Many beginners in the DJ scene tend to easily confuse a DJ controller with a mixer.
So, what’s the difference between a mixer and a controller, and which one is the best option for a beginner?
What are DJ controllers and mixers? Both the DJ controller and mixer can be essential pieces of DJ equipment depending on your type of setup. But for the most part, most DJs prefer the controller because it allows you to cue up tracks, mix and edit tracks, and access your music library and effects via your laptop. The mixer will only allow you to mix tracks, which is why it’s not as commonly used as the more versatile controller. A controller is also a great option for the DJ on a budget, for those beginners who can’t afford to invest hundreds of dollars into a pro-quality setup.
If you’re not familiar with all the different features and capabilities both the controller and mixer have to offer, I’ll go over how each type of device differs, the advantages and disadvantages of both, and discuss why the DJ controller remains the more popular option for the modern DJ.
The Key Differences Between these Important DJing Devices
Many beginners in the DJ scene will not be able to tell the difference between the controller and the mixer, or how each piece of equipment plays a major role in a DJ setup.
The DJ controller is what helps a DJ to mix their music, with the help of jog wheels, knobs, encoders, and software. It will control all the aspects of a dedicated software program, while the mixer will take care of the hardware. The controller will also have a USB connection with a laptop, working to guide the audio software.
The mixer is what the DJ will use to manipulate several audio signals. A DJ will use a mixer in the club, or at any type of event. This type of device is equipped with both in and out audio. Its signals are physically mixed and routed via the device.
The mixer’s circuitry can be digital or analog. Unfortunately, a mixer does not have the ability to run or control DJing software. This means, if you play your set from a laptop, then you’ll need to use a controller. If you use a couple of turntables during your set, then you’ll need to use a mixer.
For the analog DJ, the mixer will be a core part of their setup. Using one allows the DJ to mix and route the sound that comes from decks and it also allows them to perform a wide range of DJing tricks. It’s basically the go-to gear for the old school DJ.
However, one advantage that the controller has over the mixer is the fact that the controller and the mixer can both work as mixers, while some models of controllers on the market can even work as a type of standalone mixer.
The big difference between the two devices is the use of DJing software, which the controller can operate. The software is what gives the DJ access to a large digital library of music and sound effects, in addition to a couple of channels that can be used for mixing tracks.
The mixer is what’s situated between the decks and it has a large range of equalizers and volume controls that allow the DJ to mix hits between songs. A controller can simulate CDJs via the software program.
Construction and Portability
In terms of build quality, both the mixer and controller differ greatly. A controller is often made out of a sturdy type of thick plastic and features a very lightweight, sleek design, which is what makes them so portable. Some models of mixers can be massive, however, compact models do exist.
Most mixers are comparable in size to a controller, but many are much taller and are made out of tougher materials that make them more durable.
A controller is a sort of multitasking device that features a mixer area. While the mixer is only a mixer. Basically, on many models of controllers, you can mix and edit tracks and put together a DJ set, and use the controller during a set to cue music and make smooth transitions. With the mixer, you won’t get this type of versatility.
In terms of price, the DJ mixer is typically more expensive compared to a controller. However, controllers can be pricier if you opt for a top of the line model. With both types of devices, you can expect to pay more for pro-quality models, however, considering how versatile they are, the controller offers the most bang for your buck.
A Great Alternative: Standalone Mixers
These types of mixers work as both a mixer and as a MIDI controller. When using this type of controller you don’t have to use a laptop. Just like a controller, the standalone mixer will either be AC or DC adapter powered because it consumes much more energy than what a USB port is able to offer.
The biggest advantage of this style of mixer over a DJ controller is the fact that you don’t have to rely on a laptop. If you’re using a controller and the hardware or software fails to work, then you’ll be forced to reboot the entire system, which will cause the music and controller to shut down.
On the mixer, you’d still be able to play music via the standalone channels with the help of an iPod or CDJ. This simply isn’t possible with a controller. However, one major downside to this type of mixer, aside from the bulkier design that can make it difficult to transport all your gear, is the fact that they often come with a pretty steep price tag.
