Pioneer, the biggest player in the DJ booth, has been lagging behind the rest of the pack with digital DJ controllers. While others are onto their second and third iterations, Pioneer waited until the beginning of 2011 to announce its first digital gear.
When it finally did so, the company launched not one, but two controllers – the DDJ-T1 for Traktor software, and the new Pioneer DDJ-S1 for Serato ITCH software. Today we present our Pioneer DDJ-S1 review.
The Pioneer DDJ-S1 controller is a two-channel professional model, with an intriguing mix of practical features, innovation and overall simplicity, and is distinctive enough from everything else on the market to easily carve a niche for itself, quite separate from the fact that – carrying the Pioneer name – it is pretty much bound to do well. Let’s take a closer look…
Unpacking and first impressions
The DDJ-S1 is big! It comes in a substantial box, polystyrene-packed with the usual array of instruction manuals in various languages, power cords and regional adaptors, and the Serato ITCH software on CD.
It’s big, but it’s not overly heavy. It has a metal base, but screwed onto that are two jumbo plastic feet that run from front to back of the unit, raising it well off the surface you place it on. The top of the unit is plastic, and it is set out as if it were three separate units, looking at first glance like two lower-end Pioneer CDJ players and a Pioneer two-channel mixer, with a few extra knobs and buttons for the digital controls.
If most DJ controllers are like small hatchbacks, and a controller like the Numark NS7 is a stretch limo, then the Pioneer is definitely a 4×4 or a Jeep…
The overall impression is of a substantial but built-to-budget unit – it certainly doesn’t have the finesse of Pioneer’s higher-end analogue gear, but at the same time you just know it is going to work forever – it is clearly designed for pro use and would look at home in a venue, unlike many DJ controllers that can look more like living room toys.
The size is part of the reason for this, but also the fact that it so much resembles traditional DJ gear, even down to the “CDJ” parts being identical in layout, as opposed to a mirror image of each other as with most all-in-one DJ controller.
Using the analogy of cars, if most DJ controllers are like small hatchbacks, and a controller like the Numark NS7 is a stretch limo, then the Pioneer is definitely a 4×4 or a Jeep – not the most luxurious ride in the world, but you’d trust it to get you where you’re going in all situations!
One nice thing I noticed is a decent USB cord and power cable. Too many controllers (some from manufacturers who ought to know better) come with flimsy cables and cheap power leads. Pioneer’s are chunky and feel like they won’t let you down.
Inputs and outputs on the Pioneer DDJ-S1
On the front of the unit are a 1/4″ TRS microphone jack, and 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone jacks, plus a switch to route the microphone/aux inputs (more on that later) through software, directly through the unit, or to turn them off.
Round the back there’s a power cable jack (the power input is optional, but the unit’s lights dim when running only from USB off the computer, and Pioneer advises not to run off a laptop that’s not plugged in to mains power) a USB jack, pro XLR balanced outputs and RCA outputs for the master out, a three-way master attenuator selector (adjusts overall volume out), and also a volume control to adjust the level of the Aux input. Finally, on the top, there’s a pro XLR microphone input.
It’s curious that there’s no booth output or booth monitor control, because this unit is plainly designed to be used in situations where that might be useful – in public, maybe in a bar, or as the centre of a mobile DJ set-up. Then again, all but the biggest mobile DJ set-ups I’ve seen don’t tend to have monitor speakers, so maybe this isn’t such an omission for this niche of users.
Each of the identical-looking digital decks has a big CD jogwheel, almost identical to that on Pioneer’s CDJ-400 DJ CD decks. That means big, mechanical, and noisy. The top of each jog is microswitched like the Traktor Kontrol S4, and the edge has finger grips in the plastic. It has some weight, and spins for a couple of seconds before stopping when flicked hard enough.
In this way the jogs are unlike those on any other DJ controller, coming closest to the oversized jogs in the Hercules 4Mx in so far as their feel goes, and to those on the Traktor S4 as far as the microswitches for the scratch panel on the top go. You suspect this is part of Pioneer’s plan – to make the unit instantly recognisable to CD DJs.
You suspect this is part of Pioneer’s plan – to make the unit instantly recognisable to CD DJs.
The tempo control is long-throw and typical Pioneer (apart from the ubiquitous-in-digital “sync” button), as are the big, vertical-stacked cue and play/pause buttons. There is a looping section and a hot cue section on each deck, a vinyl speed adjust knob, and various other minor controls such as key (“master tempo”), vinyl/CDJ mode, vinyl speed adjust, slip, reverse and shift buttons.
