Although CDs are probably still the club DJs weapon of choice, more and more people are succumbing to the flexible temptations of software mixing. In fact, you will be hard pushed to find a club night where no DJs whatsoever mix off a laptop, and with this medium growing in popularity all the time, I doubt it will be long before laptops truly take over!
Because of the flexibility of DJ software, laptop mixing can take on a variety of forms. In its most traditional form, DJ software can be used in combination with timecoded vinyls and CDs, allowing the DJ to use standard decks to mix, whilst making use of the added benefits of software, such as quantized looping, effects, accurate automatic beat-matching and the fact that you can carry your whole music library on a portable laptop.
However, there are a number of other ways to DJ with a laptop as well. In its most basic form, laptop DJing is just that – using some software on a laptop to perform your mixes and using a mouse and the keyboard to control them. However, this way of working is (in my opinion), rather tedious, very limited, not very fun and not very engaging for a crowd. For mobile DJs who aren’t going to be worrying about pulling off endless DJ tricks, a laptop with some software will probably suffice, but in a nightclub, where people expect a little more from a DJ, you’re probably not going to gain many fans if you have to stare at a screen all night in order to keep your mixes interesting. Therefore manufacturers have come up with a number of products that allow laptop DJs to mix and interact with software in more hands-on and intuitive ways.
Many of these controllers employ a traditional layout (for obvious reasons) with two jog wheels surrounding a mixer, but instead of physically playing anything themselves, they simply serve to control a piece of DJ software. Other software controllers employ similar concepts with slight twists, and some even get rid of the jog wheels altogether, instead opting for new and unique designs to help DJs control a mix.
Many controllers are designed to work with a specific piece of DJ software, so their layout reflects how the software looks and functions. Over the course of this article, I am going to introduce you to the differences between various industry leading DJ software packages and products, to help you decide which ones would suit you best.
Due to the variety of products available in this category, I have decided to split the information across multiple pages, arranged as follows:
1. Introduction (This Page!)
2. DJ Software
3. DJ Controllers for Beginners/Hobbyists
4. DJ Controllers for Intermediate DJs/Semi-Pro DJs
5. DJ Controllers for Semi-Pro/Pro DJs
Just click the page links below to navigate through the various sub-categories :)
Traktor Pro 2 is the industry leading DJ software from Native Instruments. It features an intuitive layout, up to four virtual decks (for highly creative performances), quantized looping, a load of effects, sample decks and a loop recorder for live remixes and mash-ups and a lot more! It even features an excellent browsing system for locating tracks on your computer and it can instantly link to your iTunes library if you require.
Traktor Pro 2 features an excellent automatic beat-matching algorithm, meaning that you can be extremely confident that your mixes will always be perfectly in time. However, if you have a song with an unusual beat structure and Traktor fails to properly analyse its tempo, you can also easily edit the beat grid and save it with the file, meaning that it is prepared for rock-solid mixes in future sets. You can also save cue points in your songs, which means that you don’t have to set them again and again, which is great for speeding up your mixflow (if that’s a word!) and for performing live remixes.
Whilst the software interface of Traktor Pro 2 is excellent and includes a waveform overview for seeing how a song is structured and a zoomed colour-coded waveform view for accurate cueing and looping of your tracks, the fact that a serious DJ is going to want to tweak multiple parameters quickly and simultaneously means that a mouse is not the most practical way to control it.
Luckily, Traktor Pro 2 has a number of ways of getting around this, either by using it with timecoded vinyls or CDs (available in Traktor Scratch packages), or by using a hardware DJ controller. Check out our recommendations over the following pages for examples of compatible controllers.
Traktor is available in a variety of different packages, with Traktor Duo only allowing you to run up to 2 virtual decks, and the Traktor Scratch packages coming with a pair of timecoded vinyls and CDs, and an interface for connecting your turntables.
For more information on any Traktor product, click the relevant link below:
Serato is a similar program to Traktor. It used to be the weapon of choice for most laptop DJs, but has since lost a lot of users to the mighty Traktor Pro.
Serato is a brilliant professional piece of software, which can do pretty much everything that Traktor can! In all honesty, there isn’t much to choose between them, although I personally prefer the layout of Traktor software (although I’m sure there are people out there that will disagree with me).
