Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2 DJ Controller

DJ Controller and Interface Buying Guide

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Choosing the right DJ controller/interface depends a lot on your software. Here’s the intel you need to make both choices.

If you’re just getting started as a DJ, choosing the right gear can be a dizzying experience. At one time setting up a DJ rig was a pretty straightforward process. You got a pair of DJ turntables or CD players, a mixer, some headphones and you were good to go.

That was then, this is now. DJ technology has exploded over the past couple of decades with the introduction of new gear and software that has completely revolutionized the way DJs work. Today, the choices are mind-boggling.

When it comes to running DJ software or apps on a laptop or iOS device today, controllers are often the heart of the DJ’s rig. They offer the kind of hands-on control that keyboards, mice, and touchscreens lack while also providing ergonomic workflows that maximize your productivity.

In this guide we’ll walk you through the questions you need to answer to arrive at the best DJ controller for your purposes.

Table of Contents

Modular Rigs vs. All-In One DJ Controllers
The advantages of all-in-one DJ controllers
Common DJ controller features & functions
Adding a keyboard
Software: The Crucial Question
Traktor Pro
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2
Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL F1 DJ Controller
Serato DJ Software
Pioneer DDJ-SX2 Performance DJ Controller
Ableton Live
Pioneer DDJ-SB Serato DJ Intro Controller
Other DJ Software to Consider
Virtual DJ
DJAY
Deckadence
Mixed In Key Flow
The One
iOS Apps
Keeping Current
We’re Here to Help

Modular Rigs vs. All-In One DJ Controllers

Let’s first define our terms:

Modular DJ rigs consist of separate sound sources such as turntables and CD/media players; an analog mixer; and optionally, a sound card allowing you to operate your gear via DJ software.

Even though the vast majority of today’s DJs use all-in-one controllers connected to a laptop to run their software, some still opt for the modular approach. Many new DJs are also apps on their iOS devices to learn deejaying basics before springing for the hardware/software capable of more professional performances and beat building.

For the least complex DJ duties, a pair of old-school turntables or CD/media players connected to a DJ mixer may be all you need. This could be a solution for the most budget-strapped DJ just starting out.

Or you could opt for a digital vinyl system that gives you the tactile experience of physical scratching while also taking advantage of software that allows you to mix within your laptop.

All-in-one DJ controllers combine media players, a mixing section, and computer/iOS interfaces in a single unit. As we’ll see, they include physical knobs, buttons and sliders that allow hands-on control of the DJ software or apps running in your computer, tablet or smartphone. While you could operate most software or app functions using your laptop’s keyboard and mouse or your iOS device’s touch screen, once you’ve tried dedicated physical controls, there’s usually no going back. Those real knobs and buttons help you perform more smoothly, musically and rapidly.

The advantages of all-in-one DJ controllers

An all-in-one DJ controller that works with your DJ software of choice (more on that in a bit) offers both the simplest setup and the greatest level of control. Many will allow you to DJ in “standalone” mode without connection to a computer or mobile device. Mobile DJs who regularly play requests from CDs or USB flash drives appreciate the ability to switch between an “analog” music collection and laptop-based performances. And in the event your laptop or tablet crashes in the middle of a set, standalone mode can be a lifesaver.

That said, many DJs find they rarely use the USB or CD capabilities on those controllers that have them. The ability to work with waveforms and samples, apply effects, and the countless other capabilities keeps them working inside their DAW software.

Common DJ controller features & functions

Today’s controllers typically include:

  • A control surface with knobs, buttons, jog wheels, pads or faders for tactile control over software functions and settings. Displays and multicolored lights transmit system status, audio levels and many other parameters.
  • An interface that transmits audio and MIDI signals to laptops, effects processors and PA systems, depending on the type of connectors it has.
  • Control of tablet and smartphone apps is found in some newer DJ controllers.

Most DJ software can be operated with a mouse and keyboard. But the process is labor-intensive: digging through layers of menus to find functions, entering values and otherwise messing with software instead of attending to your show is a performance-killer. That’s why most DJs use a hardware controller to operate and configure their software.

Adding a keyboard

For some groove producers and DJs, the addition of a MIDI keyboard is a huge plus. They appreciate the inherent musicality and playability that it can add to a DJ rig. Check out our DJ Buying Guide to Keyboard Controllers to see if they’re a good fit for your performance style and workflow.

Software: The Crucial Question

While a controller allows you to manipulate your software or app more fluidly, it’s the software itself that does all the cool stuff that has revolutionized the world of DJing. The software performs all the critical chores that help you manipulate your music files.

Aside from loading your music library into your computer’s memory, it provides the virtual transport controls for playback as well as creating the virtual decks on which you’ll be mixing. Software and DJ apps monitor all your mixing moves, apply the filters and effects you select, trigger samples, modify music waveforms and perform dozens of other cool tricks that in the old days would have been impossible or require tons of outboard gear.

