What is the best DJ controller?

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In this article, I review four of the best DJ controllers:

If you don’t have time to read the whole article, here is my recommendation.  The best DJ controller is the Pioneer XDJ-RX2 DJ System.  The ability to use this controller in standalone mode (without the need for a laptop) is what sets this controller apart from all the others. Keep reading for a full review.

Before I review each of the recommended DJ controllers, let me quickly explain what a controller is, why they were invented and some of their main features.

What exactly is a DJ controller?

A DJ controller is a physical device whose primary function is to “control” and manage digital music and DJ software that is installed on a laptop.

Let me give you a quick DJ history lesson to explain. – Back in the day, controllers were invented because “old school” DJs were reluctant to play digital music directly from a laptop. They much preferred spinning their analogue turntables and CD players to play music. They didn’t want to be messing around with computers, keyboards and mice. They’re DJs not business executives!

So to encourage DJs to make the transition to digital, companies invented controllers to enable a DJ to manipulate digital music files stored on a laptop (or USB drive) using jog wheels, knobs, dials, sliders etc located on the controller.

Main features of a DJ controller

In addition to being able to play and manage digital music files, controllers also have many other functions and have now become an all-in-one console that does everything a DJ needs.

Several inputs – In addition to the decks that can play digital files (USB inputs), controllers also have several inputs for external turntables, CD players, MP3 players and mobile devices.  There are also inputs for microphones.

DJ Mixer – Most modern controllers also have an integrated multi-channel mixer enabling the DJ to mix all of those inputs without the need for a separate device. Using the mixer, you can either manually fade in or out a particular source or it can be done using the built-in cross fader.

Equalizer – It’s common to have an equalizer to adjust the levels of the high, medium and low frequencies

Outputs – After the DJ has mixed the music coming from the various input sources, the mixed music then needs to be output somewhere. Most controllers will have “Master” outputs for powered speakers / power amps and other outputs for standard amps which in turn will be connected to passive speakers. There are also outputs for headphones for the DJ to cue the next song and also an output for the “booth monitor” (a speaker which is located in the DJ booth)

Software integration – Depending on the manufacturer, DJ controllers are designed to integrate with a particular brand of DJ software. Example, Pioneer controllers are designed to integrate with the Rekordbox software and Native Instrument controllers are designed to integrate with the Traktor software. Consequently, the choice of controller will often determine your choice of software that you will be using so bear that in mind.

Most controllers will also integrate with other DJ software via the MIDI interface but that will require a bit more configuration.

Performance pads – Performance pads are those cool looking colored buttons, usually located at the front of the controller. These pads often have several uses that can be customized by the DJ.  They can be used to program hot cues (a hot cue is a cue point that can be set anywhere within a track).

Other common uses of these performance pads are special effects, sampling and looping.

Beat mixing functions – Controllers have lots of cool features to assist the DJ in beat mixing that make the most of digital technology. Example, you can adjust the tempo of track A so that it matches the tempo of track B without changing the pitch. That enables you to seamlessly mix 2 tracks with different BPM (beats per minute).

Let’s now take a look in detail at the best DJ controllers.

Pioneer XDJ-RX2 DJ System

The Pioneer XDJ-RX2 is a 2-deck, 2-channel all-in-one system. For digital music, you have 2 choices – Either you connect the controller (via USB) to your laptop running the excellent “Rekordbox” software and access all of Rekordbox features via the controller OR you can simply plug in a USB key or external drive containing your music and use the controller as a standalone system without the need for a laptop at all.

Playing music from a laptop or mobile device

If you connect a computer or mobile device (iOS or Android) running the Rekordbox software to the controller using a USB cable, you can then select and play tracks from Rekordbox directly on the controller. All of the information and data from Rekordbox such as playlists, cues, loops and hot cues can be imported and used.

Playing music from a USB drive

If you don’t want to be messing around with laptops in the DJ booth, you can prepare a USB drive in advance in Rekordbox. In Rekordbox, you prepare your collection of songs with cues and all the other necessary parameters and then export those songs and related data to a USB drive. You can then plug that USB drive into the controller for your performance without the need for your laptop! This is probably one of my favorite features.

Record your set

You can record your set to a high quality WAV file by plugging in a USB drive into the unit and pressing the “Master Rec” button. As a guideline, you can record 90 minutes of music for every Gigabyte of memory.

Performance pads

There are 8 large, multi-colored tactile performance pads on each deck. These act as shortcut buttons to various powerful features such as hot cues, beat loops, slip loops and beat jumps.

DJ mixer

There is an integrated mixer, equalizer, channel faders and cross fader that gives you full control of your mixes.