A version of Serato called ‘ITCH’ comes bundled with a number of hardware controllers. This is a professional piece of DJ software that offers most of the features of the full version, but is especially designed to work with specific pieces of DJ hardware for more hands-on control.
Again, VirtualDJ is very similar to both Traktor and Serato, but although it features some advantages over its rivals (such as the ability to use up to 99 virtual decks simultaneously), it has less dedicated hardware support compared to Traktor and Serato. However, there is an excellent free version of VirtualDJ available for download from the official VirtualDJ website, which is a brilliant solution for hobbyist DJs and for house parties, and you will also find a copy of Virtual DJ LE included with a selection of budget hardware DJ controllers.
Ableton Live is both a fully-featured DAW for professional recording and music production, and a complex piece of DJ software. Ableton Live implements a less traditional way of DJing and one that generally requires a lot more planning and preparation, but if you invest the time, the results can be absolutely amazing!
Rather than working with two ‘decks’, Ableton requires you to work with ‘clips’. These clips can be whole songs, small sections of songs, one-shot samples, or loops. You can then load these clips into Ableton’s matrix-style layout, and pick and choose when clips are played, how they are played, and how they are mixed with other clips. Sound complicated? It can take some getting used to and will certainly require a lot of practice, but when you get it right, you will find that you can do things that you could only dream of with traditional mixing methods!
With Ableton, you have comprehensive control over how a song evolves and you can completely alter a song's structure depending on how you decide to trigger your clips. For example, you may want to prolong an intro, miss out the bridge or shorten a breakdown, etc. You could also add looped drum beats or synth melodies over the top of a song to change its feel! As you are not limited to the pre-recorded structure of a song, you aren’t just acting as a DJ – you also have to play the part of a real-time composer/conductor!
Ableton works particularly well with your own material (if you produce), because you will tend to have access to isolated sections of your song (e.g. drums, lead, bass, vocal, etc), so you can get as creative as you want, dropping individual elements in and out of the mix as you see fit. However, if you invest time in chopping up existing tracks, you can also get extremely experimental and creative.
Ableton comes packed with effects and synth instruments (especially the Suite version, which features additional plug-ins), which means that you can hook up a MIDI performance controller (such as a keyboard or set of drum pads) and play Ableton's sounds in real-time along with your mix! You can even record live instruments into Ableton and loop them in real-time, making Ableton one of the most powerful and flexible DJ solutions on the market.
Ableton contains some excellent beat-detection algorithms, which means that it is very good at automatically beat-syncing songs. However, if it gets it wrong, you can also easily manually edit the beat grid and save the results with the song, ensuring that it is fully prepared for beatmatching in future. It even includes different algorithms for analysing and time-stretching different types of material, so that you can always be sure of getting the best from your sounds, whether you are working with a percussive loop, a vocal loop, an instrument loop or a complete song!
Ableton Live 8 comes in a variety of versions, including a cut-down 'Ableton Intro' version and a version called 'Ableton Suite', which includes more plug-in instruments and effects than the standard package. Ableton is also available at special educational prices for students and teachers and it comes included in a host of different bundle deals with other equipment.
For more information on any Ableton product, click the relevant link below:
DJ CONTROLLERS FOR BEGINNERS/HOBBYISTS
The DJ2GO is a compact and portable DJ controller at a budget price. It works with most DJ software and features a number of basic deck controls, such as simple jog-wheels, pitch faders, a crossfader, buttons for playing, cueing and syncing your tracks, level controls and browsing controls.
For hobbyist DJs who are on a budget, it’s a great product! However, its lack of complex controls means that it is only really suitable for DJs that need to perform using the most basic mixing techniques, and its size means that it’s certainly not suitable anyone who wants to learn how to scratch!
For more information on the Numark DJ2GO, click the link below:
The Numark iDJ Live is a controller for DJ apps on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch! It features a dock for your iOS device as well as two jog wheels (which can be used to perform scratching) and some basic mixer controls. Because of its limited number of controls, you aren’t exactly going to be able to do anything too unique, although for performing simple mixes in your bedroom or for a bit of fun at parties, it is ideal!