Assuming you’ve decided that an all-in-one controller is the way to go, choosing a DJ software platform is the next logical step. All DJ controllers include some software. Often the included software is a scaled-down version of the manufacturer’s full-blown version. These bundled software versions often include “lite” or “LE” as part of the version name indicating that it’s a limited edition. As a new DJ, these LE versions may be fine for starting out, but you’ll likely want to upgrade to the manufacturer’s full version in time. Factor in that additional cost when making your decision on a controller.

To choose the right controller, you’ll first need to decide which software makes sense for you. To help you do that, we’ll next look at some of the most popular DJ software and the controllers designed to run them.

Traktor Pro

Native Instruments was one of the first major players to see the wisdom of having legs in both the hardware and software realms. By tightly integrating powerful software with a series of increasingly more sophisticated controllers, NI’s Traktor Pro and Traktor Scratch Pro have become among the most important DJ performance and production software. (Traktor Scratch Pro works with Traktor’s proprietary DVS digital vinyl systems as well as DJ controllers.)

One of Traktor’s strengths is its Remix Deck concept—an environment in which you manipulate the component parts of the music, dicing, slicing, stretching beats and melodies then freestyling in playback. In this respect it will feel quite familiar to Ableton Loops users. Traktor offers a very customizable interface that can be readily configured to match your work style.

NI produces various TRAKTOR-based software and controller options to match various performance levels and budgets from beginner to pro. Some have video capability. Advanced versions represent some of the deepest DJ software out there, but with that depth comes a steeper learning curve. TRAKTOR also boasts some of the strongest MIDI implementation in the business.

Theoretically, any software controller should be able to be mapped to operate Traktor, but many DJs find NI-made hardware has an edge over software-agnostic controllers. They point to more precise jog wheel performance as an example. For DJs who plan to scratch or have a background with vinyl, this is a big deal.

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2

NI Traktor Kontrol S4

Everybody talks about seamlessness when it comes to hardware/software integration, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than NI with the potent combo of killer TRAKTOR PRO 2 software and the flagship S4 Mk2 controller.

The package includes the full-blown version of Traktor Pro 2 software along with a 4-deck controller that houses a powerful array of mixing functions and sound card. It integrates with your iOS devices and can run up to four virtual decks while Remix Decks can be triggered directly from S4 hardware.

A lot of attention has gone into the control surface. Newly upgraded faders and jog wheels have received high marks from early adopters and help blur the boundaries between DJing and musical performance.

 

Take a quick video tour of the Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2

Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL F1 DJ Controller

NI Traktor Kontrol F1

If you can live without physical decks but want access to Kontrol’s ability to fire loops, one-shot samples and work flawlessly with other Traktor’s functions such as Remix Decks, the Traktor Kontrol F1 could be your entree into that world.

The F1 workflow is rooted in DJ culture. Remix Sets, made up of your individual loops and sounds, are loaded into Traktor Pro 2.5 software. Your drum loops, bass lines, percussion, vocals and lead sounds are ready for dropping into your performance wherever and whenever your heart desires.

Four volume faders and four filter knobs provide full sonic access to the Remix Deck slots. You can also route individual slots through Traktor’s FX units. Scratch your live production via Native Scratch timecode control and then mix and fade into a “traditional” track on another deck – fuse classic DJ workflow with the future of DJing.

Serato DJ Software

Unlike Native Instruments, Serato has chosen to focus on software while partnering with hardware manufacturers to ensure their control surfaces deliver a good DJing experience when running Serato. While Serato does not have as many configuration options, many feel its focus on user-friendliness is a big plus. Serato tends to get along with iTunes better and handles non-electronic music well. One potential drawback to Serato is its inability run in a standalone mode. You must be plugged into an interface or controller to DJ.

Serato DJ aims to cover every aspect of your DJ performance. Based on multicolored waveform editing that shows EQ settings, it’s a very visual way to sequence your show in real time. Workflows are streamlined and extremely visual too. Applying effects, triggering samples and building beats is enhanced with expansion packs. Flip is a powerful beat editor while the DVS pack gives you the feel of genuine vinyl mixing and scratching. MIDI mapping is also unusually straightforward. The DJ Intro version of the software is bundled with entry-level controllers while the full version of DJ Pro is included with various pro controllers.

When Serato added features from its Scratch DJ application to the newly expanded DJ/DVS platform, everything was made backwards-compatible with old Scratch libraries and songs plus Serato control vinyl. Serato’s digital vinyl system (DVS) lets you play digital files using special vinyl-like discs so you can combine the feel of scratching records with all the options digital files give you. Rane and Denon produce DVS-compatible interfaces with a range of different I/O configurations to handle various DJ rigs.

Diagram of Rane SL2 Interface for Serato Scratch

The ability to scratch real vinyl and CDs makes the Rane SL2 Interface for Serato Scratch a solid choice for DJs who want to integrate turntables or CD decks into their digital DJ rigs.

Pioneer DDJ-SX2 Performance DJ Controller

Pioneer DDJ-SX2

Aimed at seasoned DJs looking to raise their game, the four-channel DDJ-SX2 includes control of the new Serato Flip function that lets you record and replay hot cue sequences on the fly. The control layout is optimized to work with all of Serato’s cool functions. Multi-colored Performance Pads control eight types of Serato DJ functions. Illumination colors provide quick identification of the different actions/commands such as beats and drum rolls. The eight pads located below the jog wheel offer hot cue, roll, slicer, and sampler functions. While in velocity sampler mode, the output level from the pad can vary depending on the strength of each tap from the user.

