I am a musician that has been DJ’ing for a while now, and I while I have primarily been working with vinyl turntables and mixers for my scratching, in the last year or so, I have really gotten to know the DJ controller. That being said, I also understand how difficult it can be for a newcomer to understand the world of DJ’ing, which is why I created this guide with a few products that can help you get started out in your DJ career. Just remember, the technical specifications of your new DJ controller will only account for part of your musical journey; learning to scratch, cue, use Midi controllers, and remix are all skills that you should master so that you can make a name for yourself in the DJ’ing world.
These days, digital music is relatively common, which means that it’s tough to use a standard vinyl-based turntable to mix your music. As a result of this huge shift, digital turntables, which are also called DJ controllers, have taken off in the music industry. The newest crop of these products can do just about everything that a classic vinyl turntable was known for in their heyday, and you won’t need crates of vinyl LPs to create some top-notch sounds for your next DJ gig.
Currently, there are more than a few options on the market for an excellent digital turntable, which means that it can be a bit confusing to find the one that could work best for your needs. Becoming a DJ means that you’ll need the hardware to support your new music career, and in this guide, I’m going to cover some of the best DJ controllers out there on the market as well as show you some of the features that you should be looking for in a new digital turntable.
The Digital Turntable at a Glance
A digital turntable is best thought of as a traditional vinyl turntable emulator. While vinyl records are being produced today, their number is indeed dwindling, and even though many people love that analog sound, there’s just no question that digital formats are the new normal. When this revolution started to happen, many DJs began to worry that our days were numbered. Fortunately, DJ controllers like the ones that you’ll see in this guide were invented, and as a result, we can do much of what we could with traditional turntables.
One of the cool things about these DJ controllers is that they integrate the mixer/turntable setup into a single device; not only will you not have to haul your heavy vinyl collections with a digital turntable, but you’ll also be able to DJ with a little less equipment. It is important to note that modern DJ controllers will require a computer so that you can stream your music library and control the effects that you use on playback, but typically, this is just a trusty laptop, so there’s not much extra to carry around.
What are the Advantages of Using a Digital Turntable?
Digital turntables are advantageous compared to standard analog, vinyl-based turntables because:
There’s less propensity for the music to skip because you don’t need a tonearm for the playback of the music.
In many cases, DJ controllers have the majority of what you need incorporated into a single device, so you won’t have to purchase mixers in addition to your turntables.
When you purchase an analog turntable, if you want the most functionality, you’ll have to find a product that supports 33 1/3s, 45s, and 78 RPM records so that you can play all the record types. With a digital turntable, most products support all of the primary digital music file types, so your entire music catalog will be available from the start.
You’ll have greater song access with a digital product; a standard terabyte laptop hard drive can hold tens of thousands of MP3 songs, and this capacity is heightened with key drives and external hard drives.
You will be able to create your mix-ups and remixes when you feel like it.
You’ll even be able to use external programs like iTunes to supplement your music collection.
These DJ controllers tend to be much cheaper than vinyl equipment, which means that there’s less of a bar for entry for a beginner.
With vinyl turntables, there’s been a debate for years about which is better, belt or direct drive. With a digital turntable, you don’t have to worry about mechanical components changing the replay quality of the music, which makes for a more cohesive playback experience.
You don’t have to purchase two turntables; it’s been fairly standard practice for decades now to buy two turntables to keep the music flowing, but with a DJ controller, many products include two platters for mixing and playback.
Where Digital Turntables Falter
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a great argument for traditional turntables when you’re DJ’ing. In fact, when I’m hosting parties, from time to time, I bring out my old standbys. Here’s why analog turntables still have life in them:
- Most audiophiles prefer analog sound quality.
- It is much easier to scratch on an analog turntable.
- The feel of vinyl just can’t be emulated with a digital turntable.
- There’s a vintage feel to music on vinyl that many people prefer when they hire a DJ.
