DJ hobbyists, professionals, Grammy winners, producers, this guide is for you. DJ Controllers vary quite a bit and can be super confusing at first.
We put together this guide to help you learn more about DJ Controllers in general and help you find the perfect controller for you. We'll answer common DJ controller questions, compare models, explain features and introduce the major players. Whether you have years of professional experience, are an enthusiastic hobbyist, or are just getting into the DJing world this guide can answer your questions.
These are DJ controllers. They vary in size, color, functionality, price, and application. But they all have one aspect in common that makes them DJ controllers: they control software functions with hardware components. While some models can operate standalone (no connected software), such as the Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000, the vast majority act as hands-on control for DJ software.
DJing is a nuanced practice and requires ample practice and research, but having the right gear often makes your show that much better. And the DJ controller acts as the hub of activities for your rig, so choosing one should not be a rushed process. Before model comparisons can commence, however, adequate knowledge of the specifications and terms to describe them should be explained.
The dictionary definition of a DJ may look something like this: A DJ plays the pre-recorded music at shows, events, and parties. But it is far more than that, having developed over the years into a fine art in musicality, technicality, and creativity. DJs have always had the ability to put their own creative input into their shows, using techniques such as beat-juggling, scratching, and beat-matching. While these techniques used to only be possible using traditional analog turntables, today these feats can be accomplished with little more than a laptop and made much more expressive and tactile with DJ controllers.
While reading product listings for these products, all the technical terms and lingo can be quite daunting to decipher. So here we have an intuitive list of explanations and descriptions for common terms and functions of DJ controllers.
One of the most prominent aspects of DJ controllers is the jog wheel - the slick, metallic discs that often come in pairs on the larger models. What do they do? Well, the short answer is whatever you tell them to. One common use of the jog wheel is to replicate a vinyl turntable for scratching. This is the technique DJs use to get that “scratching”, whining sound from a record by moving it back and forth under the needle. Jog wheels can be set to create the same effect digitally by being moved in the same way as a record. While some models have a fixed function for jog wheels, many others allow them to be used as controls for track navigation, volumes, beat matching and other functions.
When DJ controller product descriptions mention how many decks they have, this signifies how many tracks can be played and mixed simultaneously. A track is defined as a single audio source, such as a media player or turntable, visible in the software’s user interface and often in the divided areas of the controller as well.
What does one do with those little colored light squares at the bottom of DJ controllers? Well, again--they have quite the armada of uses. DJs commonly utilize performance pads for cueing loops, playing pre-picked samples or hot cueing. Hot cueing is the technique DJs use by setting a cue point in a track and by triggering some piece of hardware (often a performance pad), the track can jump to that spot. If you are interested in a more in-depth look at this technique, please refer to this article from Dawsons for a more comprehensive overview.
A fundamental piece of DJ controllers is the crossfader. Often placed horizontally on the unit, crossfaders are typically used to have smooth transitions between tracks playing simultaneously. It is also used in conjunction with the channel faders, allowing for more fade-ins, fade-outs and crossfading between tracks.
Extensive and varying Input/Output (I/O) specifications are listed with most DJ controllers. What do they all mean? Well, let’s start by looking at the different I/O types in DJ controllers.
RCA: Those white and red ports that populate DJ controllers may seem old fashioned to some, but are vital for many DJs. Without them, DJs would not be able to incorporate many analog media players into their setup, such as mixers and turntables.
XLR: A very common cable in the music world, XLR refers to a balanced cable type that can run much farther than RCA without noise and interference problems. Microphones, master outputs and other PA applications usually use XLR connectors. Their sturdiness and secure plugin nature also make them popular in many live situations.
TRS: TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) ports are typically only on the larger DJ controllers and are often used as master outs to the control booth, such as on the Pioneer DJ DDJ-RZX. Headphone output is also typically TRS. TRS is not to be confused with TS (tip-sleeve) connectors, which are unbalanced. That fundamentally means they cannot run as long without interference.
USB: This connector is what makes a DJ controller a DJ controller. It acts as the communication between controller and software and often as a digital audio cable as well, routing audio from a laptop through the DJ controller.
