The Pioneer DDJ-SX is the first DJ controller designed for Serato DJ, the new DJ software from, yup, Serato. Both this controller and the software are launched today, and so the controller is plainly a big deal for both companies.
The good news is that it is pretty much an awesome success. It’s as if Pioneer’s designers sat down with Serato and said: “Let’s take the best bits of every DJ controller out there, and incorporate them into one controller, without compromise.” Better, they seem to have done for a price which, while high, is not extortionately so.
So you’ve got the build quality of the Numark NS6, the performance controls of the revolutionary Novation Twitch and later the Vestax VCI-380, the proper four-channel standalone mixer and hardware filters of the Vestax VCI-400, and a full-strength, highly capable “in the box” software solution fully tuned to make the most of the controller’s features (as with the Traktor Kontrol S4).
Hardware vs software
It is to an extent impossible to review any DJ controller without talking about the software it runs / comes with
It is to an extent impossible to review any DJ controller without talking about the software it runs…
That’s even more the case with this one, as it is currently the only controller that works with Serato DJ. This is because the other DJ controllers that will in time work with the software haven’t yet been added to it.
However, this review will nonetheless focus more on the Pioneer hardware than the Serato DJ software; we’ve got a full Serato DJ software review which you can read alongside this review.
First impressions and setting up
We had a review sample to prepare this piece, so it wasn’t boxed in the finished packaging, and didn’t have anything in the box except a mains adaptor (better quality build than most, and with Pioneer’s name on it rather than a generic example), a USB cable and the unit itself. However, expect yours to have a CD-ROM, warranty / quickstart instructions and so on.
The first impression of the unit on removing it from the packaging is that it is like a slightly larger Numark NS6, with the performance pads of the Novation Twitch tacked on underneath each jogwheel. It shares the same high quality of primarily metal construction, although unlike the Numark model it has a plastic casing on the underside. Being so big, it is definitely a “transportable” rather than a “portable” controller – car, not backpack.
The overall feel is of a pro-quality device, a feeling confirmed when you touch any of the knobs (a mixture of rubber and plastic, and bolted to an internal faceplate below the external black metal one), play with the jogwheels (smooth, silent and with an attractive internal LED feature) or slide the faders (weighted lines, looser crossfader, decent long-throw pitch faders).
Front and back
On the front of the unit are a pair of headphones sockets (1/8″ and 1/4″ TRS) complete with level control knob; the input source switches for each of the DDJ-SX’s four channels (there are two phonos, four line and two microphone channels as well as the expected four PC channels), a crossfader curve knob, and two touch sensor level knobs for adjusting the sensitivity of the jogwheels. The headphones and crossfader curve knobs are the push-to-retract type.
It would have been nice to have at least one of those microphone sockets on the front or top.
Meanwhile, round the back are the usual power switch, USB and DC in sockets (the latter with a plastic cable hook), and a Kensington slot; in addition of course there is a whole raft of inputs and outputs. These are: Balanced XLR & unbalanced RCA master outs, balanced TRS booth outs, and inputs for the four phono/line sources plus the two microphones (one a dual TRS/XLR, one just TRS). I think it would have been nice to have at least one of those microphone sockets on the front or top for ease of access. Finally, there’s a ground pin for earthing Technics record decks.
The two deck areas are identical rather than the more normal mirror image of each other (or some combination of the two). Straight off I can see one potential issue with this, which is that while the right-hand deck pitch fader is easy to access as it’s the last control on the far right of the unit, the left-hand deck one is tucked between the EQ knobs for the far-left line, and the big, very sensitive jogwheel.
Even on a controller this size, it feels a bit cramped and you’ll have to be careful not to accidentally hit the jogwheel when moving in to make pitch adjustments.
From the top, each deck has a long needle search strip for quick movement though tracks; a big jogwheel (metal top, plastic edge, that works like similar jogs on other DJ controllers, particularly the Numark models); the aforementioned long-throw tempo fader; and a handful of control buttons for adjusting the beatgrid, switching the jog mode to/from vinyl emulation, slip mode, adjusting the tempo range / keylock, and something called “dual deck”. We’ll discuss most of these functions later.
Below this part of the deck is a section containing the performance pads (for hot cues, loop roll, slicer and sampler), the transport buttons / sync control (laid out in typical vertical Pioneer style), and the autoloop controls.
It’s worth mentioning here that each pitch fader has two small “takeover” arrows. These are related to a feature called “soft takeover”, which is used to allow two decks (as this is a four-channel mixer) to share one tempo fader.
For the uninitiated, soft takeover is a system whereby when you switch from one deck to another deck that you were previously using, the control in question won’t function until it’s moved back to where it was when you left the first deck. This is to stop sudden jumps in (in this case) speed.