For more information on the Numark iDJ Live, click the link below:
The X-Session Pro provides a basic mixing interface for any DJ software that supports MIDI learn. It features four up-faders (for volume and/or pitch control), 12 knobs (for EQ and/or effects control), a crossfader, 2 headphone cue buttons and 8 additional assignable buttons (for the likes of playing and pausing your tracks).
Because the X-Session Pro only contains very basic traditional mixing controls, I would only recommend it for DJs that don’t need to perform any complex tricks. For DJs that are learning to beatmatch using a piece of DJ software, it is ideal, but as the X-Session Pro doesn’t allow you to get hands-on with virtual decks or save multiple cue points, it really isn’t a solution for digital DJs with big aspirations.
For more information on the M-Audio X-Session Pro, click the link below:
The MixTrack is a simple budget controller with two jog wheels, pitch faders and some basic mixing controls. However, it also features simple loop and effects controls, meaning that you can use it to get hands-on with some more complex controls. It even comes with a free copy of Traktor Pro LE, which gives you a slightly cheaper upgrade path to the full version of Traktor Pro 2 if you decide that you want a more serious piece of software in the future.
Whilst the MixTrack is by no means a professional DJ solution (mainly due to the fact that it doesn’t allow you to save and recall multiple cue points or trigger samples, etc.), it is a fantastic solution for anyone on a budget who is looking to enter the world of digital DJing. Despite its low cost, it allows you to get a good feel for digital DJing and introduces you to the basics of Traktor software, whilst also featuring some controls for some more advanced tricks (including basic scratching). Anyone who gets hooked on the MixTrack will inevitably want to upgrade to something with more flexibility and features in the future, but for beginner DJs, hobbyists and for small parties, the MixTrack is a whole lotta’ fun!
There is also a MixTrack Pro version on this popular controller, which features headphone and direct outputs as well as a microphone input, so you can hook it straight up to a speaker system and get mixing without any additional equipment.
For more information on the Numark MixTrack or MixTrack Pro, click the relevant link below:
The Numark iDJ3 is similar to the MixTrack Pro, although instead of featuring any effects controls, it has a dock and a mixer channel for an iPhone/iPod, meaning that you can play tracks from an attached iOS device or record directly to a relevant app.
For more information on the Numark iDJ3, click the link below:
DJ CONTROLLERS FOR INTERMEDIATE DJS/SEMI-PRO DJS
The Numark N4 is a feature-packed and very reasonably priced 4-deck controller for your DJ software. You can even use its four-channes as a standalone mixer if you plug external turntables into it, which makes this a very flexible piece of kit.
The controller itself features two sturdy jog-wheels and EQ, loop and effects controls, and comes included with Serato DJ Into and Virtual DJ LE software.
For more information on the Numark N4, click the link below:
The Numark iDJ Pro is a DJ controller with a unique difference. Instead of having a standard mixer section with up-faders, it features an iPad dock for seamless integration with Algoriddim’s djay for iPad app! This allows you to use the flexible touchscreen controls of your iPad to load and edit effects, select songs, or even record your mixes!
The hardware controller itself features two touch-sensitive jog-wheels along with cue, loop, pitch, EQ, volume and effects controls, plus a crossfader. Although many people will prefer to work with a more traditional-style of DJ controller, the iDJ Pro certainly offers something different for any iPad addicts out there! Could this be a glimpse into the future of DJing?
For more information on the Numark iDJ Pro, click the link below:
In my opinion, the DDJ-ERGO-V is one of the most sleek and stylish-looking DJ controllers on the market. It certainly looks the part at a party with its smooth corners, compact design and mesmerising flashing lights! However, most important of all is the fact that it is packed with professional features for rocking a dancefloor and creating complex mixes!
Whilst you are unlikely to see top club DJs using the DDJ-ERGO-V (mainly due to the fact that there are more feature-packed controllers out there) for hobbyist DJs right through to semi-pro DJs, the ERGO-V should more than suffice.