Special effects

The Pioneer XDJ-RX2 comes with 2 types of effects to add some creativity to your sets:

  1. Sound Color FX (Dub echo, sweep, noise and filter)
  2. Beat FX (delay, echo, spiral, reverb, trans, flanger, pitch and roll)

Rekordbox video

You can also integrate video into your performances by loading videos and image files to the decks from a laptop or stream live footage from a USB camera, then add text overlays and FX in real-time.

7-inch touch screen

The first thing you’ll notice is the large 7-inch touch screen in the middle of the console. This screen will display the wave form of each track and allow you zoom in for more detail of the peaks and breakdowns. You can browse and search for tracks using the rotary selector and QWERTY keyboard.

Inputs

There are 2 Line/Phono inputs to connect to CDJs, analogue turntables or even portable players. In addition, there are 2 mic inputs (XLR and ¼ TRS jack connection)

Outputs

Headphones – On the front of the panel, to the left, are sockets for headphones. You can use either stereo phone plugs (6.3mm) or stereo mini phone plugs (3.5mm)
Master 1 terminals (balanced outputs) – Allows you to connect a power amplifier, or powered speakers.
Master 2 terminals – Allows you to connect a power amplifier, or powered speakers.
Booth terminals – To connect a booth monitor speaker.

USB ports

There is a USB port on the back to connect to a laptop running the “Rekordbox” software.

There is an additional USB port on the top of the controller to connect a USB key or drive containing digital music files which you can import directly into the controller without the need for a laptop.

Integration with other DJ software

If you want to use this controller with other DJ software, you can do so via the MIDI connection.

Summary

The Pioneer XDJ-RX2 is a top of the range controller with all the features you’ll ever need. In standalone mode, you won’t even need a laptop – just a USB drive!


Pioneer DDJ-1000 Pro DJ Controller

The Pioneer DDJ-1000 DJ Controller is an all-in-one DJ console with 4 channels, 2 jog wheels, 16 performance pads, a mixer with equalizer and faders and a full selection of special effects.

Full-sized jogs with LCD display

The DDJ-1000 has 2 full-sized jog wheels which can be configured for either “vinyl mode” for scratching or normal mode whereby moving the jog wheels will adjust the playing speed (pitch bending). In vinyl mode, you can also adjust the level of resistance that you will feel.

In the centre of each jog wheel is a color LCD display that can display information about the current track (BPM, waveform, playback position or Hot Cue and Loop points.) The position of these LCD displays actually on the jog wheels means that you can keep your eyes on what you’re doing and not get distracted.

Rekordbox integration

The Pioneer DDJ-1000 comes with a license for the Rekordbox software to be installed on a computer. This DJ software is for managing music, preparing tracks in advance with cue points and for actually performing.

You will connect this controller to a laptop running Rekordbox in order to access your music collections and to import them into the controller for playing.

Note there is no standalone option with this controller. – You can’t plug in a USB drive containing your music and play it. You must connect to a computer running Rekordbox. That is the big difference with the Pioneer XDJ-RX2 which DOES have a standalone option.

Serato DJ Pro integration

If you prefer the Serato DJ software, there is another version of this controller called the Pioneer DDJ-1000SRT

4 channel mixer

There is a 4 channel DJ mixer through which you can select your inputs, adjust the levels of the highs, mids and lows with the Equalizer, select special effects, adjust headphone and mic levels. You can mix and blend channels using the manual faders or the new and improved magvel cross fader.

Performance pads

There are 16 (8 on each side) back-lit rubber Performance Pads which can be used for Hot Cues, Pad FX, Beat Jump, Sampler, Keyboard Mode, Beat Loop and Key Shift.

Special effects (FX)

There is a total of 14 Beat FX, including new ones (Enigma Jet, Mobius Saw, Mobius Triangle and Low Cut Echo). There are also four Sound Color FX – Pitch, Filter, Dub Echo and Noise.

Inputs

  • 2x Line / phono input terminals
  • 2x Line input terminals
  • 2x Mic input terminals
  • 2x USB terminals

Outputs

  • 1x Master 1 output
  • 1x Master 2 output
  • 1x Booth monitor terminals
  • 1x Headphones output terminals (on front of console)

Summary

This Pioneer DDJ-1000 is a good alternative to the XDJ-RX2. It has 4 channels and also integrates seamlessly with the Rekordbox software.


Denon DJ Prime 4 Controller

Denon DJ Prime 4 is the most advanced DJ Controller in this review and it is absolutely packed with features.

Standalone music streaming

No laptop required! You can connect to the internet using your mobile data or WiFi or wired internet connection and then stream music from TIDAL with its catalog of over 60+ million.

