DJ controllers are MIDI based and aim to emulate the look and feel of the traditional mixer/turntable/CD turntable hardware set-up.
So as DJs continue to move away from using heavier analogue equipment and become entirely software based, DJ controllers have become an essential part of any live DJ’s rig.
MIDI based controllers can add a nearly infinite ability to customise and expand.
It is important to know the software you intend to use with your DJ controller. While the majority of these devices can be used with any program, some such as Ableton Live or Traktor are made with a certain piece of software in mind. These maybe able to offer streamlined, or even exclusive, control over certain of you DJ software’s features.
Points to think on
A DJ controller can also be used in conjunction with turntables and mixers as well as with the software. You might need to have an audio interface built in so you can connect these or even an instrument to your set-up.
Check out products from Pioneer, Numark, and Denon, since the same brands that are well known for their traditional DJ decks are also respected for their DJ controllers.
However, also look out for hardware made by respected software companies like Native Instruments.
When looking to buy, consider size, looks, build quality and price. Consider also the sorts of features you might need.
touch sensitive jog wheels
sample loops and cues controls
ability to act as a line mixer
multiple operations mode
multi-function pads or assignable knobs and pads
built in effects /effects controls, etc.
What to know about buying pre-owned Digital DJ Controllers
You may miss out on the newest and most innovative features by buying a used DJ controller, but they still run on MIDI, which has been the standard for three decades.
Even a 10-year-old controller will still work with the most recent software. You might just need to take the time to assign functions to the controls.
The build quality of the pre-owned controller is the most important thing to consider.
A DJ controller with a plastic casing as well as plastic faders and knobs may be cheaper to buy, but its expected longevity will be much shorter than with a controller like the Vestax VCI400.
If a used controller originally came with introductory DJ software, often this will be missing when it is re-sold. This is probably the biggest disadvantage of buying a used DJ controller.
What to know about buying new Digital DJ Controllers
Since the digital music world is constantly evolving, buying new will give you the latest in build quality and features. Also it is best to buy new if you want to get the maximum life out of your gear.
There are several factors to consider while researching the best DJ controller for your purposes.
Is there a particular piece of software or hardware that you intend to use it with? (laptops, iPads/tablets etc.)
What features do you need?
Many software and hardware makers go into partnership to make products designed to work seamlessly together. These are often ‘premium’ devices, but they will give you the most control over your software.
Then you need to consider if you want to emulate the look and feel of a turntable, or if you will be triggering huge banks of samples.
For a DJ working more with loops than scratches, a controller without a pair of jog wheels might be more suitable. The space could be used for more triggers and knobs.
DJ controllers have many moving parts. Whilst most are built to withstand the rigours of live performances, you should consider whether you want a metal or plastic casing.
In the short run, a plastic case will save on cost and be lighter, but it will not be as durable as a metal case.
A plastic case is fine for working in a home studio, but a metal case is preferable for a DJ looking to gig out.
There are many new DJ controllers for sale that come with DJ software like Ableton, Serato DJ or Traktor, and these can be a great way to make a start as a digital DJ.