How to Choose a DJ Controller: A Complete Buyer’s Guide

DJ controllers are ideal for all DJs, regardless of experience or skill level. But with so many DJ controllers on the market, how can you choose one that works best for you?

Choosing a DJ controller depends on personal preferences. However, you must consider factors such as portability, functionality, type (modular or all-in-one), cost, and usability. The best DJ controller will make mixing audio tracks a lot easier, especially if you are a beginner in the DJing industry.

Read on to learn more about the different types of DJ controllers, features to look out for, and of course, how to choose a controller that’ll take your DJing career to the next level.

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What Is a DJ Controller?

DJ controllers are MIDI devices that help in the management of DJ-relevant computer programs. By mimicking the features and functions of a mixer and traditional turntable, DJ controllers allow you to perform several DJing functions simultaneously.

Controllers provide a balance between DJing hardware and software, thus making it easy to create mixes, cues, and playlists. With a controller by your side, you can mix tracks using various software programs, use faders, encoders, and jog wheels, among other features.

How Does a DJ Controller Work?

A DJ controller contains a microprocessor that allows for the control of DJ software instead of using a computer keyboard or touchpad to perform DJing functions. Controllers, however, cannot mix audio or sound signals. Instead, they send commands to your computer to allow the DJ software to conduct the mixing. A DJ controller will communicate with your laptop by using MIDI or HID protocols.

DJ controllers work by collecting audio signals from a linked computer. The controller acts as the interface where you can work and manipulate the audio, which is then relayed to your linked device.

By working hand in hand with the computer software, the controller helps to interpret data and ensure that your manual commands are accurately relayed on the screen. Several top-level controllers come with a built-in sound card that broadcasts your audio into your preferred output system.

For a DJ controller to work, you’ll need to connect it to your computer before proceeding to set up. Additionally, you must map the buttons, knobs, and faders to your DJ software to ensure it syncs well.

Once you sync the DJ controller with your DJ software, you’re good to go and can proceed with your DJing projects.

What DJ Software Does a DJ Controller Need?

A majority of high-quality DJ controllers usually come with DJ software. While some controllers have limited options in regards to DJ software, most are usually flexible and can use a variety of software provided they are compatible.

If you want to switch from software that came with your controller, you’ll need to purchase another program and synchronize it to your computer and controller. However, it is advisable to do your due diligence before purchasing a DJ software, more so to determine whether your preferred software is compatible with the controller.

Once you confirm that your controller is compatible with a variety of high-quality DJ software, the next step is to choose a software with features that suit your DJing style. Remember, different DJs have different styles, and what works for other DJs might not necessarily work for you.

As such, it is advisable that you conduct extensive research on the pros and cons of various DJ software that are compatible with your device.

So, what are some of the best DJ software options on the market?

Serato DJ is among the best software for DJ controllers. It comes with a host of features and is compatible with top-level controllers like Pioneer DDJ-SZ2, Numark NVII, and Denon DJ MC4000, and Pioneer DDJ-SX2 to name a few.

Other top DJ software options include Rekordbox, Traktor Pro 3, and Virtual DJ, which are highly compatible with different DJ controller brands.

All-in-One DJ Controllers vs. Modular Rigs: Which One Should You Choose?

Deciding between an all-in-one DJ controller and a modular rig can be difficult. Both have their pros and cons, and the right choice will depend on your specific preferences.

Modular DJ rigs have separate sound sources, such as media players, turntables, and analog mixers. On the other hand, all-in-one DJ controllers are a combination of a mixing section, computer interface, and media player that come in a single unit.

Some experienced DJs, especially those who have worked using vinyl, prefer the flexibility that comes with a modular system. If you chose the modular rig option, be sure to choose the right accessories to ensure you have a functional DJing system.

All-in-one DJ controllers have become increasingly popular over the years. As a result, they are widely recommended for both experts and newbie DJs looking to learn the ropes. However, due to the abundance of features, all-in-one controllers tend to cost more than modular rigs.

While you can opt for modular rigs due to their price-friendliness, buying an all-in-one controller will make your mixing and production process a lot easier.

