Review: American Audio VMS2 DJ Controller
In a continuing trend of manufacturers launching downsized DJ controllers, American Audio has recently made available (at least, here in Europe) its not-so-recently announced VMS2 Digital Work Station (that's DJ controller to you and me).
Taking all of its cues from its bigger brother the VMS4, this controller ditches the four mixer channels to give a more compact, simpler but still reasonably well featured controller. Let's take a closer look...
First impressions and setting up
The VMS2 is plainly meant to be used in gigging environments. It is not designed to be put in a drawer at home and got out to be played with on the lounge table once in a while. With its all-metal casing, massive rubber corner protectors and feet, and the supplied 19" rack mounting kit, it is clear than American Audio expects this unit to be used by real DJs as well as hobbyists.
It is a good, portable size, but it is heavy - even if you don't choose to flight case it, you'll be lugging it purposefully around rather than throwing it over your back in a bag. It looks and feels purposeful, industrial, unsubtle - kind of old school, with its gun-metal polished casing and hollow metal jogwheels (that ring when you tap them - not so good).
American Audio has got some stick for build quality in the past, but overall this is well built, much better than many DJ controllers. The painted metal surface is like you'd expect industrial electrical equipment to be. The rubberised buttons have a slightly cheap-feeling "click" when pushed, but you get used to it, and it's compensated for by them all being pretty tastefully backlit, although the lights are dim on USB-only power and many aren't over-bright even with the supplied AC plugged in. The knobs have a good, rubberised finish.
The crossfader is InnoFader compatible and hot-swappable (ie you can replace it on the go, mid-set if you wish!). The toggle switches are standard metal jobs, better than those on the Pioneer DDJ-T1 and DDJ-S1, for instance. The on/off switch is high quality and lit.
The jogwheels, while not the most refined looking things in the world, feel secure with not too much give in them (I have seen earlier American Audio models at shows with badly loose jogwheels, and I hope these are nice and tight because the manufacturing has been improved, not because it's simply a new unit).
One concern is with the channel and line faders, which don't seem the strongest (you can bend them quite easily by twisting the faders gently). Further more, the line faders are scratchy to use. It's certainly worth making sure these are well protected in transit, and not mauling them in use.
Overall, while not perfect, this unit would stand up to gigging better than many controllers, especially those at the consumer end of the market.
Inputs and outputs
The VMS2 has a real plethora of options here. For inputs, there is a microphone (XLR or 1/4" TRS), and there are two line/phono inputs that can be used for fully analogue / timecode vinyl / line-ins for software. Output-wise there are master and booth outs (RCAs, with XLRs too for master), and of course the headphones out too.
ASIO drivers as usual are necessary for PC users; Mac users don't need this step. Then you install the supplied software (Virtual DJ LE), enter the serial, and you're off. The Midi mapping worked out of the box first time, no reboots, no restarts. All I needed to do was select external sound in the software sound configurations.
While it would be nice if this last step were not necessary, it was still much simpler than the typical equivalent set-up with Traktor, for instance. Plug your sound system and headphones in, and everything's working fine.
The software rather cunningly gives you the full Virtual DJ experience for five days, reverting to the cut-back LE version thereafter.
The skin supplied for the VMS2 mimics the look and layout of the unit itself, and is not the prettiest to look at, although it does make operation simpler than with the default virtual DJ skin, at least at first, because you can see clearly where everything is.
Anyway, the options in the supplied software for routing etc are non-existent - it works, and if you want to remap stuff or route external audio or mess with timecodes or do anything that isn't out-of-the-box, you'll need to upgrade your software. Out of the box, it does enough to get you going. Such is LE software.
It's worth mentioning that Virtual DJ lets you use video files as well as music files. We don't have the facilities to test video DJing, but Virtual DJ (in its full version, of course) is a popular program for VDJs so we'd assume it works as advertised.
There's a tab for video display on the VMS2 skin, and the skin also features the rather unnecessary eye-candy of Serato Scratch-esque vertical waveforms as well as Virtual DJ's overlaid horizontal ones.
Loading and playing a tune
The stepped rotary in the middle of the mixer section lets you navigate your music, with left and right arrows moving from directories into folders. You load a track by pressing its "load" button, or just pressing the rotary, which will load the selected track on to the empty (or not-playing) deck.
