So you want to start mixing tracks like a pro DJ…
So what is really missing? Well, something you can actually manipulate and play on with your own hands, right?
And although there are a couple of devices that allow DJs to mix music… the most common ones AND the ones that are the most used by beginners…are DJ Controllers.
Why? Because they combine pretty much everything DJs need in one single device:
- 2 or 4 decks
- A mixer
You just need to plug them to your computer running a DJ software, plug them to whatever sound output you’ll be using and you’re good to go.
As many other DJ equipment, DJ controllers have come a long way and are nowadays richer in features than they’ve ever been.
So to help you sift through the tone of information available, I decided to create this guide to help you get started in the art of mixing ASAP…
Without getting drowned in technical terms and other useless info you don’t need… At least for now.
So buckle up, this one’s going to be a long one!
Table of Contents:
- What is A DJ Controller?
- Anatomy of a DJ Controller
- 1. The Decks
- The Mixer
- DJ Controller Manufacturers
- DJ Controller Software Compatibility
- Stem Compatibility
- Inputs/Outputs and How to set up your DJ controller
- Recommended DJ Controllers
What is A DJ Controller?
Just like its name suggests, a DJ Controller is a device that is used to, well, control your mix.
It is the absolute central piece of your DJ set up and the one you’ll be operating the most throughout your set.
In other words, don’t overlook the choice of your controller. And to actually know how to choose the right one for you, what better idea than actually learn about how they work?
So first, let’s take a look at how a controller is actually built…
Anatomy of a DJ Controller
Knowing what the button you’re pressing actually does is good. Sounds obvious?
Yet, the amount of newbies that feel like tinkering and touching everything the first time they get their hand on a controller can be frightening…
…Just as much as looking at a controller for the first time can be intimidating.
And as boring as it might sound, studying your gear BEFORE you start operating it will save you a ton of time and frustration, which is the reason why I came up with this guide.
So let’s have a look at the anatomy of a controller first, so we can actually understand how to use it later on.
For this diagram I chose one of the most popular controller, the Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000.
But rather than listing every single element present on a controller, let’s first take a look at the main sections you’ll find on them, 3 in total:
- 2 Decks – this is where most of the action takes place
- A mixer– So you can choose which tracks to mix/play
But of course each of these sections has many more subsections. Let’s break them down by starting with the first section:
1. The Decks
The decks are essentially the “physical” representation of the tracks you’re mixing.
They’re usually made of these sections:
- Jog Wheels – Reminiscent of old scratch turntables, these more modern versions are the same in essence. When you’re mixing, rotating them will temporarily slow down or speed up your track.
- Hot Cues Pads – These are the little pads yo see when looking at a any controller, and one of the most used feature on any controller.
- Line Faders – to change the volume of each track.
So let’s look into each of these with more details, starting with…
1. The Jog Wheels
Jog wheels essentially are at the base of “beatmatch”, one of the most important concept in DJing.
If you’re a beginner and don’t know what beatmatch is, it’s pretty straight forward:
Beatmatching is aligning the beats of 2 tracks so they sound syncronized. Take a look at this video to hear beatmatched tracks vs. unmatched beats:
And that’s when you need jog wheels:
If the song you’ve cued up doesn’t have the same BPM as the one currently playing, you’ll need to make adjust it.
And actually, even if both songs are exactly the same BPM, you’ll still want to make sure you’re dropping the beat of the next one on the beat of the current one…
If not, you’ll end up with a very unpleasant, unsynchronized beat.
Now, jog wheels differ in various aspect depending on the controller. There are 3 types:
- Capacitive – these are found on entry-level controllers
- Mechanical – most popular type of jogwheel, they’re found on high-end controllers
- Motorized – created to mimic real vinyl platters, motorized jogwheel are pretty sparce
- No jogwheel – that’s right, some controllers actually have no jogwheel whatsoever
Capacitive jogwheels use the same technology as phone screens, which — in the music world — ends up being less precise than the next type of jog wheel.
They’re also much more sensitive, and many DJs report accidentally activating them and stopping a track mid-et for example, which is pretty bad as I’m sure you’ll agree.
Mechanical jogwheels on the other hand generally feel much better and overall offer a higher degree of control…
Which is why you’ll find them on the most popular controllers.
Finally, motorized jog wheels are somewhat less common since they’re mostly used by scratch DJs…
Who don’t want to loose the feeling of real turntables but still want the ease of use of a full DJ controller.
To have a better idea of what these differences feel like, check out this video:
So what about “jogwheel-less” controllers?
