Beginner's Guide to DJ controllers in 2018

Long gone are the days when DJ controllers can be looked down upon. With most high-end controllers offering more advanced features than the industry standard CDJs, it isn't difficult to see why. DJ controllers are the most cost-effective way to DJ and require minimum setup because they are an all in one package. If you are a beginner DJ, do not spend thousands of pounds on a pro setup, instead, invest in a controller - the payoff is significantly better. The past couple of years has even seen the onset of high-end standalone DJ controllers which can work without a laptop connected, so if you don't want to be tethered to a computer, the options are now here!

Note: this article covers DJ controllers for the fairly traditional DJing style provided by DJ software. If you are looking for a guide on more live-performance-based controllers, check out this article instead!


Benefits of Using a Controller
  • All in one package.
  • Cheaper than CDJs
  • Easier to set up than CDJs
  • Can be small and portable 
  • Offers the same basic functionality as CDJs
  • Often have more advanced features than CDJs
Considering this demonstrates using the setup with a computer, you can get a similar setup with a controller for ~£9000 cheaper


The image above shows the Pioneer Nexus Range of CDJs for festivals and large gigs, while offering supreme reliability and familiarity for performers, they don't offer an additional £9500 of functions compared to a £500 controller. 

To put into perspective, my Denon MC7000 (first image) has 4 channels of playback, a 4 channel mixer with external input, FX, and advanced pad control. The main differences are that my controller doesn't have screens, needs a laptop, has pads (which the CDJs don't), and is more than £9000 cheaper. Seems pretty worth it right?

This article is going to divide the controllers into the following groups:
  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Pro 
  • Standalone

A Quick Note About Brands

Before we get to the list, I will mention the current climate of the DJ gear industry and the main brands. 

Pioneer is the dominant brand at every level of DJing, they offer the reassurance of quality and have one of the broadest ranges of options from beginner to pro gear, across several different software options. They make the industry standard CDJ range and so a lot of the technology is the same in the controllers. A user of Pioneer controllers will understand the CDJs very easily.



Pioneer makes controllers for both Serato, and their own software, Rekordbox. That's not to say that their controllers won't work with software such as Traktor and Virtual DJ, but they are specifically designed with either of the aforementioned in mind.

With Pioneer controllers, you are normally paying more than the equivalent from other brands. This is because they can charge more due to their global reputation, and build quality. If you are tight for money, it may be wise going for another brand as you could save a good chunk of cash without compromising on features. They are however worth the investment.




Denon DJ is a sudden storm on the scene, having made controllers for a while, they have suddenly played a power move against Pioneer with their SC5000 Prime players in an attempt to take over the industry standard. These players are a direct equivalent to the CDJ 2000 Nexus 2s, with a slightly different feature set, which includes pads.



Denon also has a range of controllers which work with Serato, and Denon's own new software Engine Prime. These controllers are cheaper than Pioneer's models of equivalent features and are of very similar build quality. What you don't get however, is the broad selection of controllers, especially at the lower end of the range.





Numark is one of the long-running companies that has offered DJ control, especially at the lower budget range, for years. They are especially good for offering value to DJs, with low-cost setups that don't compromise on features. 


They have also made CDJ players and standalone controllers, but they have never been at the pro end of the market and are now quite outdated. Numark gear has become a lot more professional looking in the past few years too, with metal chassis builds and moving from all plastic knobs. 

They have a few controllers at the higher end, and also offer peripheral devices such as screens for DJs who don't want to stare at their laptops.





Native Instruments make controllers specifically for their Traktor software. These controllers are innovative in many ways, with several opting away from the traditional platter design, focusing more on beat pads to trigger stems. 


It's important to know if you are considering buying their products, that you should be running Traktor DJ software with them as these are designed specifically for Traktor DJ. 





Roland DJ have been one of the most recent innovators in the industry of DJ controllers, having used their experience in synths and drum machines to create a controller range that integrates well into their Aira performance setup. Their latest controllers have built-in drum machines and unique features not seen elsewhere.

There are many more brands out there, especially in the budget ranges where demand is the highest, but these are the most major brands at the moment. I am not telling you to disregard the other brands, but make sure to do some research into the smaller ones so you know that, at the very least, you can get a reliable device and customer support if needed.






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Beginner Controllers

Beginner controllers are where most DJs start. They are also where most DJs can stick. These are controllers that will allow you to DJ a set both at home and live. They are normally the smallest, offering the best options for portability. 