- Some of the classic greats sound terrible when converted to digital mediums.
Software for Digital Turntables
While the hardware may be far smaller when you switch to digital, don’t let anyone tell you that the software demands are negligible. In fact, to play your music right through your new DJ controller, you are going to need the right software. Fortunately, many of the modern digital DJ platforms come with at least stopgap software so that you can get DJ’ing almost right away. Let’s take a more in-depth look at software for digital turntables:
Popular Software Platforms – In some cases, there are DJ controllers that are universal that can be used with just about any software, but having said that, there are also controllers that only work with specific software. In my opinion, as a beginner, you should try to grab a product that can work with just about any software, and some of the most popular are:
- Ableton Live – This is a software option that wasn’t initially designed for DJ’ing but has since become a DJs favorite platform. Session View has undoubtedly contributed to this program’s popularity because it lets you easily organize your clips for implementation in your DJ’ing.
- DJAY – DJAY is the program for Mac fans since it only works on Mac OS and iOS. That being said, the software can be used with iTunes libraries, which can expand your music repertoire.
- Traktor Pro – This software comes from Native Instruments and has some reasonably sturdy loop recorder and sample decks to choose from during your shows. This software works well with Native Instruments line of controllers, but you’ll find turntables from other are well-supported as well.
- Serato DJ Pro – For many, this is the industry standard, and many digital turntables and controllers come with a version of Serato DJ. This is a low-latency program that may be a bit too complex for a beginner.
- Pioneer DJ Rekordbox DJ – Many DJs love the easy to use library browser that comes with Rekordbox, and the four decks of track control also set it apart from many of the other software out there. A version of Rekordbox comes with some Pioneer hardware, but some also come pre-packaged with Serato.
- LE Software Suites – When you purchase one of these devices, it’s relatively standard for the manufacturer to package in some software so that you can use the controller. That being said, in most cases, this will be the light version, which might be a bit stripped down. Even so, for a beginner, there are more than enough features for you to get started.
The Control Scheme
The Platters – Without the platters, a DJ controller can’t be considered a digital turntable. In most cases, two large platters will allow you to mix, scratch, and start/stop the playback of the digital media. These platters are designed to be reminiscent of a standard turntable, and I like the ones that have a vinyl feel because it emulates the analog experience. The best platters will have zero latency and have touch detection so that your every stroke transfers to the music playback.
Pads – If you’re going to be chopping vocals, an excellent place to start is with the pads on the controller. These are typically square-shaped and have a rubbery consistency to them that might remind some of digital drum pads. As you might expect, these are great for finger drumming or even adjusting slide length.
Faders – To me, this is a DJ function that is basic. Do you intend on blending songs by fading one out and starting playback on another? The fader makes this possible by altering the strength of the audio signal so that you can accomplish a wide array of crossfade effects. For an equal playback, you can just place the slider right in the middle.
Jog Wheels – if you want to speed up or slow down playback for effect, then the jog wheels are where you should start. These wheels, which some DJs call shuttle wheels or dials, are perfect for mixing up the sound of music that your listeners hear.
LED/LCD Screens and Touch Interfaces – This is a feature that can be found on many newer compact digital turntables. In fact, one of the products that I’ll be reviewing in this guide, the GO DJ Monster GO DJ Portable Mixer Digital Turntable, is a product that incorporates an LCD touchscreen. These products can have all of the features mentioned above included in the touch interface, which can be quite convenient.
Buttons – Solid buttons can have a variety of functions like channel selection, looping the selected track to the DJ’s headset before it’s output to the speakers or just power and input selections for the device itself. With a digital turntable, you’ll have to learn each of the button controls before you can start gigging.
One Turntable or Two?
Currently, there are products on the market that incorporate a single turntable platter into the design of the DJ controller. In my opinion, these aren’t the best types of devices for a beginner because a single platter won’t allow you to smoothly crossfade and work with two or more tracks that you may end up playing concurrently. That being said, these products can be chained together in most instances so that you can have a multi-turntable experience that allows you to enjoy all of the traditional features of a DJ’ing turntable.