Many DJ controllers feature onboard effects, like crush, echo, filter, jet, space, release, backspin and others. What do these effects do? Well, a few of them are often set to the microphone inputs...which makes for some interesting MCing from the stage. Pitch change, reverb and echo can be assigned to the mic inputs for many controllers. But there are four prominent effect types that DJs will use in their actual mixes we will take a look at here: crush, filter, harmonic and sweep.
Crush is pretty much what it sounds like. It adds a bit of subtle (or not so subtle) crackle to the sound. Filter is a popular one for beat drops that creates the effect of going from the throbbing, shallow sound to a crisper more punchy beat, or vice versa. Sweep is used as a build up to a beat drop or some other climax by incorporated a rise in white or pink noise. It is popularly used in concordance with filter. Finally, harmonic is a simple way to change the pitch of a track without speeding it up.
So, now that we have some knowledge about DJ controllers, which one to choose of the dozens of brands of hundreds of models? Well, let’s start by reviewing the big names in controller manufacturing.
Pioneer DJ has built a legacy as the biggest and often best DJ gear company out there. While really aimed toward professionals with premium gear and prices, Pioneer offers some budget and portability options, such as the DDJ-WEGO4-K. Their flagship software piece, Rekordbox dj, is renowned as one of the most powerful DJ software options available. While compatibility with controllers outside the Pioneer line is very limited, integration with their own products is tight and seamless.
Despite their less than expansive controller lineup, Numark has managed to make a nice niche for themselves as a manufacturer of high-quality controllers. They also have varying software included with their controllers, such as Serato DJ and Virtual DJ, and some have standalone options as well. Most of their controllers have large footprints and are meant for larger applications, though a few stand out as more unique, such as the DJ2GO2, a compact controller system, and the Party Mix Pro, a peculiar controller-light show-speaker combo.
While somewhat less prominent in the DJ field, Reloop has some years under their belt at 23 years old. Although they specialize in turntables, Reloop has entered the controller market with five full-fledged controllers, as well as the pad controller Neon and the compact Mixtour, made for mobile and PC platforms. Their five full-sized controllers give more professional, feature-full options with the Touch and Mixon 4, while the Beatpad 2 and Beatmix 2/4 MK2 are more compact, budget solutions.
Also 23 years old, Native Instruments (NI) is a seasoned manufacturer of music hardware and software and specializing in DJ gear. Only last year, Native Instruments released the Control S2 and S4 MK3. While new on the market, these controllers have already become well respected as reliable, high-quality pieces of hardware that integrate well with the included DJing software from Native Instruments, Traktor Pro 3.
To determine what DJ controller would work for you best, there are a few vital considerations to look at. First, of course, price. Are you willing to spend over $1000? $1500? $2500? If so, your options are greatly expanded. If not, there are still dozens of models that could suit your needs.
After price range is determined, a breakdown can begin of high-end, mid-range and budget options. Quite often these three ranges can be assigned to professionals, enthusiastic hobbyists, and those just beginning. However, this is not objective and can only be determined by you, the buyer.
Form factor is another important consideration. Some controllers, such as the 30 pound Numark S7III, are controller behemoths, while the pocket-sized Numark DJ2GO2 barely weighs in at .75 pounds. So consider travel and how important mobility will be to you.
Standalone capabilities, compatible hardware, included software and even jog wheel color are some of the other factors to consider in the long list. To make this process a bit simpler, here is a list of well-reviewed units, broken down into the three categories listed above: high-end, mid-range and budget.
Just the sight of this DJing monster makes one think features, quality, and a weighty price tag, all of which are very true. At $2,999, the RZX costs a very pretty penny. But for those without budget restrictions, this controller would be well worth the cash.
Perhaps the most notable feature is the three 7-inch displays at the top of the unit. These touchscreens can be set to display a plethora of information and functions, from BPM info to stacked waveforms and song selection to video and image previews. While many users have complained of slow response times and sticky execution, the visual feedback on many functions is helpful for DJs. Effects handling across an XY axis is one that stands out as especially tactile and expressive on the three displays.
