DJ controllers have totally changed the nightclub scene for the better, offering sicker beats, richer sounds, and bass that’s loud and full. But how easy is it to use one of these devices? Many aspiring DJs just entering the scene wonder what the best DJ controllers are for beginners.
And while it’s true that many of the leading controllers on the market these days feature complex setups and controls that are difficult to adjust, there are pro-quality models out there that are very intuitive and don’t require much training in terms of learning how the device works.
The best beginner DJ controller should come with display screens that keep you up to date on system and track conditions, pro-quality DJing software, and a well laid out setup that’s clearly labeled and easy to use.
As a beginner, your goal is to get better and learn how to create sets just like the pros. With the right controller, you can create the type of sets that transition perfectly, blend well, and keep clubgoers on the dance floor, regardless of your experience and skill level.
Finding a DJ Controller That Works for You
I’ve chosen the five leading models of controllers on the market, based on features, user experience, setup, and versatility. Each model comes loaded with great software and interfaces that are beginner-friendly, so even the newbie will have an easy time experimenting with tracks and learning their way around DJ software programs.
Top DJ Controllers Comparison Chart
Below you’ll find a comparison chart that includes the top five models of controllers I’ve reviewed.
DJ Controller Buyer’s Guide
DJ controllers are external devices that can easily hook up to a laptop and emulate an old school DJ setup. These controllers allow you to control effects, mix tracks, scratch, and choose songs and samples from your music library. In the past, the DJ had to haul a lot of gear from show to show, including crates of vinyl records, a mixer, and a couple of turntables.
The DJ controller basically allows you to combine all of your gear into one piece of equipment that is able to sync up to your laptop seamlessly. Some of these models work as an all in one piece, while other controllers are designed specifically for a network of controls such as a mixer and effects controls.
All in one controllers are a better choice for beginners or the DJ on a budget.
What to Consider Before You Buy a New DJ Controller
Budget: Before you dive in and hit the buy now button, first consider your budget. DJ controllers that are designed for beginners are usually very budget-friendly.
Functions: Controllers can come with a variety of functions and features to choose from such as built-in audio interfaces, scratch plates, sliders, knobs, performance pads, and faders.
Software: As I mentioned, some controls will work for all software. These are called universal controllers. Other controllers are made specifically for certain software programs.
Ultimately, the best beginner DJ controllers give the user total control over essential DJing hardware. Considering it seems like everyone is a DJ these days, it should come as no surprise that basic and tech-heavy models have flooded the market, offering a variety of features ranging from top of the line soundcards and spinning platters to jog wheels and customizable DJ controllers that allow scratching.
With the introduction of DJ software, there came a need for hardware that was powerful enough to control it.
Enter the DJ controller.
As DJing continues to be both a career and a hobby for many, the DJ software market continues to grow, producing software that’s designed to fit every style, workflow, and budget. But with this type of selection available, choosing the right DJ controller can be difficult.
These controllers are designed as the total in the box DJ solution. They’re pro grade, but many newer models feature more intuitive controls that also make them very beginner-friendly.
These controllers are designed for the club DJ that’s always on the go, as well as the performer who needs a controller that offers the advantage of both remix and live elements via the included software package.
Whether you’re a pro or a hobbyist DJ, it will ultimately boil down to what type of software you want, personal DJing style, and how much you’re willing to spend.
If you’re not sure whether a controller is right for you, or whether you should opt for a mixer instead, go here to read my article on DJ controller vs mixer, to know the differences between the two.
The Digital Age
Back in the day, most DJs mainly used a mixer and a couple of turntables, whether they were scratching or spinning hits. But with the introduction of CDs and MP3s, most DJs quickly made the switch to digital tech because it significantly cut down on the amount of gear they had to haul and music in this digital format was simply more reliable compared to vinyl records.
Manufacturers took notice and began producing controllers that offered the ability to mix and remix beats, in addition to other capabilities that DJs simply couldn’t get out of their basic turntable setup.
These days, DJ hardware is integrated with specific software, which makes configuring a controller’s settings simple while also allowing the newbie to experiment and create their own beats.
While the DJ controller will allow the user to manipulate their app or software seamlessly, the software is really what runs the show in the world of DJing.
DJing Software Programs
Apps and software programs that are designed for DJ use will allow you to mix your tracks and apply effects and filters, trigger samples, and perform a variety of tricks such as modifying waveforms.
