The growth of digital DJ controllers over the last decade has brought with it a large number of options. No matter what type of DJ you are there is a controller out there for you.
Most modern DJ controllers will share the same core features. They will allow you to mix from one track to another. But, once you move beyond the core similarities there are a lot of features that can be unique to a particular group of controllers.
Understanding what you want from a DJ controller is half the battle. Once you have a clear idea of the features you need it makes it a lot easier to select a controller that’s right for your needs.
In this guide we breakdown the major categories of DJ controllers. Each section will detail what this category offers and some of the key features to look out for.
If you are looking for a superior DJ controller there are several key things to look out for. Buying a controller from a reputable brand is critical. Other controllers may offer decent features. But the more established brands have a long history in the DJ space and know what DJs want and need.
Superior DJ controllers will emulate club-level professional gear.
You also need to understand your budget and how much you will be willing to spend. Controllers range in price. Some are cheap while others are quite expensive. Having an idea of how much you want to spend can help refine your choices. In most cases the more you have to spend the better the DJ controller will be.
- Superior DJ controllers offer extensive features. You should expect quality jog wheels. A full and capable mixer section. Effective FX controls. Solid build quality along with a range of connection options.
- Another key feature is value for money. Similar priced controllers can vary in feature sets. Ideally, you want to select a controller that suits all your needs. You don’t want to be paying for features that you will not use.
- Try to buy a controller that offers some room for growth. As you advance you’ll want to stretch your mixing skills. A good controller will offer room for you to explore and grow as a DJ.
DJ Controllers For Beginners
One of the categories that has seen the biggest growth and most attention is DJ controllers for beginners. These entry-level controllers provide the perfect opportunity to get into DJing.
Beginner controllers are a great way to learn DJing before moving onto more complex gear.
Good examples in this category will offer both software and hardware that allow you to plug in and start learning DJing. While they may not have all the bells and whistles of more professional controllers you’ll still be able to execute mixes. Even professional DJs use beginner controllers to prepare and practice their sets.
These beginner controllers also offer an affordable entry point. They are a great way to get started without committing too much money upfront.
- Aim for a beginner controller that has a full 3 band EQ. This allows you to manipulate Low, Mid and High frequencies which is important to properly mix tracks.
- Keep in mind the software that comes with the controller. Ideally, you want full version software so that you don’t need to spend extra money down the line.
- Beginner controllers often have fewer outputs compared to other controllers. If you want to hook up a specific set of speakers it’s worth paying attention to what outputs are available.
Budget DJ Controllers
Not everyone has a lot to spend on a hobby. Luckily there are some good choices available if you are on a tight budget. DJing used to be an expensive hobby but modern technology has allowed nearly everyone to get into DJing at an affordable price.
Budget controllers won’t have expansive features but they are a great starting point.
These controllers offer the bare bones when it comes to features and connectivity. If you are not sure if DJing is something you have the time and dedication for these controllers offer a good way to test the waters.
- While these controllers are cheap they should still have 2 channels, a decent EQ section, and jogwheels. This allows you to experiment with all the fundamentals of DJing.
- To keep costs down these controllers often don’t have built-in soundcards. They will rely on your computer or laptop to process the audio.
- Avoid controllers that don’t allow you to alter the cue/mix in your headphones. This is what allows you to preview the next track and align it with the current track that is playing.
Native Instruments has been a mainstay of the DJ scene for a long time. Both in software and hardware. With the release of Traktor Pro 3, a fresh batch of Traktor compatible DJ controllers followed.
Native Instruments produces innovative and capable DJ hardware.
These controllers are well-built and feature-rich. They often have innovative features that set them apart from other controllers in the market. Access and control over stems also offer DJs a new way of DJing. It allows you to play a certain component of a track like a bassline or a drum section.
- Traktor controllers work with Traktor software. As a result, it is difficult to get them to work with other popular DJ software platforms. Traktor Pro 3 is excellent DJ software but it is still worth keeping in mind if you want to experiment with other software.