Main Features of a DJ Controller

A DJ controller gives you full control over both software and settings. This means that by manipulating the mixer section, you can create playlists and fine-tune your mix using a linked computer.

Below are some of the main parts of a DJ controller.

Knobs

Knobs usually vary in number depending on the DJ controller you purchase.

The first (and arguably the most important) is the “Gain” or “Trim” knob that allows you to set your preferred sound levels manually. The second knob is more often than not used in equalizing tracks and effects.

Other knobs include the monitor, master, and cue knobs. The monitor knob allows you to set your preferred sound level in the mix while the master knob is for setting the sound level of your final output. The cue knob, on the other hand, is ideal for adjusting headphone volume.

Encoder

An encoder is a blend of hardware and software that enables the orderly conversion of analog signals into digitized files.

Jog Wheel

Also known as a shuttle dial or shuttle wheel, a jog wheel is a ring-shaped dial that allows a DJ to shuttle or jog through various types of video and audio media. It is among the main features of a DJ controller. Jog wheels allow you to control the audio playback speed, thus giving you more power to curate your playlists.

There are two main types of jog wheels. The first option has no stops, which allows you to spin it all the way around. However, you must be able to track the dial movement to use these wheels effectively. The second type has stops on both the left and right sides and has around four speeds, which vary depending on how far you turn.

Faders

Faders are crucial to the functioning of a DJ controller as they either increase or decrease the signal level of audio. They usually take the form of a knob or button that can easily slide along the track or slot.

Digital faders are also referred to as virtual faders and can be viewed on your workstation’s screen. High-end DJ controllers come with flying faders, which are known for their piezoelectric actuators. Learning to use faders will take your DJing to another level as you can set up audios exactly how you want them.

Buttons

Mix selection buttons help you pick out and monitor a particular channel before allowing the crowd to have a listen. These buttons increase your options when mixing, thus putting you in the driver’s seat when performing to a live audience.

Screen

The screen feature keeps improving as high-end brands continue to release advanced DJ controllers. A screen will show the audio levels and other essential parameters to ensure that your performance goes smoothly.

Some controllers have larger screens than others. The large screens help to keep your full attention on the controller as opposed to struggling to view indicators on your laptop.

Ports

Ports are essential for audio and USB connectivity. Expensive DJ controllers tend to have several USB and audio ports to allow for direct connection without the use of an external player.

Audio Interface

An all-in-one DJ controller also comes with an audio interface. The audio interface helps to improve and amplify sound quality from the DJ controller to the selected output device. Audio interfaces can also have outlets for headphones and a host of other sound processors.

Factors to Consider When Buying a DJ Controller

There are several well-known brands that sell quality DJ controllers. However, before selecting a particular product, be sure to consider the following factors.

Cost

When starting as a DJ, buying an ultra-expensive DJ controller is not advisable. However, if you want to buy a higher-end model, be sure to select an option that isn’t overly complicated.

There are several controller “tiers” to select from depending on your budget:

  • The high-end options usually have multiple screens that allow for the display of crucial functions and displays. You can also expect fast response time and high-resolution interfaces when working with expensive DJ controllers. Moreover, most high-end DJ controllers come with all-metal constructions that guarantee durability.      
  • Mid-range options also have impressive features. However, most come with a single screen that is centrally placed between the jog wheels. These controllers tend to respond fast, although not as quickly as the premium options. Also, most mid-range options aren’t as well-spaced as their high-end counterparts.
  • Budget options, on the other hand, come with relatively limited features such as limited software compatibility, reduced interface space. However, basic features like jog wheels, knobs, and faders are usually present, which can help you get started in your DJing career.   

Mobility

DJs are always on the move, heading from one gig to the next. If you’re going to be traveling to different locations with your controller, you’ll need to consider the weight and size of your controller before making a purchase decision.

Some controllers are compact to allow for increased mobility while others are larger to accommodate additional on-board features. You can probably handle a controller of any size if you’re constantly switching venues – you’ll just need to make sure you have a case that can protect your controller when traveling.