Aside from basics including uploading music into the sound library, the software creates the virtual decks on which you’ll be mixing and provides the transport controls needed for playback.
When you shop for DJing software, you’ll find that there are many options available and most will include similar functions. Basically, when choosing a software program, you’ll need to consider the controller’s capabilities in terms of how well it can handle each certain software program and check out the software’s user interface.
How DJing Software Works
While the DJ controller is what allows the user to manipulate the app or software program seamlessly, the software is what has revolutionized the DJing world. The software handles all of the important tasks that allow the DJ to manipulate their music files.
But aside from uploading new music to your library, the software also offers virtual controls for creating virtual decks the DJ will use for mixing, as well as controls for playback. DJ and software apps will monitor all the DJ’s moves as they mix and apply the effects, music waveforms, and filters the DJ chooses.
If you’ve decided to go with an all in one DJ controller, then choosing the right software program will be the next important step. All controllers will come with software. But the included software is usually a smaller version of the full-blown DJing programs.
These mini DJ software programs will usually include the word “lite” in the title. For beginners, these smaller versions can work fine, but if you’re a pro and looking for a program that will truly allow you to test your skills and throw together some great beats, then you’ll need to upgrade to the full version. If you’re on a tight budget you should definitely factor in this extra expense.
How Modern DJ Controllers Work
A DJ controller consists of a couple of major components:
- The control surface features faders and pads, jog wheels, buttons, and knobs, all of which give the user more control over the settings and functions of the software. LED lights and display screens will indicate audio levels, any set parameters, and the system status.
- The audio interface transmits the signal to external equipment such as mobile devices, computers, PA systems, and effects processors, based on the type of connectors the controller has.
Before choosing a controller, you should consider many factors such as build quality, especially if you’re looking for a beginner-friendly, portable model. A beginner will also need a controller that features an intuitive user interface and controls. For most DJs in search of a new controller, the software will be the most important factor.
All-in -One-Controllers: Versatility
These setups will basically come with everything the DJ needs, including the software. If you’re just starting out or you’re desperately in need of an upgrade, then this type of system can be a great way to go. While a controller equipped with plenty of buttons, knobs, and sliders allows you to run your software more fluidly, as we mentioned, the software is what really handles most of the work, including handling the filters, effects, and beat juggling.
Some controllers are designed to work with a specific software program, while other controllers are much more versatile, allowing the user to pick and choose the software program that works the best for them. These more versatile controllers are more expensive, but they tend to give the DJ more creative freedom.
So, for some, when choosing a controller, another important consideration will be software compatibility. If you have a specific software platform in mind, then finding a controller that’s specifically designed for that particular program will be an excellent option since the controller will be tightly integrated into the program.
This means the controller will provide a higher level of functionality compared to controllers that are designed for multiple program use. Because many of the functions are mapped, the controllers designed for specific software programs will be much faster and simpler to configure.
However, the biggest downside to these types of controllers is the fact that they’re not compatible with other programs. If you need a controller that can work with a variety of software options, then you will need to search for software agnostic controllers that are MIDI compliant.
I’ve gone over the popular all in one DJ controllers, now I’ll go over the other option: modular rigs. A modular rig consists of separate sound sources including media players, CD players, and turntables, as well as an analog mixer and a soundcard, which is what allows the DJ to operate their gear using DJ software.
While most DJs prefer the all in one controller that you can connect to a laptop to run the included software, some DJs love what the modular rig has to offer.
But for many, these all in one controllers, which include a mixing section, interface, and media player, will be the most affordable, and more convenient option.
Features to Look For
Control surfaces that are loaded with faders, pads, jog wheels, buttons, and knobs, will give the user total control over the software’s settings and functions. The multicolored lights and vivid displays will keep the DJ up to date regarding the system’s status and allows them to clearly finetune a track. The interface that transmits MIDI and audio signals to a laptop will effect a PA system and processors, depending on the controller’s connectors.
While most DJ software programs can be operated using a keyboard and mouse, that type of setup isn’t very streamlined and can be difficult to operate considering the many layers of functions you’ll have to search for in the middle of the set. The DJ controller will help to simplify the entire process.
DJ Controller vs Turntables
For years there has been an ongoing debate regarding the DJ controller versus turntables. Most DJs have their own personal preference and opinion regarding which option is the best. Many old school DJs feel that a true DJ should be schooled in the ways of turntable use, while others claim that the DJ controller actually gives the user more control over the music. Obviously, which option is best is more a matter of user preference.