Pioneer DDJ-SB Serato DJ Intro Controller

Pioneer DDJ-SB Serato DJ Intro Controller

The Pioneer DDJ-SB gives you complete hands-on control over Serato DJ Intro software making it an affordable yet powerful tool for the new DJ. With all the basic operations of its more costly Pioneer controller brethren, you’ll be able to create seamless shows and mixes to help you forge a signature style. A new Filter Fade circuit ups the ante on seamless crossfader moves while four pads give you real, hands-on performing power.

Explore the complete Musician’s Friend collection of DJ Interfaces and Controllers.

Ableton Live

Although it’s not strictly a DJ program, Ableton Live has been a popular choice with DJs ever since its introduction in 2001. While its advanced DAW power might appear to be overkill for the DJs who want to build custom beats and grooves, its user-friendly single-window interface is easy for anyone to grasp. When you want to spice up your grooves with orchestral drops and amazing string sections, Live’s Arrangement view lets you drag and drop elements to create multilayered mixes of great complexity in a time-based interface.

When you want to work in a sketchpad-like environment, switch to Live’s Session View. It’s a great interface within which to try out ideas while using all of Live’s effects, sounds and functions as well as your own sample libraries and instruments. Live has a very powerful browser to help you find the right musical elements faster. Turning grooves into assembled tracks is made easier with excellent automation support that helps make your workflow fly.

Mapping Ableton Live functions to most DJ controllers is straightforward. To streamline the process, most interface makers provide templates that make short work of mapping many of Live’s function’s to your controller’s various knobs, button, pads and sliders.

Ableton Live 9 Suite

Ableton Live 9 Suite is a powerful DAW that has attracted many DJs and beat builders with its simple yet powerful interface.

Other DJ Software to Consider

So far, we’ve just touched on two of the most popular DJ applications. Here are some others to consider.

Virtual DJ

Available only online, it gets high marks for functionality but the free “home version”currently will only work with your computer’s mouse and keyboard. Windows/Mac.

DJAY

A Mac-only program, it has a beautiful interface and works well with iTunes libraries. There’s also an excellent iOS app version.

Deckadence

Made by the publishers of popular FL Studio groove production software, it works as a standalone or plug-in program and has automated glitch, stutter and scratch functions. Windows/Mac.

Mixed In Key Flow

Its simplified workflow lets you build tracks using semi-automated mixing. It has been designed to integrate well with a variety of controllers. Windows/Mac.

The One

Not the easiest application to grasp, its modular, screen-based interface supports on-the-fly mixing and slotting mixes pre-show.

iOS Apps

With new apps for DJs and groove producers showing up nearly daily, it’s difficult to cover this topic in a way that will be relevant a few months from now. Suffice to say that with the move towards using iPhones and iPads as DJ and groove production tools, we can expect this category to grow even more important.

We recently highlighted Top 10 Music Apps to help you find great groove production tools.

Keeping Current

In the rapidly evolving world of DJ controllers, change and improvements are constant. In this guide we’ve highlighted some of the latest gear, but new controllers and apps turn up with increasing frequency as technology evolves. We recommend you put some some quality time into exploring the many online DJ and beat-production forums to stay current.

Checking out what gear/software other producers and DJs are using and what they’re doing with it is essential to building your skills. Most manufacturers’ websites include community sections where you’ll find fellow musicians talking about the latest technology and sharing techniques. Many include user libraries of sounds, instruments and mapping tools for working with various software/hardware combinations.

We’re Here to Help

The huge selection of DJ gear and software that’s available to create beats and grooves can be mind-boggling. By now you probably have a clearer idea of what’s available, but if you need more guidance, we can help. We have Gear Heads with deep DJ skills who can help point you to the solutions that make sense for your skill level, music and budget. Give us a call at (877) 880-5907.

Tags: Mixers Audio Interfaces DJ Equipment MIDI Groove Production

Comments  

# Jake 2016-08-16 03:35
To the drum keys that is.
Reply
# Jake 2016-08-16 03:34
What programs would be needed to download different sound effects to a numark pro 2 controller?
Reply
# Max Lafferty 2015-12-24 02:05
I am days away from purchasing a DJ Controller and 99.9% pioneer for that matter. Now I see the DJ's who have made it using 2 CDJ's in a perfect world I would do the same.

This being my first set up I think the SX2 should do more than fine. I have a late model 2015 macbook pro and am really ready to but forth a lot of effort a long with a very musically inclined friend of mine. I have seen this controller from just under 700 to just over 1k. I am shopping for the best price obviously. I am also going to commit that as long as the merchant does me right i will stay with them for accessories, speakers, etc which will add up extremely fast.
Reply
# Zack Hutch 2016-03-15 00:14
You made a wise choice, I've had my SX2 for a little over 6 months now and am LOVING it!!! Very powerful tool for a DJ's arsenal.
Reply

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