Controller Clinic #24: Confused About My First Step Into Digital

Traktor Kontrol Z2

A great digital mixer for Traktor, the Kontrol Z2 is nonetheless the kind of purchase a DJ who knows exactly what he wants and what he wants to pair it with would make. It's not the obvious choice for a beginner.

Digital DJ Tips reader Dinn writes: "Hey, I've been producing dubstep and electro for about two years but have never DJed. I've been trying to decide what gear is best for this new movement away from the traditional style of DJing with CDJs and everything. So my questions are: Does genre (house, dubstep, electro, drum & bass) dictate what methods you should use to DJ at your best? Is it worth the risk going for a product like the Midi Fighter that requires knowledge of Midi mapping against something like the Kontrol S4 or Kontrol Z2 where it's automatically synced to the software? And why is DJing with software and a laptop so looked down upon? I hope you can answer these because I'm kind of lost."

Digital DJ Tips says:

Some great questions there, Dinn, and we get asked some of these a lot. I can definitely help you in your dilemma!

DJing is at its essence controlling two musical sources so you can perform recorded music without gaps, and that's the same no matter what genre you're performing in. It's really not about gear: It's about the music in your collection and the people in front of you. A simple controller set-up that lets you learn this is where to start. You can easily set up and learn on this at home, and plug it in in small bars, lounges and parties - the kind of places you'll "learn the ropes" in public at first.

A basic DJ controller like the Mixtrack Pro 2, Denon DJ MC2000 or Traktor Kontrol S2 is a great starting point, and would be all you need to learn the basics of the art: things like beatmatching, song selection, EQ, mixing, looping, cue point use, basic FX use, key mixing etc.

Learning what it's all about this way will clear up most of your confusion, because from your email, I think you're trying to run before you can walk. For instance, the Kontrol S4 is a complex four-channel DJ controller with features you probably won't use for a long time, the Kontrol Z2 is a DJ mixer that needs other gear to be used properly, and the Midi Fighter is an additional controller to gear you would already own that is used for very specific purposes. This stuff is for the experienced digital DJ who knows exactly what their workflow is and what they want to do, and is overkill for the new DJ (plus, you could always expand your set-up later if you wanted).

Why do people look down on digital DJing? Because it threatens the way they've always done it themselves, and they don't like the way it's lowered the barriers of entry into this craft. They see the way it shortcuts things like beatmatching as cheating, and don't attach value to the new skills and techniques it opens up. In my view, though, the real pros don't fear amateurs, newcomers or innovations - instead they get with the program and concentrate on upping their own game. Those who don't? It's probably best to politely ignore them and get on with doing your own thing...

How would you advise Dinn? Do you agree it's best to start small and simple, master some basics, then decide what to move up to, or would an "all-out" approach from the off be better? Please share your thoughts in the comments...

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  1. Joseph Giordano says:

    Id agree with the selction of controllers. I started out with the Mixtrack Pro. Its a great entry level controller and given the price point it wont break your bank. As far as being looked down upon for using a laptop i say screw em :) im a convert started with 2 1200's and a 2 channel mixer in the 90s. I too thought digital was the devil for many years.......till i tried it. You can do so much now its not even funny. The best advice is the oldest. Learn to beatmatch by ear it may take some time but in the end you will be happy you did .

  2. First things first, dont pay any mind to the people who are "looking down" on you for using a controller and laptop. Most of the flak you see or hear online or in real life come from the people who started using vinyl when there was n o alternative; the only way to DJ was without a laptop. However, times have changed and tech has moved forward, so you should too, Dinn. Your tunes are more important than the medium to get those tunes heard. (Besides, here in Miami, I've seen plenty of local guys with all-in-one controllers, or simpler 2-channel controllers play out and still get people excited. I'm usually the only one looking at their gear too.) 😉
    That being said, I learned the ropes by downloading Virtual DJ Home some years ago, without a controller. With my trusty mouse and keyboard, I'd still blow the doors off my room. Gear wasnt important to me because I was learning fundamentals of mixing and having fun too. After getting comfortable, I picked up a Mixtrack Pro for some physical controls, and unloaded it sometime after to go bigger and stronger, without knowing a thing about Midi mapping. So I shopped around and picked up a Hercules RMX, another 2-channel controller not so different from the Mixtrack (which might've been a step down actually).
    Sometime after I picked up the RMX, running in conjunction with Traktor Pro at this point, I felt myself invariably more concerned with gear, and less about my performance or track selection. Ultimately, I stopped having fun mixing because I would get turned off just looking at my controller. Without the resources to justify my appetite for gear, I perused the Web the coolest new shiny to buy.
    Looking back on this, and what you should take from this long, winded story, is that I wish I would've snapped out of it sooner and realized that watching my idols perform with CDJs and Technics didnt mean I was a failure until I could have such gear. The thing to learn is dont get bogged down by the gear because you lose the true purpose of being a DJ: To play out wicked cool music your audience will really love. They dont care if youre using Traktor or Serato, CDJs or Technics. They care about whether or not the DJ is entertaining.