Well, it’s mainly one specific model and although it’s not nearly as popular as other models, it does offer one BIG ADVANTAGE over other controllers:
However, being able to beatmatch WITHOUT any jogwheels is what you should aspire to achieve in the long run since it goes hand in hand with beatmatching by ear, and more generally mixing by ear…
Which should be the ultimate goal of any DJ.
It is STEM compatible. Don’t know what STEMS are? Check out my DJ software post to learn more about them:
But in a nutshell, they’re individual track parts that you can use with other tracks.
If there is a single takeaway you’d want to keep from this article I’d say its:
LEARN TO USE THE PADS
And by that I mean learn to use them to their full potential. Because so many DJs actually don’t know how to use the pads past their cue function…
And boy are they missing out.
So let’s quickly have a look at these pads:
You generally have 4 “mode” buttons on top, with different names depending on the manufacturer BUT with the same function.
By pressing the shift button (or whatever equivalent there is on your controller) you can choose a second function, bringing the total to 8 different effects.
- Hot Cue – which brings you back or forth to any cue you’ve previously set
- Pad FX – which has a lot of different effects
- Beat Jump – which allows you to instanty jump a previously set amount of beats forward
- Sampler/sequencer – which allows you to sample parts of tracks you like and play them during your set
- Keyboard – which is what it sounds like, a real keyboard to play on while your tracks a playing
- Pad FX2 – which allows you to add more effects so you have more to choose from
- Beat Loop – which allows you to create loops, precisely choosing where exactly your loop starts and ends. –
- Key Shift – when this mode is activated, each pad will increase the key of the track by one semitone
The “square pads” can also have a second function when pressing the shift button, making a total of 16 effects PER deck, since there are 8 pads per deck.
Want to see all these effects in action? I found 7 videos explaining and showing how to use each one of these effects in context. Check them out:
1. Hot Cues
Hot cues are probably the most used feature by any DJ.
It’s pretty simple, you chose a “cue point” on any given track so you can start it on this particular point, so it matches your mix.
Back in the days of vinyl DJing, you had to make sure the needle on your other turntable was set to the exact spot where you wanted it to drop…
Which is why DJs used to put stickers all over their records, so they could quickly find the right cue points.
All this process has been made much easier thanks to digitalization and you can now instantly set various cue points.
Here’s a pretty creative way to use hot cues:
2. Pad FX
These are audio effects you can instantly apply to your playing track such as delay, cuts or slip roll for a vinyl turntable effect.
These are meant to add some “salt” to your mix and should be used sparsely so as not to overwhelm your audience and possibly ruin your performance.
In other words: use with moderation!
3. Beat Jump
Another pretty self-explanatory effect, beat-jump allows you to, well, jump beats.
So if you ever reach a point in your track where you don’t feel like waiting out 16 beats (for example), you can set up a beat jump marker so that when you press your pad it’ll automatically take you to where want, whether it’s forward into the song or backwards.
It’s particularly convenient when you miss your cue.
Here’s how it works:
4. Sampler mode
Sampler mode allows you to upload samples into your DJ software, assign them to your pads and trigger them whenever you want.
Anything from sound effects, instruments and even loops. Check it out:
5. Keyboard mode
Keyboard mode is pretty much what it sounds like, you get to play isolated notes on your pads, as if they were piano keys.
Obviously this is not meant to play a Mozart sonata but with some tricks you can actually get creative and genuinely turn a mix into something that’s really yours.
Check it out:
6. Beat Loop
This feature lets you create loops in a given section of your track.
You can use it to give you more time for example if you couldn’t mix in your next track in time.
Generally you have 2 options:
- Auto loops – which lets the software create the loop automatically, depending on the number of beats you tell it to use
- Manual loops – which lets you manually create your loop, from beginning to end.
Check out the feature in action:
7. Key Shift
If you mix harmonically — meaning if you like your whole set to be the same key — you will inevitably need to perform some key changes to some of your tunes, unless all of them happen to be on the same key, by some miracle coincidence…
Which is extremely unlikely.
And so in order to adjust the key of your tracks you can use this feature to autoatically adjust the key of a given track.
Note you will need to pre-analyze your track in your software before.
Beyond this use, you can actually change the key mid-track, which can create a pretty cool build-up effect, as shown i this video:u
So that’s about it for the effects you’ll find on most DJ controllers.
The mixer is where you’ll be operating the most since it’s also where most controls are located.
The goal here is to control the channels independently and then send them to the final mix.
The main sections of a mixer are:
- Channel count – which decides how many tracks you can mix
- Channels controls – which is where you control your channels independently
- Mix controls – which is what you use to blend your tracks together
So let’s break down these sections to see what’s in them, starting with the channel count.