As with most controllers, the jog wheels are similarly prominent. However, Pioneer’s reputation for sturdy, high-quality jog wheels seems to have disappeared for the RZX. One major quibble users have with the RZX is the cheap, plastic feel of the jog wheels, although a few said it was tolerable or not an issue.
The DDJ-RZX features a high-resolution interface for USB audio routing, with up to 96 kHz/24 bit conversion, the industry standard. And two XLR mic inputs make for an even more complete setup, with multiple powerful mic effects.
While undoubtedly a premium machine with a premium price tag, the DDJ-RZX lives up to expectations in terms of performance and features.
2. Numark S7 III
First off, this controller is beautiful to look at. While still feature-rich, the S7 III has a minimalistic design and a relatively simple layout. The dark metal finish gives a great initial impression and is made to impress.
The S7 III is renowned as one of (if not THE) best emulator of real vinyl scratching in a digital controller. The jog wheels have an extremely authentic feel and are motorized, giving every impression of a slimmed down turntable. The unit even comes packed with two slipmats and mini platters, to satisfy the retro crave. But this genuine-feeling design does nothing to detract from the functions available with digital DJing; beat-matching, timeline scroll, and tempo control are simple as ever.
Build quality is also stellar, having an all-metal construction that will hold up to rigorous use. However, this adds up to make a massive unit that weighs over thirty pounds, making for a cumbersome load to cart around. For mobile DJs, this would not be an ideal choice.
The S7 III has all the necessary features for a professional controller, as well as some extra ones that make it stand out. First, it is class compliant, meaning no additional drivers will be necessary when connecting to your macOS or PC device. This makes setup simpler and often less irritating.
The three displays lining the top of the unit are also a new feature and something many DJs covet on their controllers. While very bright and vivid displays, the ones on the S7 III do have a less than rigid build, made of plastic, and are completely detachable from the main unit.
Likely users of the Numark S7 III would include serious and dedicated home users or professionals who require the best and would gladly trade portability for features and performance.
This entry is a bit of a caveat as it acts as far more than a controller. While it can connect to Engine 4 DJ software for control functions, the DJ Prime 4 can also be operated completely standalone. It does it all onboard, largely thanks to the 10-inch multi-gesture touch display. Load up tracks with a swipe, view parallel waveforms and build your playlists. It is angle-adjustable and folds down snugly into its niche for storage and transport.
The Prime 4 is the first of its kind: a standalone unit with four-track support. This has been a much-asked-for configuration in the DJ community, and Denon delivered.
Denon also included central displays on the jog wheels for enhanced visuals. Meant mainly for track cover art or logos, these screens add yet another level of personalization to the Prime 4. The jog wheels themselves are also impressive, 6-inch metal discs that spin freely with good response.
Extensive I/O completes the standalone package of the Prime 4 with master XLR out and the four RCA channels, as well as USB routing. As mainly a standalone product, the Prime 4 is not in exactly the same category as the previously mentioned units, but deserves a mention as a powerfully versatile piece of DJ gear many artists have been privileged to use. The Prime 4, while not yet available for purchase, clocks in at about $1700, so while still not a budget option, Denon’s flagship has a leg up on the likes of Pioneer’s RZX, if only because of price.
Pioneer makes the cut again with the DDJ-SX3 for Serato DJ and the DDJ-RX for Rekordbox. This model satisfies many professional DJs with its quality build and feel, impressive feature list and performance. But unlike the RZX, this controller will not cost you an arm and a leg, being listed at a retail of $1,099. Building off the previous model, the SX2, the SX3 features three mic inputs, five onboard mic FX and a dual USB interface.
The two jog wheels are beloved by DJs for their great feel and useful and accurate cue markers. And the bundled software goes beyond Serato’s DJing suite, including Serato Flip and Pitch N’ Time, two useful audio manipulation pieces.
The four-color FX (echo, jet, noise, filter) are a favorite among DJs for their standalone capability and usefulness in live settings.
The DDJ-SX3 is a solid addition to Pioneer’s lineup, offering the DJing necessities in a quality package that you can rely on.
Yet another from Pioneer, the DDJ-1000 is an extensively featured controller with a great looking, intuitive layout akin to a typical two turntable+mixer setup. A 4-channel controller, the DDJ-1000 is bundled with Pioneer’s software Rekordbox, making for seamless integration between hardware and software.
