DJ Controllers: What are they and why do you need one?

Modern DJing encompasses far more than simply playing records for an audience, or even the raw power of cutting and scratching that helped define the first decade-plus of the hip-hop genre. These days, it's nothing short of an art form.

It's also uniquely democratised: On one hand, electronic dance music DJs like deadmau5 and Diplo often command sold-out crowds, and a recent livestreamed "battle" between legendary hip-hop producers RZA and DJ Premier had about 170,000 simultaneous Instagram viewers. Conversely, consumer versions of software like Ableton Live, Serato and Pioneer DJ's rekordbox allow DJs who are just starting out in their craft to sample, loop, mix and master the same way professionals do.

Another common thread between the big timers and the rookies is that both often use the mixing interfaces commonly known as DJ controllers to make the most of the aforementioned programs in a live setting. Let's take a closer look at the essentials of these tools, their potential and some of the best models for DJs with differing technical needs and experience levels.

Basics of DJ controllers

The simplest way to describe the purpose of a DJ controller is through the way it often looks - like a pair of turntables and mixer in miniature, all within a single piece of equipment. As noted by WireRealm, the device lets the user execute all of the functions of software like Serato and rekordbox in real time, using a wide range of external physical controls as opposed to a computer's keyboard and mouse. Common controls include some of the following:

  • Jogwheels: These simulate the sounds of cutting and scratching vinyl records on a full-sized turntable, while also letting you cue up or stop tracks from your set and further manipulate the mix.
  • Mixer: Unites the two or four channels of the controller so you can switch, delay, cross-fade, channel-fade and otherwise move back and forth between each track.
  • Effects pads: As implied by their name, these controls introduce any number of sound effects (suddenly or continuously) into whatever you're playing. Think of them like an electric guitarist's pedals - you can use them to add flanger and phaser effects, deploy reverb for an echo-laden, hallucinatory sound, or even layers of distortion common to the dubstep or industrial subgenres.
  • Drum pads: Not dissimilar to the effects pads but used more as active performance tools - often to cue up sampled or looped drum patterns (:dropping the beat," in hip-hop parlance) or create new beats or fills in real time. Though "drum pads" is the common term because various controllers include emulations of classic drum machines like the Roland 808, these controls aren't limited to drums, because you're just using them to control any number of preset MIDIs from your DJ software: You can use the pads to conjure up the synthesiser tones common throughout modern electronic music, traditional piano or guitar sounds or even something truly odd like a theremin.

Additional controls include basic navigation and playback buttons, knobs for manipulating volume or gain across channels, faders and so on. They're often colour-coded and are sometimes also LED-backlit, so that even in a semi-dark club with intermittent lighting, you'll be able to maintain control of your performance.

The controller-software bond

If there's any real limitation to DJ controllers, it's arguably that they are sometimes designed to only work with a single type of music production software. For example, if you have the Traktor DJ platform, your might find a controller that seems like it's perfect in every way - except that it's meant to work solely with Serato. Others will be open to using a mix of applications including Ableton and Virtual DJ as well as the aforementioned Serato, Traktor or rekordbox, though many of the best options are set up for just one or two programs.

All this really means is that you may need to make a commitment to a new platform if you're serious about a particular controller. Serato, for example, is held in extremely high regard by many DJs, so it's not as if you're truly limiting yourself by using it! 

Controllers for every experience level

As a leading distributor of audio, lighting and staging technology throughout Australia and New Zealand, Jands is proud to offer the market's best DJ equipment, including DJ controllers. We carry models ideal for the novice, intermediate and experienced DJs, including:

Pioneer DDJ-SB3Cited as one of the best Serato controllers for beginners due to its exclusive compatibility with Serato DJ Lite, Pioneer's DJ DDJ-SB3 nonetheless offers pro-level performance. Despite being a two-channel setup, it can control up to four decks. With USB input as well as analogue input/output, you have major flexibility for in-studio or live DJing. Hip-hop lovers will appreciate the Pad Scratch feature, developed in collaboration with the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff to create versatile scratching effects without the jogwheels.

Pioneer DDJ-800: An outstanding two-channel controller for any rookie DJ who wants to make the most of rekordbox, the DDJ-800 represents a more compact version of the DDJ-1000 variants described below. It's excellent for up-and-comers doing any gigs they can get, who are often quickly on the go - but when you get there, venue management and audience alike will be impressed by what you can do with the controller. 

Pioneer DDJ-1000 and DDJ-1000SRT: Those who want four channels instead  of two - plus and a plethora of effect, mixing and drum pad options - can't go wrong with either version of this Pioneer DJ controller. The former is designed for rekordbox, while the latter works with Serato.

Pioneer DDJ-SZ2: DJs with the experience and funds to go for a top-of-the-line choice shouldn't hesitate to consider the DDJ-SZ2, a professional-grade, four-channel controller with incredibly responsive controls for a truly intuitive DJing experience. Made to use with Serato DJ Pro, this model allows for maximum customisation through features like Pitch Play and Serato Flip Connection, as well as the controller's high-quality oscillator, jogwheels and performance pads. 

To learn more about Pioneer DJ and other notable product lines from Jands, contact us today!