The big innovation here is a needle search strip. Well, we say big innovation, but the Numark NS7 got there first with this function, but nonetheless it’s welcome to see it – it’s basically a strip that lets you touch along it with your finger to scrub quickly through the playing tune, and it doubles up on the Pioneer unit as an alphabet search for your music library too – nice.
Finally, at the top of each deck, are a set of microphone controls, with volume and full three-band EQ for each of the two microphones – a feature that ought to have mobile DJs nodding in approval, as will the talkover option for each channel.
The mixer section
Aesthetically divided from its adjacent decks by two indented lines in the plastic, the mixer section – like the decks – has a few extra bits and pieces as well as the standard mixer controls.
Those standard controls first: there are two channels (this is a strictly two-channel system – Serato ITCH can have four decks, but not with the DDJ-S1), each with a channel fader; three band EQ; gain (“trim”); cue select; and a nice innovation – fader start, that allows you to autostart a track at the start or the default cue point (if set), simply by opening the crossfader. This import from Pioneer’s digital gear is nice for performing stutter start effect or just for convenience for non-beatmatching DJs, and is a feature that to my knowledge doesn’t appear on any other DJ controllers other than the Numark NS7.
The crossfader, while non-replaceable, has a crossfader reverse switch and a curve adjuster switch (two curve options, plus the option to switch the crossfader off totally).
The usual master out, headphone cue and headphone mix level controls sit above the seven-band VU meters, which have a stereo master output pair and separate A and B pre-fader monitoring for easy setting of gain levels.
So to the extra stuff. To the outside of the channel lines are the effects sections, of which there are two. For each, you can select the effect you wish to use with a stepped rotary, adjust the parameter with a similar control, and set the wet/dry (“level depth”) with a third centre-clicking rotary. A tempo tap button completes these sections. The effects can each be assigned to A, B, aux or master.
Finally for the mixer, there is a relatively comprehensive (on paper) library section right at the top. This lets you navigate the provided software’s file system, with a big knob for browsing, and buttons for crates, files, browse and prepare functions, and an area focus move button (which doubles up as a record on/off button when used with shift).
Setting up and in use
Digital DJ controllers and software are sometimes notoriously difficult to set up, with driver installs, software installation, software configuration (audio, controller, mappings), and so on. The fact that this system comes with Serato ITCH software is definitely on its side.
We’ll discuss the software briefly a little in a second, but suffice to say that with a Mac, you just install the software and plug in, and with a PC, apart from having to install an ASIO driver for the sound, it’s equally simple.
This is a controller review, and the software supplied – Serato ITCH 1.8 (if you already have Serato ITCH it will probably be 1.7 which doesn’t work with this controller – you need to use the supplied software or download the Pioneer-specific version from the Serato website) – has already been thoroughly reviewed by us in our Serato ITCH 1.7 review, so if you want to find out more about it, that’s where to go.
Suffice to say that the point of Serato ITCH is that it is simple to install and use, allowing the DJ who is maybe not so fussed about all the latest bells and whistles to just get on with the job of playing tunes. If this sounds like you (and with a strictly two-channel system such as this, if you’re still reading, it probably is), you’ll probably get along extremely well with Serato ITCH.
The software has two modes: A library mode when you’ve not got the controller plugged in and switched on, and the turntable mode when you have. All tracks need analysing which, as with most DJ software, is best done before your gig, and you can do this from the “offline” mode.
Serato tends to fine tune its software for the hardware it is being paired with, and so in this case, one example is the aforementioned alphabet search function, that brings up an A to Z bar at the top of the library window in the software to allow you to quickly jump to tunes beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet, to save keyboard searching. Which brings us on nicely to the laptop positioning issue…
Where to put your laptop?
Pioneer makes a big deal about the fact that you can tuck your laptop underneath this unit, possible thanks to the chunky feet that raise its body high up enough to allow this to happen.
On the plus side, doing this makes everything look neater, tucking the laptop down out of the way so the DJ looks like he’s actually DJing and not checking his emails.
Pioneer makes a big deal about the fact that you can tuck your laptop underneath this unit, possible thanks to the chunky feet that raise its body high up,..
On the minus side, it removes your ability to use your keyboard. From doing a quick search of your collection (even with the alphabet search strip, nothing is as fast as typing into the instant search box), to deleting loop points, there are many functions that still need the keyboard. While I can see some DJs taking Pioneer up on this neat little design angle, I can see just as many others realising that taking their keyboard away from them is a step too far.
I think some of the first group may end up joining the second group after the first time that they find themselves having to extract their laptop mid-gig to do something or other on the keyboard!
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