The very first feature you want to decide is the amount of channels on your controller. You have 2 options:
- 2 channels – which is the most popular option for turntablists and beginner DJs
- 4 channels – which is the most common setup for advanced and pro DJs
Essentially, having more channels available allows you to bring more elements and options into your mix…
Which is also precisely why it is generally recommended beginners start with 2 decks, since mastering the mixing process with 2 decks already requires some experience.
If you want to have a better idea of what a skilled DJ can produce using 4 channels check out this video:
The Pioneer DDJ-1000 on the video above happens to be a 4 channels/2 deck controller, meaning that you need to manually switch when you want to use decks 3 and 4.
Deck 1 will switch to 3 and deck deck 2 to 4.
The signal goes through various knobs. Here they are from first to last:
- Gain – the signal first goes through the gain or “trim”. You use this knob to adjust the level at which your track arrives to the mixer in order to make sure it’s the same as the rest of your playlist
- EQ – the second stage the signal goes through is equalization. You generally have 3 knobs, one for each frequency range – lows, mids and highs.
- Channel’s level meter – this meter shows you the level of your channel after it’s been through gain and EQ, so you’re ready to throw it to your PA
- Line Fader – Finally the signal is sent to the line fader which is what’s used to bring the sound in or out
After you’re done tweaking your channel’s input, it’s time to start mixing it with what’s already playing.
How do you that?
With the help of the crossfader. It’s a fader that lets you choose which side you want t be played, or at which volume.
Now, as essential as this fader might seem, surprisingly enough a lot of DJ actually do not use it all that much, if not at all.
Why’s that? Well, because line faders (each channel’s fader) allow for a much more precise transitions.
But crossfaders are good at one thing: abrupt cuts. Say you want to tease your crowd with what’s to come next…
A common way of doing that is by letting them hear quick cuts of the next track and quickly come back to the current track, just like that:
DJ Controller Manufacturers
Since DJ hardware manufacturers are so closely tied to software compatibility, I thought it might be useful to let you know which manufacturers are compatible with which software.
And so here are come of the most popular manufacturers:
- Native Instrument
DJ Controller Software Compatibility
Although many DJ controller manufacturers also develop their own DJ software, most DJ controllers are actually compatible with more than only one DJ software.
To be specific, and to make your decision easier I made a table showing the compatibility between hardware and software depending on the manufatuer:
The open-source and free DJ software Mixxx works with most controllers, and even the ones that it’s “not” compatible with can be used as long as you correctly map them.
Pioneer DJ controllers work with Pioneer’s Rekordbox and Virtual DJ
If you can find your controller in this list, then the mapping is already available and you’ll only have to download it. Otherwise you’ll need to do it yourself from the Mixxx application.
STEM is a file format created by Native Instruments which basically creates 4 separate channels within a single track:
The idea is to allow you to mix these element independently and freely in your set.
But in order to efficiently control these stems, you need a compatible controller that lets you do so.
Check out this video for a live example of what you could use it for:
Sweet isn’t it?
Well, the only problem is that very few controllers have this feature built-in.
The controller in this video — the Traktor Kontrol S8 — is one of the only high-end model currently offering this feature, and it also happen to be “jogwheel-less”.
Now, for some reason, this feature didn’t quite take off as much as it was expected to, in particular because of the downsides.
So even though it’s still not widely adopted, it’s still a very powerful concept and feature you might want to look into.
Inputs/Outputs and How to set up your DJ controller
Finally, DJ controllers have a whole lot of inputs and outputs. And for beginners, looking at the back of a controller can quickly become overwhelming.
But with a DJ Controller there really are only 3 connections you need to know:
- Master – which is where you plug your speakers in
- USB – which is where you plug your computer or your USB drive in
- Headphones – this one’s pretty obvious
The other inputs you might later need are:
- Booth master – which is a second master so you can set your own volume independently of the speaker’s
- MIC – to plug in a microphone
- PHONO – to connect (mostly) a turntable. This inputs uses the preamp of the mixer.
- LINE – to connect an external mixer or another digital device. This input does NOT use the preamp.
Recommended DJ Controllers
Let’s now have a look at some of the best controllers currently available. Some of these models are well established flagships, and some are less famous.
However, they’re all very highly rated. I’ll order them in 2 categories, beginners controllers and advanced controllers.- under $400 and above $400.
Best Beginner DJ Controllers under $400
- Numark Party Mix – (Amazon/B&H)
- Pioneer DDJ-200 – (Amazon/B&H)
- Pioneer DDJ-400 – (Amazon/B&H)
- Pioneer DDJ-SB3 – (Amazon/B&H)