  3. I made the switch from vinyl to digital in march of this year. I got the mix track pro, serato dj (full version) & an akai lpd8 based on the recommendations from this site. I've been very pleaded with my purchase. For a beginner its probably the perfect set up. I keep saying to myself, I should have converted years ago. The software is amazing, it makes your job a little easier, but still requires u to use some skills. If u been djing for a while, more advanced equipment might be better 4 u. For absolute beginners, mixtrack pro is really nice

  4. I learned a lot by leaving my bedroom and hanging around DJ booths. If you're nice, they'll let you have a closer peek so you can see the different approaches to DJing (I never saw two DJs mixing two songs the same way).

    I started with Hercules DJ Console, moved over to xPonent/Torq and use now a S4/TraktorPro. On that way, I bought a few wrong controllers that did not work for me so far (notably a Trigger Finger, F1, midi keyboard).

    Like Phil said, it's the people and the music, not the gear.

    What about using the controllers you already have for producing music? You probably feel best with them at the beginning and confidence is important when standing in front of a crowd.

    On a side note: last Friday, we had a DJ using a macbook, Connectiv (Audio interface from M-Audio) and Torq DJ.
    This digital DJ stuff is already old-school (we had to route our Z2 into another mixer to set up both DJs).

  5. DaWreked oNe says:

    Good pointers in this. Personally, and this is only my opinion, it comes down to the software 1st (if we're just talking about digital DJ'ing), then you decide on the controller. I started out using a Traktor S2. Still have it actually. I use an s4 now and I'll soon be buying some f1's to go along with it. learning how to DJ with my s2 I also learned traktor's workflow very well. I knew exactly which aspects I'd like better control over and after that it's all a matter of choosing the hardware. I moved to the s4 bc I wanted the hardware loop length indicator (small thing....but helped me a lot), and bc I wanted full control over all Traktor's virtual decks. The f1's will give me even more control once I have them...but I didn't make that decision until I found myself wishing I could do more. I can honestly say I've never went out and just bought all the "bells and whistles" just bc I MIGHT need them. I appreciate having those extra features, and I use them more effectively, after finding out WHY I want them when I don't have them....instead of just having them for the sake of having them. Anyways, if I'm saying anything

    • DaWreked oNe says:

      (sorry...accidentally hit the publish button on my iPad)

      If I'm saying anything in all this it's that I've found you'll discover what your looking for and build on your setup once you've started and get familiar with it. The Controller guide in DDJ tips is a good start....just choose one that compliments your software of choice, looks good to you, and has the features your looking for at the moment. It all may change, it may not. You may add more "bells and whistles" to your setup later on with extra hardware. The beauty of all this is that you can make it as complicated, or as easy, as u want....and adjust accordingly overtime.

  6. Good advice in this article, my opinion is, you don't want something overly complicated to ruin your creativity before you even start. If I had my MC3000/Traktor before my X-Session Pro/Torq, I know I would've been pretty overwhelmed, and probably not have learned as much.

    And I wouldn't concern yourself with if people think your cheating or what not. Just try to learn the art as best as you can.

  7. DJ Forced Hand says:

    Does a style dictate which controller you use? No.

    This is an interesting response though. The reader asked for some specifics when they didn't have enough information to make a decision. I think the question is a little baited because the reader asked for help "DJing" and that might not be all that they want to do. With the help of MIDI (and HID) capable controllers, there are a lot of ways to digitally play various music in what a lot of us are calling Live Production or Controllerism.

    Digital DJ controllers are great tools for playing music and they are capable of doing so much more than turntables, but they don't have a lot of "live performance" options built-in so they are more-or-less Turntables brought into the digital age with a few more features.