Cueing is done using the jogwheels, which are sensibly in "scratch" mode automatically when a deck is stopped, in order to make this easy. Hitting the "cue" button sets a temporary cue, although there are also three cue points per track on separate buttons too. Confusingly, the three separate cue buttons have cue points "4", "5" and "6" marked on them as shift + cue functions, whereas actually shift + cue deletes cues 1, 2 and 3. Bottom line: three cues per track, not six as marked on the hardware.
The jogwheels are good - they're not the very best I've ever used regarding how well they control the music, but they're pretty good, being mapped properly to the software. What I mean by this is that when the jogwheel has been spun, the music "spins", and when the jogwheel stops, so too does the music.
Pretty basic stuff, but you'd be surprised how many controller have woolly, elastic mapping to their supplied software. Happily though in this case, for progressive scrubbing and setting cues, plus the odd spinback and bit of scratching, these jogs are fun and convincing.
The manual says the jogs are dual-function - in the usual "nudge at the edge, scratch on top"-style - but they're not. Instead there's an on/off button for full scratch functionality, and it is that that decides whether the wheel will nudge, a la CDJs, or scratch, a la vinyl. For the odd spinback and bit of scratching, these jogs are fun and convincing.
There are CDJ-style pitch bend buttons too, so nudging is still covered even if you choose the latter as a default setting. The amount of pitch bend increases the longer you leave your hand on a button, so for button nudging you'll typically be tapping the relevant pitch bend button rather than holding it down.
There is of course the ubiquitous sync button, and Virtual DJ's sync is nice and simple, especially when used in conjunction with the software's bar counters and beat transient markers on the waveforms. The pitch sliders - even when set to minimum +/-6% - don't give you very fine control over pitch, with 0.1 of a BPM the finest adjustment I could manage. Good, but not perfect (Novation's Twitch is 10 times as fine, for instance). There's a keylock function, which locks the key where the pitch slider is, not to 0%, which can be either a plus or a minus depending on what you want.
The mixer section
It's a two-channel mixer, with a great EQ section that kills properly, and excellent VU metering that sensibly monitors the cued source when a "cue" button is pressed, and the master output when not, allowing you to easily get your gain staging right.
The crossfader is, as mentioned above, replaceable and the supplied crossfader is loose enough for scratching. There is a normal/reverse toggle, and also a crossfader curve adjuster. The latter is just "OK" - the scratch end of the spectrum is fine, but there's no audible centre dip at the other end of its setting as there ought to be on a control like this.
Two small toggle switches on the front select between USB audio and line/phono inputs. The unit can act as a standalone mixer (ie no need for a laptop), so you set these to "analog" and can then DJ away old school-style with CDJs or turntables. You can switch back to your USB (ie Virtual DJ decks) just as easily, so you could mix and match inputs, although you'd have to mix from the USB on the left to the turntable/CDJ on the right (or vice versa) to keep things smooth and seamless, of course.
But you can also use the unit in audio interface mode - the internal sound card is four-in, four-out and so it's possible to route the external inputs through your software, and Virtual DJ can do this. Furthermore, you can map the VMS2 to prefer the software's EQ over its own internal hardware EQ or vice versa too. Like its older and bigger brother the VMS4, this unit is nothing if not flexible.
Loops and effects
There are both manual and auto (ie beats / bar-matched) loop functions available, the latter over-complicated (although not too much) due to the fact that you need to hold shift and then press one of two further buttons to half or double the loop length.
Effects are not a strong point of this version of the software or of the way the hardware is set up. You access them in a rather convoluted style using the library knob and up/down arrows, pushing the knob to turn the selected effect on and off, at which point you get access to one of its potential two parameters by turning the same knob. Virtual DJ's effects in the LE version can be quite fun, but they're limited, and there are no filters - that's the effect you want more than any other. If you think you're going to want to use effects a lot, this isn't the controller for you.
Other functions and features
There are booth and master outs, meaning two volume controls, plus two extra controls for cue mic and headphones volume.
There's a gain control for the microphone, and a useful tone control there too. The "mic" on/off button glows red when it's on, which is a good reminder that your microphone is live.
Round the back is just what you'd expect from the features already described: master and booth outs, two grounded input channels with line/phono switches, and a (dual XLR and 1/4") microphone input socket.