Software

You’ll need to find a controller that’s compatible with most DJing software. But before you purchase any controller, be sure to inquire about the software that comes with your preferred controller. Most popular DJing software is compatible with most high-quality controllers.

Avoid buying cheap controllers that offer little when it comes to software compatibility. Understanding how a DJ software works can take some time, so finding a standard software that you can use as you upgrade to other DJ controllers will come in handy.

Compatible Hardware

Just like software, hardware compatibility is a crucial factor to consider when buying a DJ controller. Experienced DJs will naturally opt for advanced controllers with a host of hardware features; however, these controllers are usually expensive.

If it’s your first time using a DJ controller, you might want to start with an easy to use but highly functional controller. Always check for the hardware supported before settling for a particular controller.  

All-in-one controllers usually have abundant hardware features. But if you prefer the modular option, inquire about compatibility before buying any external devices. You might spend so much on external devices and sound cards only to discover they are incompatible with your modular rig.

Screen

Nowadays, most controllers try to integrate small LCDs in their design. While not a must-have for controllers, LCD’s usually help to keep your eyes glued to the controller as opposed to constantly juggling between your laptop and the DJ controller.

Some controllers come with small LCDs attached on the surface, while others can have one large screen that pops up once lifted by the user. All in all, a screen is not a must-have for a controller, and you might have to work without one if your budget is low.

Complexity  

As technology advances, so do controller features. Newly released controllers usually come packed with additional features. While most advances help to increase usability and efficiency when performing DJ work, some additional features are unnecessary and only make the controller increasingly complex.

If you are a first-timer looking to learn the ropes on how to use a DJ controller, going for a highly sophisticated device might not be the best idea. Upcoming DJs can be overwhelmed with complex features-exactly why you need to start with a controller that suits your experience level.

Design

Do you prefer a no stop jog wheel or one with stops? DJ controllers come in different styles as some are small, while others are large. Some have additional buttons and connectivity ports, while others have limited features. All the same, it is advisable to choose a simplistic controller that is easy to use regardless of your DJing experience.

Capability

You’ll need a powerful controller if you intend to perform in big shows. As such, you must be prepared to spend more to get a high-capability controller that can function for long durations and work well with other DJing devices.

Small or low capability controllers should only be used for practice sessions. Using such devices for lengthy or high-powered shows can leave you disappointed, especially if the controller malfunctions or fails to keep up with the pace of the other superior devices.

FAQs About DJ Controllers

Should I Buy an Older Controller Model That Is Cheap or Settle for a Recent Release?

The functionality of DJ controllers relies heavily on DJ software. You’ll find that DJ software updates tend to lean more towards new controllers with increased functionality. Therefore, going for an older controller might lead to software issues and reduced functionality, which is not ideal for a beginner or an experienced DJ.

Do I Need a Sound Card or Audio Interface?

Controllers have improved over the years. Initially, having a sound card was a necessity as controllers performed the sole function of controlling the DJ software.

However, controllers have become increasingly versatile to the extent that almost all medium to high priced controllers have built-in sound cards.

You can determine if your controller has an audio interface by checking for a headphone port. Note that if you’re building a modular rig system, you will have to buy your own sound card. Remember, the minimum specification for DJ sound cards is “4-out.”

Should I Change the Software for My Controller?

DJ controllers usually come with their own proprietary software. It is not advisable to change the software, especially if you have little experience in how the controllers work.

However, in recent years, the major controller manufacturers have started to partner with well-known DJ software companies in efforts to improve customer experience and functionality. The collaboration has ensured that DJs can access more features on their controllers, thus allowing for increased efficiency and accuracy when creating playlists and prepping for shows.  

In most cases, controllers come with “cut down” software that you’ll need to upgrade at an extra cost.

Conclusion

Finding the best DJ controller depends on where you are in your DJing career. Upcoming DJs need fairly simple controllers that are easy to use and understand. However, if you’re an experienced DJ, then a feature-rich controller with increased functionality will suffice.

Before buying a controller, remember to check on both software and hardware compatibility to ensure you get a product that brings out your best as a DJ.

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