The DDJ-1000 features eight brightly lit performance pads under each of the two eight-inch jog wheels, which have mechanical, pressure sensitive platters, something DJs used to vinyl will appreciate. Their aluminum construction makes for durability and quality feel. At their center are two LCD screens that can display any number of things. Waveforms, cue markers, artwork, BPM and many other options can be set to show on the jog wheel displays.
The DDJ-1000’s is one of the best available controllers, thanks to its intuitive layout that replicates many three-piece DJ setups. Good channel faders and an excellent crossfader come together for great overall control. While the included features and functions are numerous and of high quality, the layout is rather cramped, especially in the platter sections, and has the potential for difficult navigation of controls.
The DDJ-1000 is one of Pioneer’s most well-respected products and has served many DJs faithfully since its release. If you need a fully featured and reliable controller for under $1500, carefully consider the DDJ-1000.
Roland’s DJ controller line consists of three models, the 808 is the 4-channel version. Everything about this controller is satisfactory and not remarkable in much except its inclusion of Roland’s TR-S step sequencer. The intuitive and easy to use layout of the sequencer makes for quick programming of punchy beats with the included samples from Roland’s 606, 707, 808 and 909 vintage drum machines.
The rest of the controller’s features are fully functional and cover the needs of many DJs, including the 4-channel mixer with FX, familiar fader layout and 16 backlit performance pads. While feature-wise the 808 is not particularly unique, its green and black design make for a singular, other-worldly look that should catch the eye of your audience.
Pioneer starts off the budget options as well with the DDJ-WeGO4, a curious device that serves highly mobile DJs well. While at first glance it looks more like a child’s media toy, this controller has much more to it than that. Designed with portability and versatility in mind, the WeGO4 is a very compact unit, and the layout says so. The control arrangement is unlike any other, with buttons circling the jog wheels, so while unique, it will take some time getting used to.
This controller works well for DJs just getting started, as it is uncomplicated and has support for lots of DJ software, such as Rekordbox, VirtualDJ, DJAY2 and Pioneer’s mobile app, WeDJ. With these options, beginners can experiment with different software and determine how they want to proceed.
However, reviewers have stated that experienced DJs can also make good use of the WeGO4. The onboard soundcard, mic controls and inclusion of the necessary DJ functions makes it a deceptively capable controller. And it is also worthy of note that the DDJ-WeGO4 is available in black AND white.
This controller has the appearance of a shrunken flagship, and indeed it features
DJing controls typical for its big brother controllers. Sixteen performance pads, two colorfully lit jog wheels, 3-band EQ and level, tempo and crossfaders. Additionally, Algoriddim’s Djay software has tight Spotify integration, making song selection that much broader and simpler.
The Beatpad 2 is unique in the fact that it is intended for use with Algoriddim’s mobile Djay software, making for a powerful iPad setup. It is also compatible with the desktop version of Djay, and available on Android. Djay receives very little hardware support, so if you’re at all fond of that software, the Beatpad 2 makes for a solid option.
Unfortunately, many users have complained of poor audio performance, experiencing stutters and dropouts. This is a substantial issue, though some customers had no problems whatsoever. For those who need a small form factor and use multiple DJing platforms, the Beatpad 2 may be a worthwhile chance to take.
At about $250, Pioneer’s DDJ-SB3 has remarkable value and a premium feel. It is made for Serato DJ but is compatible with Rekordbox as well.
Even though it's plastic construction, the SB3 retains a rather professional feel and look. Unlike the previous version, the SB2, the SB3 has a full sixteen performance pads and transport controls in the traditional positions.
The SB3 has a familiar controller layout for the most part, with the 2-channel mixer front and center and two jog wheels opposite. The jog wheels, described as “chunky” by reviewers, are tactile and have fast response, making for a truly Pioneer-esque scratching experience.
The SB3’s ideal size and weight make it transportable without feeling like a gimmick, and the onboard controls will have most DJs content, but not every transport or FX is included onboard for this device.
This type of controller really does need a class of its own, for while very inexpensive and simple, theses tiny controllers are more for specific people and applications than for conforming to a tight budget.
