With the nature of today’s music-making software, it is possible to DJ with any DAW, or other audio manipulation software that outputs MIDI. It’s what you do with that MIDI information that counts.
Plug in any old MIDI controller and you will have plenty of tactile options to perform your music live. Take a look in many DJ booths this weekend and you may just see MIDI pad controllers from the likes of Novation, Akai and Native Instruments.
However, in this roundup, we’ll just be concerning ourselves those controllers aimed at digital DJs only rolling with laptops, or mobile devices, so there’ll be no CDJs and other timecode systems.
How to choose DJ Controller
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a DJ controller, the biggest being your choice of software. If you favor Serato DJ, it’s important to note that the software is only compatible with certain controllers, built in collaboration with Serato.
In fact, the majority of DJ controllers will be designed with one or two specific bits of software in mind, and many come with a certain application included in the price – so your choice of controller is likely to be very much influenced by your DJ app preference (or, possibly, vice versa).
It’s also worth considering whether you’ll need an audio interface built in – ie, the capability to connect turntables, CDJs or an instrument to your setup – and if you might want to expand with timecoded vinyl or CDs in the future. Some controllers included here also work as a standalone mixer, without the need to connect to a computer, which could be another consideration.
Then there’s size, looks, build quality, price… the list goes on. In short, it’s difficult to crown any one bit of kit ‘the best’ controller, but what we can do is present you with a round-up of our favorites among the options currently available.
Removing one of the most obvious controls from a DJ controller is a bold move, but NI claims that the new touch strips can be used in place of jog wheels and there’s some truth in this. With a track stopped, these can be used to ‘scratch’ the current track, while holding down Shift puts them into Seek mode, allowing the user to jump to any part of the track. With the track playing, these become Pitchbend controls, which – to be fair – are surprisingly well implemented and can be used for basic, ‘nudge’-style beat-matching. The absence of pitch faders rules out any serious beat-matching though.
The DDJ-SB3 is a 2-channel DJ controller that’s designed specifically for use with the Serato DJ Lite software. Its layout is similar to that of the more expensive DDJ-S devices and includes jog wheels, performance pads, play and cue buttons and independent auto loop buttons. Updated from the DDJ-SB2, the SB3 offers a feature called Pad Scratch, which was created in collaboration with DJ Jazzy Jeff. This enables you to initiate eight of his trademark scratch techniques – the scratch is automatically matched to the track’s BPM – which can be used in isolation or in combination with your own scratching.
Launch price: $1299/£1149/€1299 | Connectivity: 2x USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/96kHz | Analogue inputs: 6 | Analogue outputs: 3 | Digital connectivity: Stage LinQ
The MCX8000 from Denon DJ is the company’s flagship controller, which it proudly states is “the first true DJ hardware/software controller”. Bold words, but then the specs on the 8000 are pretty impressive. Not only can this 4-deck device be used to control Serato DJ on your computer, but thanks to the inclusion of the Denon DJ Engine software, it can also operate completely standalone. Comparatively cheaper than other standalone controllers from leading manufacturers, the MCX8000 also includes a Stage LinQ network connection to control lighting and video.
Pioneer DJ’s entry-level rekordbox DJ controller is relatively lightweight and not too bulky, so will fit inside most backpacks. Bundled with the controller is, of course, rekordbox DJ software, but rekordbox DVS isn’t included but a paid upgrade. Inspired by the larger RZ and RX models, the RB includes some more advanced features for a product in this price range. The Sequence Call function allows you to create sample sequences and then play them directly. Further performance functionality comes courtesy of Hot Cues, Pad FX, Beat Jump and the Slicer effect with the 16 performance pads
Best high-end rekordbox DJ controller
The DDJ-1000 is designed to take advantage of the new features in the updated version of rekordbox DJ software (v5.1). These include the Related Tracks feature, which gives you more options for finding tracks that are matched to the ones you’re currently playing. The rekordbox dj Plus Pack, meanwhile, adds an Automix feature – this uses the upgraded track analysis tools to automatically and seamlessly mix your music.
The Z1 is the same size and shape as the popular F1 and X1 controllers from NI, but the layout is that of a traditional two-channel DJ mixer, complete with a built-in audio interface for monitoring. This is Native’s Instruments’ first controller designed for use with Traktor DJ software on iOS, allowing for a very portable set-up.
A built-in sound card with master gain, headphone output for cueing and channel gain knobs makes DJ2GO2 an ideal portable pocket DJ controller. It has two channels with a crossfader and pitch faders for easy blending, while the pad modes give you access to performance controls typically found on larger controllers. The DJ2GO2 may not be everyone’s first choice, but for the price and such a small imprint in your gear list, could be the perfect back-up controller for the DJ on the road.
Launch price: $799/£635/€699 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/48kHz | Analogue inputs: 1 | Analogue outputs: 3 | Digital connectivity: iOS (DIN to Lightning)
The Mixon 4 from Reloop is the company’s flagship hybrid-controller and the only kind of its type in this guide. Designed for both Serato Pro DJ and Algoriddim djay PRO, the Mixon 4 is capable of mixing on PC, Mac, iOS and Android. Plus, there’s also Spotify integration within djay 2 software, which will require a premium subscription. The controller includes four deck control, a four channel audio interface, 16 performance pads and a docking station that can hold a 12.9” iPad Pro.
Pioneer DJ’s DDJ-SX line debuted back in 2012, and has arguably retained the crown of being the highest-quality, and most powerful Serato DJ controller available for under a grand. Version 3 arrived earlier this year, further refining the already winning formula. The DDJ-SX3 looks very similar to its predecessors. Again, the controller is small enough to transport pretty easily, but with its sturdy chassis and aluminium top it’s also rugged feeling, and you’d expect it to tolerate regular club use without issue. The jogwheels are small, but responsive and sturdy, with a feel not dissimilar to those on Pioneer’s CDJ line. The DDJ-SX3 is four-channel. Each channel of its central mixer can be switched between digital inputs from Serato DJ or analogue RCA, and the control decks can be flipped to control up to four Serato decks simultaneously. As a result, the SX3 can act as a hub/mixer for four digital decks, four external players or any combination of the above.