Brands to Consider
There are a few great brands on the market, and if you’re going to be purchasing a new digital turntable, then here are a few brands to consider:
- Go DJ
- Denon DJ
- Native Instruments
- Hercules DJ
Numark, which is one of the leading manufacturers of equipment for DJs, created this all-in-one controller solution, and it is the perfect digital turntables for a novice DJ to try. The Mixtack 3 is a great tool to use as a professional DJ, and with the new wave of technology, a digital option like this one is going to be ideal for novice DJs as well. It is designed to easily connect to your laptop so that you have everything that you need from a large selection of tracks to the option of connecting to external speakers that will give you the sound that you need at your next party.
When it comes to the mixer, you will get two separate channels to use and a dual hi/low pass filter that can be found right at the center of the mixer. You get quite a few options with this mixer including a software crossfader curve and the ability to browse your library with a simple shift control. One thing that you will find lacking on this model is a gain control, which is hardly noticeable, but it may be an issue for a true audiophile.
The jog wheels are touch sensitive, which means that you can scratch and do spin backs with ease. However, I found that hard scratching can cause the jog wheels to be unresponsive. If this occurs, you will have to unplug the unit to reset it, which can be annoying if you are in a gig. There are two decks on this model, and even though the turntable has a reasonably compact size, it still fits two full-size pitch faders. These are an excellent way for a beginner to learn how to control and their pitch without simply using the sync button.
This unit is constructed using a plastic material that is durable where it needs to be as well as responsive on the pads. That being said, it may not be 100 percent reactive, but it works quite well for a product in this price point. You can even customize the pads so that functions that you use most as a DJ are close at hand. There is not a sound card in this specific turntable, so you will need to connect it to your laptop or external Bluetooth speakers. If you are trying to keep the sound down, you can also connect your headphones to your computer or directly to the turntable as well.
In my opinion, this is one of the best entry-level controllers that you can find that offer a pro level experience that most DJs will appreciate. If you have used the original Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB, so if you have used the earlier model, you will easily be able to switch to this model. This is a very portable unit, so you can quickly take it to any gig or house party with ease. It is made of a durable plastic material that makes it light and easy to carry, and even though it does not weigh a lot, it is going to be very durable so that you can travel from gig to gig without an issue.
The jog wheels on this model are quite large, so you will not have any issues scratching. There are a total of eight pads on the model that you can set to your liking, but this model does come with preset options that are easy to adjust to as well. These are multifunctional, so you can continue using them to cue, sync, and play your music.
When it comes to the mixer, you will notice two volume faders are placed in a convenient location to use while you are DJ’ing. In addition, there is an onboard soundcard on this unit, which means that an additional speaker set is not necessary when you are DJ’ing in a smaller space. There are even two headphone jacks on the turntable that you can use when you want to keep the volume down.
One of the features that I think is great on this turntable is the fact that there is a key lock button that ensures that the music you are playing remains in the proper key, even if you are changing the tempo of the song. If the song is a bit off, there is a trim knob that you can use to make slight adjustments. Even though you only see two decks, there is a button that you can use to integrate decks three and four into your setup.
Other Turntables to Consider
With the Numark NVII, there are quite a few additions that a modern DJ would appreciate. One of my favorite features when it comes to this controller is the sorting functionality that allows you to sort your music by artist, song, time, key, or BPM. This makes finding a song a cinch, especially when you have an extensive library of songs to search through. The trigger pads are also unique because they can be customized to fit your specific DJ’ing needs, and they are backlit with RGB coloration, so you can make the controller unique to your brand.