A quick glance at the DJ2GO2 would give the impression of an underwhelming piece of gear, due solely to its small size. But after closer examination, it is revealed how many of the features and controls of more full-size controllers are present in this device. From the 2-channel layout with pitch faders and crossfader, eight performance pads and tiny jog wheels, the 2GO2 has all the necessities. While somewhat feature-full, the small size of every aspect of this control can make use a bit tricky and difficult to get used to; inaccurate at the worst. This controller really is the staple and go-to choice for mini controllers and will prove reliable in your ultra-portable applications. It also comes bundled with the Intro version of Serato DJ.
The layout of the Hercules Starlight is so similar to that of the DJ2GO2, they could very well be confused. Indeed, they are similar in function as well as in appearance. The DJ2GO2 is a bit larger, and they do have slightly varying onboard controls. The Starlight has the typical transport, pads and cue buttons, plus the mini jog wheels. It also ships with Serato DJ Lite, a great way to dip your toes into DJing.
The most minimalistic, slim, and generally portable option on this list is the Hercules DJControl Compact. This thing can go anywhere you can and will be an imperceptible weight in your backpack. But this comes at a price, of course, as there are no pitch faders or cue buttons. It also has no EQ beyond bass, while the two previous options have 2-band EQ. So while smaller and of a more pleasing aesthetic, the DJControl Compact gives up too much with too little in return for most users.
So there you have it for a list of some solid DJ controllers, from the massive all-in-ones to the budget and pocketable options.
So, now we’ve covered the basic terms, brands and respected models. What else is there to know? Oh, much. It’s time to dive into the intricacies (nitty-gritty) of DJ controllers.
Let’s start out with something vital to DJs in general: signal flow. Concisely, this is the path a signal takes to get from the source to the output. In our case, it will typically be from a laptop to a PA, monitors or headphones. The laptop generates digital code and sends it to the audio interface. Most controllers include one and the specs typically say something like “24-bit/96kHz.” What’s that mean? Let’s define interface first. An interface’s job is to convert digital, binary code into an analog signal, send it out via a cable, typically, and then to the output.
The difference between digital and analog is in the signal type. Digital consists of rapidly sent signals, differing to produce ones and zeroes. The analog signal, on the other hand, is physical electrons moving in a wire to create an analog waveform, a reproduction of the acoustic waves forms in the air that we perceive as sound. An interface converts one to the other.
This conversion can be performed with different levels of preciseness and clarity, something defined by the stat listed above: “24-bit/96kHz.” These two values signify different things. The bit rate (24) determines the dynamic range of the audio (difference from the loudest to softest sound). The sample rate (96) stands for how many samples are taken per second from a given signal. Our example is 96,000 samples per second, making for a high-quality conversion.
When searching for a DJ interface, 24-bit/96kHz is the industry standard today, and most models will offer this resolution.
Another important aspect of DJ controllers has supported file types. While the controller itself typically does not affect supported files, the compatible software does. When choosing a controller, be sure to read up on the included software and supported file types. There are a few major players in the audio file type world: MP3, AAC, FLAC, ALAC, WAV and AIFF. While pretty meaningless as a bunch of abbreviations, breaking them down will help see the differences.
MP3: We’ve all used MP3 in one form or another, and there are reasons for it: file space and universality. Anyone would be very hard pressed to find some piece of hardware or software that does not support MP3 playback or recording. MP3 also takes up the least amount of space at 1.4 MB per minute of audio. For means of comparison, WAV and AIFF are 34.7 MB per minute of audio. This is due to MP3’s compressed, “lossy” nature. The original sound recording is compressed and quality is lost. While acceptable for casual listening, MP3 format is largely unacceptable in DJ applications, though most software supports it.
AAC (Advanced Audio Coding): AAC is another lossy, compressed file type, though it renders better quality than MP3. Apple has been a proponent of AAC for it’s small file size and quality advantage over MP3, but it is less broadly accepted in the audio world.
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec): FLAC is the next level up from AAC and MP3, as it is compressed, and therefore a small file size, yet is lossless. This is the ideal format for most applications, and DJs use it often.
ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec): As the name implies, ALAC really is just Apple’s version of FLAC. They did this to incorporate it into iTunes and to this day, is the only file type supported in iTunes. Compatibility is really the only difference between FLAC and ALAC, as their quality is virtually identical.
WAV (Waveform Audio File): WAV and AIFF files are the largest, most accurate reproductions of recordings available. They are uncompressed and lossless. This makes for great sounding audio at the expense of very large files.
AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format): Another of Apple’s contributions, AIFF is the other uncompressed file format, and very similar to WAV. One large difference though is that AIFF supports embedded metadata, such as album art, artist and year. WAV does not.
Given the many options and subtle differences, an adequate understanding of file formats will help in choosing DJ gear and the use of it.
After some technical speech, let’s get into the details of the uses of the different parts on a DJ controller. Let’s start at the middle: the mixer.
The mixer section of controllers usually contains four or two channel strips, each with EQ, faders, filters, crossfade, and FX control. We’ve already discussed the faders, so let’s dive into EQ, filters and FX.
EQ is the equalization of different frequency ranges. We perceive these differing ranges as varying pitch. DJ controllers usually have 2 or 3-band EQ, meaning that there are 2 or 3 different frequency ranges that can have levels adjusted individually. EQ is often vital for blending tracks appropriately between songs, to get a mix that highlights the important ranges and subdues the ones with too much prominence.
A filter is an effect applied to audio that cuts frequencies above or below the set threshold. Filters are very useful for DJs when they want to produce build ups from low and deep to high and shallow drops, such as in this blatant example, a remix of Dynoro and Gig D’Agostino’s “In my Mind”, by Ivan Gough and Feanixpawl. This is the use of a low-pass filter, which takes frequencies above the threshold and attenuates them or reduce in amplitude. Sweeping this effect with a knob creates that frantic build-up affect well known in EDM music.
The FX on DJ controllers vary from voice changers and echoes to noise and jet. The mic effects on some larger models is best demonstrated by Mojaxx from DJcity demonstrating the mic effects on the RZX. But more vital to the DJ is the other track effects, such as echo and reverb.
Another specification listed with most DJ controllers is the frequency range. The field will be filled in with something like this: 20-20,000 Hz. To understand this, let’s figure what frequency is. Frequency is the property of sound waves that determine pitch, varied by the distance between each wave oscillation, or each time the wave moves up and down. For the highest quality and flexibility in your gear, look for products with 20-20000 Hz frequency, as this is generally accepted as the range of audible sound for humans.
Modern DJing really is based upon the development of advanced software tools for DJ applications, and for controllers, software considerations are vital for selecting your products. There are dozens of options available for DJs, but there are a few well-respected and powerful titles to choose from, which we’ll cover here.
Keep in mind, though, that choosing a DJing platform is much like choosing a DAW; they contain largely the same functions and it really comes down to personal preference.
Serato has released several versions of their DJing software, from Pitch ‘n Time in 1999 to Serato DJ Intro in 2011. Their most recent is Serato DJ Pro, a leading competitor in the professional DJ software industry.
Serato has been in the game for over a decade now, and while this comes through in their products’ stability, they have been rather slow in keeping up with the innovation of other companies.
Their long years of experience have produced lots of supported hardware, however. Many controllers, mixers and other DJ gear is made for use with Serato while other software has a more limited repertoire.
DJs adore Serato for its reliability, providing consistent performance and very few issues during shows. And its straightforward layout and use makes on the spot changes easy.
As is typical with music products, however, there is a tradeoff. The likes of Rekordbox DJ and Virtual DJ, while less stable, have more expanded options and better customizability than Serato. Serato gives the necessities, and while they work great, that’s all you get.
2. Rekordbox DJ
One of the few to really compete with Serato is Pioneer’s Rekordbox. While it is much newer to the scene than Serato, Pioneer has pushed to expand the capabilities of Rekordbox rapidly. This effort has made it a rival for the likes of Serato and Traktor as well.
Rekordbox has the features expected of DJ software: expansive FX, 2 or 4 deck mixing and low-latency. But Pioneer has some unique innovations all its own that are worth mentioning.