If you’ve used DJ software programs, using turntables is actually not that much different, especially if you commonly use a mixer. A mixer is basically what bridges the divide, allowing the DJ to use effects and samples, which is basically what the DJ controller does.
So, for DJs that use this type of setup, the argument that turntables are a better option is somewhat ironic. While a turntable setup has a nicer look compared to a DJ controller, you won’t have as much control over each beat and track. You’ll also have to load, unload, haul, and store a lot more gear than just the DJ controller and a laptop.
At the end of the day, the option you choose should be based on your skill level, convenience, budget, and whether or not you mind hauling extra gear.
Can You Scratch on a DJ Controller?
Learning how to scratch can be a real challenge for beginners, and it definitely takes some practice. Fortunately, the DJ controller can make it much easier compared to using a turntable. The most important thing to keep in mind is how to use the crossfader correctly. Once you get that technique down, you’ll be able to experiment with different styles of scratching
Using the Crossfader
Scratching on a DJ controller can be done, however, there’s one particular setting that you’ll need to change in order to get started. Most scratching is done using the crossfader, but in order for that to work, you’ll need to adjust its curve settings.
The crossfader curve is an adjustable setting that you’ll find in most DJ hardware and software programs and it’s what creates that nice cutting sound when you’re scratching. You can choose from a variety of settings for the crossfader. If you want to mix, setting the crossfader to slow is the perfect option.
However, for scratching, you’ll want to set it to fast. Instead of the track getting louder as it travels from right to left, you will end up hearing the opposite track at full volume, once the crossfader has left one edge.
Setting the crossfader up correctly will definitely help you learn how to scratch. Remember, prior to use, you’ll want to check out the settings and change it to fast. To practice your scratching, you can use a scratch sample, then practice with it by using your crossfader to cut in and out of the sample.
Other Considerations When Scratching with a DJ Controller
- If you’re using a mixer, make sure it’s also set up correctly. Check out the knobs and make sure the crossfader knob is turned up all the way, which will make it much easier to cut using the fader.
- When you’re practicing, make sure you use one scratch track and one regular song.
- Another important step is learning how to cue your songs. To do, you’ll want to begin to the start of a beat. This involves a portion of the song that you’ll be playing with for scratching purposes.
- Once you’ve got the basic scratch movement down, you’ll then be ready to integrate the fader.
- When you scratch, you’ll open the crossfader and close it as soon as you bring the song back. This is because you don’t want to hear the reverse sound, you want to hear the scratch sound.
Can a DJ Controller Provide the Same Type of Turntable Scratching Sound?
There are many pro DJs out there that refuse to use a DJ controller because they don’t feel that you can get the same type of scratch sound that you can when you use a turntable. But is this really true?
Learning to scratch on a DJ controller is, in many ways, much easier compared to learning on a turntable. When you scratch on a controller, you won’t have to worry about the sound jumping around. Additionally, the sound you’re scratching won’t degrade over time the more you use it for scratching and you won’t have to deal with feedback or bass rumble through the system like you would with vinyl.
But when DJs claim that scratching on a controller doesn’t sound the same as when scratching on vinyl, they’re referring to that rawer, warmer sound as opposed to the scratching sound of digital. However, these days, more and more pros are making the switch to DJ controllers, because modern models now do offer that same warm vinyl scratch sound that controllers that were made just a few years ago didn’t.
When Is Latency a Problem?
For some, when using a DJ controller, digital latency can be an issue, especially with models that aren’t designed to be integrated with a specific software app. However, if you’re using a DJ controller with a software program that was designed specifically for that model, then the chances are that latency will not be a problem for you.
Can You Scratch with Entry-Level Gear?
Some DJs claim that you need top of the line gear in order to achieve a great sound and that entry-level gear simply won’t cut it. Manufacturers tend to agree if only to encourage consumers to upgrade to a more expensive model. But in reality, you should be able to find a great DJ controller for scratching at a reasonable price.
Beat juggling can be a major challenge, whether you use a DJ controller or vinyl. To do, you’ll need plenty of practice, rhythm, and coordination. When you beat juggle on vinyl, you can use the marks on the record’s label to give yourself a visual cue regarding the position of the record.
While this option isn’t really available on a DJ controller, some models do replicate this by using LED lights. So, with a DJ controller, it is possible to do beat juggling, in addition to more advanced techniques such as chasing.