All these little arrows do is show you which direction to move the fader in in order to “take over” control again. It saves looking at the screen to check – which in this case, is pretty much essential as Serato DJ doesn’t have a pitch control display at all.
Taking up just under a third of the width of the unit, the four-channel mixer down the centre doesn’t feel so different to Pioneer’s standalone mixers in quality, which is a good thing. However, it is a little more cramped than, for instance, the Pioneer DJM-850 we have here in the workshop, mainly because it slots in an extra fader right in the middle, used for sample volume.
Each of the the four-channel mixer down the centre doesn’t feel so different to Pioneer’s standalone mixers in quality.
Each of the four channels has: gain; hi, mid and low EQs with a channel VU meter alongside; a one-knob filter; a cue button; a line fader; and a crossfader assign three-way switch. Down the middle of the unit are, as is customary, the master / booth output controls and a master stereo VU meter.
This is also where you’ll find the cue / master headphones mix knob. Finally, at the very bottom, is the removable, replaceable crossfader. It’s as good as those on Pioneer’s standalone mixers: Loose, but in all honesty not loose enough to have the most technical scratch DJs singing its praises.
There is a channel fader start function for each line fader, which unusually isn’t on a switch; instead, you hold shift while opening the facer to use it.
Effects & library sections
At the very top of the decks are two identical FX sections, comprising four knobs and four buttons, the first three knobs being standard, the fourth being a stepped rotary encoder.
Meanwhile, above each of the mixer lines are two small buttons to decide which effects each of the channels is routed through. We’ll look in more detail at what these sections do later.
Right at the top middle, above the mixer, are the library controls. Here is the big(ger) stepped rotary encoder for scrolling through track lists, file/folder navigation buttons, and buttons for loading/instant doubling tracks to any of the for channels.
Right underneath the dual deck controls on each deck there is a small shift button. This is used to access a whole host of additional functions, from effects select and behaviour to loop shift; channel fader start to library sorting; tempo range to tap BPM.
Interestingly, the manual alludes to forthcoming functions for several buttons that don’t currently have any modifier actions programmed in this edition of Serato DJ.
Finally, at the very top left of the whole unit is a small button labelled “panel select”: This allows you to cycle through the various panels available within Serato DJ such as FX and sampler; something you could only do using the mouse pointer with Serato’s previous controller software, ITCH. Definite improvement there.
Pioneer recommends simply downloading the latest version of the software from Serato’s website, which makes perfect sense: With Serato, the software is always free for users of this controller, because you “buy” it when you buy the controller (which incidentally means free upgrades for life).
On a Windows machine, you need to install Pioneer / Serato’s ASIO driver for outputting audio, before you install Serato DJ; with Macs, you simple install Serato DJ and you’re done.
Also only with Windows, there’s a settings utility to allow you to adjust the latency (buffer size) of the ASIO driver; obviously there is no such thing for Mac users as it’s not necessary for proper functioning due to the way audio works on OS X.
On plugging in, the DDJ-SX unit cycles rather pleasingly through all its myriad LEDs from top to bottom, before settling with a mixture of blue, red and white controls lit…
On plugging in, the DDJ-SX unit cycles rather pleasingly through all its myriad LEDs from top to bottom, before settling with a mixture of blue, red and white controls lit; the cue and play / pause buttons on each deck flashing; and a very Pioneer CDJ-esque centre section of circular LED bars lit inside each jogwheel.
Also on plugging in, the Serato DJ software switches from “offline” mode to “online” mode, and all four decks appear on-screen, with four vertical waveforms up the centre of the display and the library at the bottom. There are various views available to you including two and four deck options. Overall this is far more like Traktor than ITCH ever was.
You can add tracks to the library from your hard drive or other sources connected to your computer by drag and dropping them into the left-hand crate area of the library; as with all DJ software, Serato DJ analyses them for BPM and peak volume information etc, and they’re then ready to use. This is best done ahead of performance time.
Selecting and loading tracks
By holding shift and pressing the “back” button underneath the rotary library encoder, you can switch software views, and on a 1440×900 monitor or smaller you may want to do this to get a better view of your library, especially when in four-deck mode with maybe the effects panel also open. In this instance, there’s little room to see your tunes list otherwise. The aforementioned keyboard shortcut cycles through various modes, one of which is a library view.
Once in a folder of tunes, you can press shift with one of the four load buttons at the top of the screen to sort by track, BPM, song or artist, to facilitate track selection. This is OK, but I’d prefer it to have it sort by the first four columns in the folder. That way, you could organise the folder with the columns that matter to you first (for instance, you may choose genre or key), and then sort by those. As it is, you have to use the mouse pointer to click on the column headers to achieve sorting by a column that isn’t those mentioned above.
