Many beginners in the DJ scene tend to easily confuse a controller with a mixer.
So, what’s the difference between a DJ controller and a DJ mixer? A controller is an all-in-one device that allows you to cue up tracks, mix and edit music, and access your library and effects via your laptop. A 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 a great option for the DJ on a budget or beginners who can’t afford to invest hundreds of dollars in a pro-quality setup. Both of these can be essential pieces of equipment depending on your type of setup.
If you’re not familiar with the differences between a controller and mixer, I’ll go over the advantages and disadvantages of both, and discuss why the DJ controller remains the more popular option for the modern DJ.
Key Differences Between a Controller and Mixer
The controller is an all-in-one unit that helps a DJ to mix their music, with the help of jog wheels, crossfader, EQs, encoders, and software. They come fully incorporated with a built-in mixer.
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 between tracks.
The mixer is what DJs use to manipulate several audio signals. This type of device is equipped with both in and out audio. Its signals are physically mixed and routed via the device.
The circuitry can be either 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 them 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.
Construction and Portability
In terms of build quality, both the controller and mixer 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 multitasking device that features a mixer area. On many models, you can mix and edit tracks and put together a DJ set, and use it 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. 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 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 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 controller.
The Best Option for You
The DJ controller is clearly the best choice for most DJs. Regardless of skill level, using one can have a huge impact on the quality of your sets, not to mention each track. They really give you the ability to experiment with different sounds, mixing techniques, and transition styles on one unit.
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 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?
It’s important to go for 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 now come with high-end software, so you can save a little cash and experiment with new sounds, mixing techniques, and more.
I recommend the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8, one of the top-selling models around that’s both beginner-friendly and pro-quality.
If you want to get an in-depth look at the leading controllers on the market right now and learn more about their features 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 a 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 software, 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 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.
As a beginner, knowing the difference between a controller and a mixer is super important as it can help you to decide which essential piece of gear will be right for your DJ style and mixing needs.
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 if you’re looking for a modern digital setup that’s easier to use than a turntable setup.
Because the controller just hooks up to your laptop, you have instant access to all of your music and sound effects. It’s often much easier to transport from gig to gig, and also allows for a more hands-off approach to DJing a set.
At the end of the day, most DJs can agree that a controller is simply more versatile compared to a standard mixer.