But with the higher price, you’ll enjoy a more versatile mixer that will allow you to perform many of the same functions that you normally use with a traditional DJ controller.
The Best Option for You
The DJ controller is clearly the best choice for most DJs. Regardless of skill level, using a controller can have a huge impact on the quality of your sets, not to mention each track. The controller really gives the DJ the ability to experiment with different sounds, mixing techniques, and transition styles.
It’s a great tool that can make your set pop and these devices are also highly portable, which is why they’re perfect for the DJ that’s always on the go and needs a device they can work with or practice on, wherever they are.
What Does a DJ Controller Do for DJs?
The DJ controller is perfect for any digital setup for the traveling DJ, the beginner, and even the pro. These devices plug right into a laptop where you’ll use DJing software to cue tracks, add effects, mix songs and create your own unique sets.
What Type of DJ Controller Should I Get?
The right controller for use should be a model that suits your skill level and your DJing style. If you’re experienced, or you want to delve into creating unique tracks using music samples and sound effects, then a higher end model will be right up your alley.
Of course, the controller is only as good as the software you use. Fortunately, many of the leading models of controllers now come with a leading software program, so you can save a little cash and experiment with new sounds, mixing techniques, and more.
I recommend the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8 DJ Controller, one of the top-selling models around and a controller that’s both beginner-friendly and pro-quality.
If you want to get an in-depth look at the leading DJ controllers on the market and learn more about the features you should look for and how these devices work, then check out my DJ controller buyer’s guide.
Do DJ Controllers have Sound Cards?
A sound card basically turns the digital audio player output into audio signals which can be played and amplified. However, you don’t have to use an external sound card since your laptop already has one. The sound card works by controlling the output and input of audio signals.
But the sound card that comes with your laptop isn’t considered pro-quality and it doesn’t provide surround sound, nor does it offer a single stereo output. Because of this, some DJs will choose to purchase an external sound card.
When a DJ uses CD player or a couple of turntables and they run each of them via their own output to an external mixer, they will use headphones to cue the next song, or they can use pre-fade listening. When they add a pro-quality sound card to the mix, they can headphone cue using DJ software.
Most software offers a couple of modes for dual channel output. The first mode is used to set up the sound card via the DJ software program, allowing both decks to go through a single output on the card and their headphones will go through the other channel.
This allows the user to engage the headphone cue buttons in the software program that both decks signals push through the headphone output via the sound card. The other mode is designed for external mixers. In this mode, one deck would utilize an output on the card and the other deck would use the second one.
So, as you can see, while most controllers don’t come with a sound card because your laptop has one, purchasing an external sound card can add plenty of value to your setup.
What Do CDJs Do?
CDJs obviously involves DJing using a digital player that plays CDs, and while this style of DJing is not nearly as popular as it used to be, there are still times when you’ll need to rely on this skill.
While using vinyl or a digital setup that consists of a controller, learning how to use CDJs can be a very valuable skill and one that will require a lot of practice. CDJs are said to be much easier to use compared to records and most pro digital DJs are able to use them.
CDJs aren’t as convenient to use as a DJ controller, and they can be pretty limiting at times, but every DJ worth their salt should be familiar with the basics and learn how to use them, in the event there’s an issue with their controller.
The DJ controller tends to be a more popular option and it can be a great way to get started in the industry without having to drop a ton of cash. For many, these controllers are the answer for the DJ that’s looking for a modern digital setup that’s easier to use than a turntable setup.
Because the controller just hooks up to a laptop and you’ll have instant access to all of your music and sound effects, it’s often much easier to transport from gig to gig. It also allows for a more hands-off approach to DJing a set, especially if you’ve already mixed your sets.
As a beginner, becoming familiar with DJ equipment and important pieces of gear such as mixers is important. Learning about what are DJ controllers and mixers can help you to determine which essential piece of gear will be perfect for your style of DJing and your mixing needs.
At the end of the day, most DJs can agree that a controller is simply more versatile compared to a standard mixer, however, when it comes to a standalone mixer, you’ll enjoy a comparably convenient to use a piece of gear that will be a true asset in the DJ booth.