Turning the rotary encoders lets you choose your song, and pressing one of the four “load” buttons at the top of the line channels loads to that deck. Decks 1 & 2 are colour coded blue, 3 & 4 white (this also applies to the deck layer/dual deck function buttons).
Scrubbing and cueing
Once you’ve loaded a track, you preview it using the “cue” buttons; these are individual on/off so it is possible to have multiple cue buttons activated at once.
It’s at this point you first encounter the brilliance of these jogwheels…
It’s at this point you first encounter the brilliance of these jogwheels. There has never been any such thing as a poor degree of jogwheel control with any Serato software – from DJ Intro to ITCH, jogwheel mappings have always been completely tight and one-to-one, and so it is here. It feels perfect.
Therefore cueing is intuitive and fun. More often than not, you’ll either use the “cue” button to drop a temporary cue, or add cues using a hot cue function on the performance pads (whereby cues are remembered for later). You may also use the touchstrip to navigate the tune, either to preview a section somewhere in the middle of it to see if it suits the mix you’re planning, or just to find a part to start playing from further into the tune.
This is also when you’ll first encounter the vinyl emulation circle of LED bars in the centre of each jogwheel. These show you a complete rotation of the “record” (you can even set 33 or 45 RPM in the software settings), and correspond with the bar in the deck circles on the software screen. It’s tight and intuitive, but it does brings up one thing I didn’t like about these jogs.
As someone used to using vinyl, I’ve always partly judged jogwheels by how realistic they feel when compared to manipulating a record on a turntable with a slipmat underneath it.
Let me explain: On a turntable, you can spin back a tune and it’ll do a couple of rotations easily enough, giving a pleasing spinback effect. On some controllers (such as the Vestax VCI-380), because the wheels are properly weighted and / or have tension adjusters, you can set them to do exactly the same. It’s great for spinbacks, but also deck to deck hip-hop mixing, and in this instance, those vinyl emulation lights would be a great aid and add to the fun.
Except, the second your hand leaves the jogwheel, it moves maybe a quarter of a turn then stops. This is similar to the behaviour of the Traktor Kontrol S4, and it just doesn’t feel natural to me. It’s not a big point, but it may irk hardcore vinyl scratch guys coming to this controller.
One huge difference between cheaper DJ controllers and pro controllers is the gain staging – or in other words, the control you have over the volume of your track as it moves through the system.
Proper gain staging is not only important for best sound quality, but also is a creative tool (for instance, a decent gain structure can allow you to mix with loops from very quiet parts of tunes by manually boosting everything, returning the controls to normal when you’re finished with that part of the mix).
To give you an example of the difference, the Mixtrack Pro (which will also get Serato DJ compatibility in good time) doesn’t even have a gain control, and the Denon DJ MC2000 doesn’t have any onboard metering at all. As you might expect, the DDJ-SX goes the other way – and then some, as it turns out!
Serato DJ has autogain built in. That means that when it loads a track to a deck, its algorithm analyses where the volume peaks are, and adjusts the overall gain accordingly. This setting is usually going to be around 50% of the available boost / cut range, and is shown on a small rotary on the screen next to the track, alongside a VU meter on which you can confirm that Serato has it right and that your tune isn’t peaking into the red. (This is switchable, by the way, so if you don’t want it, you can turn it off.)
But in this case there would be no reason to, because it turns out that this is a “pre-gain” gain! That is, next in line you have the gain control on your Pioneer DDJ-SX, where you can further trim, using the DDJ-SX’s individual channel VUs as your guide. Turning this gain control has no effect on the VU meter or the gain control knob on the screen.
Confused? I admit it was a bit confusing for me at first, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it, and it makes a lot of sense…
Next in line is the line volume itself and any EQ and effects settings which may boost or cut the overall volume, and of course the volume of any additional music playing through the system from further channels. Your readout for the master mix is a VU meter at the top of the Serato DJ screen, and unlike the individual track VUs on the screen, this one is affected by settings on the DDJ-SX.
All settings, that is, except the master volume level control! This, it turns out, affects the overall output level after Serato has done its bit. That’s where the five-bar master level VU pair is your guide, with its clear yellow and red bars.
Confused? I admit it was a bit confusing for me at first, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it, and it makes a lot of sense when you factor in the way external inputs work. Basically, the mixer in the DDJ-SX is a full standalone mixer and needs its own full channel-by-channel and master EQing to do that job well. This way, it’s got it.
And anyway, it’s always better to have more VU and gain staging options than less. As a pro DJ, it’s your job to ensure you know how to use them properly. Top marks to Pioneer and Serato for the way this has all been implemented.
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