They typically have 2 channels, basic mixing, and basic outputs. If we compare to the setups of traditional vinyl DJs, this is all they had. Beginner controllers are in the most competitive bracket and so companies often also cram features found in more pro gear onto their budget range to ensure they have a competitive edge. 

If you are buying a beginner controller, you should look for pads, FX controls, and headphone control. These are features which most controllers these days have, and so should really be present in one you consider.

I am also going to suggest you don't buy the cheapest controllers, you will just have to upgrade again soon because they are basically toys. The following selection will show you the most basic controllers you should go for, which still have all the features you need to perform a live set.


As you can see in the options above, the ideal price range is around £150-£300. My personal recommendation out of this list is the Numark Mixtrack Pro 3. It has long 100mm pitch faders for accurate beatmatching (rare at this price range), full EQ and dedicated filter knobs, pads, FX, and even a touch strip.

A MASSIVE warning for people looking into controllers at this price range: make sure they have a built-in sound card. Beginner controllers sometimes have two models, one with a sound card, and one without. You want a controller with a sound card, otherwise, you then will have to buy one separately. 

That is the difference between the Mixtrack 3, and Mixtrack Pro 3. The Mixtrack Pro 3 has the soundcard, while a little bit more expensive, it is the version you want to buy. Don't be fooled into thinking you have found a great deal when it turns out that the model doesn't have a soundcard.

Intermediate Controllers

This group of controllers tends to be a bit more advanced, and with additional features. The intermediate range is where you start seeing controllers with four decks of playback instead of two. Many of these controllers also unlock the pro versions of software such as Serato.

The list below is not exhaustive, but it should give a good idea of what features are in this range. Many of the features are not dissimilar from the budget range, but with much better builds and normally more intuitive interfaces.

Expect better platters and controls made of higher quality materials. High-resolution knobs and velocity pads normally start in this range.

The outputs of many of these controllers have more options, allowing you more flexibility in setting up for live situations. Some of the controllers even have screens on them, allowing you to leave your laptop out of sight (but still connected).


At this range, you should be able to perform a DJ set that is more advanced than anything you can do on a standard CDJ setup. The features on these controllers often involve advanced looping, cues, slicing, and a variety of other things that can't be achieved on the Nexus 2 Pioneer Setup.

The top end of this price range gets quite blurry, especially when controllers straddle the line between intermediate and pro features, so I set a hard cutoff at £650.


Pro Controllers

Here we see the most advanced controllers on the market today. I have set no upper price limit for these as they can get quite expensive. I have also separated out the pro controllers from the standalone controllers so you can see them in different sections. 

All these controllers have advanced I/O and normally offer a mixer that can receive turntable/CDJ inputs as well, to allow a hybrid setup. They have high-quality soundcards and will typically come bundled with the pro versions of software, and even sometimes add-ons such as DVS support.

Some of these controllers come with dual soundcards which means that two laptops can be plugged in at once, this is extra handy for DJ changeovers and back to back sets where switching laptops would otherwise mean the music stops. If this is something you are into, definitely make this a priority for selecting a controller.


Notable controllers in this list are the Numark NS7 III controller which has motorised vinyl platters, these are ideal for scratch DJs as it mimics the turntable surface. While it doesn't play vinyl itself, it is the closest controller to the real experience.

The Roland DJ-808 has a full built-in drum machine, it is a colossal controller but has some really great features that make it stand out from the rest.

The Pioneer controllers are quite hard to tell apart from face value, and the naming scheme seems confusing, the ones which use "S" are for Serato, and those that use "R" are for Rekordbox. The RZ is one of their top models with the actual platters used on their top CDJs, while the RX has smaller platters. The RZX is the biggest which includes 3 screens and can mix video too.

These controllers are all massive and so portability is not a strong point. I own a Denon MC-7000, and the flight-case is colossal. It is only really transportable with a trolley or a car (and it is one of the smaller controllers in this range). Bear this in mind if you are a mobile DJ as these aren't controllers which you can walk across town with.

Standalone Controllers

These controllers will fit nicely into the pro category, but I have kept them separate because they also work as standalone DJ devices. These devices blur the lines between controllers and players, because they don't necessarily just control software, they are fully capable of working without a laptop.

 


Whether you plan on buying one of these or not, it is worth looking them up, because some venues have decided to go for these as the main setup to reduce cost. They are very similar to use compared with CDJs and Controllers alike and so you won't find too much difficulty.



If you don't own a laptop, these might be your best bet for DJing with a portable setup as you only need to analyse your tracks at home and bring the USB sticks and controller to where you need to be.




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