- Currently, Native Instruments is in the third generation (Mk3) of their line of controllers. While you can still pick up the previous generation of models I’d suggest you stick to the latest generation for the tightest integration.
- Native Instruments also offers a range of other hardware that is compatible with some of their controllers. If you have ambitions to expand your DJ skills or move into production there is a wide range of directions you can go in.
Serato DJ Controllers
Serato is another dominant force in the DJ scene. Their innovative line of software options has opened up digital DJing including digital vinyl mixing. As a result, most of the major DJ gear manufacturers offer a Serato compatible controller.
Serato is the most supported piece of DJ software with plenty of quality choices.
Serato offers DJs excellent control over their music. It is also a stable and reliable piece of software that has made it popular amongst professional DJs.
- When buying a Serato controller it’s worth keeping an eye out on if it comes with the Pro version or the Lite version. The Lite version is free but it locks out certain features. The biggest locked feature is the ability to record your mixes.
- Serato offers a wealth of functions. A good Serato control will have integrated controls over as many of these functions as possible. This allows you to spend less time playing with your laptop and more time engaged in your mix.
- Due to the popularity of Serato, there are over 90 compatible controllers available. Despite this massive number, you should stick to the major manufacturers like Pioneer, Denon, Roland, and Numark.
Pioneer DJ Controllers
Pioneer has a firm grip on the professional DJ scene. Their high-end gear is the mainstay of both clubs and festivals. This makes their controllers an excellent choice if you have ambitions of becoming a professional DJ.
Pioneer has a firm grip over club-gear making their controllers an excellent starting point.
While the range of Pioneer controllers can be more expensive they are well-built. Pioneer also has a range of controllers for their DJ software rekordbox. Originally a music library management tool it has evolved into a solid piece of DJ software and a legitimate alternative to Serato.
- Pioneer offers a large amount of DJ controllers. It’s worth checking compatibility with certain software if you have a preference.
- Controllers in the Pioneer range have an excellent reputation. It’s a brand you can trust.
- The modern generation of Pioneer controllers emulates the layout and features of high-end DJ gear. If you have plans on upgrading to club-level gear these controllers are a great option.
DJ Controllers For Scratching
DJs that want to explore scratching also have a large number of controllers to choose from. While on the surface most controllers have jogwheels the quality varies.
Despite what purists may have you believe you can execute the full array of scratches on a quality DJ controller. From baby scratches to crab scratches and everything in-between.
Modern DJ controllers are more than capable for executing scratch routines.
High-quality DJ controllers will also allow you to plug in external hardware like vinyl decks. This offers more flexibility. Tactile control over your music with all the performance features modern software offers.
- The jogwheels are the most important feature to consider when selecting a controller for scratching. You need jogwheels that are low-latency for maximum responsiveness. You also want the jogwheels to be a decent size to make it comfortable to scratch.
- Resistance and feel is another key feature of jogwheels. They shouldn’t be overly stiff but offer enough resistance to properly emulate the feel of scratching on vinyl-based gear.
- Paying extra attention to the crossfader is also important. A loose yet well-built crossfader is ideal for quick chops between channels. A replaceable crossfader is also great. It allows you to add a crossfader of your choice or replace a worn out or broken fader.
iPad DJ Controllers
With the growth in tablets a new market emerged. People wanted to access DJing without the need for a laptop or computer. From here a variety of controllers have come onto the market with varying degrees of success.
Adding a DJ controller to your iPad setup gives you more tactile control over your mixes.
The majority of these controllers are compact and aimed at beginner DJs. This does result in a reduction of features. What it does offer though is excellent portability. It’s never been easier to have everything you need to DJ fit into a backpack.
- The size of the controller is worth considering. If you want to play anywhere you don’t want a massive controller. Especially once you factor in the space that an iPad can take up.