The DDJ-ERGO-V features two very good jog-wheels for mixing and scratching, and offers 4-deck control with filters, effects, hot cues and looping. As with most controllers around this price range, it features a mic input, headphone output and master outputs, plus a stereo Aux input (for playing tracks from an MP3 player, for example). It comes bundled with Virtual DJ Limited Edition, although it is compatible with most big-name DJ software, and it features a handy design that allows you to slide your laptop keyboard underneath it for a very neat set-up all round! Plus, the lights on the ERGO-V flash depending on the function you are using, making it a very eye-catching product as well... and you can even use it for VJing (mixing visuals)!
For more information on the Pioneer DDJ-ERGO-V, click the link below:
DJ CONTROLLERS FOR SEMI-PRO/PRO DJS
The Dicer’s come in pairs and are designed for anyone using timecoded vinyls or CDs. They attach to a standard vinyl or CD turntable and give you quick, hands-on access to some of your most used software parameters such as cue points, effects and looping. If you're not using timecoded vinyls, you can also stick them to your laptop or controller using the included putty to add extra immediate hands-on controls to your set-up.
These are absolutely brilliant products for anyone who needs to perform frantic and creative mixes (especially with timecoded vinyls/CDs), which makes them especially popular with turntablists, as they help bridge the gap between traditional mixing and software mixing in a simple and easy-access design.
For more information on the Novation Dicers, click the link below:
The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol X1 is a compact controller for some of Traktors’ more complex functions. Whilst by itself it is not a complete DJ controller solution (as it features no jog wheels or mixer controls), it is an excellent add-on for an existing controller set-up as it can really extend the hands-on capabilities of your system. It can also be used in isolation with a laptop for DJs that aren't fussed about having jog wheel controls.
You can use the Kontrol X1 to activate/deactivate effects, adjust effect parameters, browse your library, load songs, create and adjust loops, etc. You can even connect two Kontrol X1’s into your system for complex four-channel control.
For more information on the Traktor Kontrol X1, click the link below:
Ooh, shiny! Despite its price, the Novation Lauchpad actually has a fantastic build and is an excellent flexible controller. Designed to work with Ableton Live, the Launchpad is built with a matrix layout of 8 x 8 multi-coloured back-lit square buttons with 16 control buttons around the edges. You can use the buttons of the launchpad to launch clips, control track settings (e.g. levels, pan, solo, etc.) and control your instruments and effects! You can even assign the buttons as hotkeys in your DAW, so that you can integrate it into a studio set-up when you are not using it for live performance purposes. You can also use multiple Launchpads together to build up a more complete controller set-up.
We sell the Launchpad in a variety of different bundle packages, so check them out below!
For more information on the Launchpad or any Launchpad bundle, click the relevant link below:
The Novation Zero SL MkII is a popular product to use with the Launchpad (see above) and Ableton as it adds a selection of sliders and knobs to the host of buttons that you get with the Launchpad, making it easier to smoothly control your mixer, instrument and effect parameters in your software. However, the Zero SL MkII can also be used as a controller in your studio and/or with any other DJ software, especially as it comes with Novation's famous Automap software, which automatically maps the hardware controls to parameters in compatible sotware.
For more information on the Novation Zero SL MkII or any associated bundles, click the links below:
APC controllers combine the principles of the Lauchpad and the Novation Zero SL MkII (see above) into one unit, equipping you with a matrix of buttons to launch and control your Ableton clips, and a selection of other controllers for more in-depth control of other parameters.
Again, we offer a range of APC bundles that equip you with a full digital DJing hardware/software set-up, so check out the links below!
For more information on the Akai APC20 or APC40, or any related bundle, click the links below:
The Twitch is a professional DJ controller with a difference. Instead of featuring jog wheels, it features a touchstrip for each channel. This means that you can navigate through, or speed up and slow down a track simply by swiping on these touchstrips. The fact that the Twitch doesn’t have any jog wheels is also a great space-saving design advantage, making it one of the most compact professional controllers on the market.
As well as a standard 2-channel mixer with a crossfader, 3-band EQ, and effect and browsing controls, the Twitch also features 8 mini-pads per deck, which can be used for setting and triggering multiple cue points, triggering samples and looping. This allows you to get really creative, meaning that you can create live remixes and mash-ups on-the-fly! You can even do things like assign the up-faders so that instead of controlling the levels of each track, they control certain effect parameters, allowing you to create choppy, stuttered effects a lot more accurately than if you were to attempt this using a dial.
