive, organized and full of features useful for any starting DJ.
So why the Reloop Terminal Mix 8?
You have four digital channels, some full-sized jogwheels and lots of knobs. All of these are largely-sized, giving you ample working space. Things are fixed with an emphasis on distance.
While not too far from most DJ controller designs from competitors, having the knobs close enough but not too close to jumble your fingers is my kind of thing.
You get quick access to cues and slices and controls function smooth, meaning they don’t jumble your fingers when coming from the jogwheels to the pads and the knobs.
Responsive is when you use the performance pads. The combination of responsive hardware and intuitive, logical design breaks boundaries. The pads don’t click and are lit. These rubberised pads are velocity-sensitive too.
EQ knobs and buttons work effectively and respond with almost no latency with all kinds of operating systems. Pretty good.
Build is made from all-hard plastic with a top metal plate. Knobs don’t wobble and buttons feel they could last very long. The performance pads could take a year before they show some wear and tear. It also looks like it could last a high fall once. But don’t ever try that.
Working with Serato DJ, integration into song-making is quick and well. Definitely quick to load tracks into the mixer channel. Headphones are dual socket and has a tone control that’s convenient for working in the booth. Add effects into the microphone input quickly and you’ll see what I mean.
Reloop Beatpad 2
Oh, don’t even hesitate getting a powerful smartphone when you’re a DJ, or even a tablet.
Some great software for DJ-ing exist today. But if smartphones can be made of metal chassis, why couldn’t DJ controlling interfaces for mobile devices have some too?
Fortunately, Reloop was listening and showcased the Beatpad 2
Intuitiveness is great despite this not being a Serato DJ oriented controller. Instead you get the Apple Store/ Google Play Store Algoriddim DJay 2 to work with. It is similar to Serato but it’s on an iPad instead. It also works with Android tablets and even Kindle Fire.
The Key Match function is amazing. When you need two different key songs to sound together to create an interesting mix, the Beatpad 2 excels. What’s more, if you needed more songs, just log in to your Spotify Premium from Djay 2 and get almost any hot song to date.
It’s really a big deal when a controller has large to full-sized jogwheels. However, the size they take compromises the features you could get. This means lesser sets of knobs to play with.
Each knob, button and pad respond well and accurate though. With DJay 2 integration, touchscreen controls bring back some features lost due to less real estate on the surface area.
Accuracy is everything. But maybe the less-expansive personality of the Beatpad 2 (which only works with Djay 2 and no other application) makes it a pinpoint, ‘certainly-wanted’ piece of hardware.
Parts and inputs are affixed tightly. No signs of wobbliness. Faders slide with enough resistance. Pads are built from hard rubber and prints won’t come off quickly at any time. It would take years until the buttons crumble a bit or loosen up with this build.
Workflow is amazing when integrated with Djay2’s capabilities.
As soon as you load it, you have your device library or your Spotify Premium account to load tracks. Control the app from the iPad or your interface. Workflow feels like using a two-deck mixing controller.
Despite my top list of beginner controllers, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to explore with more options available to you.
You might even want to begin with a smaller DJ controller, a larger one or ones whose brand aren’t too recognized. But at the end of the day, each of these boards will have helped you cover the basics and fruitfully achieve your goal to be an awesome DJ.
Comment and Share brothers and sisters!