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Choosing the Right DJ Controller

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DJs and music producers, you have a plethora of options when it comes to hardware that can interface with a computer to create new music, as well as to mix and remix existing songs. 

There are many types of controllers that you connect to a computer via USB. These controllers generally don't generate any sounds, but rather they control the tracks, samples, and virtual instruments on a computer. 

Some devices will allow you to send the sound to speakers from it’s own ports, while some rely on the computer’s internal audio configuration.

Many intermediate to advanced DJs and music producers will use more than one type of device depending on their recording as well as live performance needs. 

If you're just getting started—or if you are researching how you can improve your performance—consider trying out a modern synth controller, sampler controller, or DJ controller as part of a recording studio as well as live performance kit.

Synth / Keyboard Controllers

Synth controllers often look just like an analog synth only with additional features that come with the ability to link to the computer. They feature a keyboard in sizes from 25-keys to a full standard 88-key configuration. 

Some brands offer weighted keys similar to a piano, however they're typically not fully reactive like a real piano, which can throw off skilled players. These units themselves are lightweight making it easy to transport them to live performances. 

Some popular brand names include Akai, Alesis, Novation, and M-Audio.

Some higher end electric pianos do generate their own sound and can also be used as a USB controller as well, including brands by Yamaha and Roland

The keys on the electric pianos react just like a standard piano, however these types are typically heavier and harder to carry around, making them better for the studio rather than live performances. Additionally these types of controllers do not generally have the features to allow you to map to the controls on your VST.

Besides allowing you to play a melody, synth controllers also allow you to interface with chosen recording software, be it Propellorheads Reason, Ableton, Fruity Loops, Logic, Cubase or another. 

You can MIDI-map the knobs, sliders, and other controllers to the various parameters in the VSTs to control things like oscillators, filters, and effects as you jam out a performance.

Sequencer Controllers

Sequencer controllers essentially allow you to fire off samples, loops, and tracks from the banks in the software. From there you can slice, roll, loop, and perform other functions to build songs from your pre-produced samples, loops and tracks. 

These devices allow you to record as well as jam during live performances in a way you cannot with DJ or Synth controllers. You can craft new songs from loops and samples on the fly.

These design of these unit use buttons as the main triggers with some having sliders but for the most part these devices are square and have few other trigger types besides buttons. 

Most of them interface with Ableton, and some can also be configured to trigger VSTs by NI Massive and other software.

Some popular controllers include the Novation Launchpad, NI Maschine, Ableton Push, and the AKAI Professional APC.

DJ Controllers

DJ Controllers allows you to mix songs together just as you would on a CDJ or turntable setup, but often with other additional features these older devices don’t have. A controller works by manipulating MP3s, WAVs, and in advanced controllers MP4 videos that are on the hard drive.

Most controllers interface with DJ software that you download separately, but at no additional cost, the controller itself doesn’t contain the software. 

The two most popular used are Serato and Traktor. Each of these brands have different versions that go along with the different hardware depending on how the hardware and software manufactures have configured the specific device.

These new DJ controllers have the mixer built into the design. These controllers need fewer cables to set up, typically all  you will need is an RCA or ¼” out and your mic cable. Additionally some controllers offer up to 4 virtual decks, and in some cases you can connect your turntables to the system to replace two of the virtual decks.

These new generation DJ controllers offer many additional features such as effects, sampling, slicing, and remixing of tracks on the fly. Some advanced controllers allow you to launch samples and tracks from your Ableton installation. 

Effects such as echo, chorus, and high pass filters may be available and in some cases you can download and install additional effects that can be applied to your tracks as you mix.

Determining Specific Needs

As a beginning DJ or producer you may not necessarily need more than one device to get started. As you can see, many of these devices have features that overlap, such as the DJ controllers that allow you to fire off samples. 

Saying that, keep in mind that sometimes juggling multiple options on one piece of hardware can be complicated, and splitting out into other devices can make your job easier as you get more advanced in your live performances. Many famous DJs will have just about every device you can imagine at their disposal.

Use these following points to help you determine when to get the specific equipment that will the best option for yourself at this stage of your career:

When to get a Synth Controller

  • You play the piano or synths already, or want to learn how to
  • To produce music in your studio beyond drawing out notes in a MIDI lane
  • To put on a more freestyle live performance
  • Singer/songwriter or otherwise keyboardist who is not interested in DJing

When to get a Sampler Controller

  • To fire off samples independent of your mix
  • To control Ableton Live rather than mix tracks using a DJ Controller
  • To pre-produce your full set rather and don’t want to deal with mixing on the fly

When to get a DJ Controller

  • To mix pre-produced music like a DJ
  • Portability and less extras like mixers, external effects boxes, and cables
  • Avoiding lugging around CDs and vinyl records

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