Pioneer added versatile and expanded library options for Rekordbox, allowing for simple one cable connections from phone, laptop, media player or USB storage. And with KUVO, Mixcloud and YouTube integration, you can upload your recorded sets directly from Rekordbox. Rekordbox also does the monotonous work of adding the pre-existing titles to uploaded tracks.
As compared to competitors, Rekordbox offers intuitive and helpful user interface customizations, allowing you to conform your software setup to your hardware. If you prefer vertical timelines to horizontal, no problem. To expand your virtual setup further, split your file browser and performance editor, ideal for dual monitor setups.
This DJing software from Native Instruments has become a major player in the field in recent years, thanks to some features and levels of quality other competitors don’t provide.
For those looking for a highly authentic, vinyl-like experience, Traktor delivers. Between the scratching, juggling and backspin options, plus the hardware Traktor is made for, you get that vinyl feel with the ease of digital.
Native Instruments markets Traktor as “the modular DJ platform.” This refers to their extensive customizability options, which, while they don’t measure up to the likes of open-source options like Virtual DJ, are still powerful enough to give a noticeable advantage.
While overall a capable option, Traktor Pro 3 does little as an upgrade from the previous version. A major complaint is the new user interface (UI). While sleeker and more modern than previously, some vital transport and control buttons are disposed of, despite lots of unused space in the interface.
With the release of Traktor Pro 3, NI also unleashed the S series controllers. They stressed the enhanced software integration of Traktor 3 but the practicality of their improvements is hard to define.
4. Virtual DJ
For the most versatile, customizable, compatible and powerful system, Virtual DJ is a safe bet. This software piece is for those who want to delve into the intricacies of DJ software, as it is an open-source program. This allows for customization of appearance, functions and even custom plugins. It’s built for many different user levels too. Beginning DJs can take a stab at it with the free download and work their way up to the vast options available with the most expanded version. While the likes of Serato and Rekordbox offer a controlled, highly functioning environment, Virtual DJ is for those who want ultimate control over their music, program and creativity.
First off, Virtual DJ offers skin customizations unlike any other DJing platform. It has several onboard included skins, with hundreds more available for download. As if that were not enough, Virtual DJ’s open-source nature allows for custom skin creation.
Virtual DJ has the base features expected of DJ software too: performance pads, jog wheels, stacked or superimposed waveforms, extensive effects and loops.
Despite not manufacturing their own hardware, Virtual DJ has excellent controller support. Their site claims compatibility with over 300 controllers, as well as support for midi control mapping and interfacing. This makes controller functions much more powerful, as you can control far more fields with the controls than what is preset.
Price point is rather flexible with Virtual DJ, as they offer different options depending on intended use, professional or personal application, or if you plan to use integrated hardware.
While I believe this to be the best overall DJing platform, consider your needs carefully and see whether or not you really need the power and intricacies of Virtual DJ.
5. Ableton Live
Yes, this is a caveat. Ableton Live, in reality, is a full-fledged digital audio workstation (DAW) and is not meant for DJing exclusively, but due to its extensive looping and sample triggering abilities, Ableton has earned a reputation as the go-to DAW for electronic musicians, producers and, of course, DJs. Ableton stresses the “live” part of its title, and it is not without basis. This is a big part of what makes Ableton the DAW of choice for DJs everywhere.
As it is very different from the previous mentions in this list, some general info on what Live is should be noted before continuing.
The aspects of Live that make it ideal for live applications are numerous, but it is mainly due to its signature “session view.” While traditional DAWs have the intuitive moving timeline that is ideal for studio and post-production, Ableton’s session view features clips that can be triggered individually or together, whether by the onscreen controls or a connected piece of hardware, such as the Ableton Push.
Ableton also takes a different approach to beatmatching, which traditionally is done by taking one song in a mix and setting the rest of the upcoming tracks to that same tempo. Live allows users to set their own “master tempo” and match the tracks to that. This gives a bit more power to the DJ.
A huge aspect of Ableton Live that DJs long for in their programs is its ability to create completely new tracks from scratch. As a DAW, it is made for music creation, so especially creative DJs will be pleased with this option. Included samples and loops can be easily integrated into one’s mix.