The Twitch comes with Serato ITCH software, although it is also fully compatible with the likes of Traktor and Ableton Live. In fact, when used with Ableton Live, the multi-coloured backlit pads are especially handy for triggering clips! Although not having jog wheels to work with will put scratch DJs and traditionalists off the Twitch, its portability and sheer number of features has seen it gain a lot of fans, including a number of big-name professional DJs. Although it’s not too suitable for traditional beatmatching, if you’re happy to use the auto-sync function of your software, the Twitch provides you with more than enough controls to take your mixes in new and unique directions.
For more information on the Novation Twitch, click the link below:
Traktor Kontrol interfaces are some of the most popular controllers for Traktor software users and for very good reason! Because the S2 and S4 are made by Native Instruments, they give you the tightest, most seamless integration with Traktor Pro software out of any controllers on the current market. The layout of the hardware S2/S4 controls closely resembles the layout of the Traktor software, making switching between looking at the two extremely easy. Because Traktor is such a powerful piece of software, the controllers have to have the features to match, so you will find them equipped with EQs, detailed effects controls, loop controls, loop recorder controls, hot-cue buttons, sample triggers and more!
The feel of the Traktor Kontrol controllers is also very good. The faders are sturdy and smooth, and although there are better jog wheels on the market, for most mixing and scratching purposes, they should be more than adequate.
The main difference between the Kontrol S2 and S4 is that the S4 allows you to control up to four of Traktor’s decks, whereas the S2 can only control up to two decks at once. There are a few other little differences as well, such as the Kontrol S2 features a few less controls, but for the most part, they are both very similar. Both also feature all the inputs and outputs that you would need for DJing, including outputs that allow you to hook the Kontrol controllers straight up to a main PA or speaker system.
For more information on the Traktor Kontrol S2 or S4, click the relevant link below:
The NS6 is a highly professional 4-deck DJ controller from Numark. It is packed with controls and features two of the best-feeling controller jog wheels that I have ever managed to get my hands on! Seriously! They are very smooth, ideally weighted and they have a very solid metal feel to them, so if you’re into your scratching, or you play around with the jog wheels a lot during your performances, this beast is definitely worth considering.
As well as all the usual pro features (EQ, effects controls, looping controls, etc), it also features touchstrips on each physical deck, allowing you to navigate your way through your tracks with speed and ease. It even features intuitive lights that spin around the static jog wheels in time with your song and change colour depending on which virtual deck you have selected. Plus, you can even plug in your own external turntables and mics to incorporate other sources into your sets.
The NS6 comes with Serato ITCH, although it can be used with most other DJ software. It’s by no means as smoothly integrated with Traktor Pro as the Kontrol S2 and S4 though!
The 4TRAK is similar to the NS6, but it has been especially designed for use with the included Traktor 2 4TRAK Edition software. Just like the NS6, it features two excellent quality jog-wheels and those innovative touchstrips, but it is laid out a little differently in order to make more sense with Traktor software. Amongst the differences is that fact that the 4TRACK features an angled back panel with detailed FX controls for easy access during a performance.
For more information on the Numark NS6 or the 4TRAK, click the relevant link below:
The Pioneer DDJ-T1 and DDJ-S1 are some of the slickest and most professional DJ controllers on the market, featuring classic Pioneer designs, which closely resemble the layouts of Pioneer’s professional CD decks and mixers. If you are planning on working with both laptop software and CDs (e.g. having a controller for mixing at home and using CD decks in clubs), then these controllers would be a very good choice because even though you are switching between mixing mediums, the layouts and controls will stay familiar.
As well as featuring two sturdy jog wheels, loop, effect, cue and mixer controls, they also feature touchstrips for quickly navigating through tracks. The DDJ-T1 is a two-channel controller that has been specifically designed to work with the included Serato ITCH, and the DDJ-T1 is a four-channel controller for the included Traktor Pioneer software.
For more information on the Pioneer DDJ-S1 or DDJ-T1, click the links below: