Filter and FX
Let’s cover the filter first. It’s a proper hardware filter, like on the Vestax VCI-400. That means that you can use the filter on your external sources too, which is a great boon. Frankly, give me a mixer with just filters and no other FX and I’ll be fine, and I am sure many other DJs feel the same – it’s got to be one of the main reasons that filters are being broken out of the main FX areas so often nowadays.
This particular filter sounds great: You have one on each channel, and it’s exactly as you’d expect a one-knob filter to be: Left is low-pass, right is high-pass, and centre is through.
So onto the FX section. Much has been made of the new effects in Serato DJ, and we cover them further in our Serato DJ software review. Here I’m going to try and concentrate more on the hardware controls available to you.
So to select an effect, you press shift and any of the “on” buttons. This brings up a menu, the repeated pressing lets you cycle through the available effects. There’s delay, echo, reverb, phaser, flanger, low-pass filter, hi-pass filter, combined low/hi-pass filter, distortion, and ping-pong delay.
I don’t really see the need for all of those filter options on this controller with its hardware filters, but understand the software has to cater for mere mortal controllers too! However, I would like to have seen at least a gater effect here.
But what do they sound like? Well as you might expect, the quality is there (they are iZotope-sourced and they do sound good, a definite improvement over the old ITCH effects), and a bonus is that they’re post fader.
That means that for echo, delay and reverb, the effect continues even if you move the crossfader away from the channel, or turn its line fader down, or stop the track entirely.
This is the preferred behaviour to have, because if you want the effect to stop dead, you can always make this happen by turning it off. This way, you have the choice.
Each effect has a number of parameters adjustable. You variously get control over mix level (ie wet/dry), intensity, cutoff frequency, LFO depth, loop size and many more parameters depending upon the chosen effect, while the “beats” knob allows you to control the cycle of the effect as a factor of the currently determined BPM, including dotted / triplet notes – great for that classic dub echo sound!
For echo, delay and reverb, the effect continues even if you move the crossfader away from the channel, or turn its line fader down, or stop the track entirely.
Finally, in order to assign an effect to a channel, you press either the “1″ or “2″ FX button above the channel line controls. To preview effects in your headphones, you press the “master cue” button in the middle of the mixer.
The biggest surprise is that you can only control one effect per bank. You would expect that each of the effects sections would be able to give you the choice of chaining three effects, instead of comprehensive control over one effect, should you wish for this.
This looks like it’s coming, given away by the “single/multi” button (shift + tap) plus three separate effects select options per channel, but for now you’re limited to one effect per side (plus a filter of course).
As I say we’re not going into too much depth about the software in this review as it’ll be exhaustively covered in the forthcoming Serato DJ review, but suffice to say here’s some clear blue water between Traktor and Serato DJ v1.0; if one effect per deck plus per-channel filters sounds like plenty for you, you’re in business, but if you fancy yourself as an FX-layering demon controllerist, Serato DJ and the Pioneer DDJ-SX – at least in their current incarnation – maybe aren’t for you.
The standard looping section comprise five buttons at the bottom right of each deck. You have manual or auto loops. Autoloop loops a fraction or multiple of the currently detected beatgrid bars, meaning basically it delivers properly beatmatched loops at the push of a button. You have a number of loop slots that you can also have pre-defined loops prepared in.
In auto looping, one shortcoming is that while you can halve or double the length of the current loop, there’s no way to see what value is currently set without turning the loop on. In other words, pressing half / double will do what it says, but you can’t see it in the software; the 1/8 bar, 1/4 bar, 8 bars, 16 bars indicators etc. remain unlit.
It is possible to shift the currently active autoloop by its own length left or right (ie backwards or forwards in the music) by holding “shift” and pressing the “1/2″ and “2x” buttons respectively.
Manual looping is controlled by in and out buttons; you press “in” where you want the loop to being, and “out” where you want it to end. By then holding the in or out button and turning the jogwheel, you can fine adjust the start and end points of the loop, and the waveform freezes to facilitate this.
First appearing on the Novation Twitch, performance pads have been shamelessly copied by several controllers since, and the Pioneer DDJ-SX is thus just the latest in this line. Here’s a brief look at what they do in this particular controller:
- Hot cue. There are a generous eight hot cues per track – pre-determined places where you can trigger playback from. In certain display modes you can see them all on the screen, but in some you can only see four. (You get to choose whether to display eight hot cues or four hot cues and four loops.) Pressing shift then a hot cue deletes it; the blue light in the pad that lights to indicate it as set then turns off
- Loop roll. Press this and the performance pads become loop controllers. Using the parameter buttons you can choose whether the range is 1/32 of a beat up four beats, all the way up to 1/4 of a beat to 32 beats. You perform loops by pressing the buttons, and when you release them, the track carries on playing from where it would have been had you not done anything
- Slicer. The biggest lift from Novation’s Twitch. This takes a loop (anything from one bar to eight bars, which you set using the parameter buttons and shift), and divides it into eight equal parts that are then assigned to the performance pads. Press the slicer button once, and this is rolling – ie the track plays as usual with the “loop” moving along as you go. But press it twice and it “sticks” on the current loop. Now, you can remix that section by hitting the performance pads in an order of your choice. When you’re done, switch away from slicer and everything carries on as normal
- Sampler. Like the effects, the sampler controls are maybe over-simple. There are four banks of six sample slots, remembered between sessions. You drag samples from your library to each slot, and can choose one hit, complete play or loop for each one. Each slot has its own Sync button, keylock and mute. The disappointment here for me is that you have to revert to the mouse pointer to control all of this. This controller is huge – let’s have some hardware control! Once samples are assigned, the performance pads trigger them. There’s a nice touch here: If you hold the sampler button for over a second, you enter sampler velocity mode, where the volume of the sample is dependent on how hard you hit the pads
Borrowed from Pioneer’s own CDJs and Denon’s DJ CD players (where it used to be called “dump” mode), and also a recent addition to Traktor where it’s called “flux”, slip mode is similar to loop roll that we previously described, in that it takes note of where the track would have been had you continued simply playing it, ready to jump back when you disengage slip. But it takes it beyond looping.
When you disengage slip, everything carries on as if you had done nothing…
That means you can scratch, loop, even stop the tune with a long brake time (brake, or the speed a tune slows down at, is something you can set in Serato DJ’s options), and when you disengage slip, everything carries on as if you had done nothing. Therefore by using the autoloop and slip, you can do pretty much the same thing that “roll” allows you to do with the performance pads.
It’s activated and deactivated by pressing the “slip” buttons top right of each deck.
Dual deck mode
This is one of my favourite features, and it’s nicely implemented too. Basically it allows you to join both decks up on each side of the controller.
As with all four-channel controllers that only have two jogwheels (ie every single one of them), there are layer buttons – we spoke about them when describing the tempo control’s takeover lights.
Basically, you choose which deck you want active control over by pressing 1 or 3 (left side) or 2 or 4 (right side). But the DDJ-SX adds a unique feature here: it lets you “link” the two decks by pressing the “dual deck” button that appears between the layer buttons. This lights up in a cute two-tone colour to represent the blue and white colour coding of the deck layers, and then when you start, stop, scratch loop and so on, it happens on both decks at once.
So for instance you could get an acappella running over a bassline instrumental, and scratch the whole thing, or beatmix the whole thing with another track on the opposite side of the crossfader, really easily.
It’s a great idea, and it’s well implemented. Top marks.
With two mics, two phono channels and two line channels, there’s plenty of scope for external sources with the Pioneer DDJ-SX.
You select each source with the three-way switches on the front panel. If you turn a channel to an external source, the word “THRU” appears on the software deck, and control is handed over to the internal mixer of the Pioneer DDJ-SX.
While you can’t use software FX, you can use the filter and all volume and EQ controls, so all is not lost!
In some systems, you get the choice to route through the software, so you can use the effects and so on on your external source, but not here: it is just what it says, a “thru”. While that may be disappointing, at least it means that if the laptop goes down your external sources don’t. I tried it; I just pulled the USB out, and no problems, my iPod in one of the external channels carried on unabated.
However, while you can’t use software FX, you can use the filter and all volume and EQ controls, so all is not lost! It’s all we ever had in the 80s (ooh, it was great in ’88 ).
As mentioned earlier, metering is organised so you get full per-channel “pre-fade listen” gain control and master metering. In short, the standalone mixer is well implemented and works well.
Funnily enough I couldn’t find any mention anywhere of the audio interface on the specs of this, but I’d assume it’s going to be on a par with Pioneer’s best installation pro DJ gear.
It certainly sounded great to me – we had it running through some new Reloop Wave 8 DJ/producer monitor speakers, and a pair of Ultrasone Signature DJ headphones, and the sound certainly appeared on a level with the DJM-850′s audio interface, that being the other piece of Pioneer gear we had lying around to compare it to.
Finally, let’s look at the firmware. By holding shift plus play/pause while turning on, you enter the firmware set-up mode. Here you can do this stuff:
- Set the velocity curve for the sample pads. It can be straight, concave or convex, but also it can be in three steps – I like the idea of the latter for more “mechanical” pad drumming…
- Switch the unit into Midi mode. Want to use your Pioneer DDJ-SX with other DJ software? You can switch it away from Serato and to a universal Midi mode with one key stroke here
- Turn sync on/off for channel fader start. By default, a song will start when you open the fader with sync off, but if you want it to sync, you can set that behaviour here
- Attenuate the master output. Choose from 0dB (default), -3dB or -6dB
- Disable slip mode flashing controls. When the slip mode is engages, the controls you can use flash. If you don’t like that, you can turn it off
- Disable the demo mode. Leave the unit 10 minutes, and everything starts flashing like a Christmas tree, just as if someone’s spilled water into the thing. Don’t like it? Turn it off. Done
- Set aftertouch for the sampler. You can have an aftertouch behaviour where how hard you press a sample pad after it’s triggered a sample gives you continuous control over that sample’s volume. Here’s where you turn that off and on
- Set the LED pattern for the jogwheels. There are a few variations as to how the LEDs indicate motion in the centre of the jogs; here’s where you choose your favourite
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Some of this is software related, to be fair.
They’ve missed a trick with the over-simplified effects, despite the fact that they sound great. While we’re here, it would have been nice to see some effect innovation – maybe fader effects, or throwing them to the pads?
The sampler needs far too much mouse pointer attention to be truly easy to use – I’d like to have seen much better hardware integration, especially on a controller of this size.
But truly, apart from these small points, there’s very little I can find fault with, excepting the damned thing’s size! It may have borrowed lots of features from Novation’s loveable little Twitch, but it certainly didn’t borrow any sense of portability from it.
As such, it is going to find favour with those who drive to their gigs, as a semi-permanent installation device in smaller bars, lounges etc, or – and I suspect that this is its prime market – as the ultimate home DJ controller.
As the heart of a hybrid digital / analogue set-up, it is an unsurpassed device. The standalone mixer is superb, and the quality of all controls is market leading. It has just about everything you might want on a DJ controller, and all of this makes it amazing fun to use.
As I mentioned at the start, Pioneer has borrowed the best bits of every other controller. In doing so, it has come up with probably the most complete DJ controller on the market.
The fact that Serato DJ also lets you Midi-map external devices, means that someone may well come up with a sample player control box, or you could certainly map your own.
To me it is pretty obvious that the next software move for Serato is to combine Serato Scratch Live and Serato DJ…
Unlike the Traktor Kontrol S4 and Traktor Scratch, you can’t use this with Serato Scratch Live vinyl, which is a shame. However I’m going to guess that down the line you will be able to do just that with Serato DJ controllers, because to me it is pretty obvious that the next software move for Serato is to combine Serato Scratch Live and Serato DJ – “Serato Scratch DJ”, anyone? At that point, who knows, maybe digital vinyl compatibility will arrive for the Pioneer DDJ-SX.
But overall, this is a worthy first controller for the software that marks a new chapter in Serato’s story. I expect it to sell well, and I even think it might poach users of other software systems.
- It’s like the best bits of every other controller rolled into one
- Slip mode and dual decks are great additions
- Class-leading VU metering
- Decent standalone mixer with real hardware filters
We don’t like:
- Effects limited by software capabilities
- Not enough control over sampler
- Not particularly portable
Ease of use:
What do you think?
The ultimate DJ controller? Would you buy this even if not to use with Serato DJ? Or are there functions / features you think are missing? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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DJ Controllers: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide 2013.
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