The sound card sounded decent enough to me, and the headphones were loud enough. There was no discernible background noise or distortion on the master outputs, and for its intended market (ie small venues, mobile setups) the sound card will be just fine.
People bleat on about sound quality but for me, it's down to the quality of your music files and how deftly you use your system more than any theoretical advantage one sound chip gives you over another.
There's a lot to like about the American Audio VMS2. It's functional, serious-looking (if a little old school/clunky, especially with those pseudo-turntable jogwheels complete with imitation strobe dots and record grooves!). It's reasonably well built, out of plenty of metal. The jogs work well - better than those of many DJ controllers, which is due to the software integration as much as anything. Having said that, they lack the promised dual purpose nudge/scratch functionality that most have. That wouldn't bother me but it may be a deal-breaker for you. (Do you scratch? No? well it definitely won't be a worry them.)
The supplied software - Virtual DJ - is good for "playing records". It's easy to use, the sync is very simple, and it has most of the major features you'll need, with the possible exception of decent effects. (Filters would be nice, but you need to upgrade from the LE version for that stuff, and overall this is not an effects-led controller, as their programming is almost an afterthought.) As solid software to get a job done, Virtual DJ is OK.
The ability to plug external sources straight into the unit and to use the whole device as an external mixer is welcome, but the ability to route these through software too (your choice), is to be applauded - even though you'll have to get your hands dirty setting it up , as it's not straightforward. You'll also have to upgrade the supplied software for this.
The inclusion of balanced XLRs reinforce the fact that this unit is meant to be used out and about, and particularly that it would be good for mobile DJs, who will appreciate being able to make a professional connection from this to either their own or their venues' PA systems.
Likewise, the fact that there's a booth out means that were you a mobile DJ playing a bigger venue, you could easily attach a powered monitor. Record out, also, is something that I welcome - we all like to record out sets, and this bypasses the master volume control, so you can alter the overall output according to the circumstances (ie how busy the floor is, how many people are in the venue, the fact you've just been shouted at to turn it down at home!) while still recording at a constant level.
Who it isn't for
This unit is not for controller DJs cutting up loops across four decks, triggering samples, applying beatmatched effects, manually holding together multiple sources, or employing any of the other myriad advanced techniques as practised ad infinitum in bedrooms or shown off on YouTube. No, it's a box for spinning records digitally, that also plays nicely with existing equipment. People whose idea of DJing is just that - playing records one after the other in public - will also see much to like in the VMS2. I'm talking about bar DJs, mobile DJs, lounge DJs, party DJs, or people who want a unit that they can use for this in the future while practising with it right now.
How to choose between this and the VMS4? If you think you're going to be constantly mixing between CDs, turntables and digital sources, you may want to look at the VMS4 instead, as because it has four channels you can keep channels permanently set up for four mixed sources, unlike on the VMS2 where you have to switch. The VMS2 would be better suited if you need to switch formats once or twice in a night, or drop the odd record in on another format, or just want the option built in for future-proofing, or "just in case".
For the money, the VMS2 is great value, but its build quality is not as high as something like the Reloop Jockey 3, for instance. It may be made of metal, but I still think it would repay being well looked after; there is a custom soft bag available and the supplied mounts mean it can be rack mounted into a pretective case, which is what I image gigging DJs would want to do. Take proper care of it, though, and it'll do the pro job for what is basically very little outlay. It's a neat little basic DJing unit that could give you years of service, and if you play in public or are intending to do so, the built-in flexibility for input and output sources would serve you well as your DJing career developed.
There's a lot to like about the American Audio VMS2. It's functional, serious-looking (if a little old school/clunky, especially with those pseudo-turntable jogwheels complete with imitation strobe dots and record grooves!). It's reasonably well built, out of plenty of metal. If you think you're going to be constantly mixing between CDs, turntables and digital sources, you may want to look at the VMS4 instead, as because it has four channels you can keep channels permanently set up for four mixed sources, unlike on the VMS2 where you have to switch.
- VMS2 DJ Controller
- From: American Audio
- Price: $249
- Reviewed by:
Are you a working DJ who's been looking for this kind of flexibility in a controller? Have you considered the VMS4 but are now swayed towards this? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.