    We (Digital DJs) like to consider one of the best ways to present a lot of different music is through a Controller like those listed above, but there are people who don't use a "DJ controller" when they play modern music and they do a great job (like AarabMuzik, Jeremy Ellis or Moldover). This is where I think the appropriate response would be "How much control over the music do you want?" Remember: you can change your mind at any time and you don't have to maintain that level of engagement throughout your set.

    When the reader asked if they should learn the MIDI Fighter or Kontrol S4 or Z2, they had already indicated that they were interested in the Production side of things.

    If you really want live control over the way your music sounds, you should investigate Digital Audio Workstations (D.A.W.s) and production controllers as part of your performance set. You can integrate DJ programs at different levels (some can be used inside D.A.W.s) or just use the D.A.W. stand alone. Even if D.A.W.s are not to your liking, you know where the other end of the spectrum is (for digital).

    Phil is dead-on when he says you should learn the basics before you move forward and you'll only be able to answer the question of "What's right for me?" when you become competent with the basics. Basic DJ skills are good to have as well as some level of musicianship.

  8. My personal opinion is that the method - gear you use to DJ is dictated more by your own concept of what you want to do with your DJing and less with the genre so to speak. For example, if its dubstep or techno, if you want to incorporate some live drumming or sequencing will dictate different methodology (and tools) compared to mixing 2 or more decks of ready-made tracks.
    That said, the question of whether its worth it to go the "custom" way with midi controllers and custom mappings is directly related to the above. Generally speaking, custom mappings and controllers with buttons and matrices are aimed more towards the "live" element - or, to typical mixing but with the addition of "go-crazy" midi mapped effects.

    As for the "looking down on digital DJs" I think its about time we stopped paying attention to the "close-minded" BUT at the same time start paying attention to our (us being digital DJs) mistakes.
    Acquiring a lazy workflow with digital DJing is seen way too often - digital DJing was supposed to free the DJ from "some" chores (beatmatching, etc etc) so that he is free to "explore" the rest of the possibilities. Doing lazy mixing with one track after the other (and sometimes with crappy technics) I think is what really pisses off people nowadays.
    I really don't think today there are many people out there who would look down on a laptop DJ IF he "works" his set up, IF he has got down the basics of mixing and IF he is not afraid to go one step beyond than just mixing one track into the other. Learn to take advantage of the technology rather than just use it to "generate" generic mixes and Im sure in the first 15 minutes of your DJing, no person will continue to look down on your set up.

    • DaWreked oNe says:

      I agree. U said it.

      • Kristian Clarke says:

        I agree up to a point, although I think your point highlights a deeper problem we have today. It isn't so much that straight a to b mixing is boring or unimaginative, it's that the music itself these days is far too generic - hit some chords, throw the biggest sidechain you can muster onto it and pray it sounds a bit like aviici or guetta!

        I an promoting an old skool house night (90s mainroom stuff) and boy that stuff still rocks. There is simply no need for added DJ tricks with that stuff, the melodies and production speak for themselves. This is what I think the real problem is today, young DJs playing unimaginative music simply because they know it will sync.

        By the way, yes I can beatmatch, and yes I use sync, and yes very often just mix a to be, with maybe the odd filter and loops - you can keep your remix deck thanks

  9. Started with vinyl and had a break for a couple of years. Last year got the novation twitch. Plug n play basically... Awesome controller! After half an hour you get the basics and are spinning you used to. And the more you invest the more you get out of it and can get more creative! I feel like I have more freedom than with vinyl...

    • DJ_ForcedHand says:

      Yeah, there really is something special about the Twitch. The touch strips are really intuitive and the light-up buttons (launchpad style) make this controller like none other.

  10. Cliff Whitney says:

    A long time ago I was in a music store drooling over an interesting piece of gear.... I would stop there everyday on the way home from work..... I felt that if I had that unit it would change the way I made music...Until...
    The manager and I sat down while I played on this fancy new sampler....
    I rocked that gear right infront of him.... Everyone who was in the store came over and watched as I performed with the presets.... A lot of them told me I should buy it.... Others would play with it when I left..... He ended up selling multiple units that year and I saw it dominate the rap game for many years to follow..... I wasn't a rapper... I was an electronic musician working primarily with samples.....
    The manager asked me why I stopped in everyday to play the unit but didn't buy it.... I told him it wasn't meant for what I was doing....
    He then said to me "it's not what you use but how you use it"
    ...I bought that floor model I had played for over a year at a super discount was the MPC60.... It lived in my studio until the early 2000's.....
    Now the most important part of that story was his advice that I will never forget.....
    "it's not what you use but how you use it"
    I have DJ'd on everything from TT's/CDJ's/Midi controllers and my home studio is full of some of the best gear for the job.....