- Connectivity becomes even more important in these compact setups. You’ll want to be able to plug speakers in if possible. Plus having the option to use it with a laptop as well as an iPad is ideal.
- There is a range of DJ apps available but some are better than others. It’s worth checking what software is compatible with the controller and if it’s good software. The ability to stream music from Soundcloud, Beatport or iTunes is also worth considering. Especially if you don’t have an existing music library.
4 Channel DJ Controllers
Once your skills expand you may be looking to move into 4 channel mixing. This style of mixing opens up a new world of creative options. You can layer several tracks at once and incorporate acapellas, scratch routines and more into your sets. It tests your skills and makes DJing an even more engaging experience.
Mixing with 4 channels is both challenging and rewarding.
Not every genre of music lends itself to 4 channel mixing. Likewise not every DJ wants to mix using 4 channels so understanding where you want to take your DJ journey is important. There is no point in spending extra to gain access to 4 channels if you have no intention of utilizing them.
- A spacious mixer section is important in 4 channel controllers. You’ll be spending a lot of time adjusting EQ and moving faders. Having enough space to do this comfortably will prevent mixing fatigue and keep you motivated.
- The software also plays an important role. When working with samples, acapellas and multiple tracks you want all that information to be clearly displayed. Good use of screen real estate is important along with stacked waveforms.
- The other component to keep in mind is latency. Changes you make to the audio should reflect quickly and precisely. Most modern controllers handle this well but it’s worth pointing out in case you’re looking at an older controller.
DJ Controllers With Screens
For the longest time DJ controllers didn’t offer screens. You needed to assess all the extra information from the software on your laptop or computer.
Once components became more affordable there was a rapid growth in controllers with screens. First, it came to high-end professional gear but eventually it made its way to controllers.
Screens are a mainstay of pro-level DJ gear and are now more common in controllers.
These controllers help detach you from your laptop and keep you engaged with your gear. Some can also serve as standalone controllers where a laptop isn’t even required.
- The screens are a critical component and need to be up to the task. They should be hi-res and a decent size. Touch controls are good but so are good navigation knobs. Factor this in if you prefer one over the other.
- The placement of the screens is also important. Some controllers will have smaller displays on the jogwheels. Others will have dedicated screens above the decks. Consider which option is more suitable to the style of mixing you do.
- Beyond size and quality, it’s also worth knowing what information is available on the screen. It should display the info logically so that you have all the vital info you need to execute your mixes.
All-In-One DJ Controllers
These controllers are usually aimed at the mobile DJ market. Having said that many DJs want to have a controller that doesn’t rely on a connected laptop.
If you are a mobile DJ these controllers will allow you to bring less gear to your gigs. It will also have a layer of redundancy since it is one less component in the chain that could fail.
All-in-one DJ controllers are an excellent choice for working mobile DJs.
Hobby DJs can also enjoy these types of controllers if their laptop or PC is a low spec machine. There is a certain amount of security that comes with having a controller that works independently of other hardware.
- Portability is a big consideration, especially for mobile DJs. You don’t want to replace a lightweight controller and laptop with a heavy standalone controller. Finding the balance between features, size, and weight is critical.
- Standalone systems often include screens to provide the ability to search and control your music library. The onboard software is an important factor to consider if this is the case. It should be easy to use and contain a good set of features comparable to regular DJ software.
- A standalone system removes the need for a laptop. But, it’s still worth investing in an all-in-one controller that supports connection to a laptop. This gives you more flexibility in case you want to switch between the two.
The Future Of DJ Controllers
DJ controllers have undergone some massive evolutions over the last few years. This trend is far from over with new models announced regularly. The latest DJ controllers keep pushing the boundaries of included features while upping the build quality.
There has never been a better time to get into DJing with so many great controller options. As the popularity of these digital controllers increases, I’d expect to see even more amazing choices in the future. I for one can’t wait to see what the next generation brings. But, in the meantime time what are you waiting for. Get yourself some gear and start spinning!