The flipside of this, of course, is the different approach that must be taken to loading and playing pre-existing tracks. It does not have an onboard song management system, something that is vital to some DJs. Ableton’s user interface also varies significantly from traditional DJ software and does not replicate the physical setup many DJs use.
As standalone DJ software, Ableton Live will leave several holes in performance workflow, though it does have many useful features that are its own. Its potential is great as an add-on to a suite such as Serato or Rekordbox, as it is not perfect for live applications, but as a DAW, it serves DJs well.
So there you have it. The world of DJing software is just as expansive as any other in the music industry, and you have many options available, though they do have their subtle and not-so-subtle differences.
Yes, cases indeed deserve their own whole section. You can find a great DJ controller and have an equally great software to pair with it, but to protect your hardware during travel you need a good case!
Every once in a while, you may find a sturdy soft case for DJ controllers and think that with the reduced price tag compared to hard cases, it would be a great option for you. This would be true for the more or less stationary DJ who produces at home most of the time and does not travel a significant amount. The DJing profession, however, often requires a significant amount of moving around, sometimes at an interstate level. So check case specifications and make sure your choice is flight safe.
Odyssey, Gator, SKB and Orbit all specialize in music gear cases and bags and should be one of your first go-to options for your needs. However, be sure to check out the manufacturer of your hardware to see if they offer any product-specific options.
The first brand, Odyssey, is a behemoth of music gear flight cases and DJ hardware in particular. Their product list seems endless, from flat controller flight cases to four-foot performance rack stations. While not much to look at, these cases serve their sole purpose excellently: protect what’s inside. They are robust, sturdy, and many are flight ready. Plus the variety of form factors gives you a high chance of finding just what you’re looking for.
Gator Cases also has a wide range of case options, though they do not specialize in DJ cases. They have a few high-quality controller and turntable cases, most of which are made for specific models. This makes for a tight, firm fit but a lack of flexibility. This is an important consideration no matter where you’re getting cases from; how firm and air-tight does your protection have to be?
SKB is a producer of ultra-tough, military grade cases for music gear, guns, cameras, and rack gear. They have a few DJ controller soft cases, but selection is very limited in this arena. But SKB’s stellar reputation for what they do offer merits a mention.
Orbit’s products differ a bit from the other’s mentioned; they aim at style and convenience more than high levels of protection. That said, their backpacks and cases still do well in keeping your gear safe, and make it easy as well. They offer large, pocket-full backpacks for all-one solutions that can carry a laptop, small controller, cables, microphones, needles and whatever else you bring along with you. Or you can opt for a more minimalistic option, such as the Jetpack Slim. For more short-term, in- town applications and shows, Orbit has more than a few valid choices.
There’s always more, isn’t there? Yes, DJs should consider trusses, stands and scrims too. Most closely related to the DJ controller is stands. Some cases from Odyssey, such as the FRGSDJ505BL, act as a controller and laptop stand in one, but still require some surface to be placed on so the DJ can stand while performing. Many times venues provide the booth with space for all your gear, but in other situations, you’ll want your own means of supporting your stuff. Odyssey provides a solution to this as well, albeit an extravagant one. The FZGS1116WDLXBL has 16 rack spaces, an angled mixer rack and fold out table for laptop and controller. Of course, the premium you’ll pay for this nice solution will be steep, so determine your actual needs and actual budget.
Scrim is a word most of us could not define, and while certainly an obscure piece of gear, scrims to a lot for a show. Here’s what they look like:
Their purpose is mainly aesthetic, though scrims do help with general stage organization. The Scrim King is frequently the first stop for those in search of good scrims.
If your DJing reputation has grown and you’re getting bigger, better shows, trusses will become a necessary factor. Speakers, lights and cables need places to go and trusses make for a professional, sturdy solution. These metal structures come as speaker stands, horizontally flown constructions or as simple podiums. They are simple enough to obtain and setup, but assess your needs now before you discover you’re without the necessary gear hours before you need it.
While these are some of the most used and commonly pertinent pieces of gear for DJs, there is always more to consider. Everything from stage glow lights to jog wheel skins, the options available for DJs are extensive.