Integrate with lighting systems

Using the StagelinQ connection, you can produce dynamic lighting and video scenes via Denon DJ’s partnerships with Soundswitch and Resolume.

10 inch, adjustable-angle touchscreen

Through this huge color touchscreen, you can select tracks, view waveforms, interact with your digital music collection and view essential parameters, with smooth, multi-gesture control.

Serato DJ Pro integration

If you don’t want to stream music from TIDAL, you can alternatively connect (via USB) to your laptop running the Serato DJ Pro software. Using Prime 4’s huge touchscreen, you can navigate your Serato music library, view waveforms and select decks.

DJ mixer

There is an integrated 4-channel digital DJ mixer. (Alternatively, there is also a 2 channel version with a slightly smaller screen called the Denon DJ Prime 2 )

Remix your music

Usin the 8 multi-function performance trigger pads, you can remix whole tracks and beat juggle with hot cue control, then split up bars and beats with quantize-locked, rolls, rlicer and advanced looping.

Comprehensive dual sweep FX / filter

Engage just one, single encoder for tactile sound manipulation with dynamic FX and elegant filter control.

Microphones

There are 2 independent microphone channels with flexible equalizer and performance controls.

Jog wheels

Cut, scratch and adjust using the two 6-inch touch capacitive jog wheels.

Dedicated zone output

You can play a separate playlist to a different room while continuing to play your set to the main room.

Large storage capacity

  • 4x USB ports
  • 1x SD slot
  • 1x built-in SATA drive bay

Record your set

You can record your set to any connected media source.

Summary

This Denon DJ Prime 4 really is a game-changer. Denon have thought of all the features a DJ could possibly want and added them to this unit! The price is at the higher end but is definitely worth the extra investment. The ability to stream music via WIFI really sets this controller apart from the rest.


Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 DJ Controller

The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 DJ Controller is an excellent 4-channel controller that integrates perfectly with the TRAKTOR PRO 3 software. The controller has motorized jog wheels, a 4-channel mixer, 16 RGB pads and 2 high resolution color displays below each deck.

Haptic Drive

The motorized jog wheels provide haptic force-feedback. That basically means that you can physically feel cue points and loops in your fingertips when scrolling through your tracks. The advantage of course is that you concentrate on your mixing without having your eyes glued to the screen.

Turntable mode

In turntable mode, the motorized jog wheels spin according to the track tempo. Essentially you can use the jog wheels as a turntable. – You can nudge records and slow them down using the edge of the jog wheel.

You can nudge, slip, scratch and backspin in this mode.

Jog mode for beat mixing

You use jog mode to help you beat mix 2 tracks.  Touching the jog wheel will speed up or slow down the track and adjust its BPM. A ring of light around the edge of the jog wheel will light up and indicate the deck spin which will help you synchronize the tracks.

Beatgrid mode

You can manually adjust a track’s beatgrid in Beatgrid mode.

Color-coded decks

There are RGB light rings on each deck which will change color and flash to visually reflect what is happening. These light rings make it easy to see which deck is currently active and also give you visual feedback on how much you’re nudging or stalling the deck.

High-Resolution Color Displays

There are 2 color displays on this controller – 1 below each of the jog wheels. They each display waveform, looping, key, and BPM information, track title, remaining track time, stems and remix deck samples.

Carbon-protect fader

Upside-down fader design provides greater durability and resistance to dust or liquids.

16 RGB Pads

These are the large 8 colored buttons at the front of the controller on both sides. You can save cue points and loops, manipulate stems, and trigger remix deck samples on the fly.

Mixer

The 4 channel mixer receives the audio signals coming from the decks. You can adjust the levels of each channel, optionally feed the signal into the FX units (for special effects) and then send it to the master output. The mixer also has a cross fader with which you can automatically fade one channel into another.

Inputs

  • 2x  Line in (RCA)
  • 2x  Phono / Line in (RCA)
  • 2x  MIC inputs

Output

  • 1x Main out (RCA – unbalanced)
  • 1x Main out (XLR – balanced)
  • 1x Booth out (1/4″ – balanced)
  • 1x Headphones out 1/8″
  • 1x Headphones out 1/4″

USB

  • 1x USB hub socket (to connect another TRAKTOR controller or a USB-Hub)
  • 1x USB port (to connect to a computer)

Summary

The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 DJ Controller is an excellent controller at a very reasonable price. The motorized jog wheels with haptic drive through which you can actually feel the cue points and loops in your fingers really sets it apart from other controllers.


Conclusion

What is the best DJ controller?

The best DJ controller is the Pioneer XDJ-RX2 DJ System.  The ability to use this controller in standalone mode (without the need for a laptop) is what sets this controller apart from all the others.

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