May 28, 2018

Turntables or DJ Controller

In the DJ world there has been a battle raging on since time immemorial, well a long time at least. No I am not talking about vinyl vs CD/MP3’s but the battle about the choice of turntables or DJ controller. What is a DJ controller? How is it different from turntables?

Which is best, Turntables or DJ controller?

Lets start from the beginning and compare them with the pros and cons of both types of equipment. I will first define both types of music technology.

What is a DJ controller?

A DJ controller is a piece of musical hardware that DJ’s use to help them mix music. They are used in conjunction with special software as a replacement for a keyboard to make it much easier to mix music. The controller does not mix the music itself like a mixer would but it tells the software how to mix the music.

Most DJ controllers resemble two turntables and a mixer but built as one device. They are the length of a keyboard but a bit deeper and much thinner. Controllers are much cheaper than two turntables plus a mixer and they are a little bit more flexible. It is also possible to use software to remap some of the components to perform different actions.

DJ controllers are designed to work with the manufacturers software only. It is possible to get 3rd party software to work with various DJ controllers but they are unlikely to work perfectly or be able to perform all of the actions you would get with the manufacturers own software.

A great example of a DJ Controller is the Pioneer DDJ-RZX. You can see exactly what I mean about it being similar to a keyboard as well as looking like turntables and a mixer merged into one device.

What are Turntables?

This should be very straight forward as turntables come in two main varieties. You can have vinyl which are the old school looking ‘record players’ or you can have their younger brother. The CD/MP3 style digital turntables, both variants are also known as decks. To decide which is best for you vinyl or CD/MP3’s is one half of the battle. The other half of the battle is which to choose, between a mixer and turntables or DJ controller.

Turntables tend to be rectangular although some digital decks are more square than their vinyl brothers. The more expensive they are the more features they come with. Digital effects are now a massive part of being a DJ. Loops, filters and other tricks add more variety to their sets and you get to see a DJ’s creativity shine through. You do as mentioned also need a mixer to accompany your turntables in order to be able to mix music.

What is a mixer?

Just to be complete a mixer is a device that takes multiple inputs, usually two or four channels, and allows you to manipulate the output that people get to hear. Each channel has the exact same controls with various knobs and buttons set in a vertical line. Each line of controls are for that channel only. They usually consist of a High, Mid and Low EQ knob that lets you increase and decrease those frequency ranges. This can allow you to mix tracks together and once over add the baseline back in for added effect.

Modern high end mixers have additional filters and effects built into them to allow more creative sounds to be produced. The very high end mixers have touch panel displays like the Pioneer DJM-2000NSX. That really is a powerful mixer.

Which is better turntables or DJ controller?

Turntables are standalone devices which you hook up to a mixer which, requires a little more knowledge to setup. DJ controllers by contrast are a single piece of equipment often paired with software which can be much easier and quicker to get going.

There has been a massive move from vinyl to digital decks over the last twenty years, the battle I said had raged on is still apparent. This battle is as most other battles are, ideological in nature. It all comes down to one question

Are you even a real DJ if you use a controller?

The whole purpose of a DJ is to mix music and keep the party going. Technology is constantly evolving and the music industry is actually a perfect example of this. Ten years ago very few people had even heard of MP’3 let alone have their entire music libraries made from them.

Saying DJ’s that do not use turntables are not real DJ’s is similar to rock music being described as ‘not music’ when it first came out. The turntables or DJ controller argument is invalid as both are just tools that DJ’s use to complete their role. Hardly anyone uses vinyl these days at least not for a whole set and anyone using digital decks is halfway to using a DJ controller anyway as they are both similar setups.

Would I buy a DJ controller?

I really think this comes down to personal choice and perhaps a little bit down to budget. DJ controllers are undeniably cheaper than turntables and a mixer. Especially at the top end of the turntable market where you can easily be spending £4000 or more on a DJ Package or even more on individual turntables and a mixer. Should you decide the controller option is for you and you want to play at gigs you will need to know if you can either use your own controller or if they will provide one.

Some venues may not allow controllers which can happen. In this case you will need to know how to use turntables and a mixer as your backup option or you may have to turn down the gig. If that is the case then buying turntables and mixer could be the way forwards to prevent this scenario. It is very unlikely that venues will have DJ controllers instead of turntables. There is only a slightly greater chance that they will have or will provide both.

Personally I would go with turntables and a mixer as part of a package. I have a background in setting up lighting and sound equipment for theatre and music events from a young age and that is how I learned about music technology. It wasn’t until a few years that I started to learn how to mix or DJ but that has influenced my purchasing decision. If you feel the DJ controller is the best way for you to at least start on this path then choose it. It does not mean that you are not a real DJ in anyway. Whatever you chose turntables or DJ controller let your skills do the talking.

About the author 

Charles Duance

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