    Traktor Kontrol S4 is a great piece of gear because it will give you the chance to learn what it is to truly DJ.... Hands down
    It also has a certain flexibility to it.... You can progress your setup with time code by hooking up CDJ's or TT's to it if you choose to upgrade to Traktor Sratch Pro.... you can use it as a DVS mixer with great midi control.....
    I was a lot like you..... Creating beats and songs.... But wanted to get into performance....
    I wouldn't go with the lowest end controllers because when your ready to progress to the next level you will need to buy a new piece of hardware.... Money doesn't just fall from the sky... I wish :) ....

    • DaWreked oNe says:

      Sounds like me.....
      I do love to browse and try out new tech that allows you to be more creative. I have to drive almost 1hr to browse at a Sam Ash or Guitar Center....but I love tinkering. So I do it every chance I get. And I don't purchase things lightly either. Gotta love what tech allows you to do nowadays....either in a spontaneous way.....or by practicing and performing live remixes. Really exciting time. Anything that allows me to insert more of "who I am" in my DJ sets I'm instantly fascinated with.

  11. Surely if you have been producing dubstep and electro for two years, you must have been mixing your tracks together already! It's weird to find a producer who doesn't dj already! It's usually the other way round.

    If you want to DJ your tracks .... and others ..... then forget about midi etc and define your tracks as wavs or mp3's. Then just treat the like any other track.

    DJ'ing is completely different from producing. So take some of the advice here and start from basics. I taught myself on keyboard and mouse, and then bought a sequence of controllers as my skill increased. That's what worked for me. The best way to specify equipment is not by reviews, but by buying stuff you can afford and then outgrowing it.

    But if I had to be more specific..... i do like the Traktor hardware! But I have owned everything from Behringer to Novation and stuff ..... I have never lost more than 50% when selling gear on Ebay, so my experimentation curve has been quite affordable.

    Play with VDJ, Traktor or Decadance, and a basic controller, and take it from there.

    Good luck

  12. Oh and I forgot to say .........

    Digital is where it's at.

    People drive old cars for nostalgia ...... same with DJ'ing .......

    You will always respect a true artist regardless of medium, but digital is cutting edge. What ya gonna do? Produce your tracks on computer and then cut them to cd?

    Ahem ........

  13. I have read a lot of the comments and while some are interesting I don't think it's been touched upon yet.

    Honestly, if you're producing and on a tight budget, look for something that can work well the the studio as well as on stage.

    I really like the full DJ controllers but quite honestly, you can get by on a decent (2in, 2 out) soundcard and time coded CD's. This then gives you a sound card for in studio and a control surface, cause playing with a mouse is not fun.

    You also need to look at where you would like to be, while DJing is fun at the start, I found that apart being able to play your tracks live and standing in front of people making them dance, smile and have fun, using a DJ controller stops challenging your skills after a time. Sure you can go into 4 decks etc... but the fact of the matter is your gear is pretty useless 99% of the time when you're not in studio.

    Suppose my point is also have a look at something like the APC 40 or the Novation Launchpad is a really interesting option that you should not rule out.

    For DJ controllers, quite honestly you can get by Novation Nocturn.

    Yes I like Novation Gear... Surprisingly the Novation Impulse 49 works great as a DJ controller and even better in studio.

  14. swear i gonna tag my bud in that last paragraph...couldnt have said it any better...
    "Why do people look down on digital DJing? Because it threatens the way they’ve always done it themselves, and they don’t like the way it’s lowered the barriers of entry into this craft. They see the way it shortcuts things like beatmatching as cheating, and don’t attach value to the new skills and techniques it opens up. In my view, though, the real pros don’t fear amateurs, newcomers or innovations – instead they get with the program and concentrate on upping their own game. Those who don’t? It’s probably best to politely ignore them and get on with doing your own thing…" - Phil Morse

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