Best Beginner DJ Controllers Reviewed
Now let’s dive into our top 5 DJ controllers on the market. I’ve included mix of two channel and four channel controllers depending on your needs.
The Pioneer DDJ-SB3 controller is a great option for beginners and DJ enthusiasts. It’s a two channel controller that is user-friendly, incorporated with one of the best DJ software, Serato DJ Lite. This DJ controller has a polished layout with necessary essentials, such as performance pads, auto-loop buttons, and high-quality jog wheels. Additionally, it has an excellent FX Fade feature, which grants you smooth transitions that will showcase your blending skills.
It also has a lightweight and portable design with uniquely large jog wheels for improved scratch feedback and accuracy. Unfortunately, it has limited external output options and some users have expressed that it has loose faders and wobbly knobs. Nonetheless, Pioneer have done an incredible job that lives up to it’s brand.
If you’re looking for an efficient and inexpensive DJ controller, then you can’t go past the Numark Party Mix. This controller has a modern and sleek design that can be easily hooked up to your Windows or Mac PC.
Numark Party Mix is a two channel controller equipped with jog-wheels, pitch faders, and a crossfader, all of which are must-have essentials for mixing your favorite tracks. Because of this, it has a high-quality audio interface with a 1/8-inch main output and 1/8-inch headphone output. This allows you to basically hook up all audio recorders, mixers, and speakers with ease.
However, one of its most striking characteristics is the built-in DJ lights that automatically sync to the music beat and flow. This allows you to turn any party to a disco jam with just a laptop and the Numark Party Mix. One drawback is that it only comes with a 30-day limit DJ software. Afterward, you need to purchase a license and other software to enjoy all of its features.
All in all, the dimensions of the model combined with its size, durability, and crazy low price make it a perfect tool for any budding DJ, or house party setup.
Traktor Kontrol DJ controller offers many features that you would expect to find in a professional DJ controller. Its 4-deck controller provides you full control of the 3-band equalizer, volume, filter, and cue, in a lightweight frame. You are able to set up the Traktor controller with a computer in a quick and easy manner. Another important feature is the 2 outputs available in the mixer. Both allow independent volume controls, which will allow you to choose one as your master set, while the other one can be used for speakers. If you need MIDI ports, do not fret as it also contains them.
Traktor’s DJ controller also has sleek and responsive jog wheels, which give you the ability to scratch and beat-match at the same time. Unfortunately, this DJ controller comes at a high price, but for it’s sheer quality and features, it’s a fine investment!
Numark is always revolutionizing the world of DJing and its Mixtrack Pro 3 is here to stay! Numark upgraded this controller with a multi-function touch strip, 5-inch jog wheels, and a high-resolution audio output. Apart from this, its performance is enhanced with 16 backlit performance pads, which give you full access to sample playback, cue-points, and automatic or manual looping. The layout of this controller makes it great for beginners, yet has enough features to keep a professional DJ very satisfied.
The Mixtrack Pro 3 is also pre-mapped with Serato DJ Lite, so it can suffice your software demands from the get-go. Some people depict that its interface is unstable and its size can limit portability. Thankfully, its price does not put a hard strain on your budget, making it more accessible to beginners.
Roland’s DJ-202 controller is a great beginner to entry level 4-deck controller embedded with Serato DJ software. Upon purchasing, you have free access to Serato DJ Pro from the get-go. The DJ-202 comes equipped with built-in drum kits with advanced analog circuit behavior technology, which captures the sound waves more efficiently, and produces static-free music. No controller is more known for its platters and jog wheels than the DJ-202. It also has the platters with the lowest latency possible, making it the best choice for music blending and scratching. However, the interface is not as intuitive as other controllers, and certain expertise is needed to fully reach its potential.
The Roland DJ-202 is a beautiful piece of kit, which will provide you all the fundamentals of Dj mixing, without the high price tag.
If you’ve spent years playing on vinyl and turntables and have chosen to stick with it because it feels more genuine, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the classic DJ style. However, if you’re tired of hauling all of your gear from show to show, want a more streamlined way to complete a set, then the best DJ controllers for beginners are definitely worth a second look.
These models are available in a wide range of styles designed for beginners, hobbyists, and pro DJs. Our lineup of the top models will give you an in-depth look at some of the best models on the market while shining a light on the features and exactly what you can expect in terms of sound quality and performance.