A Guide to Digital DJ

USB DJ Controllers

USB DJ Controllers

A USB DJ controller links to your computer via a USB cable. It works as a physical interface allowing you to 'touch' and control' DJ software on your computer and your digital music files. The controller will send a digital control signal to your computer via USB, in the form of MIDI. This signal will communicate with the computer, software and controller device. So, as you move a fader on the controller, the virtual fader will move on your software. Scratch with the platter on the controller and the virtual deck will scratch your digital music file. There are numerous advantages of using USB DJ controllers. First and foremost, they access and playback digital music files from your computer. If you have a massive download collection or digital archive on your computer, this is the most obvious choice for you. Secondly, they are very portable. Most will fit neatly in a rucksack. Few weigh more than your average laptop. Even the most sizeable options are lighter than a box full of CDs or vinyl records! USB controllers come in many, many different forms, designs and applications. The most common style is based around a 'two deck and mixer' set-up This style gives you controls over two virtual decks in DJ software and the ability to mix between the two with the mixer controls. More and more options offer 4-deck mixing, usually equipped with a 4-channel mixer and then two control 'layers' which allows each of the controller decks to control 2 'virtual decks' within the software. You'll most oftenly find the controller will change colour in some way to indicate which deck is in use - preventing any confusion. Some offer the ability to work as an analogue mixer too. For instance, they will allow you to connect CD decks, turntables and/or microphones, so you can mix software and digital files with CD or analogue media. Some new 'all-in-one' solutions also work as complete 'multi-media' DJ consoles too. They'll play CDs, works as a mixer, play from USB devices and also control software! Some controllers coming to market in 2012, such as the Pioneer XDJ Aero also offer Wi-Fi connectivity. This allows them to connect to mobile phones and tablet computers such an iPad, playing back music stored on these devices - no computer needed! Then there's also the dedicated iPad / iPhone DJ devices. These essentially use your handset or tablet as the 'computer'. Computers? A USB DJ controller will always need a DJ software for it to playback your digital music collection. Software invariably needs a computer, therefore a USB DJ controller will always need a computer! They'll work with a laptop or desktop, and most will operate on PC or Mac - always check whether the specific controller you are looking at is compatible with your computer though. Variations in DJ software and differences in what the controller demands from your machine will mean system requirements differ from model to model. There are various options around that double up as a USB controller as well as playing CDs, using memory sticks or even connecting to mobile devices or networks via Wi-Fi - these will work in their custom standalone mode, but will still need a computer to run software if used in controller mode. Software? As we mentioned above, USB DJ controllers will need software to playback your digital music collection. Software comes in many forms and brands, but there are market leaders that most controllers will function with, namely Native Instruments Traktor DJ, Serato Scratch Live /Intro, Virtual DJ and MixVibes. Although similar in concept, the various platforms offer different functions, different general user interfaces and various perks. Most USB DJ controllers will include software. Sometimes this is a LE (light or limited edition), sometimes it is a 'full version'. Some USB DJ controllers are specific to the version of software they are supplied with, most have the ability to work with other versions of software than the one it comes supplied with. We'll always detail on our website whether or not software is included, which one and whether the device will work with another version of software too - if it's not clear or you're unsure, please feel free to check with us. Audio interface or soundcards? Many USB DJ controllers have built-in audio interfaces (soundcards), some don't. As a DJ, it's critical that you can 'cue' or 'PFL' a monitor signal - you'll want to be able to hear the next track ahead of the mix. More importantly, you'll want to be able to provide a 'master' signal to your main speaker source. This could be an amplifier, aux input on a home audio system or directly active monitor speakers. Either way, this master signal is what your crowd or audience will be listening too (and hopefully dancing too!). So, essentially you need two independent signal outputs. If the USB DJ controller has an audio interface built-in, it will provide you with these two outputs. You'll be able to plug your headphones into it for monitoring and also connect the master output to your sound source. m If the controller in question doesn't have an audio interface built-in, you'll need an additional device. Fear not, DJ Audio interfaces aren't expensive or confusing though. By default, your computer will more than liklely have a soundcard installed. Chances are, even on high-end Mac Books, this soundcard will be of poor quality and be suitable for nothing more than connecting earphones for some general light listening. It almost certainly won't have the two independent outputs needed to DJ properly, unfortunately. Our website will always detail whether these is an audio interface built-in or not, but if you're unsure, please feel free to ask us.

DJ Software

As detailed above, DJ software comes in various guises and on various platforms. Two main formats: 1) You get standalone DJ software, which will allow you to mix MP3s or digital music files virtually. No hardware needed. Ideal for making home mixes and playing around. Most standalone software will provide the option for use with a USB DJ Controller - this is when it gets fun! You'll get a more hands-on control over your software and 'feel' like a DJ! 2) DVS software is a Digital Vinyl System. This came about in the form of Final Scratch and has evolved into what we know today as Traktor Scratch (A6 & A10 in the latest guise) and Serato Scratch Live. MixVibes also do DVS packages. The principal behind a DVS package is the ability to control you digital music on computer by using a traditional DJ set-up.

DJ System set up

Basically, you use your turntables or CD decks and DJ mixer connected to your computer by a special audio interface. You then use special 'time-code' CDs or vinyl records to send a signal to the software, the software decodes this signal, replicating any action you may apply to the time-code media directly to the digital music. ie. If you play the time code CD, the digital file plays in the software. If you scratch the time-code vinyl, the software does the exact same to the digital file. Therefore, you get direct, hands-on control over digital music files. With DVS, the benefits of software (ie. auto-mixing, effects, sampling, huge music library etc) can be utilised to maximum extent by DJs who still prefer to use turntables and mixers.