The five-inch jog wheels are ideal for most experienced DJs, and they make it easy to control the music using your fingers. This is actually a four deck unit, and you can quickly switch between the four decks with the flip of a switch. There are XRL outputs, RCA outputs, and more on this unit as well as a mic input that makes it easy to pump up the crowd as you DJ. One of the features that I think is great is the display that allows you to keep your laptop entirely out of sight when you are using the turntable.
The Go DJ Monster is a portable digital turntable that you can comfortably fit into your pocket. I love the small size of this unit because it can easily fit into a bag and be transported to a house party or another gig location. There is not a physical jog wheel that you can scratch, but the touchscreen functionality that is included with this unit allows you to do the same DJ’ing techniques as any of the other digital turntables in this guide. You can even make real-time edits using the sequencer that is built-into the unit.
This is an option that you can use when you do not have your computer, which means that it is perfect for a late night party on the beach or an impromptu to party with friends. This turntable does not need to be powered, which makes it more convenient to use at any location, and it can run for a period of 12 hours. Since there is 4GB of storage, you can have quite a vast library of songs right on the device, and you can add a 2TB SD card to the unit for even more space.
The Numark NS7 is a great controller for a DJ who travels a lot from gig to gig. It is easy to set up and, and it easily connects to your laptop so that you have access to your entire library of songs. There are two decks on this unit, and the platters on each can be customized to give you a custom or a more modern feel as you use your fingers to scratch the surface. This unit comes with Serato ITCH software that is fully pre-mapped for your convenience.
The mixer on this turntable has a very professional looking appearance that is designed with a durable industrial strength material that will last for years of DJ’ing. In fact, the construction of this unit is metal, which is rare when it comes to digital DJ turntables in this price range. The crossfaders are durable, but they can be replaced when they begin to wear. In addition, the knobs have a solid, dependable feel. This unit is designed with a 24-bit USB audio interface that has a number of professional connectors that can be used for a more advanced audio system, but this one, which has multiple channels, is optimized for quality sound.
The Denon DJ MC4000 is another excellent option for a modern DJ, especially one who is typically on the go. It does have relatively small jog wheels, so if you prefer a more extensive setup, this may not be the best option for you. They are solidly built and easy to use, so if you are comfortable with this size jog wheel, give it a try. It is designed with a metal body that is going to be durable and easy to transport, but the surface does smudge easily.
There are two mics on this setup as well as an echo effect that can be adjusted to fit your performance needs. The mixer is designed with two channels, which may not be enough for some, but it is adequate for a beginner. One thing that I like about this unit is the weight of the faders because it allows me to fade the tracks in and out with ease. This turntable is designed to play through a laptop, which will provide you with ample music options, but there is also a mode that you can use that allows you to bypass the software while you are DJ’ing, which is great for when your laptop decides to crash.
When I first took a look at the Reloop Mixon 4, I was amazed at all of the functions that this digital turntable seemed to pack in. Like the other products that I covered here, this Reloop product has two platters that are designed to be latency-free, and Reloop also packed in 16 pads that you can use for drumming and are each velocity sensitive so that you can trigger hot cues, loop rolls, and chop vocals. There is also a sampler mode that determines the volume based on how much velocity and pressure you apply to the pads, which I found to be very cool and intuitive.
One of the most interesting features, in my opinion, that you’ll find on the Mixon 4 is its seamless melding of an iOS or Android device into its functionality. Along the top end of this device is a docking mount that’s designed to be cross-platform; with this mount, you can attach your smart device and use apps to interface with the DJ controller. When using the product with an iPad Pro, the two devices seem to blend seamlessly, and you’ll open up a ton of new features that will enhance your DJ experience.
Wrapping it Up
Thanks to digital turntables and DJ controllers, the art of DJ’ing isn’t going anywhere, and with so many robust options out there, a beginner can find the hardware they need to get started with relative ease. The products that I selected for this guide are all excellent for beginners, so give them a try at your earliest convenience. If these don’t work for you, take a look at the guide at the beginning to help you find a product with the features that you need to get started DJ’ing professionally.
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